Honest Insights and Some Forgotten Exercises

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Publications:

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

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


 

Guest Post: Andreas Eggertsberger speaks out about Focal Dystonia

I first met Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) last November, when we were both presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference. I was fortunate to catch Andreas’ fascinating presentation which focused on this little known condition. Injuries are frequently considered a taboo subject for pianists, and tend to be surreptitiously swept aside or ‘brushed under the carpet’, however, I thought many might be interested to hear his story.

I have written extensively (both on this blog and in magazine articles) about the importance of being aware of body movement, hand positions, and posture when playing the piano (it’s a subject I feel passionately about!). But, increasingly, I hear stories of pianists who can’t play anymore or those who have (and continue to) suffer terrible pain due to physical injuries sustained whilst playing. Andreas’ extraordinary journey must surely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks this issue isn’t a serious one. Over to Andreas…


My Experiences with Focal Dystonia

Injuries often occur in the music world. Although still a taboo theme, a lot of musicians are suffering from it. While pain is something which is commonly known amongst musicians, there is another injury out there which is approaching something much subtler. It is called focal dystonia. Prominent sufferers in the piano world are pianists like Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Keith Emerson, Michele Beroff, Michael Houstoun or Hung Kuan Cheng. The principal oboist from Chicago Symphony, Alex Klein, has a long story of losing, regaining and losing his job again because of dystonia.[i] Most likely it seems that Robert Schumann was also prone to this devastating condition.[ii]

What is focal dystonia?

Dystonia belongs to the family of movement disorders. It is a neurological condition with a very broad range of manifestations. The basic underlying problem involves over-activity of the main muscles needed for a movement, extra activation of other muscles that are not needed for the movement, and simultaneous activation of muscles that work against each other.[iii] The term focal describes where just an isolated area is affected. For pianists, it usually means that one hand (in most cases, the right hand) is disturbed, although in some cases both hands are troubled by it.

Weird Movements

In the Summer of 2012, I was participating in a Summer festival in Italy. A violinist colleague and friend pointed at my left hand as I was playing the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106). She told me that she has never seen a pianist whose hands were moving so differently. She was telling me that she could hear a different colour and that there is always an issue of accuracy when she listens. Some notes got swallowed. She directed my attention to my index finger and we came to the conclusion that if it stretches that much, then I could not bring it down on the key on time. Besides that, my middle finger was curling. The ring and pinkie finger were also stretching a lot. All of this seemed to be unnatural and was causing problems. At the end, we came to the conclusion that this was a real issue for me.

Here is a recording of my playing of the fugue which made my friend so uncomfortable:

The next day I started to compare my finger movements with other pianists. I found a recording with Wilhlem Kempff and consciously compared his hands to mine:

I saw that his hands moved in the same direction. I started looking at pianist’s hands everywhere! A video of Michelangeli playing the 4th movement of the 2nd Chopin Sonata (Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35)  confirmed that hands in normal cases were mirroring each other and not going on different paths:

I started also looking at the hands of the other participants at the festival. And I could not find any pianist whose hands were heading in different directions. Everyone’s hands were moving synchronic. Mine were different. This was separating me from the rest.

I told my observations to the piano professor in the festival and expressed my concern that there might be something wrong. The reply was that I should not worry about it and just enjoy the sound. The same week I played for another teacher at the same festival and she too told me that I should not be concerned. Some great musicians make some weird movements. She gave the example of a famous violinist who held his bow quite awkwardly.

At this point I was quite skeptical towards this advice, but I was also clueless about what was really going on.

The Diagnosis

Back in Austria I had to play a recital at the festival in Gmunden. I played the whole concert with a feeling of losing control. In the intermission, I told a friend that I think that something is wrong but that I have no idea what it was. The next day he visited me in my home and I played for him. He too came to the conclusion that I have to change and this was indeed a problem.

I investigated the problem further and implemented a simple exercise comparing the right and left hand:

As I found out, I was unable to play the little exercise clearly with my left hand. I sent the video to a piano professor. He replied to me that it is normal that left and right are not equal. But was it normal that the left hand was failing basic patterns? If this was normal then Chopin would never have written a piece like the Etude Op.10 No. 12 because no one could execute it clearly if such weakness in my left hand was the normal case.

I came to the conclusion that I had to look further. One evening I was thinking about the pianist Leon Fleisher. Why could he not use his right hand for around the half of his life? As I googled his name I found out that he has focal dystonia in his right hand. And that this was a neurological condition. As I watched one of his videos, I was able to draw a parallel to my own problems:

As one can clearly see, his ring and pinkie finger were constantly curling.

I then started to read about focal dystonia. And the more I read about it the more it was clear that this was my real problem. It was a neurological issue which was often treated with botox injections and was practically unhealable. But also, that musicians could manage the condition well and came back into playing, as Michael Houstoun had done, who recently recorded Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas to great critical acclaim.[iv]

I told a piano professor in Austria about my findings and that I want to consult a neurologist. He was quite amused about it and asked me what a neurologist has to do with piano playing and scales.

Nevertheless, I went to see a neurologist who made a careful investigation. At the end, he confirmed my assumption. To really make sure that this was dystonia and no other issue I had to have a brain scan. If this was normal we can exclude all other sorts of neurological issues and focal dystonia would be confirmed.

As we assumed, my MRI was completely normal. After this process, I had a completely sure diagnosis. It was recommended that I get in touch with Dr. Altenmüller[v] who is a great scholar on this issue.

I sent Dr. Altenmüller a video and he saw the problem too and recommended to start a retraining with Laurent Boullet[vi] in Berlin.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Europe and go back to USA where I was a third year DMA candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA), about to play all my doctoral recitals.

Complete Breakdown

Back in Ann Arbor I told my teacher that I was officially diagnosed with focal dystonia. “Focal what?” was his reply. I told him that it was a movement disorder where people had lost their control over their hands. At the end of our conversation he told me that there are people with real serious hand problems and that this was nothing to worry about it. I should just play through it.

This plan did not work out well and after a few weeks I was in real trouble. I started having problems playing scales:

When playing with my ring and pinkie finger, the middle finger would involuntarily move to the ring finger:

The same would happen also when playing slower:

I could not feel the space between the keys anymore. As I tried out to play the last page of the first Brahms concerto (Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15), I only played wrong notes. It was impossible to play it at all:

After these recordings, I went home and I realized that I had problems opening my hand at all. I couldn’t even tie my shoes. I could not open my hand enough to hold a glass with my left hand. Focal dystonia was now causing problems in my every-day life.

Road to recovery

I had to take a break for the next few weeks. I could barely open my hand. After some time, the cramping got less and less. So, I could start to practice again. But after this experience I knew I had to begin solving it. The normal lesson was of no help and I wrote to Laurent Boullet who was offering retraining in Berlin. We made an appointment on Skype the next days. After playing for him via Skype I began to understand what was going on. My index and middle finger were compensating for the instability of my ring finger. As soon as I started to stabilize the edge of my hand the curling and stretching of my middle and index finger became less.

I also had to change the position of my wrist. Ideally the wrist should be positioned slightly under the metacarpophalangeal joint, also known as the large knuckle. When playing I consciously rested the ring finger as much as I could on the keyboard. I made sure if kept contact as much as I could with the surface of the keyboard.

A good example of the ideas which I applied to retrain is the C–minor Sonata  (Sonata in C minor, Hob. 20) by Haydn. The triplets F-Ab-Bb were unrhythmical as the second finger was hyper extending. I was playing them with the fingering 3-2-1. As I silently held down an additional key with the fourth finger the hyper extension decreased. My aim was to accomplish this without depressing the additional key. I used a combination of rotation and lateral movement towards the thumb to make the execution of the triplets effortless. I practiced this passage diligently, sometimes up to four hours a day. After 9 months, I realized that I had achieved the precision I was seeking in this passage.

I did something very similar with the passage in Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor (‘Tempest’) Op.31 No. 2. I kept the ring finger depressed while I was playing with the others. I also added some rotation on E and C#.

I made exercises to consciously use my fingers just as weight transferers. Weight cuffs (0.5kg) were worn around the wrist to help highlight the sensation in the MCP joints for providing support for the hand.

I also played with the middle and ring finger only while I stayed relaxed with the other fingers.

In scale passages, learning how to cross the fingers over the thumb while maintaining stability and flexibility in the thumb:

Over time things have changed. In 2012, I played Mozart’s Sonata KV331:

As one can see: the index finger was hyper extending already in the theme. In 2016 this had significantly changed:

It comes out clearly when comparing the third movement in both recordings. Listening to the two recordings, it is clear that the sound in the later recording has more projection and that it is more fluid. The tone has got a much more cantabile quality and the sound was generally fuller.

The way into Dystonia

As I was diagnosed with dystonia I was thinking that it was probably going on for much longer than I was aware of. Some issues in my biography started making much more sense.

As a child, I was an incredibly fast learner. After six months of learning piano I played already Wilder Reiter from Schumann’s Album from the Young Op. 68:

It was recommended that I enter the local conservatory in Linz. There I proceeded very fast again. I soon played Mozart’s Sonata in C major KV545 and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor (‘Pathétique’) Op.13. I was practicing a lot. I was experiencing troubles with the scales in the left hand in the recapitulation of Mozart’s Sonata KV545. I solved the problem with a lot of practice. After practicing them around four hours long (voluntarily!) I could play them perfectly. Youth success continued. I won the national youth competition and a prize in Ettlingen in the international competition for young pianists. I was the youngest recipient of the Yamaha scholarship. I gave my first full recital at aged 12 and played my first Mozart concerto with the Bruckner Orchestra, aged 13. I became the youngest graduate in the history of the conservatory at the age of 15 (a record not broken till today!).

A recording of me playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is revealing some differences between the two hands.

The wrist is high and the bridge is practically not there. Even in the picture “Il vecchio castello” one can see a hand with unnatural movements – a cramped hand (from minute 7.00 onwards, for example):

In summer holidays, I often practiced up to 10 hours every day. The amount of repertoire was growing fast. Soon the index finger started to hyper extend which became one of the typical movements of my dystonia (Minute 1:10):

After graduation in Linz I went on to study in Salzburg. I was experiencing a strange feeling of playing against a wall. The teaching took place quite irregularly and I had to follow my teacher to masterclasses to have a chance to play for him. Time space between lessons was sometimes several months. When I go through the scores I now see passages in the left hand were often circled. But hardly anywhere in the right hand. The first time I gave up working on a piece happened because it was exhausting to use the left hand in the Etude Op.10 No. 12 by Chopin. In Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op. 16, my teacher asked me why I was not able to play the left hand solo passage regularly. It was recommended I practice it and play it slowly.

A quite interesting habit was the inclusion of warm up exercises. One of them was playing chromatically from C to E and back. Then from C# to F etc. While this exercise was not difficult for my right hand, my left hand often needed repetitions to play it accurately.

Later I moved to Vienna. My playing was obviously deteriorating. At the time of my master’s recital, my teacher was telling me that I should be happy when I pass at all. I was practicing English Suite No. 3 BWV 808 by J S Bach and I saw some interesting movements from fingers in my left hand. I thought of them as quite funny, even though the left hand just did what it has to do. And if there would be a problem with it, it would have been a theme in a lesson. I still had no idea that something like focal dystonia even existed. I did not connect my finger movements to any problems which occurred during this time. I had difficulty playing the first solo, a sixteenth note scale run in both hands, in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 73, and also when playing the octaves at the end of the exposition of the Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16.

After graduation in Vienna I felt untalented and gave up playing. I studied political science in Salzburg and did not touch the piano for the next four years.

Coming back to play and finally being diagnosed

After four years of not playing at all I was curious to see what was possible. So, I started to play again. And I did nothing less than the Goldberg Variations BWV 998 by J S Bach. I learnt them again very quickly and played them in a recital. At first, piano playing felt easier. But soon I practiced left hand runs much more often again. One Sunday I practiced the 26th variation nearly the whole day, especially the left-hand passages. At the end of the session the passages nearly worked. The whole work was good enough to impress audiences and teachers. I was invited to perform at a piano conference in Serbia and had a great success with it.

I was then invited to study at the YST (Yong Siew Toh) conservatory in Singapore. In one lesson, the teacher there said that he has never seen anyone’s finger moving like this.

In 2008, I was invited to participate in an international piano competition and made it to the semifinal. After the competition, a judge came to me and told me that he expected me to get to the final. But he said that my coordination of the right and hand in the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor Op.111 was unclear. My left hand was playing in an unsteady manner and was sometimes lacking clear articulation. He seemed to be quite confused about it because it did not fit in to the impression I gave in the first round. I personally came to the conclusion that I probably was lacking in competition experience since this was my first competition for 12 years.

After that I auditioned for DMA in Ann Arbor and was taken into the programme. I was encouraged to play with more energy and to take more risks. I should play with more passion. Many of these elements I simply did with a strong will and much force. The diagnosis of dystonia came finally in 2012.

Conclusions

Focal Dystonia is still quite new to teachers and students. The condition as such was only recognized in the mid 1980s. My personal view is that we still have not much awareness of it. Therefore It is critical that musicians and teachers keep focal dystonia on the radar. Fortunately, the vast majority will not get focal dystonia, but people should know the signs so they can avoid the common pattern of misreading early symptoms, practicing harder, and thus cementing faulty brain connections.” [vii]

The symptoms I was developing were not perceived as dangerous for a long time. It was a time frame of around 18 years till the right diagnosis came. The seriousness of the problem was often denied or underestimated. Even as I was diagnosed with it, it was not perceived as a problem by my teacher. Managing to come clean about it took over 5 years. Comparing this fugue will show just how much has changed:

I want to offer some thoughts about how I originally got dystonia and how I think we can minimize the risk for future students:

  1. The prevention of focal dystonia starts already at the beginning. It is crucial to learn to move efficiently. “Unless the body maintains movement patterns that are biomechanically sound, the musician is at risk of injury.”[viii]
  2. In situations when we focus on the music only and on learning very fast, we might mistakenly open the door to focal dystonia. As I was starting my lessons I was going for the music and did everything which was necessary to achieve what I wanted. “When preparing for an important performance a musician will often practice without physical awareness because of focus on the music itself. Then it is easy for physical distortions to occur in order to produce a desired musical result and for these to become ingrained as a way of playing that is less than biomechanically ideal.”[ix]
  3. In my own experiences, I was encouraged to achieve a lot in the shortest amount of time. Teachers and audiences were surprised how fast I was growing. My first teacher’s idea was: the earlier, the harder, the better. As I was studying the Mozart Sonata KV545 the excessive practice of the scales and the permanent repetition led to success. In the long-term this might have taught me incorrectly. “…, incessant repetition of certain problematic passages, especially when the way of playing causes tension, can put musicians at risk. Highly motivated practisers tend not to vary the material in their practice sessions, meaning that there is too much repetition of the same physical movement.”[x]
  4. Another  point for me is that taking breaks is important. My habit of working through long sessions without breaks and repeating the same over and over was a factor which might have contributed to focal dystonia. Consciously relaxing and evaluating what was achieved will be of great help.
  5. I think another factor is the aim of perfection. Studio recordings nowadays are cut together and show often an unrealistic picture of artists. I think listening to older and uncut recordings can lead to more realistic aims for one’s own performances.
  6. Taking time to learn the fundamentals. The piano might be a quite injury provoking instrument as it is possible to produce a sound with simply depressing a key. Therefore, there is a big temptation to simply move on to the next, more difficult piece, pushing ahead.
  7. Developing both hands equally. Not every Sonata for example is challenging the right and left hand equally. Therefore, it is crucial to play etudes and other pieces which are aiming to develop both hands.
  8. Having a flexible hand position. The wrist should be constantly adjusted in order to avoid fixed hand positions.
  9. It is important for the developing artist to get regular mentoring. Having an irregular teaching schedule with lots of space between lessons makes it possible for bad practice habits settle in or to fall back into them.
  10. It is crucial that teachers and their students are aware of the lurking danger of dystonia and take issues of coordination seriously. Over time, tiny little problems can become big. There should be an atmosphere where the student can admit problems with a passage. Sometimes teachers might consider watching their students just from the right or left side and compare the finger movements of the two hands. If one hand is moving in a different direction than the other, chances are high that there is a problem developing.
  11. Students can record themselves with smartphones from the side and watch how their hands are moving. Especially virtuosic pieces with scale runs. The reason is that while playing, our eyes will be often ahead and barely get a full picture at all:

12. Rethinking our heritage: In teaching we rely on traditions. But old schools did not think about biomechanics at all. So called finger independence exercises might cause a lot of trouble because they cannot be done without tensions in the forearm.

13. Tailoring the teaching to the needs of a student. One day Richter came to Neuhaus and played the Liszt B minor sonata, S.178. There was not much to teach as Neuhaus wrote. They discussed the interpretation of some passages and the lesson was done. After that another student came in playing the same piece. Neuhaus wrote that he had to work on every bar with her.[xi] This is a great example how a teacher can adjust to the needs of a student. In my experiences, a lot of teachers just give everyone the same approach.

14. It is not about playing without tension but with the right amount of tension. We have to be aware that we release the built-up tension as often as possible.

I am convinced that we can at least minimize the risk of dystonia. It is crucial that it is recognized early as such and pedagogical intervention takes place. Although genetics play a role in the development of dystonia I am convinced that in a lot of cases focal dystonia is the result of an unfavorable use of the body. It might be of more importance how we achieve results and not just that we achieve them.

Over time I got in contact with quite a lot of dystonic musicians. I was astounded to learn just how many people knew someone who was suffering from it. Some of the pianists had won great prizes at competitions like the Cliburn, Busoni or Hilton Head. Very often it was a highly talented individual who went somehow down the wrong road. I was surprised how often I was confronted with it since having been diagnosed.

Focal Dystonia is a highly complex issue. Retraining is a complicated affair and very individual. In every case one has to find the fitting exercises. There is no way to apply the same exercises for every case. Recovering from it is possible but very time-consuming.

I hope that this essay will at least raise the awareness of this kind of problem. During my journey, I have encountered a lot of teachers who have never heard of it. I am hoping to improve this, and speak out, informing as many pianists as possible, so they may be able to avoid such issues.

You can explore Andreas’ YouTube Channel, here.

[i] http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-cso-oboe-alex-klein-denied-tenure-20170524-column.html

[ii] Altenmüller, Eckhart. Robert Schumann’s focal Dystonia https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/85633

[iii] https://www.datasci.com/solutions/neuroscience/movement-disorders

[iv] http://www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz/

[v] https://www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de/en/institute/people/eckart-altenmueller/

[vi] https://www.pianophysiology.com/

[vii] White, Joanna. “Musician’s Focal Dystonia: Strategies, Resources, and Hope.” Flutist Quarterly, p.33, (Winter 2017).

[viii] Wilson in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.1, 2015.

[ix] Tubiana in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.5, 2015.

[x] de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.13, 2015.

[xi] Neuhaus, Heinrich. Die Kunst des Klavierspiels, p.149 (1967)


My Publications:

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

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


 

Guest Post: A Young Pianist’s Journey

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Amy’s blog here.

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

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Royal Northern College of Music

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Birmingham Conservatoire

Leeds College of Music

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance


My Publications:

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

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