5 Top Tips for Keeping Time

My column for the latest bi-monthly newsletter for Pianist Magazine contains tips and suggestions for how to keep a rhythmic pulse. Accuracy in this respect is an incredibly important component when learning to play any instrument, and many of you have written asking about the best ways of doing this. So here are my ideas – I hope they are of interest. You can read the original version here.


Keeping time (or playing rhythmically) can be a challenge for many, and particularly for pianists, as they are often playing alone and therefore have the opportunity to change the tempo as often as they wish! For those who feel they need to curb any tendency to rush or linger, here are a few ideas to implement at your practice sessions.

  1. To create the best tempo in any work (for you), locate what you feel is the most taxing area of the piece being studied and decide what speed is most comfortable in order to achieve clarity, fluency and a musically coherent performance.
  2. Once you’ve instigated a speed (when learning a new piece), go through the piece and tap the rhythm of the right hand part with your right hand (on the lid of the piano), and the left hand part with the left hand (also on the piano lid). You could do this hands separately at first, then both hands together. Ensure you count as you do this, so you establish a firm, steady beat. It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision (at the start of the learning process) when notes are separated from the rhythm.
  3. For fluency and rhythmic accuracy, consider using a metronome at the beginning of the learning process. Listen to the ‘tick’; both the speed of the tick and the ‘space’ in between. One of the most useful methods to attain accurate pulse keeping, is learning to ‘sit’ on the metronome tick. This skill can be acquired by playing exactly with the tick every time it occurs, as opposed to just before or after; both of which can happen with alarming regularity if you’re not used to attuning your ear and mind to decisively following a pulse. To do this effectively, it’s best if notes are securely learned, so you’re free to focus on time-keeping.
  4. Once the metronome has been used for a period of time and you’ve got used to playing along to an omnipresent beat, aim to count out loud as you play, or count along to the beat you have established. It can be a good idea to sub-divide the beat for this purpose. If your piece is in crotchets, count in quavers, and if it is in quavers, count in semiquavers, and so on. It may be exhausting, but by playing along to your verbal counting, you’ll quickly become accustomed to where you are in the bar and should eventually be able to ‘feel’ the pulse. As a general rule, the smaller the sub-division, the more accurate your pulse keeping.
  5. Finally, curb any sense of rushing (or slowing down), and encourage excellent articulation (or touch) by paying attention to the ends of notes; experiment by employing ‘active’, strong fingers, placing every finger precisely, producing a full, rich tone, paying special attention to the fourth and fifth fingers. Each note (or chord) must ideally be in its rightful place at any time, and shouldn’t be ‘cut’ or brushed over.

As with many facets of piano playing, listening will prove to be a vital element when learning to play in time. If you can train your ears to be really aware of what is being played, then you’re on your way to honing rhythmically sound performances.

Image: Nathan Nelson/Flickr


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.


 

Advertisements

5 Top Tips for Piano Playing Progress in 2018

A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR

I hope 2018 is a peaceful, healthy and happy year for everyone, and I really value and  appreciate your continued support and readership.

A new year provides the ideal opportunity to work on personal development, whether that be on a spiritual, emotional or physical level. I’ll be paying more attention to some of these issues with a new yoga routine (I’m sincerely hoping to be sufficiently disciplined and motivated to stick with this programme!),  and spiritual development classes  (which I’ve already  been attending, albeit not on a regular basis).

Discipline and motivation are also prerequisites for significantly improving piano playing, and the new year is the perfect time to reassess progress. I write a ‘5 tips’ style article for Pianist magazine’s bi-monthly newsletter (you can subscribe here) and this format has proved to be a popular one, so I thought I’d adopt it for this post. The following tips are to inspire and invigorate practice routines – I hope they will precipitate enjoyable, fruitful practice.

  1. A new year equals new repertoire. It might be the prime time to explore alternative piano pieces. This could work whether you are studying for graded exams and diplomas, preparing for competitions, or simply working towards achieving smoother, more fluent playing. Begin by listening to what, on first site, may appear to be the least attractive works on various exam lists (you might never consider such options, but they could become favourites if given a chance), and then branch out further, consulting lesser known composer’s catalogues. One of my professors loved to play Victorian music (especially works by female composers), introducing a wide range of composers who otherwise I may never have become aware. Contemporary piano music continually offers interesting options too, and can really afford something different for those who fear they are stuck in a practice rut.
  2. Setting goals is another profitable new year resolution. Not everyone likes being ‘goal orientated’ but when working with my students, I find they all respond favorably when pursuing a tangible objective. Over the past year each student has had a particular objective; from playing more frequently in music festivals and concerts, to learning a suitably complicated diploma programme from memory, or even taking part in a piano course for the first time. Rapid improvement has always followed. What are your piano objectives for 2018?
  3. For those who have a tendency to skip a piano warm-up, maybe now is the time to implement this beneficial start to your sessions. Warm-ups take a few minutes, but can make the world of difference to your focus, concentration and finger power. You can read my warm-up suggestions here. Further to these ideas, if you prefer not to play exercises or scales, experiment with a few simple chords or cadences (chord progressions) very slowly with a full sound, paying attention to each finger and finger joint, ensuring they are working optimally, with the finger tips (or pads) connecting fully to each key, ready for practice. Careful practice, i.e. watching every hand and finger movement can prove exhausting, needing absolute mental absorption. This may be a new way of working for you, but it is sure to keep your attention and renew interest in the fundamental  physicality of movement needed for successful piano playing.
  4. If you have never had a desire to sit down and play a piece from memory, maybe now is the time to explore this option. Playing from memory is not necessary for most piano exams and diplomas, but it is a requirement for those thinking about auditioning for a place at a music college or working towards taking part in a piano competition. Start small; take a  short piece (just one or two pages in length) and work at memorising each hand separately, without the score. When you can play both hands through confidently (without the score), practice hands together. Learning memorisation skills will help to direct your attention to the music and to the sound you are producing, therefore sharpening your listening skills and polishing your interpretative powers too.  For more memorisation tips, click here.
  5. It might be time to seek out new pedalling solutions. The use of the Sustaining pedal (right pedal) and Una corda (left pedal) are de rigueur for pianists from elementary level right through to advanced. But how many explore the Sostenuto pedal? The middle pedal (on a grand piano) is fun to introduce. I’ve been working on implementing this pedal technique with two of my advanced pupils, working on Bartók and Takemitsu (but it can be a beneficial addition when playing french repertoire like Debussy and Ravel as well). More on this final point soon!

With some thought, you can easily add variety and new musical ideas to your practice sessions. May your year be full of piano playing progress, fun and exploration.


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.


 

 

 

It’s All In The Preparation 3: 5 Top Tips

20150704_194953

This is the third post in my series intended to help those who would like a few tips on how to prepare and practice piano pieces from the very beginning. It can be beneficial to have a strategy, or ‘tried and tested’ method which can be used on a whole range of pieces and genres. The first two posts examined elements for consideration at early stages of the learning process; the first post dealt with pre-practice preparation (you can read it here), and the second looked at separate hands practice (you can read it here). This post will survey ways of playing and practising hands together.

By now you are familiar with your chosen piece. You have marked up the score and have worked at it hands separately in various guises. So now it’s time to take the plunge and work hands together.  Here are a few ideas:

1. Depending on your level of fluency, a good way to start practising your piece both hands together, can be to assess the rhythm and pulse. Tapping the pulse and rhythms (both hands; the right hand tapping the top and left hand tapping the bass line) will help to solidify the tempo, pulse and rhythmic patterns in your mind. Work on rhythms line by line  (or bar by bar if you prefer), tapping about a third of the intended speed to start with, building up until you can tap a page at a time up to tempo, followed by complete sections and finally the whole piece. Add the metronome if necessary, however, developing your own reliable pulse is preferable. This should help with co-ordination.

2. Play the right hand material  (just one bar at a time), and then the left hand (which can serve as a useful reminder of the separate hand patterns). Follow this by playing both hands together with accurate slow, deliberate rhythmic patterns. You may need to play one bar at least 10/20 times at a very slow speed to really get the hang of how hands fit together, technically and rhythmically. When practising, always continue to play over the bar line (as opposed to stopping at the end of a bar). I work with students on much smaller areas, examining perhaps just one beat at a time. Often it’s necessary to break beats down too, particularly if a crotchet beat, for example, contains four semiquavers, played with both hands, in different or changing directions, such as this:

Article for Monday example

The bracket indicates a potentially awkward passage which may require careful attention (and very exact fingering), or segregated, targeted work. Taking the notes out of context (and without adhering to any rhythm), can be a good way to asses the movements and coordination needed for smooth playing. Now try changing the articulation (if your piece is legato, try playing non-legato then staccato etc.). You could also experiment with varying tonal control; play deep into the key bed on the tips of your fingers with a powerful, full sound, and then pull back and play the same passage lightly – you will see the difference in evenness and coordination immediately.

3. Within each bar, try to asses problem areas or difficulties, essentially be your own teacher! (although it’s not a good idea to learn alone, as this can lead to many technical deficiencies). Really listen carefully and attentively to everything you play, and when practising aim to ‘think through’ passages; focusing on the left hand line (even when playing hands together), then the right hand line. Look for elements such as rapid passage work or awkward rhythmic patterns, which will need very slow work; practising in patterns, rhythms, and as well as with various articulation can help (as described in tip 2). Other problematic areas include jumps or leaps of any kind. Spot practice is also required here; take technical issues out of context and work on them alone as this usually encourages a greater knowledge of a work. This is especially true of chords or chordal passages; work slowly positioning chords (with the correct fingerings), moving from one to another, mentally making note of the changes, until they become a habit. Also make sure sufficient arm weight is used here, to cushion the sound.

4. Watch your movements when starting to play hands together. Aim to move your arms laterally, freely and easily, supporting the wrists and fingers. Working at this element hands together takes a lot of concentration, and it also requires mindful, conscious practice. Beware of tension as you work slowly, and even more so as the tempo is raised. How does your body feel? Do you feel tight and uncomfortable, are shoulders raised? It can help to observe your hands and their positions, so you may need to memorise note patterns in order to do this.

5. A particularly useful tip is to land on a note (or group of notes) as quickly as possible, and before it/they need to be played, essentially ‘arriving’ too early. To produce a good sound, each note requires proper preparation. This usually involves preparing arm weight as well as the required touch, so the quicker you can ‘land’ on a note (without actually playing it) and be in the ideal position to play it, the better the tone quality. This is particularly true in fast pieces. To prepare, practice moving between notes as swiftly as possible, landing in the correct position ahead of playing, with accurate fingering, but try not to ‘cut’ beats as a result, the endings of notes are as important as the beginnings. Quick, light lateral arm movement is necessary, as is quick mental preparation and coordination.

Work bar by bar and line by line, making every minute you are at the piano, count. In the next post, I will provide a few tips for acquiring a beautiful sound and dynamic colour. Happy practising!


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.