I am often asked about what to practise to make the left hand feel strong, and equal in technical ability to the right hand. Are special exercises necessary?
In 2011, researchers in Germany published an article which showed a surprising fact:
Whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand.
Another statistic that came up is perhaps more understandable and obvious – we often listen more to the right hand, because in most music from 1750 onwards it assumes greater importance. The melodic interest tends to be more on the top, the left hand in a supporting role. Not that I’ve counted them up myself, but in Beethoven’s sonatas there are apparently 122,650 notes in the left hand and 133,064 in the right! If we really want to develop our left hand, perhaps we should always be working on contrapuntal music – especially fugues, where both hands are completely equal in terms of input.
German Romantic composer, Hermann Berens published his Training of the Left Hand in 1870, at a time when mechanical exercises were especially lauded. I have noticed that many players seem to enjoy practising technical exercises and studies. As I always stress, it is how you do them that is important and if you follow a middle path and do them mindfully and in small doses, Berens’ left hand exercises can certainly be of some value.
But why not include one or two pieces of music written for the left hand in your practice regime? There are many beautiful and completely worthy pieces in the repertoire. One of the best-loved is Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne, op 9. Like all the best music written for left-hand alone, the listener is fooled into believing both hands are being used, and this piece is absolutely ravishing.
Follow this link to the Petrucci Library for music for left hand alone
If you are looking for something very special, I highly recommend Frank Bridge’s Three Improvisations. Written in 1918 for pianist Douglas Fox, who lost his right arm during the First World War, these three miniatures are exquisitely written and unjustly neglected.
No post on left hand piano music would be complete without mention of Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist who lost his right arm at the age of 27, while serving as an officer in the First World War. Determined to continue his career, he commissioned some of the best-known music for left hand, including Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in 1929. Wittgenstein published his own School for the Left Hand, comprising exercises, studies and transcriptions. Here is his version of Schubert’s Imprompu op. 90 no. 4, worth practising in this arrangement even if you are playing the original.
Today I present an excerpt from my walkthrough of Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from the Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 12, No. 4 (currently on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus). In the video I illustrate three practice tools that will help gain control of the jumps.
You may think my demonstration is a bit long-winded and laborious, but the idea is to show you principles of practice that you can apply to any jumps that cause difficulty – no matter the grade or level. In the Bruch piece, the jumps are in the left hand and it is important that the left hand be very comfortable with what it has to do, so that you can put your full attention on making the right hand sing expressively.
For a link to the score, click here
You will probably want to begin by playing and singing the right hand, to get a sense of the character of the melody. Next, look at the left hand and notice there are two components – a bass line in single notes (on the main beats, played with the pinky) and a harmonic filler (on the off beats). For the second step, play the melody line against the bass line (omitting the chords). Then, to help you relate one chord to the next, you might try playing the left hand chords without interrupting them with the bass notes to create a harmonic progression (just make sure you use the fingering you will end up using when you put everything together).
Now we are going to work at the left hand by itself, using the three practice tools:
Play the bass note and hold it. Prepare yourself to move to the chord that follows it.
When you are ready, in your own good time, use a fast but free and loose motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the chord. Do not play it yet!
Before playing, check to see that you arrived at the centre of the keys, so that no finger is in the cracks between the keys and no finger is hanging half over the edge of a black key (where appropriate). You are aiming for a millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved across the keyboard and within the hand.
If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the chord.
Sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement down to the new bass note. We are not playing rhythmically here, our only concern is to form the reflexes involved in making the jumps very fast and very accurate.
If your measurement was not 100% accurate, or if you overshot, undershot or otherwise fumbled, then do not play the notes. First, learn from your faulty measurement so that you can make the necessary adjustments when you try it again. Perhaps the span between the second finger and the thumb wasn’t quite wide enough, so that the second finger was too far to the right? Diagnose where you went wrong before trying it again.
Place the hand on the surface of the key(s), without playing.
When you are ready, use the key(s) as a springboard to the next position. As you play the note(s), propel your hands off the keys and land on the next note or chord. Feel this as one motion, and do not prepare the position. Make sure that when you move, your arms are loose and free.
Freeze! The golden rule is to hold on to whatever you land on, whether this be the correct chord, nearly right or a fistful of clangers. The point here is to see how accurate your measurement was.
If you were totally accurate and dead centre of the keys, release to key surface and use this as your springboard to the next position.
If not, your instinct will be to make the necessary corrections immediately but resist this. Instead, examine what went wrong and learn from it before going back and repeating the process from the previous position.
This is similar to springboarding, except that instead of landing on the complete new chord position with all the notes, we select those notes we wish to land on, and then fill in the remainder just afterwards. This is a particularly useful process when we wish to see (and feel) how a particularly awkward chord is built up. We can effectively play it in stages. Note that this does not have to be done rhythmically.
And finally! Here is the excerpt of the video where I demonstrate the three practice tools.
Let common sense prevail when applying these tools in your practice. It would take quite a bit of time if you went through all three stages one after the other, so you might want to do one stage one day, and another the day after, etc. Or work on a few bars at a time going through all three stages. You will certainly want to repeat the steps several times before you can expect to feel tangible results, avoiding busking through the piece at the end of your practice session in the early stages of the note learning.
For more information on measuring distances, and other aspects of technique, follow this link to my eBook series (Part 2)
If you would like to explore our full guide to the ABRSM examination syllabus, click here
For the full article and video on the Bruch piece, click here
The subject of technical exercises is a thorny and controversial one. At one stage in the evolution of piano playing, it was mandatory to spend hours a day practising technical exercises and studies that were often extremely dry and unmusical. In the nineteenth century many method books were published, filled with them. Some teachers even instructed their students to read a book while doing all the copious repetitions, to ward off boredom!
The rationale behind all this was that such gymnastics would allow the pianist to cope better with the greater size of the pianos being manufactured, the increase in the touch weight of the keys and of course the increase in difficulty of the music composed for the instrument. Rather than find a new technique more suited to the heavier keyboard and the greater technical demands, players and teachers stuck with what they knew. Without realising it, they were flogging a dead horse. Unfortunately, endless drill often led to playing that was fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as the real risk of pain and injury. So not only is this kind of mindless mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good.
Although spending a lot of time practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of playing by using carefully chosen exercises and studies that have enough musical interest to hold the attention. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technical skills, and to help us tackle general difficulties or specific trouble spots in our pieces. The same types of exercises might be used for any of these goals, but the focus and intention would differ.
In his chapter, The Road to Mastery in The Russian Piano School (ed. Christopher Barnes), legendary Russian pianist and teacher, Samuil Feinberg, makes an important distinction between gymnastics and exercises. The point of gymnastics is to strengthen muscles, increase physical endurance and improve stability, whereas an exercise targets a specific movement or habit we wish to embed.
I believe that the pianist…should overcome specific technical problems by performing particular exercises, and not through indulging in general manual gymnastics. If we compare the physical features of a splendid piano virtuoso and someone unable to play the piano, it may well turn out that there is little difference in their musculature. The difference between them is simply that one of them can play the piano and the other cannot. I am the last one to deny the importance of training for piano technique. But a pianist should focus his main attention not on gymnastics but on exercise, if only because there is an element of gymnastics present in every exercise and every practising session.
The Russian Piano School, ed. Christopher Barnes, 27-28
Feinberg gives the example of learning to ride a bicycle. Nobody would think of first undergoing a gymnastic training to strengthen the muscles; instead you would simply need to practise until you acquired the coordination to keep your balance.
Feinberg goes on to list his 10 basic requirements of an exercise. So useful are these observations that I am going to share them with you here.
1. So far as possible, an exercise must relate directly to a pianist’s current artistic work. It must be directed to the resolution of a particular aesthetic problem.
2. It is essential to learn to distinguish what is difficult from what is easy, what one can do from what is unmanageable. A pianist should not work on imaginary problems.
3. An exercise should be easier than the difficulty that you want to master.
4. An exercise should be based on simple, natural elements of piano technique.
5. An exercise should be short.
6. An exercise should be based on the principle of “from the simplest to the complex”, and not vice versa.
7. An exercise must yield positive results in a short time.
8. An exercise should be based on the exchange of experience between the right and left hand.
9. An exercise should be executed with maximum technical perfection.
10. It is essential when doing exercises to concentrate on beauty of tone, and on efficiency and complete freedom of movement.
No matter the type of exercise, our work with them must be done consciously, with a specific goal in mind. We need to concentrate fully on the sound we are producing and the feelings and sensations in our hands, arms and body. The number of repetitions does not need to be excessive. Two or three repetitions with the full involvement of the mind and the ear will usually suffice. The single most important thing to remember about exercises is how you do them.
So what about studies? Some of the Czerny studies (the shorter ones) can be very useful when included in a balanced diet of pianistic work. If you really want to do some Czerny, I can recommend the Eight-Measure Exercises, op 821 (they are mercifully short and to the point) and the selection made by Heinrich Germer (offering a digest of the most representative items from several different opuses).
However, one of my favourite sets of intermediate studies is the Twenty Short Studies, op 91 by Moritz Moszkowski, in two volumes. I like these not only because they are short, but also because they come from the modern school of piano playing and are full of interest, vitality and pianistic value.
Another evergreen set is Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Studies, op 100. I am featuring teaching notes and a video walkthrough of each of the studies on the Online Academy at the moment. Follow this link to find out more.
At the advanced level, we move to the great concert studies of Chopin, Liszt and others too numerous and well-known to mention.
Following on from the Piano Holiday at Saint Laurent I tutored last summer, this new Spring Course will include master classes, workshops, individual tuition, a student concert and opportunities to play duets. In addition, I will entertain you with a short lecture recital.
There are still a few places remaining, so book now and enjoy a week of piano, French culture, Penny and Geoff’s wonderful cooking and the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent.
Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available.
Saint Laurent is the venue for this Piano Pot-Pourri. It is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool.
For full details, and to book your place, click here
I first published this post a few years ago, but I have recently been sent details of brand new piano meetup groups in the UK, and decided to republish this post with all the updates. Please let me know if you run a piano group and I will be happy to include your details.
* * * * * * * * *
When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play alone, because these are completely different activities.
The concert stage is no place for shrinking violets. In performance we need to project our ideas about the music – as well as our sound – outwards to the listener, and we must make sure we do this convincingly so they really get it!
When we perform authoritatively we summon feelings of abandon, spontaneity, and creativity. These qualities are associated with right-brained activity, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate – repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct. These are more left-brained activities.
We must be prepared to go with the punches – there’s no point worrying about the piano, or that you weren’t happy with how you played that opening phrase. In practice we go back and get it right, in performance we have to accept what comes out and just deal with it.
In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another state of mind once we are on the stage, one where we are not engaged in thinking, but rather in being and doing.
We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other. While they may play wonderfully, they can’t seem to put themselves through what they perceive as the torment of public performance.
Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others. What makes a good performer is the combination of natural talent and the capacity for sheer hard work, together with the ability to let go and surrender control when on stage. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – while others shrink from it, seemingly unable to believe in their own abilities or to get out of their own way.
Even though these words are from violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, they apply absolutely to us pianists:
Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.
Like most other things in life, the more we do something, the easier and more familiar it becomes. Smart piano teachers have regular student concerts where everyone gets up and plays – they are all in it together. Exams and (more usefully) festivals or eisteddfods are wonderful ways of developing performance skills. You are usually playing in a fair-sized hall on a grand piano, to a built-in audience and a professional adjudicator.
At the conservatory level, there will be many opportunities for performance: concerts in front of teachers and peers, as well as higher profile events where there will be a public audience. Outside of formal exams, there will be a portfolio of in-house competitions you will be eligible to enter, and there will probably be weekly performance classes where you test out your pieces. Use as many opportunities to perform as are on offer to you, or that you can generate yourself.
Remember: The very best way to learn performance skills is to perform regularly!
For my students, I have a rule that a programme needs to be aired three times in safe, smallish situations before it is ready to be presented to a paying audience or an examiner. These smaller performances could be to an invited audience in a private home, a lunchtime recital in a church, playing in a hospital or old people’s home, etc. The run-throughs are themselves prefaced by a week of playing the programme through in its entirety daily as part of the practice regime. Only then is the programme properly seasoned and ready to be taken on the road.
For more on developing performance skills, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Rounheads (click here) and to Part 4, Volume 1 of my eBook Series (click here)
The Amateur Pianist
I work with a number of amateur pianists and this is a very special part of what I do. What a privilege to be able to help people improve their playing and to express their love of music more freely and more skilfully! I notice time and time again how vital piano playing is in the lives of amateur players, who approach it with a passion that would put many a professional musician to shame.
It is of course quite possible to take piano lessons and play only for yourself at home. Many people do just this, because they are fearful when playing for others. They imagine they will make all sorts of mistakes and their playing just wouldn’t hold up under pressure. What a shame, though, not to share your playing with others who might be able to appreciate it and also support you!
Think of your playing like an exotic plant, such as an orchid. You love, care for and tend to it and are proud to show it to others. It brings joy not only to you but to other people too – it really is a beautiful thing.
My advice is to take the plunge – jump in the deep end and give it a shot. Playing the piano is probably essential in your life for recreation and self expression, and you might want a safe opportunity to perform when you have something ready to play.
Resources for Developing Pianists and Amateurs
We’re building an online directory of resources for amateur pianists, including a listing of opportunities to play for and listen to others. If you run or organise piano-themed groups or events then we’d love to include your group in our listing! Please click here to tell us a bit more and we will notify you when our directory is due to be published.
If you’re looking for opportunities to perform then please click here to visit our directory. You can also sign-up to our mailing list here to receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch plus some additional resources to help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!
In addition to these groups, the following are some further places, groups and organisations that offer performance oportunities:
Finchcocks offers residential piano courses for adults of all abilities. Many of the guests are keen to take up the piano again, having not had time to play properly since leaving school. Equally, they cater for people who are keen to take up the piano from scratch, sometimes having not played the piano at all. At the other end of the spectrum, they offer courses for advanced players (grade 8+) who are working on their diploma as well ascourses for piano teachers. I tutor regular courses at Finchcocks, and can vouch for the inspiring nature of the place, the amazing hospitality from Neil and Harriet, and the wonderful food and wine. There are nine grand pianos available.
The Summer School for Pianists. Over the past 40 years, this Summer School has established a unique place amongst an ever-growing number of summer schools being held each year throughout the British Isles. It combines an atmosphere of friendliness with musical expertise, creating a most positive and rewarding week. Within the state-of-the art setting of the Performance Hub in Walsall, people of a very wide range of pianistic levels can meet and enjoy all that’s good about music-making, without any unhealthy competitiveness or feeling of inadequacy. Participants return year after year to this keenly anticipated annual event. A warm welcome, studies with leading experts, plenty of practice pianos at this All Steinway School, good food and accommodation, recitals by tutors and students, and a final gala dinner and barn dance make the week very special indeed. I count myself privileged to have been on the tutoring staff since 2012.
Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through weekend courses, education projects, a Young Artists Programme and performances by world class musicians. There are year-round programme of residential music courses that allow musicians of all abilities to come together and learn from some of the most experienced tutors in the trade. Jackdaws’ mission is to enable creative expression by bringing music to life. This goal is underpinned by the core values of inspiration, access and inclusion. Jackdaws is situated on the banks of the Mells river, surrounded by beautiful English countryside, set among the fields, rivers and valleys of Somerset. My next course will be in October 2015 – it is not yet listed on the site but please contact the organisers to register your interest.
The Chethams’ International Piano Summer School is a source of inspiration, fun, insight and focus for everyone who enjoys the piano and piano playing. Now in its thirteenth year, it continues to grow and develop as a ‘piano republic of equals’. There is no elitism on the course, though everyone is extremely serious about piano playing. There is no other summer school that manages to cater for the universal: adult amateurs, promising children and observers are as welcome on the course as concert pianists, international young artists preparing for top competitions, and professional music teachers.
The British and International Federation of Festivals for Music, Dance and Speech works for amateur festivals everywhere. Most of the festivals are competitive, and the performers receive verbal and written educational feedback from a professional adjudicator in each classification of music, dance or speech. I am proud to be one of the piano adjudicators for the Federation. There are almost 300 amateur festivals affiliated to the Federation and a similar number of professional adjudicators (in all classes) and accompanists, listed in the Yearbook and on their website. Each year the festivals attract around 1 million performers. While most entries are from children and young people, there are classes for adults too.
Setting Up a Piano Group
If you are interested in setting up something like this in your area, why not take the initiative?
If there are a few of you, you might organise regular meetings in each other’s homes. Another thought is to contact your local piano dealership – they will relish the opportunity to build bridges and develop relationships with pianists in the area, who are, after all, potential customers. It will be a win-win situation for all.
I asked Frances Wilson, co-founder of the very successful London Piano Meetup Group, to write a few words on how she set up the group:
Organising a piano group is a great way to get amateur pianists together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Playing the piano can be lonely activity, and many pianists relish the chance to meet and perform for one another. Performance opportunities afforded by piano groups are also very valuable in improving performance skills, learning how to deal with anxiety, and preparing repertoire for exams, festivals or concerts.
You can set up an informal group amongst friends, where you meet regularly at one another’s houses, or at a rehearsal space with a nice grand piano, or you can organise the group more formally, advertising events via a website and using social media to promote the activities of the group. The London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG) was formed in Spring 2013, run by piano teacher Lorraine Liyanage and myself – we are both passionate advocates of amateur pianism. LPMG uses Meetup, an easy-to-use social networking platform that allows people to organise events and meet. LPMG organizers list events on the site and members are able
Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.
The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.
The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air!
The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.
Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities.
Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the dynamic but to change the timbre of the sound (akin to a change of registration on the harpsichord). If you use the sustaining pedal for resonance, take care not to blur the shorter notes (quavers) or the appoggiaturas (which must come on the beat, together with the left hand).
The Gigue, currently on the ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus, is unusual among Bach’s gigues – much lighter in texture, and rather delicate in character. The movement requires considerable LH skill in controlling the jumps and shaping the line, and also keeping the RH light and very close to the keys to achieve the right sound. The big G minor cadence in bar 28 might be enhanced with a touch of pedal, and a stronger dynamic. Later, from bar 32 to 40, Bach’s design gives us an opportunity for a long diminuendo to a very soft dynamic. The final phrase begins in bar 41; the most natural way to play it is with a crescendo to the end. Decide whether you want to end strongly, or with a sudden diminuendo through the final bar.
For the Online Academy’s full video walkthoughs, follow these links:
I get quite a lot of inspiration for topics to write about on my blog from my students. During a lesson something might crop up that seems important, or certainly worth writing about.
On two separate occasions this week people had been attempting to solve what they perceived as technical difficulties by practising passagework in a variety of different rhythms.
Rhythm practice seems to be yet another of those divisive topics in the piano world. Some pianists swear by it and others dismiss it. My own teachers fell into both camps – two of them insisted on it, and two others told me it was not going to help and that I shouldn’t do it.
As my readers will have figured out by now, I tend to prefer a middle path. When done mindfully, in the right doses and for the right reasons, my own experience shows me that rhythm practice can certainly be beneficial as a part of the practice routine. However, it is not a cure-all and can have negative consequences if overdone (tension being a significant potential downside).
Someone brought the Schubert E flat Impromptu, and had been using the rhythmical variants I suggest in my own study edition. He said he was still struggling with the first bar, despite practising the rhythms daily. When I looked at what was going on the solution was extremely simple. The problem had to do with the pivot over the thumb F to the 3rd finger Eb, and the elbow was in the wrong position to negotiate this. To find the best position, we first played the thumb and the 3rd finger together and started the piece from this position (the elbow slightly raised and further away from the torso). Having solved this problem, occasional rhythm practice proved useful in developing and maintaining precision in control of the right hand.
For my video walkthroughs on the Schubert E flat Impromptu, click here
Another situation where rhythm practice had certainly helped, but was far from providing a complete solution of the problem the student was experiencing, was in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, in particular the left hand from bar 33 to bar 36.
To me, it was interesting that in other places the left hand was fluent and all was working well. What was it about this spot that eluded her? When we slowed the passage down, it was clear that she had been thinking of the left hand mechanically, as a series of equal finger strokes. She had been working for rhythmic evenness and precision, no bad thing in itself, but what had been missed out in her practice was the idea of shaping a line, playing it with a feeling for intonation, timing, colour and inflection. As she played the line at a very slow tempo, we aimed to make it sound as though played as a cantilena by a cellist. As we sang along this with, we stopped when a particular interval had not been internalised in the voice (in particular the augmented second to diminished third at the end of the third beats in bars 1 and 2 of the above example). Once she was able to sing it, she was able to play it with more meaning and, while the technical difficulties did not exactly disappear, she was well on her way to creating an expressive line that the rhythm practice had obliterated.
There is a shadow side to everything. Too much slow practice and we don’t develop the right reflexes for up-to-speed playing; too much practice at speed and we lose motor control and finesse. Rhythm practice is no different – use it, but use it as a part of a balanced practice regime.
*** *** ***
The annotated study edition mentioned in this article is available at our store as part of our study editions bundle, our eBooks & study editions bundle or separately. An online version of the walkthrough content is also available as part of an Online Academy subscription (please click here to view if you are already a subscriber or click here to find out more about subscription options).
If you enjoyed this article then please click here if you’d like to sign-up to our mailing list to receive future articles, content updates and special offers. You may also be interested in the following resources:
Practising the Piano eBook Series
There are surprisingly few books that deal with the art of practising. This multimedia eBook series contains hundreds of videos, audio clips, music examples and downloadable worksheets to show you exactly what need to do in order to get the most out of your practice time. Click here for more information.
Practising the Piano Online Academy
Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, it will transform the way you approach playing or teaching the piano!
Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or on one of the options below to subscribe:
Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
Annual subscription – Save on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription for £119.99 per year and get free eBooks and editions worth over £70! (click here to sign-up for this option)
I first published The Floating Fermata in 2015, and was surprised by how much positive feedback I had on it. I decided to republish it now, with a few small tweaks. I hope it helps you in your day-to-day practice!
*** *** ***
So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar?
My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork.
But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score.
Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow.
There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata.
The Floating Fermata
When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there is a hiatus while the brainbox grinds into action.
In order to get to the autopilot stage where everything happens automatically (without the need for conscious thought about which finger goes where) we can practise using controlled stops.
We might not have thought about it quite like this, but when we practise in different rhythms we are using controlled stops. Breaking up a pattern of semiquavers, say, into a dotted rhythm gives us a predetermined controlled stop every other note. A rhythm of SLOW-quick-quick-quick makes a stop on every beat, and so on.
What if we don’t want to be so regimented or mechanical as this, or the passage in question does not lend itself to such practice? We can decide to place imaginary fermatas over notes of our choice, either equidistant or in strategic places. These act as watering holes on our journey, we stop there for a moment or two to recover and regroup before moving on. The beauty of this approach is the pause is not timed – we can take however long we need, and we’ll know when we are focussed and ready to move on to the next target.
In this example from Brahms’ Intermezzo, op. 119 no. 1, we might pause on the bar line to prepare the next bar. Mentally rehearse it before playing, hearing the music inwardly and visualising the hands in action. The pause might start off as a long one but as the material is processed, it gets shorter until you won’t need it at all. After a two or three repetitions, remove every other fermata and think in two-bar units:
Practising with fermatas is also great for technical work. In this example from Chopin’s B minor Scherzo, pause for a moment on the marked notes making sure the other hand moves quickly into its new position:
To help organise the opening of Ginastera’s Danza del gauchomatrero, pause on the last note of each sub-phrase:
For wrong notes…
If you have identified a wrong note, practise pausing on the note just before it, no matter where this falls in the bar. Then go back and pause on the note itself. Repeating this process daily for a few days will usually correct the error.
A couple of points to remember:
Decide on where you want the pauses to go before you start – otherwise they are accidents!
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so unless you have managed the section between one pause and the next flawlessly, you’ll need to go back and do it again until you can.
The fermatas have a short shelf life. Move them around a bit, and when they have done their job they are no longer necessary.
Practising the Piano Online Academy
The Practising the Piano Online Academy is the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. It features a constantly growing library of thousands of articles, videos and musical excerpts on topics including practising, piano technique and performing from leading experts. Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or on one of the options below to subscribe:
Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
Annual subscription – Save almost 30% on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription for £119.99 per year and get free eBooks and editions worth over £70! (click here to sign-up for this option)
Good news! The Online Academy Trinity Series is now complete, and in this post I shall be looking at a representative selection of pieces from some of the grades. In the full series, each piece that we’ve featured comes with some teaching notes and a detailed video tutorial – here are samples and excerpts from the most recent works published:
Let’s start with Nathalie Béra-Tagrine’s Conversation. This is an excellent little study in combined touches, beginning with three-note drop-roll slurs in the right hand against a legatoline in the left. There is plenty of articulation detail to work on here between the hands, relying on mobility in the arms and hands.
Felicitas Kukuck: The Rowboat (Grade 2)
The Rowboat is a miniature tone picture relying on imagination and a sense of storyline to convey the musical message. What story is this piece telling? Remember this is personal, and every player can come up with their own version of what is going on – for them. Sensitivity to phrasing, developing a cantabiletouch and the technique of chord legato are explored in this video. Here is a snippet of it.
Michael Proksch: And Now Let’s Handel (Grade 5)
German composer Michael Proksch gives us a fun piece in neo-baroque style. And Now Let’s Handelfeatures a simple harmonic progression based on a cycle of fifths that repeats three times, each time with a different texture. The quaver patterns give each hand in turn the opportunity to develop forearm rotation while shaping the line. In this video extract, I demonstrate the technique.
Joaquín Turina: Fiesta (Grade 7)
Fiesta is one of a set of eight pieces entitled Miniaturesby Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. It makes a very effective recital piece for the intermediate pianist, containing elements of showmanship (especially in the repeated notes) and display but also calling for imagination and the ability to paint a picture in sound.
Ulrich Kallmeyer: Six-Eight Prelude (Grade 8)
This piece comes from a collection of easy to moderate piano pieces in different popular idioms, Cool Cat Piano Goodies by German composer Ulrich Kallmeyer. The mood is relaxed, possibly even a little lazy. In this extract from the full video, I demonstrate the practice tool often referred to as chaining, showing how to take a passage from a slow learning speed up to full performance tempo accurately and reliably.
Jean-Philipp Rameau: Fanfarinette and La Triomphante (Grade 8)
Here is an excerpt of a walkthrough of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Fanfarinette and La Triomphante from the Suite in A minor (third book), in which I take the second piece and experiment with touch, mood and dynamic possibilities to discover the character of the music and bring it to life.
Further resources & links
This video is part of an Online Academy series featuring articles and over 30 video demonstrations of repertoire from Trinity College London’s 2018 – 2020 piano examination syllabus. The full collection is available for once-off purchase here or as part of an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.
Trinity College London is also conducting a survey to obtain feedback on their syllabus and support resources. Please click here if you would like to participate and provide your feedback.