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Pieces to Play – Galuppi, Bach & the Schumanns

Are you looking ideas and inspiration for new pieces to learn? Or are you a teacher searching for interesting repertoire for a student? Our Pieces to Play series showcases a selection of works with links to new or existing resources in our repertoire library to help you learn them!

This instalment features works at a variety of levels, including some interesting alternatives if you’re looking for something different. Starting with the well known first piece from Robert Schumann’s beloved Album for the Young, we then look at a nostalgic favourite by MacDowell followed by an excellent introduction to playing two voice counterpoint by Bach. Next is an exploration of an elegant, hidden gem by Galuppi and a challenging scherzo by Clara Schumann before we finish with a dramatic romantic showpiece by Merikanto!

Robert Schumann – Melodie (from Album for the Young, Op. 68)

Schumann’s Album for the Young is a timeless array of character pieces, each vividly capturing a mood or narrative. Composed for his daughters in 1848, the pieces are invaluable for developing both technical and interpretative skills. In this video, Graham Fitch gives a lesson on the first piece in the set, Melodie, which is a charming miniature packed with pedagogical value:

This video is part of a new series in which Graham explores this timeless musical treasure trove, giving tips on how to practise, interpret and teach each of the pieces in the first volume. Click here to view Graham’s introduction to the series on the Online Academy with links to open domain and other recommended editions.

Level: Elementary

Why play it? This piece is a fantastic study for developing various aspects of technique such as balancing voices, shaping a legato melody, use of arm weight and more!

MacDowell – To a Wild Rose (from Woodland Sketches, Op. 51)

This piece was originally published in 1896 as the first of a set of piano pieces called Woodland Sketches. It has appeared in many arrangements and remains one of MacDowell’s most popular compositions due to its simple, unpretentious lyrical beauty. Although accessible at an elementary level, it does present some technical challenges, particularly around voicing and balancing of chords!

In this excerpt from his video lesson on the piece, Graham Fitch shows how to approach one of the main challenges in this piece – ensuring that all of the notes sound when playing softly:

Click here to view the full video on the Online Academy or click here for open domain scores for this work.

Level: Late elementary

Why play it? This tender, nostalgic piece offers opportunities for expression and imagery alongside developing voicing and pedalling skills.

JS Bach – Invention No. 4 in D Minor, BWV 775

One of the most beloved of Bach’s Inventions, this work is ideal for studying two-voiced counterpoint with equal challenges in each hand. It is an excellent vehicle for understanding of Baroque style, giving opportunities to explore dynamics, articulation and phrasing whilst also developing contrapuntal listening, hand independence and agility.

In this excerpt from his video lesson on the piece, Fred Karpoff performs the work and discusses the topic of tempo:

Click here to view Fred’s full video lesson on the piece and for a link to his marked score providing detailed analysis of invertible counterpoint, harmony, sequence and hemiola possibilities.

Level: Intermediate

Why play? This ingenious study is one of Bach’s greatest “hits” and offers technical challenges, expressive opportunities and a window into the intricate world of Baroque music.

Galuppi – Sonata No.5 in C major

This elegant piece was made famous by the great pianist, Michelangeli, and features a simple, expressive melody accompanied by an alberti bass and embellished with intricate ornamentation. While Galuppi may not be as widely celebrated as some of his contemporaries, this piece is an excellent illustration of the transition between Baroque and Classical styles and offers an opportunity to develop finger control, articulation and dynamic range:

Click here to view the full video lesson on the Online Academy.

Level: Intermediate

Why play? If you’re looking for a classical piece but perhaps want something different to Mozart or Haydn.

Clara Schumann – Scherzo in G, Op. 15 No. 4

This short Scherzo is a delightful piece to study at the intermediate level. A jaunty ‘A’ section is contrasted by a sustained, melancholic trio before the playful main section returns. The work provides a wide variety of technical and musical challenges, including fast staccato passages, arpeggios, two-note slurs, and projecting cantabile over chorale texture:

Click here to view Fred’s full lesson on the Online Academy in which he guides you in integrating three-dimensional technique with musical insights to play this piece with ease!

Difficulty: Late intermediate

Why play it? An opportunity to play a little known piece by one of the one of the most important female musicians of the Nineteenth Century

Oskar Merikanto – Merellä (Piano Transcription)

Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto created a virtuosic yet highly pianistic transcription of his own beautiful song, Merellä. This small ballade in the style of Liszt or Chopin takes the performer and listeners on an epic journey filled with dramatic, vivid imagery.

Click here to view the full video lesson and to download Fred’s marked score for this work.

Difficulty: Advanced, but possible as a challenge for a later intermediate pianist. 

Why play it? This makes a fantastic show piece if you’re looking for something different to present in a competition or concert. It’s also a great choice if you’re looking to play something dramatic but not quite as challenging as a Liszt or Chopin Ballade. Furthermore, it’s a great study for mastering tremolos!

Online Workshop – Repertoire Ideas and Inspiration

Are you looking for some new repertoire ideas for yourself or your students? Join Graham Fitch online on 3rd February for a showcase of inspiring and interesting works at all levels. This bouquet of pieces will include well known works alongside some hidden gems and exciting new pieces. As part of introducing these pieces, Graham will also give thoughts on narrative, interpretation and practice strategies.

The sessions will be filmed in our studios and all ticket holders will receive high quality recordings after the event along with links to open domain scores for all of the featured works. Click here to find out more!

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Key Skills for Excellent Sight Reading

There is so much great music to play, but often pianists struggle to learn music quickly. Many would love to be able to open a book and just play or be confident enough to play new music with others.

Despite its many benefits, sight reading is rarely taught and is often thought of as something you either have or you don’t. However, it is possible to develop sight reading skills, but you need to know how to go about doing this.

In this article, Lona Kozik shares a few skills she discovered which helped her go from being hopeless at sight reading to earning a living as an accompanist and working in theatre!

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1. Rhythm first and keep going!

The first rule of sight reading is to keep a steady pulse and play accurate rhythms. It is worth developing this skill as a foundation for good sight reading.

2. Take a snapshot

Have you ever been advised to “look ahead” when sight reading and wondered – how, when I can just about read one note to the next to the next? The answer – don’t read from one note to another. Rather imagine taking a snapshot and take in as much as you can. In order to do that effectively, you must…

3. Read musical structures, not notes

Sight reading and note naming are two different things. Learn to read musical structures – identify intervals, chords, cadences and melodic patterns. If you were taught a mnemonic to identify notes on the staff, learn to locate landmark notes on the staff using clefs. If you can do this, you can take in much more of the music quickly.

4. Read from the bottom up

When reading two lines of music, train your eye to look from the bottom (bass clef in piano music) up (treble clef in piano music) in a continuous sweep. This prioritises the bass and helps you to read and think harmonically, which helps to…

sight read from the bottom up

5. Think in a key

To become a fluent sight reader at the piano, you need good keyboard harmony skills – a knowledge of how keyboard harmony works, how to think in a key and an ability to apply this in practice.

Ending Your Sight Reading Struggles

Although some of these skills will deliver some immediate improvements, it takes time to be able to put them into practice and realise the full benefits, especially the last one.

If you’d like a more in depth demonstration of these skills then please do join me on Thursday 25th January  for an online workshop in which I’ll be exploring these skills and showing you how to apply them. This workshop serves as a complement to my Music at Sight course on the Online Academy which provides daily exercises for developing each of these skills. Click here to find out more about my workshop and to book your place!

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The Music as Sight mini course is available with an Online Academy subscription as part of our library of 1000+ articles and videos on piano playing. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the course introduction if you are already a subscriber.

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Highlights & Most Popular Content of 2023

We are currently taking a break over the Festive Season and will resume our various activities in the New Year. Our events programme will kick-off on 25th January with an online workshop on sight-reading followed by a showcase of repertoire ideas at all levels presented by Graham Fitch on 3rd February.

There will also be many content updates and new videos published on the Online Academy to help you get your pianistic initiatives for 2024 off to a fantastic start! These include video lessons on a wide range of works, resources for developing skills like sight-reading and improving your knowledge of music theory, additions to existing series and the first instalments in a new series of modules on deep learning techniques and practice tools.

In the meantime, we thought we’d leave you with some highlights and links to our most popular content and events from the last year!

Highlights

The following were some of our highlights from 2023:

  • Studio & visitors – After securing new premises in London last year, our studio saw extensive use in 2023 with numerous shoots and a variety of online and in-person events. We were also treated with visits from two fantastic pedagogues from across the pond, William Westney and Fred Karpoff, who both came to film with us and present workshops.
  • ABRSM project completed – Our project creating video lessons for the 2023 & 2024 ABRSM syllabus was completed and features detailed videos for over 70 works! This collection serves as an essential guide for teachers and candidates but is also a great resource for repertoire ideas even if you’re not taking an exam! Click here to view an index of the available videos.
  • Event highlights – We ran a variety of events including online and in-person performance workshops and two free events with Penelope Roskell and Graham Fitch. Graham presented several events, including a popular series on technique, interactive workshops on practising and deep learning plus a day dedicated to playing music form the Romantic period. We were also delighted to have the opportunity to host an adaptation of William Westney’s unique alternative to the traditional masterclass.
  • New content – Lots of new content was published throughout the year on a variety of topics including repertoire, technique, sight-reading, teaching and music theory. Our repertoire library now covers almost 300 works and our technique library saw several additions.
  • Foundations in Piano Technique – In October we launched a comprehensive technique course for adult beginner and returning pianists by Penelope Roskell. Foundations in Piano Technique teaches excellent technique in 25 video lessons with numerous musical examples, notes, backing tracks and exercises. Click here to find out more.

Most popular blog posts

Thanks again to all of our readers and subscribers for your support over the last year. As always, we are hard at work on many exciting new projects which we look forward to sharing with you soon!

judi

New Year, New Piano Goals!

The New Year is an excellent time to set some goals for your piano playing for the year ahead! Are there new pieces you’re aiming to learn, or areas of your technique you’re looking to improve? Or do you want to develop some new skills or possibly work towards sharing your playing with others? In our first blog post for the year, we share some ideas and resources to help you along the way, whatever your goals might be!   

new year piano goals

Expand your repertoire

It’s always exciting learning new pieces and if you’re looking to build solid foundations from the outset, why not try our free email course on starting a new piece (click here to sign-up) or click here for some suggestions on choosing new pieces. You might also want to join our Learning New Piano Pieces and tell us what you’re learning!

If you’re looking for ideas for repertoire or for guidance then do visit our growing library of resources for the piano repertoire. These resources aim to help you learn and master almost 300 works across all levels and include videos focussing on specific aspects of a piece through to detailed video walk-throughs of complete works and annotated study editions.

As a further suggestion to broaden your repertoire, why not try a few pieces that are earlier than your current level as quick studies? Even if you’re not planning on taking an exam, examination syllabuses can be useful for obtaining an indication of difficulty and discovering new repertoire ideas.

Hone your technique

Although it’s a means to an end, a refined technique is important for being able to realise our artistic aspirations at the piano. Our technique library on the Online Academy contains a vast array of resources to help you develop the piano technique. From advice on using studies and exercises to improve specific areas through to general tips for playing that feels and sounds good, this index provides a guide to our constantly growing list of materials.

Share your playing with others

Getting feedback on your playing or just sharing your playing with others can be an excellent way to improve and energise your playing. Why not set yourself a goal to work towards playing informally or perhaps even at a meet-up group for amateurs? This article has some suggestions for how to approach performing as an amateur with links to further resources.

Brush up on your theory knowledge

Understanding music theory gives us a wonderful insight into how music works and can also enable you to learn repertoire faster, interpret it more authentically and explore new worlds of improvisation and composition. Our online course There’s more to Playing the Piano provides a concise, interactive explanation of the basics of music theory (click here to view on the Online Academy or click here to purchase as an eBook).

Ken Johansen, author of our Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum and From the Ground Up series has also recently published a book on using keyboard harmony to learn pieces more effectively. If you’re an advanced pianist and have enjoyed Ken’s materials then you can purchase a copy of the book directly from his publisher here (using voucher code AFL04 will give you a 20% discount until 1st March 2024!). d get a 20% discount using

Develop your general musical skills

With the emphasis so often being on developing technical skills and learning new pieces, many pianists neglect the development of general musical skills. Why not resolve to train your ear or improve your sight-reading? Or perhaps give improvisation a try?

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The Practising the Piano Online Academy is ultimate online resource for pianists, teachers and anyone seeking to master the piano. Featuring a comprehensive library of 1,000+ video lessons, articles and resources, it will transform the way you approach playing and teaching the piano!

We’re offering a free 14-day trial which gives you access to the Online Academy’s online content plus our 40% discount on upcoming online workshops and event recordings. Click here to sign-up for your free trial – no credit card required! (Please note that if you are already registered on your site then you will need to sign-in first).

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What’s in Store for 2024?

We hope that you all had a peaceful and enjoyable Festive Season and that 2024 is off to an excellent start for you so far. We have an array of exciting of plans in store, including lots of new content and several events to inspire and energise your piano playing over the coming year!

online piano events

Developing sight reading skills

Our events programme kicks-off on the 25th of January with an online presentation on how to become an excellent sight reader by Lona Kozik. Lona will show you five key skills that can be applied from beginner to advanced levels to improve your sight reading and ability to learn pieces faster. This presentation also serves as a complement to Lona’s Music at Sight course on the Online Academy to which we will also be adding a set of in-depth practice videos.

Repertoire ideas and inspiration

Are you looking for some new repertoire ideas for yourself or your students? Join Graham Fitch online on 3rd February for a showcase of inspiring and interesting works at all levels. This bouquet of pieces will include well known works alongside some hidden gems and exciting new pieces. As part of introducing these pieces, Graham will also give thoughts on narrative, interpretation and practice strategies. Click here to find out more!

Technique clinic with Penelope Roskell

On 15th February Penelope Roskell will be hosting an interactive clinic addressing questions from participants in her online course for adult beginner and returning pianists, Foundations in Piano Technique. If you are working through the course, this is your chance to ask questions or obtain assistance in applying the various concepts to your playing either online or in-person at our studios. You’re also welcome to join as an observer to watch Penelope in action if you haven’t yet started the course. Click here to find our more and to book your place!

Other events

The next instalment in Graham Fitch’s series of workshops on style will take place on 2nd March. Following on from his workshops on the Baroque and Romantic periods, this set of workshops will focus on interpreting and performing music from the Classical period. Further info and booking details will be available shortly (please sign-up to our mailing list to be notified!).

Our practice clinics will also resume with the first episode to be published in early February. If you are a subscriber and have a practising-related question you would like Graham to address then please sign-in to your account and use the link provided on your dashboard to submit your question by 16th January.

Save 40% on Online Workshops!

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. Online Academy subscribers also get 40% off online workshops in addition to several other benefits.

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)
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Welcome! – Practising the Piano

A while ago I was asked by Trinity College London to write the teaching notes for the new piano syllabus, Grades 6-8, and I was delighted to receive the publications through the post last week! In addition to the pieces published in the official exam books, there is also a…

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Introduction – Practising the Piano

I am lucky. My pedigree as a pianist is an excellent one, and I have had teachers from the beginning who showed me very clearly how to practise, but not all students of the piano are so fortunate. Is practising an art, or is it a science? It’s both! It cannot be described as an absolute science, because what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, or for the same person at a different stage in the learning (or relearning) of a piece. But I do think it is helpful to make practising as scientific as possible by formulating concrete concepts and precepts while at the same time guarding against dogma. I think I must have vexed my teachers by asking “why?” when they told me what I had to do. I wasn’t being cheeky, I was just very curious as to how it all worked. I still am!

I ran a university practising clinic for a time, which was a voluntary, informal drop-in class for pianists to discuss various ways we might solve problems in our daily work at the keyboard. The room was often packed to the rafters, and there was always much lively discussion and experimentation. Since I had to be extremely careful not to tread on my colleagues’ toes by giving technical instruction, I had to find a way of distinguishing between the technique of manipulating the keyboard (which varies from teacher to teacher, depending on what schooling they offer) and the technique of learning (which should apply to all of us, more or less). I don’t have to be quite so careful about this here, but I would want to stress that just as there are (most probably) very many ways of skinning a cat, there are as many different ways of playing the piano as there are pianists. I do not subscribe to fundamentalism in any form, no one school has all the answers.

As a teacher once said to me: “Never let the good be the enemy of the better”, I am open to your suggestions and ideas and would not like to think that anything is cast permanently in stone.

So where to start? Having done some market research, people regularly ask me how I manage the complex ornamention in the music of Bach and Rameau. How do we do this reliably, skillfully and beautifully given that our modern piano is a vastly different beast from the instruments that this music was written for?

Watch this space…

judi

The Trouble With Ornaments (Part One)

The year was 1978 and I had been assigned the G major French Suite of J. S. Bach by my piano professor at the RCM. I duly went off to the Kensington Music Shop (which is still there by South Kensington tube station) to buy the Henle Urtext edition, and then found a practice room to explore. Uncertain as to the exact meaning of the ornament signs that littered the pages, I decided I ought to listen to a few recordings from the College’s record library only to discover that each performer did them differently. So what was a poor undergraduate to do? In those days, I assumed that anyone good enough to issue a commercial recording of anything had to know what they were doing, so I was bemused and confused by what I had heard.

It struck me that perhaps all of these different versions of the ornaments were OK, and I could just do whatever took my fancy. Somehow this didn’t seem quite right, surely there had to be some sort of difference between the squiggle with the line through it and the one without it. Since it was going to be a whole week until my next lesson, and I wanted to take at least the first two or three movements along, I thought I had better ask around. Accosting members of staff in the hallways, one eminent professor of piano told me one thing, while another said he thought it should go like this (there ensued a whistling session) and I was left none the wiser.

This was beginning to really trouble me! My studies of Shakespeare and the bible at school had impressed upon me that quibbling over textual matters was important, because it could change the meaning of something if you misinterpreted it. In my quest for truth, I toddled off to the main library and expressed my concerns to Dr. Harold Watkins Shaw (Librarian-in-Chief at the time, and famous for his still-revered edition of Handel’s “Messiah”). I remember him as a very kindly, besuited man who was happy to help students, and he produced the only ornament table J.S. Bach left for posterity, the “Explication” from the preface of the Clavierbüchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

This didn’t help much, because it tells only half the story (but how was I to know that?). Did the trillo mean I had to play that exact number of notes in all cases? What if it was over a dotted minim rather than the given crotchet? There were so many notes to fit in and sometimes there just wasn’t room. Bach hadn’t addressed all these possibilities!

As I later discovered, an ornament table will give the basic shapes and designs of each type of ornament, and assumes you will tailor these to specific circumstances. You also need to know that, provided you stick to the basic outline, you can add and subtract repercussions, and bend and inflect the ornament rhythmically to make it fit its surroundings. This is very important! Ornaments should sound free, personal and improvised, and the military precision of the notation in ornament tables is misleading (how else could the composer have done it though?) given that the final result is not possible to notate precisely. And it shouldn’t be carved in stone either – if you are feeling particularly expressive you might want to lean longer on that first note of the trill, to get the maximum amount of juice from the dissonance. These things vary from performance to performance, depending on mood, whim, the instrument, the acoustical space and how many cups of coffee you had for breakfast. You can, of course exuberate in the repeat by adding even more notes to a trill, and adding more ornaments and embellishments (a different thing, but let’s not get into that here). Let only good taste be your guide.

Why do I get so bent out of shape when a pianist consistently plays a three-note Schneller (or “upper mordent” if you’ve been reading a certain familiar 1970s theory book, now properly updated) in Bach? Is it irritation that they haven’t bothered to do their homework and read the instructions on the packet? Do they think ornaments are like manners, which change from time and place? Are ornaments subject to evolution like everything else? Is it because the modern pianist is a nineteenth century animal, from an age when players happily did what they wanted (this freedom extending to adding or subtracting notes the composer had written)? Certainly “text as dogma” has clouded the issue. If you knew your teacher was brought up to accept Edward Dannreuther’s decree that it was simpler for all trills to start on the note, regardless of period, then you might be able to question this in light of modern scholarship (throw it out, more like – not questioning your elders or betters is the main problem here, of course). No, for me a Bach trill (a French trill) is a chain of two or more appoggiaturas. The dissonance comes on the beat, or on the strong parts of the beat, and the resolution on the weak parts of the beat. If the trill starts from the main note or does not coincide with its bass, you lose this. The trill may elongate the note, may accent it, may be expressively melodic or zingily rhythmic but it begins on the upper note and on the beat. All eighteenth century sources stress this with monotonous regularity.

I think there is still a lot of confusion around the tied trill (or tremblement lié) and C.P.E Bach’s Schneller, or “upper mordent” (it amuses me that people quote C.P.E chapter and verse and apply it to music of his father, but J.S. Bach came earlier of course, and C.P.E had embraced a very different style). The tied trill may sound like a three note ornament that starts on the beat (and might be indistinguishable from it when fast) but it actually feels different. A tied trill is usually notated by a slur that connects the trill to the previous note, when the first note of the trill is the same as the preceding note. Rather than replay it, it is tied over. You may think this is splitting hairs, but actually you still get the sense of appoggiatura, of dissonance and resolution but in a more legato way without the rhythmic accent. The repetition of the upper note is not to be avoided in a rhymical or non-legato context – this reiteration adds even more emphasis to the dissonance. Whereas F. Couperin was meticulous in notating his tied trills, Bach was less so.

To wrap up this potted history of the trill, remember the year 1828. This was the year of the death of Schubert, and the publication date of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel where the instruction is to begin trills on the main note. Here is Dannreuther’s translation of Hummel’s text, and presumably the start of pianists’ misunderstandings:

In the next post, I would like to explore the “how” of achieving these ornaments beautifully and skillfully at the piano. It took me some years to figure it out, for it to become reliable and natural, even on so-called heavy-action pianos. I will share it with some video links I plan to record over the next few days.

judi

The Trouble With Ornaments (Part Two)

Thank you for all your feedback from the first part of this post. Your comments are most appreciated, and I will respond to them all (please click here if you’d like to read the previous post).

Here, I want to get into how to make the ornaments into chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings, rather than sounding like a series of detonations dutifully and clumsily tacked onto the surface of the music in the style of punk jewellery, self-consciously drawing attention to themselves while taking away from the line.

Isn’t it funny what stands out from one’s past? As a child, I was preparing my grade 3 exam and there was a baroque piece (Richard Jones, I think it was) with the realisations of the ornaments helpfully (?) printed as footnotes at the bottom of the page. I wish I had understood then that the scary-looking notation of the ornaments, with its array of demisemiquavers and double dots (all in footnote-size font) was only supposed to show the basic design and that, actually, there were a few different realisations that were possible. Because each was written out in full (and therefore had to conform to the arithmetic of the time signature), it made it look military and precise and theoretical. In fact, the whole point of the ornament is to sound free, spontaneous and personal. That you are lead to believe you need a calculator to work the darned things out detracts somewhat.

I wish there were another way of indicating the design by having a schemata that was not, like the ornaments themselves, subject to the captivity of conventional staff notation. (Shall we brainstorm? Answers on a postcard…)

OK, back to the subject of how we manage the ornaments at the piano. I am going to surprise a few of you here when I suggest that we try not to use our fingers. Or rather we use them in conjunction with motions and gestures that come from further back, from the arm. This may seem perverse, but for me the fingers are just the points of contact between us and the instrument, and that playing the piano is a holisitic activity involving body (the whole body), mind and spirit.

I spend quite a bit of time with new students correcting problems, tensions and even the beginnings of dystonia and tendonitis caused by early training that presupposes it is our fingers that play the piano. Things have moved on from the days of Clementi balancing pennies on the back of students’ hands, and I simply don’t accept it when commentators say “so-and-so plays with the fingers alone!”.

Don’t get me wrong – of course we need strong fingers to play well. Playing with just fingers can get us up to a very high level, but we will never achieve virtuosity without a blend of activity from finger to wrist, wrist to forearm, forearm to upper arm, etc. I think it goes right down to our toes.

I feel a song coming on:

DEM BONES

(No religious significance intended there, by the way… shame they stopped at the neck bone.)

In my Piano Teaching Method lectures, I have always encouraged students to question the traditional five-finger middle C approach to learning. Why restrict the beginner to a few white notes in the middle of the keyboard, playing only the notes they can read? I am advocating instead as natural a way as possible of using ourselves (our bodies) at the keyboard.

I often try to think of day-to-day physical activities that call for the use of the fingers in isolation and (apart from artificial ones like typing) I draw a blank. Even threading a needle (not that I do much sewing) demands superfine control of the fingers, but not without a lot of balanced, poised cooperation from the arm and eye. And I doubt that someone who is slouching can thread a needle efficiently…

Nobody teaches us how to do these things, we are incredible machines! I find that traditional piano teaching encourages a shutting off of our innate finely tuned kinaesthesia and replaces it with something we aren’t actually going to end up using in the advanced stages. A famous colleague tells me that she has to undo the damage caused by a finger-based childhood training by conscious thought every time she practises. And believe me, she is right at the top of the tree.

Rant over.

In order to play trills and mordents, we have to be able to manage repeated notes skillfully. Mechanically, a trill is two notes that repeat rapidly in alternation with each other, an activity that can easily cause the hand to tire and the muscles to seize up.

My recipe for repeated notes is:

  • to find the place in the lower part of the key’s descent (around the sounding point) where the escapement mechanism takes effect, and to stay there. We don’t need to bring the key all the way back up to its surface to replay it (upright pianos don’t work this way, unfortunately). To see a graphic demonstration of this, visit this page and click on “Action Animation” under “Related Links”.  (With thanks to Chris Smit for permission to link to his site.)
  • to aim to use the full length of the key, using different spots on the key surface for each repetition. This will keep us mobile and will encourage a gentle undulation in the arm, thus keeping us free.
  • to use a rotary movement of the forearm (rather than use “piston fingers”).
  • to ensure that the other fingers not involved in this process do not tense up. This is a big subject in itself, and I would like to devote a whole post to training independence of the fingers (soon).