The Piano Teachers’ Course UK Continuing Professional Development Days

I am one of the principal tutors on The Piano Teachers’ Course UK, and am delighted to announce a new venture that we’re starting this year, a series of seven days of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) lectures, workshops and teachers’ discussion forums discussing issues and sharing expertise. These are available to PTC Alumni and all interested pianists, piano teachers & students. There is no minimum requirement for these sessions.

There will be two lecture workshop sessions each day, with an open Discussion Forum facilitated by a PTC Tutor during a long lunch break. Alternatively, instead of attending a Teachers’ Discussion Forum, you can book a private consultation and/or lesson with an available tutor.

OR – book a massage with Jennie, our BAPAM registered practitioner, either after lunch or at the same time as a workshop session (not available in May).

For full details, and how to book, click here


On Rhythm: Some Resources – Practising the Piano

A number of pianists report having issues with rhythm. To help solve the problem we need to be able to set a steady pulse and to internalise this as we play, pushing and pulling according to the natural ebb and flow that virtually all music requires. This is vastly different from playing metronomically, since no performance of anything is going to conform to an unbending metronomic beat, and while a certain amount of metronome practice can be beneficial if you know what you’re doing, too much of it ends up being detrimental.

When I was a student at the Royal College of Music, we used Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians as a text book for handling complex rhythms against a steady pulse. Some of the exercises are pretty gruelling, and would challenge anyone. In this exercise, you are required to play the notes with one hand, but a tone higher than written, while tapping the rhythm below the stave on your knee (and then play again in two other stipulated keys). Yes, really…

Hindemith requires what he calls “coordinated action” in the exercises. This might involve speaking the given rhythm while conducting with one hand, or perhaps tapping it with the left hand while conducting with the right, tapping it with the foot while conducting, and so on – a literal embodiment of rhythm.

Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer

There is no doubt that practising the rigorous exercises in Hindemith’s book will prove beneficial for the more advanced player, but let’s start somewhere simpler. I can highly recommend a little book by Robert Starer, entitled Rhythmic Training. It’s been around for years, and is excellent if you follow the directions.

The author states in the preface:

The ability to transform visual symbols of rhythmic notation into time-dividing sounds is an acquired skill. It involves the coordination of physical, psychological, and musical factors and cannot, therefore, be accomplished by the simple act of comprehension. This book represents an attempt to develop and train the ability to read and perform musical rhythms accurately… It is intended for the classroom, for the private studio and for self-training.

The book starts with the basics, how rhythm is organised and with explanations of the concepts of bar line and meter. Starer deals with time signatures (simple and compound), changing meters, rhythmic concepts such as hemiola and polyrhythms. The exercises get harder as the book progresses. As in the Hindemith, you can sing (or vocalise on a neutral syllable) and tap, sing and conduct, play and tap, etc. So, in the following exercise you might conduct with one hand (the “strong-weak-weak” hierarchy represented on the one stave in the stems-down notation) and speak the rhythm (ta-a for the minims, ta for the crotchets; either say “rest” on the rests, or simply say nothing). 

In the final chapter we no longer find notation for the pulse and its suggested subdivisions, the idea is that by now we will have internalised these.

Other Resources

Most of the following resources contain links to Amazon, where you can preview the text to see if it might work for you.

The Rhythm Bible by Dan Fox

Musikal Husky Rhythm Keeper by Steve and Samantha Steitz (only available via Amazon US and EU it seems, although a UK edition is imminent)

Basic Timing for the Pianist by Alan Small

Rhythm Menagerie by Wendy Stevens

Let me leave you with a wonderful example of embodied rhythm, Don Swanson with Nigerian master drummer Baba Ayo Adeyemi.


Launching the 2018-2020 Trinity Syllabus

I am very happy to announce a brand new series featuring the current Trinity College London Piano Syllabus on the Online Academy. Having been commissioned by Trinity to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades, I was delighted to put together this series of articles and video demonstrations for a selection of pieces from the 2018 – 2020 piano examination syllabus, with several examples from each grade from Initial to 8.

Within this series you will find plenty of tips for practice, overcoming technical problems as well as suggestions for piano teachers and guidance on matters relating to style and interpretation. The following are example excerpts from two video demonstrations from the series:

Initial Grade – Canon by Henk Badings

One of the pieces in the Initial grade is Canon by Henk Badings. There are so many different ways to get value out of this little piece, from call and response games and some singing in lessons to phrase shaping and developing equality between the hands.

Grade 4 – Allegretto by Mozart

Jumping to Grade 4, and Mozart’s Allegretto, we find a delightful minuet-style piece with a trio section in the minor, and many interesting compositional features that can be explained and demonstrated to the learner. It’s also interesting to know that Mozart wrote this piece on a trip to London when he was only 8 years old. In the video I demonstrate quarantine practice, and explore different fingering possibilities, as well as options for phrasing and expression.

The series currently includes two articles which serve as guides to the foundation and intermediate grades, along with video demonstrations for five selected works from the initial grade through to grade 4. Please click on one of the following links to view the available content (requires sign-in) or click here to view subscription options and sign-up for an Online Academy account:

  • Foundation grades
  • Intermediate grades

Over 20 additional video demonstrations for other works in the syllabus and a guide to the advanced level will also be added on an ongoing basis.


How Slow is Slow? – Practising the Piano

How much notice should we take of a composer’s metronome markings, and how do we decide the tempo of a work that contains neither a metronome mark nor a tempo or character description? Is it carte blanche? The Dolmetsch site has plenty of very helpful information on the various indications we find throughout musical history, particularly useful when we are dealing with baroque dances or dance-like pieces that would fall into a specific category. Did you realise that in 1703 France the menuet was a very merry dance, whereas in 1750 France it became noble and elegant, moderate rather than fast? Neither did I until I looked it up.

But what about Bartók’s ultra-precise metronome markings and timings at the end of a work? Surely these are too fastidious and deliberate to ignore? Bartók’s student György Sándor explains all this in an interview with Bruce Duffie:

GS: “Why did he [Bartók] write so precisely the metronome signs; why did he write so precisely the duration of the piece?”  That’s simply because in those days when he wrote his music, nobody knew a thing about his style; they didn’t know what to do with it at all!  So he had to write a lot of information.  But when he played those pieces which he marked so very carefully he played them completely differently!

BD:  So he assumed that any performer who got under the skin of the music would then make it his own and take it beyond the printed page?

GS:  Just like any other music!  Just like with any other music!  Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently.  A very good example is the First Piano Concerto.  I happened to study with him the First and Second Concerto.  The metronome markings in the third movement of the First Concerto are excessively fast, but all our colleagues — the honest, good musicians — all read the markings and say, “That’s what Bartók meant; let’s play that way.”  I heard Bartók play it very differently.  If you follow exactly the metronome marks in that particular one and in some of the other pieces, too, the character totally changes!  In the last movement of the Opus 14, which is a slow movement, the metronome marking is incredibly fast!

BD:  Then why did he make this outlandish marking?

GS:  That question comes up all the time.  He had a little pocket metronome.  Not the one that you use or I use, but one with a little string and a weight hanging on it.  It wasn’t accurate at all!  So his metronome markings should be considered as relative markings.  When 64 is followed by 80, then you know that this section is faster.  But certainly do not take the absolute measurements with the markings.

BD:  Then why don’t the publishers go back through the scores and either eliminate the metronome markings or change them from precise measurements to “slower,” “faster,” and so forth?

GS:  Good question.  Right now we are involved in re-editing Bartók’s music.  I’m in touch with Peter Bartók.  He sends me lot of things including the Third Piano Concerto, and whenever I come up with any idea of interpreting it, the answer by the publisher and by everybody is, “Bartók wrote this down; it must be exactly the way he wrote it down.”  Who am I to argue?  I recorded the concertos again in Hungary, last year.  They are coming out in April, and we spent hours with the correct tempo markings.  The real answer is, “Because he wasn’t fussy.  He wasn’t dogmatic or pedantic.”  He wrote an approximate something, and he knew very well that when it gets played in Orchestra Hall or Fischer Hall, the acoustics are different and the tempo will be different.  Check his recordings of the Mikrokosmos.  He recorded, I think, 45 of them and the exact metronome markings are there in the music.  Just listen to him and how he plays!

Check out Bartók’s own recording of his Romanian Folk Dance No. 6. By my reckoning, his performance clocks in at 47″, as against the 36″ he stipulates in the score. In such a short piece, that’s actually quite a bit slower.

There is of course a lot of flexibility with tempo even in the presence of a composer’s metronome mark. In the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat Sonata, D960, marked Andante sostenuto (no metronome mark, of course), I did a quick survey of a few great pianists’ approaches. Two in particular stand out for their contrasting styles (and therefore tempos) – Schnabel and Horowitz.

To spin out the long line and to make the most of the texture changes, Artur Schnabel requires 11:24.

Vladimir Horowitz plays the movement with a good deal more forward movement in general, allowing him opportunities to take time in those special places. His performance lasts 8:02.

There is slow and there is slow. Something extremely unusual happened during the New York Philharmonic’s concert of April 6, 1962. After the intermission, the audience was expecting to hear the First Piano Concerto of Johannes Brahms featuring Glenn Gould as soloist. Conductor Leonard Bernstein stepped onto the podium and said a few words to prepare the audience for what would come next, a performance so slow and so at odds with his own that he felt he needed to offer a disclaimer. This performance (together with the disclaimer) has gone down in history as one of the most remarkable – and controversial – collaborations between conductor and soloist. What is your reaction to Gould’s ideas?

Don’t you just love some of the whacky ideas creative artists come up with? John Cage wrote a piece entitled Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) in 1987 for organ (adapted from the earlier work ASLSP 1985, in which he chose to omit the detail of how slowly the piece should be played). A 1997 conference of musicians and philosophers decided that Cage’s instruction to play the piece “as slow as possible” could work well on an organ, and a project emerged to perform the piece for 639 years.

Since a properly maintained pipe organ has no specific lifespan, the duration was chosen to commemorate the first documented permanent organ installation, in 1361 in the Halberstadt Cathedral, 639 years before the proposed start date of 2000. Darn, I missed the last note change on October 5, 2013 and will have to wait until September 5, 2020 for the next note change. Not too long now!


Trinity Syllabus – More Videos!

As part of the Online Academy’s series on Trinity College London’s current syllabus, I am happy to announce that three more video walkthroughs have been added – with plenty more to come. This week we are presenting one new piece from each of grades 5, 6, 7, and 8, beginning with the Moderato from Diabelli’s rather charming Sonatina in F, op. 168 no. 1 (Grade 5).

Grade 5 (alternative) – Diabelli: Moderato (from Sonatina in F, op 168 no 1)

Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) was an Austrian music publisher, editor and composer. Today he is most familiar as the composer of the waltz on which Beethoven wrote his set of 33 Diabelli Variations, but he also wrote a number of sets of sonatinas that are certainly worth playing, and which make very good teaching pieces. The first movement of the  F major sonatina is a model of sonata form in miniature, and an ideal piece for the intermediate player to learn about form and structure. In this video walkthrough, I demonstrate the art of finger pedalling in the left hand Alberti patterns to create resonance by hand (instead of by foot, which would cloud the texture too much). I also show how to use deconstruction techniques in a tricky left hand passage to improve control and coordination.

To watch the full video walkthrough, click here

Grade 6 – Max Reger: Versöhnung (Reconciliation)

Max Reger’s Versöhnung (Reconciliation) demands from the player a vivid imagination, and the ability to tell a story in sound. This delightful late Romantic piece describes a character asking someone to be their friend again after a disagreement – pleading, commiserating and even dancing to win back their affection. In the video walkthrough, I show how to project a melody line while at the same time voicing the texture to bring out the expressive harmonic features. The excerpt below shows how to voice chords to bring out the harmonic colour.

To watch the full video walkthrough, click here

Grade 7 (alternative) – Eugénie Rocherolle: La Chapelle

This evocative piece by American pianist and composer Eugénie Rocherolle is somewhere between Romantic and musical theatre in style, making full use of the pedal to build up sonorities from sustained bass notes and rolling harmonies. It is music from the heart, calling for the ability to play freely with rubato and plenty of feeling. I highly recommend this piece, it makes a very effective recital piece and will be popular with players and listeners alike. In this excerpt I demonstrate how to apply the principle of practising in different rhythms creatively to build speed and control in the arpeggiated chord sequence – sometimes practising without the pedal in order to hear each note very clearly.

To watch the full video walkthrough, click here

Grade 8 – Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor, op 119 no 1

In 1893, Brahms wrote his last work for the piano, a set of four piano pieces, op. 119. The Intermezzo in B minor is the first piece of the set. As a composition it is full of riches, arousing keen interest in composers and scholars (including Arnold Schoenberg) as they have attempted to analyse it bar by bar. It requires from the performer the ability to play expressively at a very slow tempo, warmth of tone and control of texture and pedalling. This piece will appeal to the mature player.

To watch the full video walkthrough, click here

If you are interested in the videos we’ve already published, please click on one of the following links to view the available content (requires sign-in) or click here to view subscription options and sign-up for an Online Academy account:

  • Foundation grades
  • Intermediate grades
  • Advanced grades

There are plenty more video demonstrations for other works in the syllabus and a guide to the advanced level which we will be adding on an ongoing basis.


Done and Dusted? – Practising the Piano

I have noticed a lot of players seem to think that, once they have learned a piece they should be able to play it from then on in, whenever they desire. If only we could do some work on a piece, put the genie in the bottle and uncork it the next time we felt like playing it. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like that?

It is easy to hear when a student has been playing through something without attending to the ongoing maintenance necessary to keep it in good shape. I might take a duster to my piano one day and it looks great for a day or so, before the dust gradually returns. Even an unused room will gather dust, ask Miss Havisham (from Dickens’ Great Expectations).

I liken performance, or playing through to spending, and practice to investing, or saving. This is especially true of old pieces we haven’t played in a while. So what does maintenance or revision practice look like? We go back to many of the practice tools we used to build the piece in the first place, when we first learned it. The great Russian pianist and teacher, Alexander Goldenweiser describes this vividly:

Another grave problem occurs with pupils underestimating the importance of detailed study when they come to revise pieces that they have already played. Yet it is vital to remember that work done on a new piece one is just starting to play and on something one has played for a long time should be basically the same. The difference lies only in the amount of time involved, but the type of work should in each case be completely identical. When you play through something you have performed earlier, everything at first may seem to fall into place. But once you begin probing, it turns out that some things are no longer clean, others are inaccurate, and yet others have been forgotten. Alexander Goldenweiser: Advice from a Pianist and Teacher (The Russian Piano School, trans. and ed. by Christopher Barnes, p. 63)

I love to tell the story of Rachmaninov’s practice habits, where the speed of his maintenance slow practice (of a piece he had performed many times before) was so slow that a colleague did not recognise it. The way we practise determines how we play – slow practice is of course just one practice tool. If practice can be likened to encoding, then decoding is what we do in performance. If a computer programmer allows sloppy stuff to happen in the coding process then bugs and all sorts of problems are bound to occur when the programme is up and running and in use.

Sergei Rachmaninoff cph.3a40575

William Westney has some words of wisdom on this matter:

In the world of practicing, every choice we make has some effect. If we play through a piece rather idly, with nothing particular in mind, the effect is not neutral. In fact, practicing in this way can be detrimental: we lose a bit of technical security when we play things through too frequently, although this may not be obvious at the time. In other words, if we’re not actively making things better, chances are we’re making them worse. Athletic coaches often tell their teams the very same thing. There’s no neutral ground. That may seem harsh, but it’s accurate. This explains why people so often seem to “peak” right after they’ve been working hard at technical mastery of a piece. As they complacently play through what they now assume they know, technical components start to deteriorate little by little from lack of the sort of maintenance we have been describing. Think of technical achievement as a sort of bank account. Each performance spends some money out of the account, and constructive maintenance work puts deposits back in. ( William Westney: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self p. 94)

We might think of a piece we have spent hours working on as an asset that needs regular attention. I like to bring back an old piece not only by approaching it as though I were learning it from scratch but I also never stop working at accuracy, control, tone quality, colour, sound, pedalling, and so on. And I never get bored or stale in my practice because this is so much variety I bring to it. Each time I practise is like a voyage of discovery!

Motor skills get dirty when used repeatedly and when we don’t practise we cannot expect to be in shape. Obvious, right? But you would be surprised how many pianists forget this, and are surprised when their performance falls short of their ideal. Practice takes time, energy and commitment.

Maintenance of expert pianists’ motor skills was strongly influenced by practice quantity. A minimum daily practice time of 3.75 hours was sufficient to allow successful maintenance of motor skills in the selected motor task in professional pianists. (From Music-related motor skills in pianists: Predictors of skill acquisition in childhood and of maintenance in adulthood)


Burgmüller’s Op 100 Studies on the Online Academy

One of the most popular series on the Online Academy is my exploration of Burgmüller’s set of studies, the Easy and Progressive Études, op 100. What makes these little pieces so special? Pitched at the elementary-intermediate level player, they fulfil all the requirements of what a study should be:

  • Descriptive titles that inspire the imagination
  • Technique that serves a musical goal
  • Short and to the point
  • Useful as a way to learn harmony, as well as form and structure

The problem with many of the didactic études served up to young pianists through the centuries is just how dry, boring and repetitive they are. Instead of inspiring players to practise, they have deadened their spirits. I’ve noticed how many youngsters are drawn to Burgmüller’s op 100 – they still sound fresh, and are immediately engaging.

In my series I take each étude in turn, giving a detailed teaching note and a video walkthrough that highlights the learning outcomes and offers advice on the technical aspects as well as how we might practise. We’ve recorded the whole set, and are busy releasing them one by one each week. So far we have reached No. 11, and you can find details of the series by clicking here.

The studies are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM Grade II at the start to approximately Grade V by the end. A good New Year’s resolution might be to learn the whole set over the course of the year – you will amass 25 studies you can draw on as part of your daily practice! Once you have learned them, you might choose three or four to practise for a week or so at a time before moving on to others.

In this post, I’ve pulled out an aspect from each of the first 5, illustrated with a snippet of the video (full videos last between 15 and 20 minutes).

1. La candeur

La candeur (Openness) in C major is a gorgeous little study featuring five finger positions that need to be treated expressively. In this excerpt I talk about how to appreciate the harmonic underpinning, and how to achieve a skillful chord legato in the LH.

2. L’arabesque

Here I look at the importance of discovering the musical character, and then investigate the drop-roll movement as well as the importance of mobilising the hand. I also show how we align each finger with the arm via a flexible wrist for optimal coordination.

3. La pastorale

Here I look at how we achieve a cantabile touch to produce a singing line, using stroking rather than striking fingers, and the importance of actually singing melodies in our practice.

4. La petite réunion  

This is surely one of the best elementary studies in double notes! In this video, I offer a few ideas on technical development of double thirds on white keys to be practised before this study is learned.

5. Innocence

What is an appoggiatura and how do we play one at the piano? There’s also another little harmony lesson in this excerpt – how to recognise augmented and diminished triads and how find out what they might mean expressively.

The full versions of these videos along with walkthroughs featuring other works from Burgmüller’s Easy and Progressive Études is available for once-off purchase here or with 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.

Many editions of op 100 make significant changes to the text (mostly with regard to phrase and articulation markings). The very best edition is the Wiener Urtext edited by Naoyuki Taneda. 


Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work.

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Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal.

One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way.

If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then suddenly we have two different kinds of notes: those that fall on the beat, and those that fall in between the beats. If we then imagine the notes that fall in between the beats as leading forward to the notes on the beat, we will achieve both a sense of forward motion and an avoidance of unwanted accents on the thumbs:

Practising with a beat in the other hand like this is much more beneficial, I find, than practising scales in both hands simultaneously, which is unnecessarily difficult, and quite rare in the repertoire. It’s a simple way of providing a rhythmic framework against which we can measure the accuracy of our timing and nuancing. You should also reverse the hands, of course, and then play three notes to the beat, then four, and in different keys, up and down.

We can use this method in our repertoire practice too. A couple of examples from Chopin’s E minor waltz, recently released in my series, From the Ground Up, will illustrate the point. At the very end of the piece, there is an E minor arpeggio that surges up and down the keyboard. Since the left hand provides no rhythmic context here, the temptation for the right hand to make accents in the wrong places, or to lose all rhythmic definition, is great:

The problem here, as in scales and arpeggios in general, is that the changes of hand position don’t coincide with the beats, but occur in the middle of them. We can see this misalignment more clearly if we re-beam the right hand according to its hand groups, and add a pulsing E in the left hand. As you can see, not once does a new hand position begin on a downbeat:

Once again, the solution lies in how we think the arpeggio rhythmically. If we think it in relationship to the underlying pulse, and are aware of exactly which note, and which finger, receives the accent in each hand group, the technical work of shifting hand positions without accents will largely be done.

The beginning of the piece contains a similar challenge, although here false accents may arise not because of changes of hand position, but because of the contour of the right hand’s waves, whose highest notes fall in the middle of the second beat, creating the potential for an accentuation in 6/8 rather than 3/4. The challenge, then, is to avoid accenting the pinky in each measure:

Adding a left hand pulse in quarter notes, as I do in the edition, will once again obviate much of the difficulty, but equally important is the way we group the notes in our minds. If we group the six notes of each measure starting from the first note of the bar and ending at the last note, as the musical notation seems to suggest, the music will sound vertical and stodgy. If instead we group them across the bar line, from the fourth 8th note (crotchet) to the 3rd in the next bar, we create a surging momentum that carries the music forward in waves. This grouping can be effectively practised by adding an extra beat in between the groups and by using careful dynamic gradations:

Afterwards, you play the rhythm as written, whereupon the false accents on the pinky will be gone, and the music will have a dynamic forward motion. In other words, instead of working to make your pinky play less loudly, you think the music in a new way, and the pinky obligingly conforms to your wishes, without struggle and wasted time.

These and other mental practise techniques are discussed at length in the From the Ground Up edition of this piece. They help us to learn pieces more efficiently, saving precious time while at the same time developing our mental, and technical, powers.

– Ken Johansen

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If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series, or the latest edition which features Chopin’s Waltz in E minor. Click here to view the walk-through on the Online Academy or click here to purchase and download a printable PDF version of the edition.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions:

The complete From the Ground Up series is available via an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more or on one of the options below if you wish 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)

On Rhythm: Classical v Romantic

Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music.

Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point).

This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all.

We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot.

Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1.

Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that not one was in synch with a metronomic beat for more than one bar. It will come as no surprise that each player had his own different basic tempo, but you may be surprised by the amount of leeway there is in performances that all sound rhythmically correct, and not at all wobbly or wayward.

In all these performances there is a tendency to linger over the long E in bar 2, and to push forwards in the phrase with all the quaver movement (from bar 5), stretching out the fp dotted crotchet in bar 7. You can check this out for yourself; here are the pianists I listened to: Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim, Sviatoslav Richter, Artur Schnabel.

Think about it for a minute. If the metronome is something you use routinely in your practice, something that you would feel lost without, ask yourself what possible benefit synchronising the opening of this Schubert piece with the beating of metronome is going to hold for you. The likely outcome is that all the natural, subtle timings inherent in the music are going to be levelled out.

There is a vast – and often unappreciated – difference between playing in time and playing rhythmically. As long as you realise that a living performance by a human being is not going to be metronomic then go ahead and use the metronome, discerningly. But do not be dismayed if your eventual performance does not fit with the metronome – there would be something seriously wrong if it did.


Festive Good Wishes! – Practising the Piano

This is my final post for 2018, just in time to wish you all very happy holidays and a joyous festive season. I look forward to bringing you new content in 2019 and if there is anything in particular you would like to see covered in the blog, please do let me know in the comments section below.

Thanks to your support, the Online Academy has grown significantly over the past year and now includes over three hundred articles, thousands of musical excerpts and hundreds of videos (a full index of all of the available content can be viewed here). We have many exciting plans for next year and the site will continue to grow and expand.

My thanks also go to the fantastic team of pianists whose contributions make the Academy what it is and it’s a pleasure to have welcomed a number of new contributors for 2018:

Lastly, huge thanks to Ryan Morison, Director of Erudition Digital, without whose tireless work, expertise, and enthusiasm the Online Academy would never have got off the ground.