I would like to share a very helpful tip for when you need to begin somewhere other than the start of a section or phrase during practice.
You’ve identified the need for greater security, and are practising bar by bar. The rule is to play from the first note of a bar and stop on the first note of the next bar, resisting the temptation to carry on past this point. This is great for control, and also for memory work. It does take a fair amount of discipline and concentration though.
Having played the bar, we stop, remove our hands from the keyboard and reflect on our results
Were the notes all correct?
Did I play rhythmically, with flow, dynamics, organisation and shaping?
Did it feel and sound good?
If not, you’ll need to repeat the bar until your inner quality control inspector gives it the green light before moving on to the next bar.
But let’s say you get to a bar that starts with a tied note – how do you accommodate that?
If you leave that note out you create a problem, because you are not accounting for the finger whose job it is to be resting in that particular key at the precise moment you play the other notes. Playing the note where the tie originates is certainly an option, but my preference is to put the key down silently ahead of time so the finger is in its place the moment we start.
In the third bar of this example from the D minor Fugue from Bach’s WTC (Book 1), first put down the Bb with your RH 5th finger silently (a useful skill in itself) and you’ll be ready to play the bar.
Another useful tip is to make sure you have written in the finger numbers at the start of each bar, so when you begin from there you’ll know exactly which fingers to use.
First published in March, 2015, I decided to republish this post on the importance of imagination in preparing for performance.
*** *** ***
Someone recently asked me what I think about when I am performing, and whether this is different from what I think about when I practise. Very good question – I am going to aim to address it here.
When I practise, I need to listen very critically and analytically to what I am doing. Practising involves experimentation and working often in small sections at a variety of different speeds – with frequent stops. Performing is all about letting go of self consciousness, getting into a flow state and communicating the message of the music to the listener. Essentially practising is more a thinking activity, and performance a feeling one.
The critical inner voice is therefore necessary in practice, but a liability if we bring it with us onto the concert platform or the exam room. I don’t want to be consciously thinking about fingering or pedalling on the stage, or judging myself. Concentration is very necessary, but what is it that I’m concentrating on exactly?
For more on the different states involved in practice and performance, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills
I once gave a class at which a student presented Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. She played accurately and fluently but she clearly hadn’t any idea of what the piece was all about. I asked her what the title meant, and she told me she didn’t know. I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that this was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, calm and stillness are paramount.
I can’t think of anything more misguided than spending all that time learning the notes without bothering to do the single most important thing – figuring out what inspired the composer to write the piece.
Playing a piece with a descriptive title involves the imagination in rather an obvious way. If you want to feed your imagination, a quick google image search for “dusk” yields plenty of photos that evoke the mood. How about searching for quotations or poetry for added inspiration?
Just yesterday, someone brought a number of pieces from Schumann’s Kinderszenen to his first lesson on the work, including Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff). It would have been easy for me to start with making corrections – fixing some pedalling, fingering and other technical issues – but I decided to approach it from another angle first. It was clear he did not know what Blind Man’s Bluff was, so I suggested before he did any more practice at the piano that he made it his business to fill in this rather obvious and vital gap by doing some quick internet research.
To play the standard game of Blind Man’s Bluff, one player is blindfolded and then disoriented by being spun around several times. The other players amuse themselves by calling out to the “blind man” and dodging away from him. The sforzando accents in Schumann’s piece now make sense – this is where the blindfolded person is knocked – and the semiquaver (16th note) patterns where he is spun around.
Some pieces don’t have descriptive titles, but more generic ones – like “sonata”, or “suite”. When I play Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K.333, I feel I am involved in an opera. I imagine the interplay between the various characters on the stage and follow this story line as though I were conducting from the keyboard. In performance, this is the only thing I focus on.
If you’ve never explored these ideas before, you might consider creating a storyboard. A film storyboard is essentially a large comic of the film or some section of the film produced beforehand to help film makers visualise the scenes before they occur. If a storyboard feels too concrete or too complex, then a mood board might be a good alternative. A mood board serves as a visual tool that quickly informs us of the overall feel and flow of an idea. For us pianists, this might be a collection of images and/or text, plus multi-media elements such as video or audio clips – like a modern-day scrapbook. The idea is to embody colours, feelings, and characters that inspire the imagination, to refer to (and add to) during the learning process.
In the 1900s, a visit to the cinema might mean crowding onto a bench to watch a film projected on to a 6′ by 6′ sheet. Admission was cheap and music would be provided by a solo pianist who improvised as he or she viewed the movie, often mixing snatches of popular songs and passages from the classics into a soundtrack that helped tell the story.
Assuming you have done all the necessary preparation in your practice, you might imagine you are providing the accompaniment to a silent movie that exists in your imagination as you perform. The clearer the plot and look and feel of your movie, the more vivid the object of your attention can be in performance.
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)
When Trinity College London commissioned me to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades of the current syllabus, I was delighted to discover a little gem by William Byrd heading up the Grade 6 group A pieces. The Coranto gives the intermediate player an excellent opportunity to explore music of one of the leading Elizabethan virginalist composers, and learn a bit about the style.
William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance period, remembered for his church music, choral works, consort music and pieces for keyboard. This Coranto is among his many contributions to an important collection of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, known as The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. A virginal (or pair of virginals) is a rectangular type of harpsichord, smaller and simpler in construction. The sound is produced by quills that pluck the strings, creating a crisp and incisive tone quality.
A coranto is a type of triple-meter dance common in instrumental music from the period (the title literally means “running”).
Annotated Study Edition
Byrd’s example is lively in spirit, and needs to be articulated cleanly, especially with regard to the ornaments (indicated by diagonal slashes). It is advisable to practise the piece without the ornaments at first, adding them in very lightly only when you have developed some fluency. In my annotated study edition and online resources for this work, I give some written-out realisations of the ornaments, and above each ornament suggest one or two options for how they might be done. You might experiment until you find the ornament design that you prefer on each occasion. Unlike ornament symbols from other periods, there is no ornament chart for Elizabethan music and the same diagonal-slash sign is used for a variety of different ornament shapes.
Guidelines for ornaments:
Start all ornaments on the beat
Play each ornament fast and light, keeping the fingers very close to the keys
Trills start either on the upper note or the main note; mordents on the main note
We are free to play as many repercussions of trills and mordents as we like (as can be accommodated gracefully)
Longer trills and mordents may end with a turn if you wish
It is customary to make a small separation before an ornament
The study edition gives detailed instructions for how to develop the necessary non-legato touch, and offers some dynamic and phrasing suggestions (note the phrase marks indicate the grammar of the music, and not the articulation).
There are some recordings on original instruments on YouTube and Spotify. Notice the differences in approach between them:
Byrd: Prescodd Time (Bertrand Coullier) – Click here to listen on Spotify
Shakespeare’s Musick (Gary Cooper) – Click here to listen on Spotify
Coranto – Click here to listen on YouTube. Note that on this recording you can alter the playback speed (go to settings) and listen to it much slower, to get an idea of how the ornaments work
Here is my video walkthrough of Byrd’s Coranto, I hope it will help you make friends with the style so you can enjoy this excellent little piece!
This video with annotated study edition 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.
Resources & Links
Annotated Study Edition – The annotated study edition for this work is available as part of our Annotated Study Edition bundle. Click here to view in your library if you already own this bundle or click here to purchase via our store.
Trinity series – Click here to purchase our Guide to the Trinity College Syllabus which includes the annotated study edition for this work over 30 video demonstrations.
Online Academy – Click here to find out more about the Practising the Piano Online Academy.
YouTube channel – Click here to view our YouTube channel which features numerous free videos and previews.
Spread chords – Click here to view an Online Academy series on playing spread chords.
In 2014, an amazing discovery was made in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest – a four-page fragment of part of Mozart’s Sonata in A major, K. 331, in the composer’s own handwriting. As a result, new editions have been able to correct some small errors on the part of the first edition by Artaria (Vienna, 1784) that pianists have been playing wrongly for over two centuries. The story is an extremely exciting one – you can read all about it on the sonata’s very own website.
Bärenreiter’s 2017 edition
I wonder how many players who invest in elite Urtext editions actually bother to read the prefaces? The 2017 Bärenreiter edition not only informs us about the genesis of the work, but also provides an evaluation of the sources as well as helpful notes on performance practice by Mario Aschauer. These notes give information about the types of pianos Mozart would have played – very useful when it comes to making decisions about pedalling, touch and articulation – and the always-tricky subject of ornamentation.
Staccato dots and strokes
The notation for different lengths and qualities of staccato differs depending on the composer and the style period. According to the preface of the Bärenreiter edition, the staccato stroke was, for Mozart, interchangeable with the staccato dot.
A particular problem of Mozart philology is the reproduction of staccato marks [the staccato dot or the staccato stroke]. The first edition of K. 331 exclusively uses strokes, except for the combination with slurs (portato) where dots are used. Mozart’s autograph features dots and strokes, but above all numerous intermediate forms that cannot be easily identified. In addition, Mozart occasionally notates simultaneously dots and strokes in different voices…or in parallel passages, one time with dots, another with strokes…Furthermore, recent research has convincingly argued that with Mozart there is no musical difference in meaning between the two different kinds of marks. (Preface, XIII)
Glenn Gould’s recording
The recording made by Glenn Gould (released in 1973) tends to put into perspective such nit-picking over the minutiae of performance, just in case we become obsessive about it all. Here Mozart’s supposed intentions hardly seem to matter, and the score is fair game for the most bizarre conception imaginable.
According to a 1966 interview with Humphrey Burton, Gould hadn’t much of a conception of the piece until about a week before he went in to record it, and surprised himself with what he came up with. He introduced “a few really wild things”, turning the theme into an “Anton Webern-like statement of apostrophes” at such a remarkably slow tempo as to be truly shocking. Not only that, he makes massive incisions in articulation that have to be heard to be believed. Gould’s intention was to play it “so maddeningly slowly that I had to get everybody’s hackles aroused. I had to get a reaction”. He gradually let each variation move forward, finally “doing one really perverse thing, and that is taking a variation that is Mozart has – forgive me! – actually marked adagio, and turning it into an allegretto. Gradually the whole movement took off.” When challenged by the interviewer, Gould insisted that this actually works for him. He wanted to make people sit up and listen anew to a work so well-known it has become jaded. What’s your reaction? The official Glenn Gould website has this to say about the recording.
No Gould recording received a more solid thrashing than his reading of the A-major Sonata, K. 331: “The most loathsome record ever made!”—“It all conjures up an image of a tremendously precocious but very nasty little boy trying to put one over on his piano teacher.”—“It is very difficult to see what Gould is out to prove, unless the rumor that he actually hates this music is true.”
In case you are under the impression that everything Gould did was off-the-wall, you might be surprised by how beautiful – and faithful to the score – his Brahms Intermezzi recordings were. Have a listen to these, and be prepared for something rather special. In Gould’s own words:
It’s the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard—and I really think it is perhaps the best piano playing I have done. You know what an incurable romantic I am anyway.
For an analysis of Mozart’s K. 331, click here
For Malcolm Bilson’s recording on the fortepiano, click here
For Tuija Hakkila’s recording on the fortepiano, click here
For Olga Jegunova’s 2012 live performance, click here
To hear the janissary effects in the last movement (Rondo alla turca) possible on a period fortepiano played here by Manuela Giardina, click here
I first published this post on top tips in October, 2015. I am republishing it now, with a couple of updates.
*** *** ***
The first of an occasional series of tips – these are quick and easy to read, and I hope they will be useful in your practice.
Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere!
When you have thoroughly learned a piece and you’re getting it ready for a performance or an exam, it’s a great idea to be easily able to start from anywhere in the piece.
Left to your own devices you would probably start in a comfortable place, such as the beginning of a phrase or section. That’s fine, but for a challenge use a random number generator to decide for you where to start.
1. Figure out the number of bars in your piece – let’s say it’s 87 bars long
2. In the Min field, enter 1. In the Max field, enter 87
3. Press the Generate button
4. Play from the bar that comes up – not the bar before or after for convenience but the bar specified, even if it is in the middle of a phrase
There are many ways to do this – make a decision beforehand how far you’re going to play on from the bar you started at. It could be 1 bar, or 4 bars – whatever!
If you have divided your piece into sections, you can use the random number generator for that too.
For details of this approach, click here.
If the bar you land on has tied notes, depress the key(s) silently before you begin. Here’s why…
I first published this post in July of 2016. Here it is again with one or two updates – including a link to the Online Academy’s series on spread chords, and the recent video I made for Pianist Magazine.
*** *** ***
I once attended a piano recital where the pianist continually broke the hands, so that the right hand sounded slightly after the left. He did this consistently with all the repertoire on his programme regardless of its period, and after a very short time indeed this had become a major distraction to me. I found I was unable to enjoy the music or appreciate the playing, it was irritating in the extreme.
However, there was a time in the history of piano playing where this sort of desynchronisation of the hands was actually part of style. If you were trained in Leipzig in the nineteenth century you would certainly have done this without giving it a second thought, as well as arpeggiating chords at the drop of a hat. Here is Carl Reinecke in a piano roll recorded in 1905 of the Larghetto from Mozart’s K537. How times change – this style of playing, while prevalent at the time, would simply not be acceptable nowadays.
If this style were based on performance traditions from Mozart’s day, you might expect modern fortepianists to have picked up on it. This cleanly articulated performance by Malcolm Bilson shows otherwise; it is (mercifully) free of such excesses.
Last week I wrote about how Beethoven himself spread the opening chord in his Fourth Piano Concerto.
In the Baroque period, keyboard players routinely rolled chords for expressive purposes – either slow or fast, downwards as well as upwards. There were signs to indicate this (the wavy lines we are accustomed to today or slashes through note stems), but in music from this period you can spread chords even in the absence of such indications. On the harpsichord, a chord played dead together gives a big accent – rolling it softens the attack. How many of you spread the opening chord of Bach’s Italian Concerto? Some players do, others don’t – there is no right and wrong.
But what are the rules on arpeggiation in piano music? Do it well and it creates a wonderful effect; do it wrong and it can completely mess up your sonic canvas. How magical is this effect from Debussy’s La puerta del Vino (from the second book of Preludes), with the chords rolled inwards (starting with both 5th fingers and ending with the thumbs)?
For Mark Arnest’s research on this subject, follow this link to his paper “Why Couldn’t They Play With Their Hands Together?”
Supposing a chord seems unplayable but has no marking to spread it? Lots of Rachmaninov’s music seems unmanageable for players with small hands, but there are ways to negotiate it. Have you found some spreads impossible to play to your satisfaction? Often the solution lies in considering the following:
Does the spread start on or before the beat?
How do I coordinate the hands with the foot?
Is the spread fast or slow?
Do I spread the chord (one note after the after) or do I split or break it by playing some notes together then other(s) afterwards?
The secret is organisation – knowing what you are doing rather than leaving it to chance or hoping you’ll fudge it somehow.
Schumann’s Träumerei (from Kinderszenen) contains a few spread chords that players often don’t consider properly, either blurring the harmonies by not pedalling cleanly or breaking the line. Here is the first one, in bar 2.
The solution is surprisingly simple. Hold the pedal through bar 1 (as marked) to the first note of the spread (the B flat in small notation). As you change the pedal on the bass B flat, make sure to hold onto the top RH F (the second quaver of the first beat) until just after you put the pedal down again. You will have changed the harmony completely cleanly and there will be no gap or hiccup whatever in the melodic line.
Here is the video I made on the subject for Pianist Magazine, where I illustrate some of these examples.
For the Online Academy series on spread chords, click here
I’m pleased to announce my new course, Introducing the Practice Tools, which is taking place on Saturday, 13th of July 2019 at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in central London. Aimed at teachers and pianists at an intermediate level or above, this one-day course is based on my eBook Series and blog. It will introduce highly effective strategies which will assist you and your students in getting the most out of time spent practising the piano.
The course will be delivered in an innovative, interactive format with introductory presentations followed by breakout sessions. Each participant will have their own private digital piano with headphones to test out a particular practice skill. There will be plenty of opportunity for feedback with question and answer sessions forming the backbone of the day. The following topics will be covered:
Introduction: An overview of the practice tools
Using the feedback loop: How to plan and focus your practice session for maximum benefit in every area.
Slow practice: How to use ultra-slow speeds for learning notes, correcting errors and finessing sound, and when not to use it!
Gaining speed: We explore two methods of taking a piece from the slow stages to performance speed, developing fluency and accuracy as well as ease and grace.
Repetition in practice: We form habits by repetition, but only perfect practice makes perfect. In this session we learn how to manage repetition in our practice mindfully and creatively to achieve tangible, lasting results.
Preparatory materials for breakout sessions will be provided in advance and all participants will receive handouts and complimentary online access to my video lecture series on the Practice Tools (valued at £20). Please note that participants will not be required to play in front of others, unless they wish to.
The full price of the course is £125. Book now to secure your place for what promises to be a highly informative workshop!
Date and time: Saturday, 13th July, 10:00 until 17:30
Venue: Victoria Park Plaza Hotel, SW1V 1EQ, London
Participants: maximum 15 places
Participant profile: Piano teachers and intermediate pianists (+/- Grade 5 upwards)
I am very pleased to announce a new video lecture series on the practice tools available now on the Online Academy.
The Practice Tools
What are the practice tools?
There are some instances where in a lesson a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go through a process in our practice room to achieve a certain intended result – learning notes, finessing and polishing, and correcting sloppiness. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts.
Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the garden to look when it is finished. Then I will need to prepare the soil, which will probably involve a bit of spade work and some hard graft. Now, the real gardener will tell you that all this is part and parcel of it, taking pleasure in all the stages from start to finish. There is a certain amount of patience needed to delay gratification and not to skimp on the first stages. If I don’t fertilise my soil, aerate it, add worms to it or whatever else gardeners must do, I can’t expect my plants and flowers to blossom, grow and withstand the frosts and hardships of winter.
So when I outline a specific practising activity, I also underscore the importance of doing this type of work daily with full concentration, resisting the overwhelming temptation to finish off the practice session by playing the piece at full speed. This can immediately wipe out the benefits of the careful practising, in one fell swoop. Have other pieces to play through.
Having put my seedlings in the soil, I will need to feed and water them daily, and protect the ground from pests, trusting that if I do this patiently, they will have the best chance to sprout and grow. Once the garden is in full bloom, it will take regular weeding and pruning to keep it that way. So it is with our playing of a particular piece, no matter how long we have known it or how many times we have performed it.
In this series of video lectures, I describe and illustrate the various practice tools one by one. As with any tool, you have to know how and when to use it. You will be able to apply the tools to every piece you undertake, no matter what age, level or standard you have reached in your piano playing. If you use the tools correctly, you will be practising with consummate skill, efficiency and effectiveness, and will notice significant progress.
It is said that success breeds success; because your progress will be tangible, practising will become infinitely more satisfying and enjoyable!
In the introductory video, I stress the importance of a certain amount of background work on a new piece away from the piano. When we look at the score, we find patterns, designs and shapes both on the macro and on the macro levels (the piece as a whole, and the piece in its details). Analysing music like this is creative and individual, there is no one correct way of doing it. In this video snippet of the introduction to the series, I illustrate two ways of analysing the subject from Bach’s F major Invention – one text-book style, the other much less formal, and more imaginative.
Other videos in this lecture series include time management in the practice room, the importance of forming habits and reflexes from the very start that we are going to use in the finished performance, how to use The Three S’s (slowly, separately, sections), how to develop speed, quarantining spots from your pieces that cause problems, and the importance of the feedback loop in all that we do.
The complete Practice Tools Lecture Series which includes a further ten videos 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.
Further Information & Resources
The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index)
Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click here for more information)
When it comes to what ought to go on in a practice session, we would do well to recall the saying attributed to the famous pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizsky: “Think Ten Times and Play Once”.
In his excellent (but now out of print) book, Practising the Piano, Leschetizky’s student, Frank Merrick, recounts some advice in one of his last lessons with the master.
I advise you very often to stop and listen when you are practising and then you will find out a great deal for yourself.
Frank Merrick: Practising the Piano
Merrick suggests we should sing through a phrase (or musical unit) before we play it – in real time, not at fast-forward speed. If the music lends itself to actual singing, then so much the better; if you feel more comfortable imagining the phrase, that’s fine too. But sing or imagine it in as much detail as you can before you play it, so you have something tangible to aim for when you play. After you have played the phrase, stop for a moment and reflect. Did your playing match your intentions? If not, in what ways and where – precisely – did it fall short? This moment of reflection is a very important part of the practice session, and critical to the learning process. However, it is all too easy to skimp on this because we pianists tend to believe that piano practice is all about physical manipulation of the keyboard – that every second of our allotted time should be filled with sound.
According to new research, National Institutes of Health team members found that by taking a short ten-second break our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we just practised a few seconds earlier. The results highlight the critically important role rest may play in learning.
Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, may be just as critical to learning as practice.
Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.
The experiment involved healthy volunteers who were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds, take a 10 second break, and then repeat this cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. The leader of the study, Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., had assumed the widely-held belief that the brain needs longer periods of rest (such as a good night’s sleep) to strengthen the memories formed while practising a newly learned skill. But as they analysed the data from the experiment, they found the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and not during typing. The rests seemed to play as critical a role in learning as the practising itself. The volunteers’ brains were consolidating memories during the rest periods – short ten-second breaks improved performance and consolidated learning.
I have been recommending Frank Merrick’s threefold practice ritual – plan, play, judge – for many years, and it is always heartening to find scientific evidence for how it works. When we apply this rigorously our practice session should be punctuated by regular periods of silence. Rather than hack away repeatedly at a difficult passage until we somehow wrestle it into shape, or repeat a phrase because we’re not happy with the way it sounds take a few seconds to imagine how you want it to sound, and how you want it to feel, before you plunge into the keyboard again.