Feeling an Interpretation – Practising the Piano

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound.

Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it.

I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this.

Now, it is blatantly obvious that we have to have some basic technical development in the first place. I might have an image of the most beautiful landscape in my mind, better even than Constable or Turner dreamed of, but because I have zero technique with brushes or canvas then this will remain in my imagination, never to be realised.

Too much stress on the mechanics of what we do at the piano, however, can actually be detrimental unless it is connected with right-brained activity. We all know the results of this – dry, boring, meaningless and “correct” playing. To avoid this, we need to keep our imaginations ever-present in the practice room, to maintain a healthy balance between left-brained analytical thinking and right-brained feeling.

I had a wonderful day recently, giving a class at a well-respected private school. I noticed that when the pieces had descriptive titles with plenty of performance directions in the score, the playing was much more with it and lively. Pieces with a more abstract title such as “allemande” or “prelude” tended to elicit greyer performances. I hit upon the idea of using smileys, or emoticons, to describe how the player felt each new harmony in Bach’s C major Prelude from Book 1 of the “48”.  We decided the one with the serrated mouth was good for the diminished sevenths.

This idea came from something I had seen on YouTube, an enchanting clip of the slow movement from Mozart’s A major Concerto, K.488 by Mozart et les fonctions harmoniques, with a harmonic analysis that is ingeniously (and most beautifully) illustrated with stick figure emoticons. This is well worth a look!

In order to keep a piece from getting stale, with layer upon encrusted layer of interpretative make-up, I suggested in a previous post a process that Leon Fleisher once demonstrated in a masterclass – read it here. There is another way of achieving a similar result which is a bit like opening all the windows and letting in some fresh air. If you are struggling to find meaning in a piece, playing it in the style of Mendelssohn, say, and then in the style of Schumann, etc. will be both entertaining and enlightening, and will certainly cause your right brain to summon up associations with those composers and bring these to bear in your playing. It will be enough to act as drain cleaner to a blockage, so that when you go back to the original, certain interpretative preconceptions and ingrained phrasings, colourings and rubatos will have seen the light of day.

I have been known to ask a younger student who has had difficulty feeling the music to strike a pose (or make a statue) that reflects the character of the piece, to try and involve the body. It is uncanny how effective this can be! I will leave you with something that never fails to amuse and amaze me, the wonderful Paganini for Face. It is so clear that the artist here TOTALLY understands all the subtleties of the music and communicates these brilliantly.


Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general.

Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills:

  • An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise
  • Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor)
  • Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords

Pattern Recognition

It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page).

The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist:

It is not difficult to notice the following facts about what we see:

  • We play only white notes (C major)
  • The hands play in unison, an octave apart, in an unbroken stream of semiquavers
  • We use consecutive fingers up and then down (1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1, etc.)
  • In the first 14 bars in the RH we skip a note between the thumb and 2nd finger on the way up (forming the interval of a third), but play stepwise from 5 to 1 on the way down; in the LH we skip a note between 5 and 4 on the way up, etc.
  • For 14 bars the pattern repeats a step higher with each bar, for two octaves
  • Rather than stopping on the (expected) tonic at the top, there is instead an ascending leap of a fourth to the highest note, G, from which point the note pattern is inverted, bringing us back down to our starting point a bar at a time (not shown in full in the above example)

Actually, most people would notice all of this without necessarily having to go through the mental machinations of spelling it out, but if you struggle to memorise it is a very good idea to go through a similar process. Write it out in bullet points or speak it out aloud (not a sign of madness at all – you are using a different part of your brain from silent thinking!).

At the risk of being repetitive, it is my firm belief that it is far better to memorise and practise exercises based on repeated patterns without the book. For more on memorisation, please see Part 4 of my multimedia eBook series (the third section is entirely devoted to memorisation) or click here for further blog posts on memorisation and analysis.

Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

There is limited value in exercises that are restricted to white notes, so the best exercises are either transposed into keys other than C major, or designed in such a way to cycle through each key (if you happen to like practising Hanon, and many pianists do, try transposing it!).

There are two ways you can practise transpositions – chromatically upwards from C (to Db, D, Eb, E, etc.) or downwards (to B, Bb, A, Ab, etc.). You may decide to start off using two or three different keys, adding to them over time until you can play the exercise in all keys. If you are pushed for time in your practice (and you won’t want to spend too long on this type of thing day by day), you can practise an exercise in a few different keys on the first day, picking up from where you left off the next day. By the end of the week, you will have cycled through all the keys.

The ability to feel comfortable playing in all keys is a musical skill, and a necessity for the advancing pianist. The intermediate player should be very familiar with the major and minor scales (either harmonic or melodic) and arpeggios in all keys. It adds huge value if you can do other things by ear, or by feel in each key – such as a basic I-IV-V-I progression. Learn it in C major, then play it in all major and minor keys.

Make sure to play the progression in the minor keys too, remembering that the seventh degree of the scale will need to be raised. Thus in C minor we play:

As you play this progression, one thing I would stress is to use the technique of chord legato – creating a physical legato in as many voices as possible as you move from one chord to the next, quietly releasing those fingers that cannot join. Let’s look at how this works in the RH chords above.

  • Play the C major chord then release 5 and 1, holding on to 2
  • Feel the legato connection from the 2nd finger to the 3rd finger as you play the F major chord
  • Release the lower two notes of the F major chord, but hold onto 5
  • Feel the legato connection from the 5th finger to the 4th finger as you play the G major chord
  • Release the lower two notes of the G major chord, but hold onto 4
  • Feel the legato connection from the 4th finger to the 5th finger as you play the final C major chord

Larger hands may create two points of legato between the F and G chords:

Developing a chord legato is so much more skilful than lifting up the hand between each chord, and apart from a smooth-sounding result will soon lead to a reliable muscle memory that makes playing the chord progressions second nature.

As you improve, you can expand the progression and add more notes (try playing octaves in the LH):

These progressions should be enough for basic familiarity with all the keys, but you might want to explore others. Here are two more suggestions, in the key of C major:

  • I – vi – IV – V – I (C – Am – F – G – C)
  • I – IV – ii – V – I (C – F – Dm – G – C)


Apart from the specialised skill of transposition at sight (reading the piece in one key from the score but playing it in another), there are two other types of transposition that are indispensable for the pianist:

  • transposition by ear (in memory work)
  • transposing the difficult passage (to enhance technical control of an awkward spot)

Advanced level pianists should be equally comfortable playing in any key. If you want to set yourself a challenge, take a piece you consider you know very well from memory and transpose (from memory) into a neighbouring key – slowly is fine. You might start with well-known melodies, and then add simple chordal accompaniments (use the national anthem, or Happy Birthday etc.).

When you can play in easy keys, try a more remote one – perhaps directly opposite in the Circle of Fifths. This will probably be quite tricky at first, but practise little and often – persevering until you gradually improve.

The Circle of Fifths (By Just plain Bill or CC-BY-SA-3.0)

This post is an excerpt from an article which forms part of a new collection of Online Academy resources focusing on technique. Click here to view it on the Online Academy or here to view the following article which introduces modulating patterns that can be used for exercises in double thirds.