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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
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.
I first published this article in 2016. Now that I have made a new video demonstrating the differences between the Couperin piece in his original notation versus what we see in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, I decided to republish. I hope this subject will be food for thought, leading to some experimentation with finger pedalling as an added means of creating resonance.
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Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever.
The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely).
“The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.” – Sir András Schiff.
Here is Sir András discussing the subject with Arie Vardi in a television interview (watch from 1:17).
How interesting to discover that, in his remarkable performance of the Goldberg Variations in last year’s Promenade concerts, Sir András did make discreet use of pedal in the cavernous space of London’s Royal Albert Hall (you can watch the performance here).
When I was a harpsichord student, one of the first things I learned was overlapping touch – or “finger pedalling” – and this opened up a whole new world of sound possibilities for me when I came back to the piano. We pianists have been taught to hold notes for their written duration – and no longer! However, harpsichord players control the dampers (yes, harpsichords absolutely have dampers) by their fingers, since this is the only means at their disposal to add resonance to their sound. Thus in a harmonic texture and even in melodic lines, they hold notes beyond their written value. It’s not only a good idea, it’s a necessity.
Here is the opening of Bach’s Partita no. 6 in E minor as notated by Bach.
And here is how it would be notated if we transcribed the finger strokes of a typical harpsichordist. Way too cumbersome to write it out fully in this way – and unnecessary, since overholding was an aspect of style players in Bach’s day (and well beyond) would have completely understood.
For a video demonstration of this opening, please follow this link to my Online Academy article on spread chords in the Baroque period.
Have a look at F. Couperin’s Les Bergeries and Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of it in her famous notebook. Couperin writes the LH in what looks like two voices, using complex double stems and ties, whereas Frau Bach dispenses with such intricacies of notation.
Couperin and other French composers of the period were control freaks in matters of notation, German composers assumed the player would know what to do. However, it gets a little confusing when you compare places in Bach’s music where he does indeed write in such overholdings in a more deliberate way, such as the LH of the Goldberg Aria. This compositional technique has come to be known as style brisé – broken up in imitation of the lute. Sometimes Bach writes in style brisé, other times not – but the execution is undoubtedly the same (check out the first and second endings of the Allemande from the Partita no. 1 in B flat – the first ending written in overlapping style, the second ending in simple notation).
A great piece for pianists who wish to develop their finger pedalling skills is F. Couperin’s miniature masterpiece Les Baricades Mistérieuses, from the Ordre 6ème de clavecin. When I play it, I trick listeners into believing that I must be using the pedal – but I use none! All of the resonance is created by my fingers alone.
Click here for the score
I find myself using finger pedalling in music from all periods, including in this example from Liszt’s Concert Study, La leggierezza.
I tend to hold on by hand to the first note of each beat in the LH, producing a legatissimo touch. This frees me up from relying solely on the pedal for resonance. I keep my foot in contact with the pedal, adding short, shallow dabs to my sound to liquify – being careful not to drench it.
For more on finger pedalling, follow this link to my video series on pedalling for the Online Academy
Today I present an excerpt from my walkthrough of Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from the Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 12, No. 4 (currently on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus). In the video I illustrate three practice tools that will help gain control of the jumps.
You may think my demonstration is a bit long-winded and laborious, but the idea is to show you principles of practice that you can apply to any jumps that cause difficulty – no matter the grade or level. In the Bruch piece, the jumps are in the left hand and it is important that the left hand be very comfortable with what it has to do, so that you can put your full attention on making the right hand sing expressively.
For a link to the score, click here
You will probably want to begin by playing and singing the right hand, to get a sense of the character of the melody. Next, look at the left hand and notice there are two components – a bass line in single notes (on the main beats, played with the pinky) and a harmonic filler (on the off beats). For the second step, play the melody line against the bass line (omitting the chords). Then, to help you relate one chord to the next, you might try playing the left hand chords without interrupting them with the bass notes to create a harmonic progression (just make sure you use the fingering you will end up using when you put everything together).
Now we are going to work at the left hand by itself, using the three practice tools:
Play the bass note and hold it. Prepare yourself to move to the chord that follows it.
When you are ready, in your own good time, use a fast but free and loose motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the chord. Do not play it yet!
Before playing, check to see that you arrived at the centre of the keys, so that no finger is in the cracks between the keys and no finger is hanging half over the edge of a black key (where appropriate). You are aiming for a millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved across the keyboard and within the hand.
If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the chord.
Sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement down to the new bass note. We are not playing rhythmically here, our only concern is to form the reflexes involved in making the jumps very fast and very accurate.
If your measurement was not 100% accurate, or if you overshot, undershot or otherwise fumbled, then do not play the notes. First, learn from your faulty measurement so that you can make the necessary adjustments when you try it again. Perhaps the span between the second finger and the thumb wasn’t quite wide enough, so that the second finger was too far to the right? Diagnose where you went wrong before trying it again.
Place the hand on the surface of the key(s), without playing.
When you are ready, use the key(s) as a springboard to the next position. As you play the note(s), propel your hands off the keys and land on the next note or chord. Feel this as one motion, and do not prepare the position. Make sure that when you move, your arms are loose and free.
Freeze! The golden rule is to hold on to whatever you land on, whether this be the correct chord, nearly right or a fistful of clangers. The point here is to see how accurate your measurement was.
If you were totally accurate and dead centre of the keys, release to key surface and use this as your springboard to the next position.
If not, your instinct will be to make the necessary corrections immediately but resist this. Instead, examine what went wrong and learn from it before going back and repeating the process from the previous position.
This is similar to springboarding, except that instead of landing on the complete new chord position with all the notes, we select those notes we wish to land on, and then fill in the remainder just afterwards. This is a particularly useful process when we wish to see (and feel) how a particularly awkward chord is built up. We can effectively play it in stages. Note that this does not have to be done rhythmically.
And finally! Here is the excerpt of the video where I demonstrate the three practice tools.
Let common sense prevail when applying these tools in your practice. It would take quite a bit of time if you went through all three stages one after the other, so you might want to do one stage one day, and another the day after, etc. Or work on a few bars at a time going through all three stages. You will certainly want to repeat the steps several times before you can expect to feel tangible results, avoiding busking through the piece at the end of your practice session in the early stages of the note learning.
For more information on measuring distances, and other aspects of technique, follow this link to my eBook series (Part 2)
If you would like to explore our full guide to the ABRSM examination syllabus, click here
For the full article and video on the Bruch piece, click here
The subject of technical exercises is a thorny and controversial one. At one stage in the evolution of piano playing, it was mandatory to spend hours a day practising technical exercises and studies that were often extremely dry and unmusical. In the nineteenth century many method books were published, filled with them. Some teachers even instructed their students to read a book while doing all the copious repetitions, to ward off boredom!
The rationale behind all this was that such gymnastics would allow the pianist to cope better with the greater size of the pianos being manufactured, the increase in the touch weight of the keys and of course the increase in difficulty of the music composed for the instrument. Rather than find a new technique more suited to the heavier keyboard and the greater technical demands, players and teachers stuck with what they knew. Without realising it, they were flogging a dead horse. Unfortunately, endless drill often led to playing that was fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as the real risk of pain and injury. So not only is this kind of mindless mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good.
Although spending a lot of time practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of playing by using carefully chosen exercises and studies that have enough musical interest to hold the attention. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technical skills, and to help us tackle general difficulties or specific trouble spots in our pieces. The same types of exercises might be used for any of these goals, but the focus and intention would differ.
In his chapter, The Road to Mastery in The Russian Piano School (ed. Christopher Barnes), legendary Russian pianist and teacher, Samuil Feinberg, makes an important distinction between gymnastics and exercises. The point of gymnastics is to strengthen muscles, increase physical endurance and improve stability, whereas an exercise targets a specific movement or habit we wish to embed.
I believe that the pianist…should overcome specific technical problems by performing particular exercises, and not through indulging in general manual gymnastics. If we compare the physical features of a splendid piano virtuoso and someone unable to play the piano, it may well turn out that there is little difference in their musculature. The difference between them is simply that one of them can play the piano and the other cannot. I am the last one to deny the importance of training for piano technique. But a pianist should focus his main attention not on gymnastics but on exercise, if only because there is an element of gymnastics present in every exercise and every practising session.
The Russian Piano School, ed. Christopher Barnes, 27-28
Feinberg gives the example of learning to ride a bicycle. Nobody would think of first undergoing a gymnastic training to strengthen the muscles; instead you would simply need to practise until you acquired the coordination to keep your balance.
Feinberg goes on to list his 10 basic requirements of an exercise. So useful are these observations that I am going to share them with you here.
1. So far as possible, an exercise must relate directly to a pianist’s current artistic work. It must be directed to the resolution of a particular aesthetic problem.
2. It is essential to learn to distinguish what is difficult from what is easy, what one can do from what is unmanageable. A pianist should not work on imaginary problems.
3. An exercise should be easier than the difficulty that you want to master.
4. An exercise should be based on simple, natural elements of piano technique.
5. An exercise should be short.
6. An exercise should be based on the principle of “from the simplest to the complex”, and not vice versa.
7. An exercise must yield positive results in a short time.
8. An exercise should be based on the exchange of experience between the right and left hand.
9. An exercise should be executed with maximum technical perfection.
10. It is essential when doing exercises to concentrate on beauty of tone, and on efficiency and complete freedom of movement.
No matter the type of exercise, our work with them must be done consciously, with a specific goal in mind. We need to concentrate fully on the sound we are producing and the feelings and sensations in our hands, arms and body. The number of repetitions does not need to be excessive. Two or three repetitions with the full involvement of the mind and the ear will usually suffice. The single most important thing to remember about exercises is how you do them.
So what about studies? Some of the Czerny studies (the shorter ones) can be very useful when included in a balanced diet of pianistic work. If you really want to do some Czerny, I can recommend the Eight-Measure Exercises, op 821 (they are mercifully short and to the point) and the selection made by Heinrich Germer (offering a digest of the most representative items from several different opuses).
However, one of my favourite sets of intermediate studies is the Twenty Short Studies, op 91 by Moritz Moszkowski, in two volumes. I like these not only because they are short, but also because they come from the modern school of piano playing and are full of interest, vitality and pianistic value.
Another evergreen set is Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Studies, op 100. I am featuring teaching notes and a video walkthrough of each of the studies on the Online Academy at the moment. Follow this link to find out more.
At the advanced level, we move to the great concert studies of Chopin, Liszt and others too numerous and well-known to mention.
Following on from the Piano Holiday at Saint Laurent I tutored last summer, this new Spring Course will include master classes, workshops, individual tuition, a student concert and opportunities to play duets. In addition, I will entertain you with a short lecture recital.
There are still a few places remaining, so book now and enjoy a week of piano, French culture, Penny and Geoff’s wonderful cooking and the beautiful surroundings of Saint Laurent.
Numbers will be restricted to 10 participants, with classes focussed on performance and practising skills. Participants should be of intermediate to advanced level, and will need to bring three pieces from the classical repertoire that they have prepared to a fluent level (memorisation is not required). The daily classes will be conducted in a pleasant, friendly, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. Digital practice pianos will be available.
Saint Laurent is the venue for this Piano Pot-Pourri. It is situated on 27 hectares (66 acres) of land, with breathtaking views of the countryside and the Pyrenees. The fully refurbished 600 sq metre farmhouse boasts 4 apartments and extensive common space. The apartments at Saint Laurent have kitchens. There is a performance area, which can accommodate up to 60 people, with a Kawai RX2 grand piano. There is also a small swimming pool.
For full details, and to book your place, click here
I first published The Floating Fermata in 2015, and was surprised by how much positive feedback I had on it. I decided to republish it now, with a few small tweaks. I hope it helps you in your day-to-day practice!
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So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar?
My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork.
But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score.
Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow.
There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in Volume 1 of my ebook series, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata.
The Floating Fermata
When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there is a hiatus while the brainbox grinds into action.
In order to get to the autopilot stage where everything happens automatically (without the need for conscious thought about which finger goes where) we can practise using controlled stops.
We might not have thought about it quite like this, but when we practise in different rhythms we are using controlled stops. Breaking up a pattern of semiquavers, say, into a dotted rhythm gives us a predetermined controlled stop every other note. A rhythm of SLOW-quick-quick-quick makes a stop on every beat, and so on.
What if we don’t want to be so regimented or mechanical as this, or the passage in question does not lend itself to such practice? We can decide to place imaginary fermatas over notes of our choice, either equidistant or in strategic places. These act as watering holes on our journey, we stop there for a moment or two to recover and regroup before moving on. The beauty of this approach is the pause is not timed – we can take however long we need, and we’ll know when we are focussed and ready to move on to the next target.
In this example from Brahms’ Intermezzo, op. 119 no. 1, we might pause on the bar line to prepare the next bar. Mentally rehearse it before playing, hearing the music inwardly and visualising the hands in action. The pause might start off as a long one but as the material is processed, it gets shorter until you won’t need it at all. After a two or three repetitions, remove every other fermata and think in two-bar units:
Practising with fermatas is also great for technical work. In this example from Chopin’s B minor Scherzo, pause for a moment on the marked notes making sure the other hand moves quickly into its new position:
To help organise the opening of Ginastera’s Danza del gauchomatrero, pause on the last note of each sub-phrase:
For wrong notes…
If you have identified a wrong note, practise pausing on the note just before it, no matter where this falls in the bar. Then go back and pause on the note itself. Repeating this process daily for a few days will usually correct the error.
A couple of points to remember:
Decide on where you want the pauses to go before you start – otherwise they are accidents!
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so unless you have managed the section between one pause and the next flawlessly, you’ll need to go back and do it again until you can.
The fermatas have a short shelf life. Move them around a bit, and when they have done their job they are no longer necessary.
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