Technique without tears

technique |tekˈnēk|
noun
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something

Technique lies at the foundation of piano playing, and good technique can serve the beginner student right through to advanced level. However, it should never be the “be all and end all”. Rather, it should serve the music – to create when required, for example, the lightest staccato, the most cantabile melodic line, a bubbling Alberti bass, sprightly trills and tremolandos, the most fluid legato.

Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintended, have their effect on the sound you produce

– Alan Fraser, pianist & pedagogue

Pianists are often praised for having “fine technique” or “superb technique”: this can range from obvious things such as physical agility/velocity and stamina to more esoteric, “hidden” aspects such as arm weight, wrist rotation, and alignment. These days, with a tendency amongst younger pianists to place technique above all else, piano “technique” has come to mean sheer physical capability, speed and sound production (usually too loud!) without a true understanding of how a particular technique specifically relates to the music, and the effects the composer has in mind.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is staccato, of which there are different kinds:

  • Arm staccato gives equal measure to each note and is particularly useful for a crisp, short or bouncy sound. Involve the forearm and keep the wrist soft. Avoid pure wrist staccato as this pulls up the fingers and creates tension. Aim for a free drop of the arm and then bounce off the keyboard on the rebound.
  • Jeu Perlé literally “pearly playing”, this is particularly useful for semi-quaver passage work in Mozart and the like, also in Debussy, where such passages should be played quickly, lightly and clearly, and where too much obvious articulation would create dryness. It is a type of staccato playing that creates the tiniest sense of separation between each note (like the knots between the pearls in a necklace), and requires small movements and a close attack.
  • Finger staccato/flicking staccato Possibly the hardest staccato technique to perfect, this requires the fingers to flick off the keys and back towards the palm of the hand. Beware of tension in the hand and wrist when practising this technique, and employ the alignment of arm and wrists to fingers.

A pianist who has fully studied, understood and absorbed the composer’s intentions and instructions in the score, will know what kind of staccato technique to employ for a particular genre, section or passage.

When starting out with any new aspect of technique, whether teaching it or doing it for yourself, it helps to enlarge the movement and to practice it away from the piano. Don’t practice technique in isolation, but rather understand how it should be employed in your music and then make a technical exercise out of a small passage or section from that music. Doing exercises like those by Czerny or Hanon are, in my view, less worthwhile than a technical exercise you have devised yourself to practice a particular aspect of your repertoire; it is also more interesting! Above all, any technical exercise – from simple scale patterns to an intricate etude – should be played musically.


Debussy – Jardins sous la pluie (Arrau)

Mozart – Piano Sonata K311, 1st movt (Uchida)

Joanna and the Piano – Gavin Thomson

Written in the present tense with all the breathless stream of consciousness of a bright, excitable 10 year old girl, Joanna and the Piano is part time-travelling fantasy, part comment on modern family life.

When her father is made redundant, Joanna is forced to leave the city home and friends she loves to start a new life in an Elizabethan country house. While waiting for the WiFi to be installed, she and her father discover a beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano. Released from storage, the piano is installed in the living room for Joanna to play, and almost as soon as her fingers touch the keys, the mysterious Herr Mozhoven (get it?!) appears at the front door to give Joanna piano lessons.

Of course these lessons are not the usual tedious fare of scales and pieces: instead, under Herr Mozhoven’s tutelage, Joanna embarks on a series of time-travelling adventures – to the First and Second World Wars, and to the Victorian and Georgian eras. The piano becomes the agent of these intriguing and exciting adventures.

The narrative is imaginative and fast-paced, mixing creative ideas with delightful fantasy and escapism, and observations on modern family life with insights into bygone times. Joanna is a charming, sympathetic personality, her character well defined and easy to identify with.

Joanna and the Piano is self-published by the author (via Amazon’s CreateSpace platform). It’s a nicely produced though the text could do with a proper copy-edit (this won’t bother kids though) and while I appreciate why the author chose to alternate black and white pages (a nice nod to the piano keyboard), the white text on black paper is not very easy on the reading eye. The text might also benefit from some illustrations. These quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable and exuberant read which will appeal to young readers aged 8-12.

Introducing ‘Piano Teachers’ Hour’ on Twitter

Guest post by Barbara Kennedy
When I made the switch to piano teaching, following a career in administration, one of the biggest surprises was that I missed the face-to-face interaction with colleagues. I had not anticipated just how isolating piano teaching could be. I now see around 35 students (and families) a week and I thought that would be satisfactory. However, although I don’t lack for human connections, it’s not the same as being able to chat with people doing the same job, sharing our joys, frustrations, and advice. 
I’ve been fortunate to find a wonderful group of teachers and musicians on Twitter who have given me a huge amount of support, not just in teaching but also in other areas such as health, gardening, and gin selection. We’ve celebrated birthdays, successes, and achievements, and propped each other up through illness, setbacks, and crises of confidence. 
Social media seems to have become a really useful tool for sharing ideas and support. For me, the options for meeting with other teachers are limited and often result in high expenditure plus loss of income. That’s why I set up Piano Teachers’ Hour on Twitter in 2017. This is a weekly discussion group for piano (and other instrumental) teachers. It provides us with a space to chat about various professional issues, whilst connecting with individuals who work in a similar area. My hope is that it will give support to piano teachers of any length of service who may need advice or are simply interested in a particular area.
The sessions are semi-structured, with topics released prior to each half term. I try to include a mix of issues in each period, and our attendees often provide ideas of what areas to talk about. In April-May 2018, for example, we discussed teaching composing skills, GDPR, the music of Debussy, safeguarding basics, and ran two focus groups for the Music Commission. Previously subjects have ranged from repertoire for various stages or seasons, invoicing, teaching dyslexic students, exam prep, and ‘me time’. 
One obstacle to arranging these virtual meet-ups is finding a suitable time. As the organiser, I’ve plumped for a time that I can make. Mid-day on Wednesday is a nice treat for me. It’s usually my quietest teaching day, so I have time to prepare in the morning. Its also a nice signifier for the middle of the week; not long til the weekend. However, this time doesn’t suit everyone each week and therefore I also summarise the discussions afterwards in a blog post. This is open to anyone, and people can comment on the blog to carry on the discussion. You can visit this blog, and find details of our past and upcoming discussions here: www.pianoteachershour.wordpress.com
If you haven’t attended Piano Teachers’ Hour yet then we would really encourage you to do so. Members of the network tell me that the discussions have been very valuable to their work and enjoyable. I’ve certainly found the sessions useful and they have given me the confidence and techniques to try out new things in lessons (e.g. composing). Whilst social media isn’t an exact substitution for a physical work place, staff room, or conference, it does replicate some of the elements of connection and interaction that keep me, personally, going until the next event. 
Piano Teachers’ Hour runs weekly on Wednesdays at 12:30pm (UK term-time – Oxfordshire based). You can join in by using the hashtag #pianoteachershour and following the Twitter account @pianoteachershr

Barbara Kennedy is a musician offering piano lessons and music theory tuition in Didcot, South Oxfordshire. In addition to Piano Teachers’ Hour, Barbara also runs and develops  music education projects: piano TRACKS which provides a range of tools to help piano teachers support and assess their students.

New ABRSM piano syllabus released

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the Teaching Notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus rather than a detailed analysis.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does depress me to see a dull little piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972 still appearing in the syllabus), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, the board promises “a complete refreshment of repertoire” and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades: in practice this approach feels more like a gesture than a real attempt to create a syllabus to suit piano teachers and students in the 21st century. The supporting tests remain unchanged with sight-singing, that part of the aural test that everyone dreads, still intact, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the early grades (1-3) tend towards very “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists. It it almost as if the ABRSM thinks only children learn the piano, and the only concessions to early to intermediate adult learners are Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s ‘A Memory of Paris’ (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ ‘Anatolian 08’ (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s ‘Dream’ from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a broader range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM appears very concerned to maintain its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength of offering a syllabus which aims to combine rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website. The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information


Postscript:

Following some rather heated discussion online about the new ABRSM syllabus, I’d like to make the following observations:

  • I would urge teachers – and students – to select a syllabus which works for them. Adult students in particular may not wish to submit to sight-reading and aural tests and for this reason I recommend the Recital Grades from London College of Music. As mentioned earlier, the LCM repertoire is, in my opinion, the best across the three main boards, with plenty to appeal to adult learner of all abilities.
  • The graded exams (and for that matter Diplomas) across all three main exam boards are all regulated by OFQAL and accrue exactly the same UCAS/academic points (Grades 6-8).
  • Be aware that there is a lot of snobbery surrounding exam boards: many people consider the ABRSM to be “better” or “the best” for a variety of reasons, and dismiss Trinity and LCM without even examining the syllabuses.
  • An exam syllabus should not be used as an exclusive framework for teaching and teachers should include other repertoire to give students a broader appreciation of music
  • Personally, I favour a flexible approach to learning and teaching – and this includes an exam format – which enables students of all ages and abilities to play to their strengths.

Trinity College London

London College of Music

‘Under the Rowan Tree’ by Robert Peate

Following in the footsteps of Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky, British composer Robert Peate has created a delightful collection of piano miniatures for children. Like Bartok’s For Children and his Mikrokosmos, Peate’s pieces are both imaginative and educational, and range in difficulty from very easy (pre-Grade 1) to more challenging (cGrade 3/4). The early pieces are written in simple 5-finger positions, but utilise dynamics, contrasting articulation, accidentals and the pedal to create interesting and characterful music, which will appeal to children while offering teachers opportunities to explore technique, expression and contrasting styles. There are also duets to play with a teacher, parent or older sibling or friend.

Inspired by the birth of his son Rowan, Peate’s pieces have evocative titles which are immediately appealing to young pianists – Sleepyhead, Cheeky Chappie, Sunrise, Steps to the Stars, Music Box. I particularly liked the more impressionistic pieces such as New Moon, By the Sea and Wind on the Water, and all the pieces offer much scope for expressive shaping and musical imagination.

This is a very welcome addition to contemporary piano literature for children.

Order Under the Rowan Tree

The Three H’s of Practicing

On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As pianist and renowned teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.”

To me, this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

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Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone” or a flow state. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions.

Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality (SB)

Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come

Seymour Bernstein, ‘With Your Own Two Hands’ (Schirmer, 1981)

 

 

 

 

Teaching notes for the new ABRSM piano syllabus

9781786010759_1I am delighted to be a contributor to the teaching notes accompanying the new ABRSM piano syllabus, to be released early next month.  The Teaching Notes, which are produced to accompany each syllabus, offer guidance on all the pieces in the syllabus and each note is divided into three areas of learning/teaching: Musical Context, Technical Challenges and Performance and Interpretation. The notes are not intended to be prescriptive, nor to tell the student how to play the pieces, or the teacher how to teach them, but simply to offer some suggestions for aspects such as fingering schemes, expression and interpretation, together with contextual information.

As a teacher and pianist, I found writing concise (c250 words of average), focussed notes on the pieces an interesting and stimulating challenge – from both a teacherly and writerly point of view. In order to do this, I played through each of the pieces I was assigned to write about: some I knew already – because I had played them myself or taught them – others were unfamiliar, especially in the early grades. I enjoyed thinking about how I would approach each piece as a teacher and highlighting aspects which students might find challenging or where their musical imaginations could take flight.

The other contributors to the Teaching Notes are Murray McLachlan, Fiona Lau and Andrew Eales and I’m honoured to be in the company of such respected and experienced pianists and teachers.