Feeding the practise habit

If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of their game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practise and to hone one’s skills. Regular practise equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even if it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament and oiling the gears.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity is really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good gym workout or a run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing something useful.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

Breaking the routine 

Some years ago I belonged to a gym. I went regularly – 3 or 4 times a week – and followed the same sequence of exercises every time: rowing, cycling, cross-trainer, weight-training. After a while, it occurred to me that my fitness wasn’t really improving as I was just “going through the motions”, following the same routine of exercise every day.

Practising can be like this sometimes if we’re not careful. It’s easy and reassuring to stick with the same routine – beginning with scales or technical exercises, then working on pieces in the same order every time we practise. Studies on peak performance, which apply as much to musicians as to athletes, show that in order to improve, we need to apply some kind of challenge and then follow it. Following the same old routine without challenge leads to complacency, boredom and stagnation. (Conversely, over-burdening ourselves with too many challenges or stresses can lead to injury, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and burnout, so it is important to factor periods of rest into one’s practising regime as well.)

If you always practise in the same way or feel your practising is stuck in a rut, try adding some “challenges” to your regime

  • If you always begin with scales or technical exercises, maybe try some basic warm up exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging and shoulder raises. These get the blood flowing to the fingers in the same way as scales and arpeggios, and by doing them away from the piano, you can also think about what you need to practise when you go to the piano
  • Start at a different place from usual in your pieces. Use a random number generator (available as an app) to select a bar number as a starting point (Graham Fitch advocates this in practising).
  • Vary the speed – slow practise is highly beneficial, allowing us to listen closely as we play and consider all the details of the score. Equally, challenging oneself to play a passage or piece at tempo encourages us to “play through” without stopping to correct errors.
  • Add something new – try improvising on a handful of notes, chord sequence or passage in the piece.
  • Reverse the hands – playing the LH part with the RH and vice versa helps us get to know each line of music really well and can also highlight sections which need extra work
  • Practise away from the piano: this can include memory work, studying the score, listening to recordings (with or without the score) or “listening around” to other music by the same composer or music from the same period.
  • Take frequent breaks: long periods of time at the piano can lead to fatigue and injury. Regular breaks allow brain and body to “reset”, ready for the next practise session.

P is… for Piano Parents & Practising!

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Guest post by Natalie Tsaldarakis

Practising is the hardest aspect of the piano learning process to come to terms with. Not least because it is prescriptive, when really not one size fits all, and is done in the absence of the teacher who does the prescribing in the first place. With the parent left to deal with the details of organising suitable practice, it is no wonder it always raises questions. In fact, the most surprising is the two extreme categories of attitudes I have come across: the parent who thinks that it is the child’s sole responsibility to practise without any further supervision regardless of age; and the parent who eagerly tries to absorb the teacher’s comments and then attempts to teach the child himself/herself at home despite not having any further qualification other than simply paying for and attending the lessons. In the hope some of this will be useful to prevent disappointment or misunderstandings I sent out the following to the parents of my piano studio:

Golden rules of practice to live by

  1. Practice should reflect age and level. Five to ten minutes of practice at a time for a very young beginner is usually good. For those starting out regardless of age, five to ten minutes per day, moving to two sessions per day of that duration, is recommended to gradually build both concentration and engagement. As an indication forty minutes daily up to Grade 4 level, and fifty to seventy minutes thereafter would be very good in order to achieve higher passes (merit, distinction). These are at best estimates and take into account neither the challenges presented by specific repertoire choices (‘Black Eye’s from the Grade 4 ABRSM 2017-2018 syllabus comes to mind) nor the different strengths and weaknesses in the learning ability and rate of individual students.
  2. Practice should be a daily habit.
  3. Learning to play the piano is not exclusively about passing grades: it is the journey which matters more (the most!).
  4. Make sure there is easy access to a good enough instrument: poor instruments can actually destroy motivation (no-one wants to play an awful- sounding instrument).
  5. Don’t place the piano next to a TV if the family plans to watch while the student is supposed to try concentrate on practising. Certainly avoid placing the piano in noisy areas of the house.
  6. You can’t learn to play the piano if you have no idea what piano concerts sound and feel like. Attending pupils’ concerts and local competitive festival classes is a start, provided that the students listen carefully to each other, but there is no substitute for a live (professional) recital or concerto. Free concerts especially at lunchtimes will allow you to leave during intermission if children become restless. Try Charlton House on Fridays, St Alfege’s in Greenwich, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, St James Piccadilly, and Hugh Mather’s Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London. Southbank does a lot of family concerts, some of which are free. Another suggestion is Bach to Baby concerts for young families. For secondary school age children we also recommend Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall (for example the upcoming BBC Proms), as well as the conservatoires: RAM, RCM, Guildhall/ Milton Court.
  7. At young ages (4-9 years) parental involvement is directly related to success in the lessons and by extension in exams, performances/auditions/competitions. Rest assured that parents are not expected to be musically literate.
  8. Lessons need to be regular for progress to be steady.
  9. Lessons should be used for acquiring new skills, getting feedback, trying new things, asking questions. Turning up regularly with no consistent practice done in the week prior to the lesson is a rather poor way to use your time with the teacher. Supervised practice should be at home with the help of a parent or willing member of the family.
  10. Nannies are the wonderful human beings who carry the children safely and on time to and from lessons. Very rarely have we seen a nanny also being able to implement a practice regime like a parent does: ultimate authority (and source of validation) can only be a parent/guardian.
  11. Children below the age of 12-13 are mostly motivated by the love of parents: if parents take active interest in their piano playing, children will continue to thrive. Make sure that even if your work doesn’t allow much family time, you still remember to ask how practice went and what pieces they are playing, etc. Also, you can ask for a short performance once in a while when you get home if it’s not too late.
  12. If a piece sounds messy try to compliment the effort not the result. A balanced reaction, which avoids both empty praise and too much criticism, is perhaps difficult to achieve but necessary.
  13. Some children are harder to work with than others. They may be less motivated if they can’t concentrate well, if they are perfectionists, easily disappointed, not confident enough, or have a rather fixed mindset. Piano lessons address all these issues and can give them the necessary skills to succeed not only in music but as learners in general. As long as you facilitate a regular practice regime and you show your support/enthusiasm for the young pianist’s progress, we are confident the rest will fall into place.
  14. Finally: do not stress a young pianist of promise with comments about future plans of a career. It might just backfire and cause all motivation to disappear. Managing stress is itself a skill, but when it appears in the form of parents’ inordinate expectations, a child may just feel it has no control any more, yet parental love might appear to be at stake. A career and musical talent (even proven through competitions) are not the same. A career should only be (carefully) discussed with pupils who are self-motivated, usually have several wins at festivals/competitions, a grade 8 distinction (preferably a diploma), are at least 15-16 years of age and have themselves expressed eagerness to become musicians. It should never be directed at being famous and getting rich! Careers are very much dependent first and foremost on parental support, right type of exposure (performances/masterclasses/ competitions), careful planning of several aspects, as well as on personality and artistic aims (for which keeping up with repertoire, current performers, and a working knowledge of the various fields are necessary).

***

In the end it’s about making music and enjoying sharing it with others. With funding cuts affecting the provision of state education, at least parents are doing their best to offer their children invaluable experiences, skills, and memories. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Links:

Wigmore Hall

St John’s Smith Square
Southbank

St Martin in the Fields

Bach to Baby
Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale
Barbican

Guildhall School of Music: Milton Court

Royal Albert Hall

Kings Place

St Alfege’s

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Trinity Laban


Portraits of The Ivory Duo piano ensemble.Natalie Tsaldarakis is a pianist, and one half of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble which focuses on film music arrangements and new music for two pianos & piano 4-hands. Natalie is also a trustee of the Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust and runs a large piano studio in SE London with her husband, pianist Panayotis Archontides.

Currently, Natalie is a PhD student at City, University of London researching the piano pedagogue Gordon Green and the Manchester school of pianism.

 

Connect with Natalie on Twitter

 

What happened to improvisation in classical piano music?

Guest post by Phil Best

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

First of all, I’d like to consider different forms of improvisation. The piano composers of the past were masters of real-time composition and this is a very particular kind of improvisation. Some people today might hear those words and conjure up notions of free, atonal, arrhythmic music. Perhaps the idea of creating complex rhythmic and tonal music that makes perfect sense over many minutes, without some kind of pre-existing framework seems impossible and atonality appears to be the only outcome of attempting such a thing. Another possible form of improvising is the simple, rather post-minimal and free-form explorations that many amateur pianists do these days – you can hear many examples on YouTube and often to great effect. The fact that this kind of activity is making piano improvisation something accessible and truly self-expressive is wonderful. But Beethoven’s or Chopin’s improvisations would have been far more complex and involved. Of course, jazz musicians do improvise but often around a framework of a song structure, with an outline of harmonic and rhythmic unfolding to guide them. When jazz pianists, such as Keith Jarrett do compose in real time, the results can be pretty spectacular. But what about classical pianists?

Well, there is a handful of famous classical pianists who improvise in public. The wonderful Gabriela Montero is an example of a well-known pianist who regularly improvises, usually creating a pastiche of a great composer’s style and Robert Levin is renowned for making improvisation an integral part of Mozart’s piano music, improvising cadenzas on the spot and fleshing out the barebones writing that is often encountered in slow movements. But this is still not quite the same thing as a pianist-composer creating new music in real time.

I believe this points to one underlying reason for the waning of classical piano improvisation in classical concert halls. Composers began to inhabit a distinct realm, quite separate from that of performing. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of atonality in composition or simply the fashion for hyper-intellectualism that was sweeping through the arts generally made the combined role of composer-pianist less valid. Rachmaninov really had two hats as many artists of the early part of the century did and he famously spoke of feeling uncomfortable at times when performing his own works. Later on, composers who were also great pianists, such as Andre Previn, have crossed into jazz in order to showcase their improvisation skills, once jazz had gained its status as an intellectual equal to classical music. I believe that improvising classical music on the spot may have appeared to cheapen its new brand as a very high status, intellectual activity that was not jazz. This branding also affected the way pianists sounded when they played classical pieces, in my opinion. Natural rhythm and phrasing were replaced by something altogether drier or more mannered-sounding. To play Chopin or Mozart without the perceived rigour of interpretative analysis, simply playing the melodies, harmonies and rhythms with full-blooded, natural expression was left to amateurs or perhaps the highly commercialised artist, Liberace. In this climate, attention turned towards a very different skill set from fluent musicianship: scholarship was regarded as the core of classical music studies, with interpretation, theory and historical or authentic performance knowledge being the key skills.

This competitive world of the classical piano virtuoso was of course dominated by recordings, which could well be another very important reason why improvisation was no longer part of the job of a classical pianist. In their new role as master interpreters of historic music, pianists in the last century had to battle it out for supremacy not only in the great concert halls of the world but also in the pages of music journals such as the Gramophone magazine. Highly regarded music critics would rate interpretations as being more or less worthy of esteem and of course purchase. I remember how my father and uncle would strive to acquire the most definitive interpretations of certain piano works. All of this is a million miles away from the idea of spontaneous music creation. It is much more difficult to offer any authoritative critique of the worthiness of music that just appeared instantly without the hours of careful scholarly study that has become expected!

Perhaps Beethoven’s dual was more like “Vienna’s Got Talent” than the modern idea of a classical concert, but somehow, I seriously doubt that! The dumbing down of classical music to the level of light entertainment seems like a modern phenomenon to me, and a knee-jerk reaction to the ivory tower quality that classical music sadly can appear to have. I imagine that classical music, before the 20th century, was intelligent entertainment for the educated classes and my hope is that it is moving steadily back into that realm once again. If so, I can see no valid reason why classical musicians who have fluent musical skills should not take to the stage and create music spontaneously. The immediacy and excitement of a live improvisation appealed enormously to Beethoven’s, Bach’s, Mozart’s and Chopin’s audiences and I think it can hold the same appeal today.


Phil Best is a pianist, composer, teacher and singer based in London. His artist website is https://philbestmusic.com and his teaching website https://playpianofluently.com.

 

EPTA launches a new piano teachers’ course

The European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) has announced the launch of a new piano teachers’ course as part of its 40th-anniversary celebrations in 2019. The course, headed by Murray McLachlan, Chair of EPTA and head of keyboard at Chethams School in Manchester, takes place over 6 separate CPD training days in 2019 and will cover aspects such as basic foundations of technique, posture, hand position and finger independence, first principles to first lessons, mindfulness and the psychology of piano technique, repertoire, teaching different age groups, child protection, running a successful piano studio (including management of parent/teacher/student relationships), teaching students with special needs, improvisation and composition, and encouraging artistry, individuality and creativity in piano playing. Based on the outline which I have seen, this new course offers candidates a course which is rigorous, intelligently organised, extensive and sequential.

EPTA has recently forged a more formal collaboration with the ABRSM and this new course offers, in part, useful preparation for those who wish to take an ABRSM teaching diploma. The ABRSM affilitation will also almost certainly encourage take up of this new course, given the reputation of the ABRSM. However, my initial impression is that this course will offer anyone keen to extend their teaching skills a solid grounding, and not just in piano-specific instrumental teaching.

In addition, EPTA is launching its own bespoke diplomas: Cert.EPTA, Dip.EPTA and LEPTA. While these will roughly align with the ABRSM’s equivalent teaching diplomas and the Certificate of Music Education (CME), candidates will have the opportunity to explore a more individual route to becoming a robust teacher at each of these three levels.

There will also be an element of personal choice to be focused upon within the exam, and this should encourage candidates to have an element of freedom from which to reveal an even deeper awareness and familiarity. Topics from which candidates will be free to choose are likely to include memorising, Alexander Technique, app-based teaching, improvisation, mindfulness, the subtleties of pedalling, how to teach analysis, style and interpretation, choosing repertoire appropriately, how to build a foundation of technique, how how to avoid tension and to listen attentively, how to prepare pupils for an exam, how to encourage pupils to practise and how to sustain inspiration over the longer term.

(source: EPTA)

Candidates will be encouraged to explore the repertoire and syllabuses of the three major exam boards – ABRSM, TCL and LCM – to demonstrate the skills needed to teach at each level and to reflect the fact that members of EPTA use all three exam boards (and others) in the course of their teaching. First entries for these new diplomas is likely to be Summer or Autumn 2019.

Of course having letters after your name does not necessarily confer the status of “teacher” and experience is also crucial, together with a willingness to engage in CPD, formally or informally, to improve one’s skills. In the past, I have been troubled by both the lack of regulation in the profession and the number of teachers I have encountered who seem to lack the basic business/entrepreneurial skills in order to run a teaching practice properly and professionally. This has contributed to an image problem in piano teaching, that it is the realm of the hobbyist or the little old lady with cats and a cardigan. (In fact, most of the teachers whom I regard as trusted colleagues do not conform to this image at all, but it is an image which prevails amongst those outside the profession – read more here).

I like to hope that EPTA’s new course and its affilitation with the ABRSM will encourage a change of view of piano teaching in the UK and will also help to produce flexible, open-minded and above all well-qualified teachers who are “fit for purpose” in the 21st-century.


The ABRSM-EPTA PIANO TEACHERS’ COURSE takes place at Chethams School on January 27, Febraury 24, March 31, June 2, June 30, July 21 2019 from 10am-5pm

Admission: £100 for each day, £50 for music students at conservatoires/universities. Early bird discount to £500 if booked by 1 January for all six days

For reservations and further information, please contact the EPTA Administrator:

admin@epta-uk.org / 07510 379286 or 08456 581054 (calls charged at 4p/min plus your phone co charge)

 

The power of “yet”

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

 

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)