Should you be practising right now?

My students are very familiar with this chart, which sits on the chest of drawers next to the piano. A colleague of mine has it pinned on the door of her piano room, and I should think innumerable other music teachers and students have it somewhere to remind and inspire.

Remember – regular practice WORKS!

With students returning from the half-term break, this seems as good a time as any to reiterate the benefits of regular, focussed practising. And why? Because regular practice ensures noticeable progression in learning and attainment; it trains the muscular memory which aids accuracy; and it helps to develop note-reading skills and musical understanding.

The following chart is also helpful, showing the results one can expect to achieve (or not) depending on how much regular practice is undertaken

1 60-minute Practice per Week = 2 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 30-minute Practice per Day = 6 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 45-minute Practice per Day = 12 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 60-minute Practice per Day = 15 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 90-minute Practice per Day = 24 Months Progress in 12 Months
2 Hours Practice per Day = 36 Months Progress in 12 Months

(Source: http://vahlpiano.blogspot.com)

Students who come to their lessons unprepared (i.e. they have not practiced between lessons) can often find the lesson a frustrating experience as they have to go over last week’s work again. It can also be unrewarding for the teacher if a student persistently fails to practice. Even if you only have 10 minutes spare, do your practising and learn, with your teacher’s help, to pinpoint which aspects of your pieces need the most attention. This way you will get the most out of the time you have and you will see definite improvements. And remember, regular practising (at least five days out of seven) is far better than a lot the night before the lesson.

Having upped my practice time to around 2 hours per day, 6 days a week, in order to complete the work for my Diploma, I can confirm the benefits of regular practice. I learn new music more far quickly now, and have learnt how to practice deeply and intelligently in the time allocated. Keeping a practice diary is also a useful way of tracking your progress, and for keeping notes of what needs to be done.

Now, if you should be practising right now, stop reading this article and get to the piano!

Practice like it’s a Chopin Nocturne….

Quite a few of my students are familiar with this instruction by now, and I hope that most, if not all of them who have been asked to practice in this way can explain why it is important and useful.

The Nocturnes of Fryderyk Chopin are considered amongst the finest short works for piano ever written, and they often form part of concert programmes of top pianists around the world. Chopin did not invent the Nocturne form (literally, a night or evening piece), but he expanded and popularised it, and elevated it to a highly refined musical genre. The key features of his Nocturnes are a song-like melody in the right hand, and a generally slow or moderately slow tempo (the exception being No. 3 which is marked Allegretto). Chopin is very explicit with his dynamic markings in these pieces (as he is in all his writing), as this contributes to the profound emotional and expressive content of the music.

So why practice like it’s a Chopin Nocturne? Because slow and quiet playing enables us to concentrate and to listen. A knotty, rapid passage can be transformed which some slow, quiet, thoughtful practice, and is an important reminder that it is not necessary to practice everything up to tempo all the time.

When you play slowly and quietly you can hear yourself playing. This may sound daft but it’s surprising how many students and even experienced pianists do not listen to themselves playing.

To play a Chopin Nocturne convincingly, and well, you need to be able to produce an excellent singing (cantabile) sound. In fact, as pianists, this is what we strive for every time we play, whether it is the most spiky section of Stravinsky or the beauty of a Bach Adagio.

So, take time to slow down, quieten down, and listen: you may be surprised by the results. And by the way, for all those students of mine who think I am bonkers for suggesting practice methods such as this, please bear in mind that I would never suggest nor teach a technique or method unless I used it myself; this is also my own teacher’s philosophy.

Here is Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini:

And proof that a beautiful singing sound is not confined to the music of Chopin, here is Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach:

Bach/Hewitt – Sarabande from French Suite in G

How to play…. ‘Petit Mystère’

This beautiful miniature is a wonderful introduction to the impressionistic music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and even the early compositions of Olivier Messiaen. The composer, Simone Plé, was contemporary with all three composers. She published two volumes of music for children.

The title gives a clue to the mood and atmosphere of this music, as well as the composer’s clear dynamic markings, the tempo and the instruction très chante et expressif (‘very singing and expressive’). Touch is essential in this piece: Debussy’s piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”, and you need a gentle, oblique attack. Lightening the forearms and wrists will help produce a good cantabile sound.

Although impressionistic, and scattered with fermatas (pauses), pulse is crucial, so be strict with tempo and count throughout. Drill the piece so that it remains strictly in time, and then let it relax. There are opportunities for expressive rubato (literally “stolen time”, or a slackening or pulling out of tempo) but these need to be well-judged.

To ensure smooth transitions between the chords, following the fingering scheme exactly. For example, in bar 10, the right hand chords should be 4-2, 3-1, 2, 4-2. In fact, all the notes lie easily under the fingers here and it is really only a matter of “walking” the fingers between the chords. The pedal can also be used here to enhance both legato playing and atmosphere. Also, at the end to help sustain the tied notes.

I am teaching this to only one student currently, an adult who has a liking for this type of music. He made the following comments about his study of it, which are worth noting:

Difficulties:

  • Chords
  • Co-ordination between hands
  • Anticipation
  • Hand positions – at times, very close together which feels “unnatural”
  • Ambiguous harmonies which do not resolve as expected

He feels that the suspended harmonies are the “secret ingredient” in this piece.

For further listening, I would recommend:

  • Debussy – La fille aux cheveux de lin, Hommage à Rameau, Clair de Lune
  • Szymanowski – Mazurka No. 1 from Opus 50
  • Messiaen – Prelude no. 2

http://soundcloud.com/cross-eyedpianist/petit-myst-re-simone-pl

Debussy – Claire de lune

 

 

That tune from ‘The Muppet Show’….

A couple of my students have requested the sheet music for “that tune from The Muppets“, so here it is (click on link below to download a PDF file to print out). It’s actually called ‘Mah Na Mah Na’, and I’ve adapted it from a guitar score. Very simple, only two lines long, it can be endlessly played and doodled with – to the distraction of parents and siblings!

Here’s a helpful YouTube clip to get you in the mood:

Click on Mah Na Mah Na to download the sheet music

Guest post: 10 reasons to play the piano

by Melanie Spanswick

I am always asked if the piano is worth learning. Is it possible to achieve anything? Is it a suitable hobby? Or something which children endure rather like maths at school!

There are so many reasons why both adults and children benefit from the study of a musical instrument. I look at these reasons in detail in my new book ‘So you want to play the piano?’ which will be available next month. However, in the meantime here are my top ten reasons to encourage you to learn the piano:

  1. Music brings us all so much happiness – it really is very central to our lives. It is important to be given the chance to make music because it can give us an emotional and creative outlet.
  2. Playing an instrument is an excellent source of pleasure and fulfilment and can provide a deep sense of satisfaction.
  3. The piano provides both melody and harmony, therefore it can be played solo without any accompaniment. This is not the case with many other musical instruments (like the clarinet or violin which only produce one line, usually the melody line, so an accompaniment is always needed).
  4. It is possible to make coherent sounds on the piano from the very beginning because it has ready-made pitches (you depress a key and it makes a sound) unlike other instruments where it can take many months of study before a pleasant sound is produced (this is true of brass and string instruments especially).
  5. Mastering the piano requires a tremendous amount of co-ordination (you really do have to multi-task!) so this can cultivate many useful mental skills. It really focuses the mind.
  6. It has been proved that children (and adults) who take part in musical activities are happier and more sociable than those who don’t.
  7. The study of music is an extension of the learning process so children who excel at piano playing often do well at school too.
  8. Playing the piano provides a ready made opportunity to perform. Performing is so important for everybody. If practised regularly, it builds confidence – which, as we all know, is crucial for success in all walks of life.
  9. It can develop a passion and an interest in life.
  10. It’s fun!

All you need to do now is motivate yourself to get playing. Good luck and have fun.

Melanie Spanswick is a concert pianist and writer. She studied at the Royal College of Music in London where she won many prizes including the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff prize for ‘the most outstanding postgraduate pianist of the year’, the Sir Arthur Bliss Award and a Leverhulme Trust Scholarship. At the RCM, Melanie obtained an MMus (RCM), GRSM (Hons), ARCM and a Dip RCM, studied the piano with Patricia Carroll, John Lill and Tatiana Sarkissova and has benefited from masterclasses by Tatiana Nikoleava, Melvyn Tan and Geoffrey Parsons.

More about Melanie here

Melanie blogs on pianism and music education at www.classicalmel.wordpress.com

How to Play….. Song of Twilight

This charming and haunting piece by Japanese composer Yoshinao Nakada blends eastern and western culture in musical form. A spacious right hand melody is hung over the steady, almost hypnotic pulse of left hand chords.

Separate hands practice is crucial in this piece. You want to achieve a sense of the melody floating over the left hand chords, almost as if the two parts are not connected. Follow the fingering as given for the right hand to allow the smoothest, most serene finger legato, and be careful not to land too heavily with the thumb: there should be some tailing off of sound at the end of each phrase. To achieve a beautiful singing sound in the right hand, imagine the fingers are stuck to the keys all the time, and keep the hand and forearm light. (I encourage students to actually check for lightness before they play and to continue to check as they are playing.)

In bar 3 a little crescendo and diminuendo will help shape the repeated figures. The chord and harmony changes in the left hand should also be as smooth as possible: keep the movements very small. Although a pedal marking is given, do not be tempted to try pedalling this piece until the left hand chords are learnt properly.

At bar 9, the music modulates (changes key) into F-sharp minor, and the mood becomes more plaintive, with the right hand figures, now higher in the register, emphasising the twilight atmosphere. Be sure to note the pianissimo marking in the repeat.

This is a great introduction to straightforward legato pedalling as well as offering an opportunity for student and teacher to explore how the right-hand pedal is used to create atmosphere. After explaining the “see-saw” coordination of hand and foot to pedal this piece, I ask the student to write in the pedal markings to ensure they know exactly when the foot should be lifted to elide one harmony into another while avoiding a muddy sound. Keep the pedal movements small and do not release the foot too quickly.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the composer of this piece greatly admired Chopin, and this music is very reminiscent of Chopin’s Nocturnes. It is worth listening to some of the Nocturnes for reference, as well as Debussy’s more impressionistic pieces, such as Clair de Lune and La Fille aux cheveux de lin to hear how melody and pedal combine to create atmosphere. Although some three hundred years older, I find Bach’s Adagio from the Concerto in D minor after Marcello useful in teaching this piece, for both the hypnotic bass line and beautiful melody floating above it.

Here is Claire, one of my students, playing Song of Twilight

Song of Twilight

Here is Maurizio Pollini in Chopin’s Nocturne No. 8, Opus 27 no. 2

Bach, ‘Adagio’ from Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 947

How to play……Allegro non Troppo

What a treat for the left hand this piece is! A moody “‘cello” melody with plenty of scope for expressive shaping, with an agitated right hand figure of repeated chords, this piece is redolent of Chopin’s Étude Opus 25 no. 7.

Separate hands practice is crucial here – and not just in the early stages of learning. I learnt the Opus 25 no. 7 some years ago and rarely practiced it hands together, until the very late stages. Separate hands practice should enable proper balance between the treble and bass lines: we really want to hear that left hand melody, with the right hand chords “floating” above it.

Keep the right hand chords very soft. You can achieve this by not fully depressing the keys, nor allowing them to fully release. It’s worth practising them as single chords too so you can hear the changes in harmony. The dissonance in bar 4 (and bars 8, 14, 15, 16 and 18) adds tension and should be highlighted with a little tenuto (emphasis) on the first chord.

The quavers, in bars 3, 7, 13, 14, 15 and 17, signal the start of a new phrase each time. Lift the hand and drop into the first note of the quaver pair, allowing the wrist to sink below the level of the keys, to create emphasis. In bar 3, observe the direction to use the third finger: it is far easier to drop onto a note with the third finger because it is so strong. This will enable you to produce a sense of emphasis while retaining a good tone.

The left hand melody should be warm, rich and smooth. A cellist would play this with long movements of the bow across the strings: imagine this smooth, broad movement before you play and give each phrase dynamic colouring as the melody rises up the register.

At bar 9, the music modulates into F major (the relative major of D minor), and the forte marking at bar 10 suggests a brighter mood. However, don’t be tempted to make this forte harsh; think “warm” rather than “loud” as we still want the sense of a ‘cello sound.

At bar 17, the repeat of the figure first heard in bar 3 and then at 15, should sound like an echo or an afterthought. Fade to pianissimo with a gradual pulling back of tempo.

When I teach this piece, I often ask students to examine and hear the score of Chopin’s Etude Op 25 no. 7. This piece may be considerably more complicated than Gurlitt’s Allegro Non Troppo, but it shares many of the same features.

Here is Grigory Sokolov in Chopin’s ‘Cello’ Etude, Opus 25 no. 7. Notice the way he floats the right hand chords over the left hand melody, as well as his exquisite shaping of the ‘cello line’ in the bass.

Allegro Non Troppo

SoundCloud

SoundCloud is music and audio platform on the internet which allows musicians to share and distribute their recordings. Each upload is assigned a unique URL which means tracks can be easily shared across the web and via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. SoundCloud also distributes music files via widgets and apps (there is a SoundCloud widget in the sidebar of this blog which takes you to my personal SoundCloud). Thus, it is possible to share music and recordings widely, and for listeners and other SoundCloud users to comment on other people’s tracks, and to “favourite” them. Licensing arrangements mean that you can allow or forbid downloads of your tracks etc.

I started using SoundCloud last autumn, after I purchased an Olympus LS-5 PCM digital recorder, with the intention of recording my Diploma pieces. At first, I was a little shy about sharing my music with other people, but the positive feedback and comments I received were invaluable, and now I routinely upload work in progress or ‘concert ready’ pieces. I have also started uploading recordings of my students playing for ease of sharing. It’s a convenient way of storing music tracks in a format that allows you to access them when and where you want to (there are iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android apps for SoundCloud).

Membership of SoundCloud is free, though you can upgrade to a paid service which allows you more space for uploads, greater distribution, and more detailed statistics.

Start to explore SoundCloud here

Visit my SoundCloud here

Listening and Hearing

If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And that means we [the audience] can’t hear it either.”

This is what my teacher said to me at my lesson last week. I was working on one of Chopin’s Nocturnes, the Opus 62 no. 2, the last published in his lifetime. In bars 20-22 the left hand plays descending sustained minims, achieved by silently changing from a thumb to a fifth finger. I’d got the fingering right, but I could not sing those sustained notes. As a result, they were lost amid all the other sounds and textures in this passage. Once I’d sung the notes, I found I could sound them easily, and a little extra weight in the finger added a warmth and resonance which was obvious, but not overpowering, under the gorgeous treble line.

It sounds obvious, that we should listen all the time when we are playing, whether in practice or performance, but it is quite common for us not to listen, and to allow the mind – and ears – to wander as we play. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.

Playing with a beautiful tone (sound) is what pianists strive for. Be critical as you play: listen all the time and if you don’t like the sound you are hearing, find ways to adjust it to make it better by experimenting with arm weight (lightening the arm will usually produce a better tone), and by ‘visualising’ the sound you want to achieve before you play it (it’s amazing how different your tone will be if you spend a few moments before you play imagining the sound).  If you like the sound you are producing in a particular passage, try and remember that sound for next time, and what it felt like as you were playing it. Were your arms light, your wrists soft? What else were you doing with your body to create that sound?

Recording yourself playing is another useful aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams coming up soon, and sending them a soundclip to listen to. I ask them to listen critically, not for errors and slips, but for an ‘overview’ of the sound. I ask them to make notes (to bring to the next lesson for discussion with me) about what they liked and disliked about the sound, and to think about how they can improve it or change it.

If you do record yourself playing, don’t listen to the recording as soon as you’ve made it. You are likely to be far more critical at this point and may not listen in the right way. Leave it a few days, and then listen to your recording. Review it carefully and note what you like and dislike about your playing. Compare recordings of the same piece, made at different times and in different circumstances (for example, in practice, in performance, on a different instrument etc.).

Another aspect of listening is of course hearing other people play, live and on disc. Go to concerts, listen to recordings and note what you enjoy about the sounds other pianists make. Remember that they are probably employing the same techniques as you to create that sound!

Here is the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 No. 2

A longer version of this post appears on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist

How to play……. ‘Fanfare for the Common Cold’

As the title of this piece suggests, it is inspired by Aaron Copland’s famous ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ – and the first thing I do when I start teaching this piece to a student is to ask them to listen to Copland’s work and tell me what they hear in it and what instrument plays the opening figure.

In this tongue-in-cheek take on Copland, the opening motif is unashamedly borrowed from his famous work. Aim for a bright, shiny ‘trumpety’ sound here. It’s marked forte but it should not be a harsh forte: you want a clear, brass sound. Keep it strictly in time, with the fermatas (pauses) adding drama. A longer pause between the end of this section and the start of the next section gives extra dramatic effect.

The next section (from bar 5) is marked mf, and we definitely want to hear the change in the dynamic. The texture is thicker here, suggesting more brass and woodwind instruments, and a snare drum, perhaps. Go for a soft staccato rather than a short, crisp sound. One of my students came up with a neat ditty to help with the rhythm here:

“Gi-gan-to-saurus sit-ting on a mat”

The second time this figure appears (bar 13) watch out for the change in the rhythm. Again Eli’s ditty is helpful:

“Gi-gan-to-saurus, eating up his tea!”

The following section (from bar 17) has a warmer feel and a softer texture. It should be strictly in time, suggesting a march. Again, the dynamic change needs to be highlighted. The left hand (marked tenuto and staccato) should have a deep “growl”, to give emphasis and suggesting a bass drum. The right hand is marked legato, not easy to pull off, given the chords, but careful “walking” of the fingers through these notes should produce a joined up effect. Allow a pause before the re-entry of the opening ‘trumpet’ figure for dramatic effect.

The coda (from bar 17) is a great opportunity for some virtuoso affectation with its glissandi and low bass notes. This is the build up to the “sneeze” at the end! Play the glissandi on the nail with a sweeping, stroking motion and lift the hand off the keys at the end: not only does this produce a better sound, it adds to the drama of the piece and looks good! Make the bass fortes “growl” in reply. Remember to hold the final chord for its full value.

This is an entertaining and enjoyable piece, full of humour and “musical jokes”. It should be played with real panache and bravura to capitalise on this.

Here’s Ben, who’s been learning this piece for just over a term:

Fanfare for the Common Cold

And here’s Copland’s original: