A History of Classical Music – Part 5: Modern

Still Life with Mandolin – Pablo Picasso (Guggenheim Museum, New York)

‘Modern’ classical music is a broad term, referring to music composed from around the turn of the twentieth-century to present-day (music composed now is usually called ‘contemporary’). Like modern art, modern music is all about breaking the rules.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, music was generally ‘romantic’ in style, but composers such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius were pushing the boundaries of music beyond pure romantic, while French composer Claude Debussy was at the forefront of a new movement in music called ‘Impressionism’. Many composers reacted to the romantic movement and branched out into many different styles, drawing influences from many different sources, including Eastern music and jazz, and experimenting with new ways of writing music, new sounds, new instruments and new orchestration. The real turning point came in 1910 when Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet called Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) which was unlike anything else that had come before it. Audiences were shocked by this music, and there were even riots at some performances.

After the First World War (1914-18) some composers returned to the influences and structures of earlier periods of music: this is usually referred to as “neoclassicism”. But others continued to explore new ideas. With the advent of electronic technology, some composers became more and more experimental.

Modern music can seem difficult to listen to because of its unusual harmonies, chords, rhythm or lack of clear melody (tune) and structure. However, because it is so different, it is also exciting and unusual, highly varied and often very complex. One very famous piece by American composer John Cage doesn’t even sound like music. Entitled 4’33” It is called 4’33, it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence! And some Modern music is just a joke, such as this piece for orchestra and typewriter:

Modern Classical Music playlist (a Spotify playlist)


Soft dough, warm oil – and no bones

At my recent piano lesson, I worked on Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableaux Opus 33 No. 2 in C. In order to practice the tricky arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment, which includes many awkward extensions of more than an octave, my teacher asked me to imagine that my arms had no bones in them, no fulcrum at the elbow, and that they were made of “soft, uncooked pastry dough”. And the following day, while teaching an adult student who is studying George Nevada’s nostalgic Wenn Paris Traumt (When Paris Dreams) for her Grade 2 exam, I gave her the image of thick, warm, scented oil running down her arms and into her fingers to create the smoothest, most beautiful legato playing.

Such visual cues may seem odd, but they can be really helpful, as sometimes it is not possible to find the technical vocabulary to describe the sensation one wishes to create in the hand and arm. A metaphor is often better (see my teacher’s post on Playfulness in Piano Playing for more thoughts on this), and children, in particular, can be quick to pick up and act on such images.

A sense of both relaxation and connection in the arms and hands is essential for both the production of good tone and to avoid physical tension or, worse, an injury. Tightness and stiffness produces a tight, stiff, and sometimes very harsh sound. I ask students to listen to the difference in the sound they are producing once they have been encouraged to relax their arms and hands: my adult was certainly very surprised when she heard herself playing the other day!

A few months ago, I reviewed the French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a coruscating concert of very varied and physically demanding repertoire (Haydn, Stockhausen, Villa Lobos and Liszt). During the interval, my friend (who is also one of my adult students) commented on how floppy and loose Hamelin’s arms appeared to be. Even as he walked onto the stage, his arms swung loosely from his shoulders, as if attached by thick, stretchy ‘bungees’. This incredible freedom and relaxation allowed him to bring a huge variety of tonal colour, touch and balance to his performance, and even the most jagged passages of the Stockhausen and percussive sections of the Villa Lobos had an extraordinarily fine quality of sound.

My teacher advocates a series of arm and shoulder loosening exercises as a warm up before any practice session or performance (at her courses, we usually do these in the garden if the weather is fair, allowing us plenty of freedom to swing our arms around). You need only do them for about five minutes to begin to notice a difference in the arms, hands and shoulders. The arms feel looser, longer even! The fingers are light and warm, and the shoulders, back and chest are opened. Try to retain these sensations when you sit at the piano.

To soften the arms and hands further, let your arms rest loosely in your lap and start to roll your arms gently around on your thighs. Imagine there are no bones between your hands and your shoulders, and that everything is very soft and pliable (like uncooked pastry!). When you place your hands on the keyboard, check underneath the wrist and forearm to ensure that lightness remains. And keep checking during your practice session, particularly if you are working on a small technical passage: it is all to easy to allow tension to creep back into the arms, resulting in uncomfortable playing and an ugly sound.

I find it quite hard to encourage students to let their arms move more freely: this is partly because far too many early piano students (and even more advanced ones!) sit too close to the piano, with elbows resolutely glued to the body. The image of a skipping rope is helpful here, to encourage more freedom and “swing” in the arm. One end of the skipping rope is the finger on the key, the other the shoulder, and whatever is between should swing freely.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the “soft dough” exercise, combined with a sweeping, eliptical movement in the hand (aided by using a middle digit – either the second or third finger – as a pivot), is enabling me to make progress with the Rachmaninov: it’s slow because I can only work on it for about 10 minutes before my arm gets tired, but, as with any technical exercise, it is worth the effort. The results come slowly at first, as the body adjusts to the new sensations, but eventually it becomes intuitive. Never push a technical exercise or overwork it: if your hands and arms feel tired, it is time to take a break.

This post first appeared on my companion blog www.crosseyedpianist.wordpress.com

Guest post: Playfulness in piano playing

by Penelope Roskell, pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

If we reflect on the language that we use in our teaching, we will probably notice that many of the words we use imply a rather serious, one might even say tedious view of life: practise hard, exercises, repetition, accuracy, evenness, examinations – no wonder so many students find piano playing boring compared to the fun of playing with friends or computer games!

I think we all need to remind ourselves frequently of the possible alternative words: ease, beauty, flow, flourish, caress, communication, fun, delight, and, most importantly perhaps, playfulness. I personally don’t remember ever having heard that word in any piano lesson when I was a student!

If we see and hear a true virtuoso play, we are not aware of fear or wrong notes, or stiffness in the joints, or awkward, ungainly movements. We are taken up in the joy and delight of sheer playfulness of physicality on the piano. Now, of course some people tend to look down their noses on “mere virtuosos” as somehow lacking in seriousness, and it is true that in some cases their playfulness may also equate with a certain superficiality of character. But when that delightful virtuosity is combined with depth of feeling, a rigorous intellect and real artistry, then we witness the pinnacle of piano playing in all its fullness.

It is a recognised fact that children learn more quickly and enthusiastically through play, and I believe this also applies to teaching piano technique, both for children and for adults. If we watch a child spending time alone at the piano, they delight primarily in any activities that involve movement around the piano. This might be big jumps, glissandi, staccato, big banging chords – they don’t generally relish playing the sort of two note legato “tunes” we find in many beginners’ tutor books.

Imagine how it must feel for a very active six year old to be asked not only to sit still for half an hour, but also not to move his arms beyond the middle C five-finger position (thumbs on middle C, elbows in, wrists swivelled inwards, shoulders up)! This straight-jacketed feeling can be absorbed into their experience of piano playing from the earliest stages, and can become a very entrenched habit.

Kurtag in ‘Jatekok’ (which means “Games”) attempts to address this problem in a fascinating way – approaching each aspect of piano playing with a very broad gesture (such as clusters around the piano) which then becomes more refined into a piece with notes which need to be played accurately. Various other tutor books recognise the advantage of embracing the whole of the keyboard. The Little Keyboard Monster series, for example, contains some delightfully imaginative pieces using glissandi, leaps etc. from an early level.

The fear of playing wrong notes is very powerful, and can lead to tension throughout the muscular structure. At all levels, I think it is important to balance the need for accuracy with freedom of movement, sometimes to exhort the student: “don’t worry about wrong notes at the moment – feel the technique freely first, then refine it!” Paradoxically, if we aim first for beauty of sound, muscular freedom and emotional expression, almost invariably we play more right notes in the long run.

Although I do frequently teach my students Etudes (particularly, at advanced level, the Chopin and Debussy Etudes from which so much can be learnt), I often find that much valuable time can be wasted learning several pages of somewhat indifferent music for just one aspect of technique – time which could have been much better spent learning some great repertoire. I feel there is much benefit to be gained for each teacher to develop his own notebook of very short exercises which cover all the necessary movements require for specific techniques. These should be simple and short enough to be taught by imitation, rather than by note-learning. The resulting enjoyment is liberating.

I was recently teaching an adult pupil the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano (Debussy). She had worked at it very thoroughly, but the result was somewhat heavy and wooden. So, we started to make up some exercises together (perhaps I can now call these “games”) which were partly based on passages in this piece.

These exercises are very difficult to describe, because the main feature of them is of fluid, swirling hand and arm movements which flow, interact and overlap each other (if you have ever seen a chef tossing pizza dough between his hand you will know the sort of movements I mean). The arm, wrist and hand are extremely soft and fluid and the fingers just “play” very lightly on the keys. Each exercise should be played as fast as possible – caution is not recommended. There is no credit to be gained from playing correct notes, but the beauty of sound is encouraged. In fact, all the exercises are played by imitation (not reading the notes) so that the tension of note-reading and the fear of playing wrong notes are eliminated.

Each piece can be the starting point for similar “games”, and game can be simplified or made more complex, depending on the level of the student. The pupils themselves can start to make up their own. One new technique can be introduced in each lesson in this very amiable way. The possibilities are endless – and fun!

© Penelope Roskell

(This article first appeared in the summer 2012 issue of ‘Piano Professional’, the journal of the European Piano Teachers’ Association.)

Penelope Roskell is equally renowned as a performer of international calibre and as an inspirational teacher and professor of piano at Trinity College of Music. Full biography here.

For information about courses, private tuition, books and DVDs please visit:


Take a bow: how to behave at a concert

With my students’ concert less than two weeks away now, here are some tips on ‘concert etiquette’ to help make the experience as enjoyable as possible, for performers and audience.

It’s important to behave in the right way when you are taking part in a concert. How you walk on stage (‘body language’) and how you dress can be as important as how you play. Here are some helpful tips to think about ahead of our summer concert:

  1. Dress nicely. A concert is an occasion, and your clothing will help to make you and the audience feel special.
  2. Walk on stage, smile at the audience, bow: Take time to “greet” the audience, don’t rush to the piano without looking at them
  3. Body language: Use your body to tell the story of the music as well as the way you play it. So, a romantic, quiet piece needs quiet, soft hand movements; while more lively piece, with lots of staccato, for example, needs hand gestures to match.
  4. Poise: Don’t get flustered or laugh, or giggle nervously if something goes wrong in your performance. Take a deep breath and keep going.
  5. At the end of your piece: make sure you hold the last note for the right amount of time – too much is better than not enough. If you leave the last note too early, it sounds as if you can’t wait to leave the building! And don’t rush away from the piano. Stand, look at the audience, bow, and then walk back to your seat.
  6. Sit quietly while others are playing, don’t rustle your music or programme or chat to your friends. It can be distracting for the performer if the audience is noisy or unattentive.
  7. Applaud loudly and enthusiastically after each performance. Applause is the audience’s way of showing how much they have enjoyed the music!
  8. Finally, and most importantly – ENJOY yourself!

Special note to my students: as you know, we are very lucky to be borrowing a ‘spinet’ (baby harpsichord) from a friend of mine, who will also be performing in the concert. The spinet is a delicate instrument and needs to be treated with great care. Any students who would like to try the spinet should ask me in advance of the concert.

We will also have some guest performances given by friends of mine who are students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, one of London’s top music colleges, as well as other friends who are pianists. I hope these performances will be both interesting and inspirational.

More about the concert, including ticketing and venue information here

Myths about piano lessons

Thinking about taking piano lessons, but worried you won’t cut the mustard as a piano student?

This helpful and informative article by Howard Richman dispels plenty of myths about piano lessons and piano teachers, offers sensible advice about how to approach lessons, whether a child or an adult, a beginner or a restarter, and has some thoughtful comments on practising and studying the piano.

Read the full article here