Guest post: Digital Pianos – Which Should I Buy?

by Serena Grant

Digital pianos provide a more recent and economical alternative to acoustic pianos. Digital pianos tend to much smaller and more portable than acoustic pianos, and are able to reproduce the sound and tone of an acoustic piano. Although this fidelity is never 100%, digital piano sound has improved in the past ten years. Digital pianos are also generally cheaper than acoutic pianos, and feature a number of additional extras, from LCD and LED displays through to USB connections, amplifiers and headphones, as well as synthesisers.

When choosing between different digital pianos, it is important to think about cost, the sound and touch quality of the piano, its additional features, and how portable it is for travelling and gigging. Most digital pianos will be sourced from a small number of manufacturers, with Yamaha, Roland, Casio, Kawai and Korg among the most popular. Looking at these brands, it is possible to narrow down some recommended pianos.

Yamaha

Still the most well known and widespread brand, Yamaha’s entry level digital pianos are particularly recommended for their sound quality and range. One of the best options when exploring Yamaha models is the NP30 portable grand digital. Compact, and not as expensive as some other brands, the NP30 is defined by its simpler, but streamlined functions, making it an excellent choice for anyone wanting to begin playing the digital piano. This piano is also recommended for touring.

Roland

Another leading digital piano manufacturer, the Roland brand is primarily defined by its HP and KR models, and for the lightness of its key touches. A favourite amongst music professionals, Rolands also feature lighter materials, and are similar in quality to other Japanese brands. Recommended examples of Roland’s digital piano range include the RD-700NX. A stage piano with 88 keys, the RD-700NX is customisable and while more expensive than some other digital pianos, is one of the best performers on the market.

Casio

Deciding between Casio Digital’s Celviano and Privia brands is important for new buyers, with Celviano more expensive and more useful. Casio pianos are generally best for their value for money, as well a for their sound and touch. The Privia PX130 piano is particularly strong as a lower end option that is also highly portable. With 88 keys, and light enough to carry to performances, the Privia is a good choice for regular use.

Kawai 

Best known for their upright digital pianos, the Japanese manufacturer Kawai have been producing digital instruments for decades. Their pianos are best defined by their medium weight and range of features. The Kawai CN33 is recommended for home practicing and studio work, as well as for its distinctive acoustic emulation and LCD displays.

Korg 

Another Japanese brand, Korg’s stylish digital pianos are particularly ideal for micro and stage playing. The SP170 is perhaps their best model, and while more expensive than some other manufacturers, is ideal for performances and for its 120 polyphony range. Korg pianos are also compatible with MIDI devices, and features weighted, touch sensitive keys and a range of preset songs and accessories.

Casio Privia PX730 Digital Piano

About the author Serena studied AS Drama and A-Level Musical Theatre, achieving a distinction in the latter. With an enthusiasm for playing the piano, taking lessons since she was 7 years old, she is also an avid theatre lover, using her knowledge to be a full-time writer for a number of online publications, including UK Theatre Tickets, the number one seller of discount theatre tickets online.

Musical Punctuation Marks

Imagine if you were listening to someone speak, perhaps reading out the news on television, or reading a poem to you. The speaker’s voice sounds the same the entire time they are speaking, with no rise or fall in sound, no changes in rhythm or tempo (speed), and no indication that there are pauses, full stops, or breaks for breath. Imagine how boring that would be to listen to! Writers include punctuation marks in text to help the reader or speaker understand and enjoy the text more, and to add interest.
In just the same way, music has its own ‘punctuation marks’ to help the listener understand and enjoy the piece. It is our job as performer to transmit all these punctuation marks to the listener by highlighting them in our playing. If we don’t do this, the music will be boring, monotone, lacking in colour, rhythmic vitality and interest. From the very beginning of the music, in fact, even before we play a single note, the composer will give us very clear signals about how he would like the music to sound, and throughout the music there are signs and symbols to tell us how to “punctuate” or shape the music.

Musical Punctuation Marks

 

 

 

Metronome Mark – this gives an indication of suggested tempo (speed). Not all music includes a metronome mark on the core: music written before Beethoven’s time does not because the metronome had not been invented. Beethoven was very clear about metronome marks and the speed at which his music should be played. Ignore it at your peril!

 

 

 

Tempo and descriptive markings – usually in Italian at the start of the score. For example, allegro (briskly), lento (slowly), cantabile (in a singing style), con fuoco (with fire).

Articulation markings – signs which tell us to do something particular to a note, such as staccato (detached, bouncy), legato (smoothly), accented, pause (fermata).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dynamic markings – signs or words which tell us how loudly or softly to play. For example: crescendo (getting louder gradually), subito piano (suddenly get soft), sforzando (with force)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phrase marks – curved lines which indicate that a group of notes form a musical ‘idea’. See my longer article on phrase marks.

Rests – where to be silent

Other signs and markings – such as accidentals, octave markings, ornaments, pedal signs, repeat signs, first and second time bars, Da capo al fine (repeat a section and end at the fine sign), key signature changes, cadences (see my later long article on cadences).

Be sure to take note of all the signs and symbols in the music and respond to them accordingly as your. The composer has put them there for a reason!

Aural Masterclass Part 1 – Intervals

The first in an occasional series of posts to help students prepare for aural tests.

Understanding intervals is an important aspect of playing and studying music, and this is why music exams test candidates on their knowledge of intervals.

An interval is the distance between one note and another, and is always described as a number, depending on how many degrees (‘steps’) of the scale are between the two notes (see my post on Major Scales for more about the degrees of the scale). For example, from C to D is two steps, and this interval is a 2nd. Each interval sounds and looks different, and with practice, you will be able to spot them more easily when you hear them or see them written in the score. We always read up from the bottom or ‘root’ note: in the scale of C major, the root note is C.

A good way to help remember intervals and recognise them more easily is to associate each one with a song or piece of music:

Major 2nd – Frere Jacques, Happy Birthday

Major 3rd – When the Saints Go Marching In, Kumbaya

Perfect 4th – Away in a Manger, Here Comes The Bride

Perfect 5th – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Star Wars theme

Major 6th – My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, My Way

Major 7th – Take On Me by A-Ha (a Norwegian band from the 1980s with terrible haircuts!)

Octave – Somewhere Over the Rainbow

What do intervals sound like when sounded together as a chord? When I do aural practice with my students, I ask them to try and describe the sound of the interval they are hearing: here are some of our most popular descriptions:

Minor 2nd – painful, pinched

Major 2nd – pinched, tense, crunchy (dissonant)

Minor 3rd – sad

Major 3rd – warm

Perfect 4th – sad, bare

Perfect 5th – open, “hunting horn”

Perfect 6th – warm

Major 7th – crunchy, tense

Listen to intervals

Create your own intervals example chart

Music Intervals – app for iPhone/iPod/iPad

Guest post: Transposition – a dying art?

by Madelaine Jones

We all know the feeling – you’re sat on the stool, anxious before a first rehearsal with a singer. Doubtless you’ll have practised the piece, sorted the fingerings, and on meeting the culprit of your hours of toil, you’ll find them to be a perfectly human, ordinary musical being with whom you can get on splendidly, and the rehearsal will go swimmingly. That is, before the seven words that would send a shiver of dread down any aspiring pianist’s spine: “Can you put that down a tone?”

Indeed, transposition is rapidly becoming the Atlantis of pianism, with seemingly very few pianists left in the musical stratosphere that have a grip on the elusive art – and to those who think I am preaching, I am most certainly not one of the few. Last summer, I decided to sit a diploma in accompaniment in which one of the requirements was sight-transposition, and I can honestly say I have never been so thoroughly vexed over such a small component of an exam before. On the day, after preparing for months with a hymn book at the recommendation of a teacher (six hymns up and down a tone every day – healthy work but proved to be a winner in the end), I found it was nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. I’m certainly no master transposer, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so in front of another human being again, but with significant practice and preparation, it was no more difficult to learn than any other piano skill I’ve acquired.

So why on earth are we so scared of it?

It seems to me that there is an obvious answer, staring us in the face: unfamiliarity. How many of our teachers drilled scales into us as a child? I’m guessing practically all of them. Sight-reading? The vast majority (and how thankful we are, even if we hated it at the time!). Transposition? I expect not a single hand in the room will have gone up.

I am not launching a tirade against teachers, since they already bear the blame for far too many things as it is; given such a small amount of contact time, teachers simply cannot cover all the bases, and something which does not feature on exam syllabuses or even yet exist to a young learner given its ‘advanced skill’ status is understandably going to be swept under the rug. But why is this considered such a niche skill in the first place, and why are exam boards not bringing this in at a far earlier stage than diploma level?  Why are we not encouraging young children to go away and try to transpose fragments of music? It improves knowledge of keys  – if you don’t know the scales and chords for the keys you’ve played in properly, you can’t possibly transpose into them. It improves memory – if you understand the relationship of the chords inside out, you’re far less likely to forget the notes than a learn-by-rote ‘A B C’ approach. It improves aural skills – transposition is, to a very high degree, dependent on aural awareness and the ability to hear and anticipate what is coming next.

To those of you who think I’m asking too much of young learners, try it. Give a young pupil a small fragment of melody, and then ask them to play it on a different note. Talk about the differences, any ‘black notes’ that may have appeared, and you will find they pick it up a lot more quickly and less painfully than you expect. What you’ve just taught someone is how to transpose on a very basic level. In fact, you do it all the time when you teach children to play scales. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve mystified transposition so much that people think it impossibly difficult, learners and teachers alike. Just as with any other skill, you have to start somewhere. If you pick a Chopin Etude you can barely play in the correct key and try to put it up or down a tritone, of course you’re going to struggle. If you take a simple hymn and move it to a related key, you’re going to find you make far better progress.

Naturally, with every other skill under the sun to practise, I doubt we (or our pupils) will now all fall to religiously practising our hymns in every key every day. But next time you’re frustrated with a piece and can’t understand the ins-and-outs of it properly, why not try popping it up or down a tone? If nothing else, it could become a neat party trick…

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time, reviewing for Bachtrack and posting on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

What the great composers teach us

We can learn a great deal from studying and learning music by the great composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bartok, and even contemporary classical composers. Find out more here…..

What the great composers teach us.

(this post first appeared on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Be an Olympian at the piano

The London 2012 Olympics are a wonderful celebration of sporting success and the superb achievements of Team GB (and others) are an inspiration to us all. Of course such triumphs do not come easily, and every medal winning British athlete interviewed has put their success down to hard work, commitment and focused training, day in day out. Cyclist Mark Cavendish (who sadly failed to achieve a medal in the cycling road race) commented after Team GB won gold in the team pursuit in the Velodrome that to be that good you must “spend hours training on the track, from 7 in the morning to 10 at night”. This sounds like a punishing regime – indeed, it is a punishing regime! – but there is no doubting that these athletes do it because they are driven to achieve and because they love their sport.

British cyclist Bradley Wiggins who won the gold medal in the Olympic time trial

Musicians are like athletes in lots of ways: we train endlessly for a few important competitions, concerts, festivals and exams, or we might play what we love just for fun, but it all comes down to enjoyment and fair play, and there is plenty we can learn from Olympic athletes to help us in our day to day “training” (practising).

Commitment and Discipline: practice regularly! You don’t win gold medals on one training session a week. Remember: regular practice = noticeable progress

Focus: get into the habit of knowing which aspects of your practice need most attention. It might be technical work or a tricky passage in one of your pieces. Learn how to pinpoint problem areas and work over them in a focused way

Self-belief: tell yourself you can do it and trust your musical instincts. Don’t be put off by small errors in an exam or festival performance, and don’t let fear of failure hold you back. Learn from every mistake you make.

Dream big, aim high: set yourself challenges and clear goals – a Distinction in your next exam, first prize in that competition, an involving and exciting concert performance – and “go big” on the day. Work hard, but don’t stop loving what you do.

Keep fit: like an athlete, a musician should stay healthy. Do warm up exercises to help relieve tension, look after your body, and never play through pain.

Be creative: if your are finding your practising boring, think of ways to make it more interesting. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches and take advice from teachers, mentors and other musicians.

Train the brain: learn how to deal with performance nerves and fear of failure. “Download” your anxieties by writing them down: this can help you step back from your nerves and rationalise them. Get used to the pressure by filming or recording yourself performing, or by performing for your family at home. Use relaxation techniques such as deep-breathing, repeating a phrase or “mantra”, or visualising yourself in a successful performance situation. (See this article on stage fright.)

Get inspired: go to concerts and masterclasses with the professionals, and find out what makes them tick, how they prepare for that big event, and what motivates them to keep going (read my Meet the Artist interviews to find out more about what drives professional musicians).

Celebrate achievement: take pride in your exam or festival successes. Whether it’s Grade 1 or Grade 8, it all counts, and each success should inspire you to aim higher and greater.

Love what you do: every single musician, professional or amateur, that I’ve met does it because they love it. And I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it!

Good luck!

What’s the point of scales?

Many piano students view scales as tedious, mindless exercises, a painful part of practice time, with no value or relevance to “real” piano playing. In fact, scales are incredibly important and useful, and students need to understand this from the very start of their study of scales and other technical exercises (broken chords and arpeggios).

I can remember most of the scales I learnt during the course of my piano studies as a child and a teenager. By the time I took Grade 8 in my early teens, it felt like I had learnt 100s of scales – parallel motion, contrary motion, octaves, thirds, sixths, chromatic, chromatic thirds! I would rattle through them every day as a separate part of my practising regime, but my teacher never really explained to me why they were relevant to the pieces I was learning.

Some of the exam boards expect candidates to learn far too many scales, in my opinion (and a view also shared by Dame Fanny Waterman, renowned teacher and founder of the Leeds Piano Competition), and it was for this reason that I switched my students from the ABRSM exam syllabus to Trinity Guildhall. Overly onerous requirements to learn scales mean that students may not be able to spend the appropriate amount of time studying their pieces and practising key aspects of technique.

Plenty of pianists regard scales as warming up exercises – the pianistic equivalent of a jog around the sports field prior to a training session or a match – but there are more valuable warming up exercises, which can be done away from the piano (see my article on this subject here).

So why should we learn scales?

  • Scales teach an understanding of and familiarity with key signatures and the underlying harmonic structure of the music. By studying the scales and arpeggios associated with a piece of music we are studying, we gain a deeper knowledge of the building blocks of the music, a deeper harmonic awareness and improved sight-reading skills.
  • Scales teach us the fingerings associated with particular tonalites (e.g. D-flat Major, f-sharp minor) and how these feel under the fingers on the keyboard.
  • Scales teach an understanding and awareness of the techniques of lateral (“sideways”) movement around the keyboard, including finger action, passing the thumb under the hand and bringing the hand over the thumb, and evenness of touch.

When my students start work on new repertoire, I ask them to highlight fragments of scales or arpeggios within the piece to help them understand that learning scales really does have a relevance: learn to play scales evenly and with a beautiful quality of sound and you can tackle sparkling passages in Mozart, the most dramatic arpeggiated sections in Beethoven (for example, the final movement of the Piano Sonata Op 27, No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’), Chopin’s fiorituras et al with ease and confidence.

In exam reports, examiners regularly highlight not only accuracy of scales but also evenness and quality of tone. We are told that Chopin made his pupils practice scales “with a full tone, as legato as possible, very slowly at first and only gradually advancing in a quicker tempo and with metronomic even-ness”. So follow Chopin’s example and aim for a beautiful sound and absolute evenness of rhythm in your scales (there is no need to use a metronome to achieve this: my childhood piano teacher simply asked me to count in 4s – 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4 – out loud as I played my scales). Listen as you play (a rule of thumb for all piano playing, whether technical exercises or pieces) and be self-critical: if the scale sounds ugly and/or uneven, try to understand why and correct it.

To play scales well, the fingers and hand need to be supported by the rest of the arm, while the arm itself must feel very free (another technique favoured by Chopin), soft and relaxed. My teacher uses the analogy of a skipping rope: the arm hangs freely from the shoulder at one end, and from the finger on the key at the other end. In between these two points, the arm can swing with the flowing, harmonious, wave-like movements of a skipping rope.

To make practising scales more interesting and enjoyable, students can experiment with different ways of playing them, such as dynamic variations, using C major fingering for all keys, including black-note scales (useful for Debussy!), RH staccato LH legato and vice versa, etc. But always bear in mind these words of wisdom from Dame Fanny Waterman:

“Scales aren’t metronomic, one accent per four notes. No! Scales are bridging passages, and they have their own beauty. They either have diminuendos, or crescendos, or diminuendos and crescendos at close quarters. But you have to get a wonderful evenness of sound. When you think of quick passages, they are slow tunes played fast. So every note in a scale passage is meaningful. It’s not a matter of accenting the first of every four.”

Theory Masterclass Part 1 – Major Scales

The first in an occasional series of articles on basic music theory.

A scale is a sequence of notes, either ascending (going up) or descending (going down). The most common scale of all is C major, which is made up from white notes only.

Most students would agree that the C Major scale is the “easiest”, because it has no black notes in it, but renowned composer, pianist and teacher Fryderyk Chopin believed that the C Major scale was the hardest because the notes do not lie comfortably under the hand. So, when he taught scales to his students, he started them on the scales with the most black notes because he felt they were more natural under the fingers and hand.

Major scales are always constructed in the same sequence of whole steps (tones) and half steps (semitones), no matter what the scale is:

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone (or T T S T T T S for short)

Degrees of the scale

Scales are constructed like the rungs of ladder, moving in consecutive steps. The notes of a scale (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) are known as the degrees of the scale: the 1st note is the 1st degree of the scale. In C Major, the first degree of the scale is C, because this is the first note the scale starts on. Each degree of the scale also has a name, which reflects its position and importance in the scale. The most important note is the one on which the scale starts: this is called the key note (or home note) or tonic. The next most important is the 5th note (G in the scale of C major); this is called the dominant.

In general, when writing about music (for example, in concert programme notes), major scales are capitalised (C Major, B-flat Major) and minor scales are lower-case (c minor, g minor, f-sharp minor).

Minor scales will be discussed in a separate post.

Picture Scales & Arpeggios

Here are some useful visual aids for students and teachers. I have found these picture scales and arpeggios particularly helpful with younger students or those who find it easier to visualise the notes on the keyboard rather than reading from the score. They are relevant for ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall exams.

Click on the link to download a PDF document:

Scales:

1 Octave Major Picture Scales

1 Octave Minor Picture Scales

2 Octave Major Picture Scales

2 Octave Minor Picture Scales

Arpeggios:

2 Octave Major Arpeggios

2 Octave Minor Arpeggios

(These diagrams come from Susan Paradis Teaching Resources and Discoveries Piano Studio, two websites which contains lots of useful resources for piano teachers and students).