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)

“I played it better at home!”

If I had a pound for every time a student said this in a lesson, I’d be a rich woman by now! We’ve all heard it, and I know I’ve been guilty of saying it myself occasionally at piano lessons with my own teacher. I’ve even been tempted to put up a sign next to the piano banning this phrase. Why? Because it’s a “given” that we play better at home. Of course we do. I suspect even top flight professionals play better in the comfort of the familiar surroundings of their own home or music studio. And it’s that familiarity that makes playing at home so much easier, less stressful and often more successful than playing in front of a teacher, examiner or audience.

tightrope-walking

My own teacher has a nice image of a tightrope to illustrate the different levels of tension and stress we encounter in different playing scenarios. When practising and playing at home, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, or even right on the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. But as soon as you leave the familiar, safe surroundings of your own home or music studio to play for or in front of someone else, the tightrope gets higher and the fear of falling (and failing) is that much greater. Perhaps the highest and potentially most risky musical tightrope is the public performance.

My students know me well enough by now to avoid saying “I played it better at home“. There are several reasons why I discourage students from trotting out this phrase before or immediately after they have played a piece or section of a piece to me:

  • I am keen to encourage a positive attitude to one’s music making. I apply this positive approach to my own music making and my teaching. Using techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy I aim to turn negative self-talk into messages of positive affirmation which encourage confidence.
  • While the statement I played it better at home may be true, deciding not to say or even think this is helpful in fostering a positive attitude to one’s playing, which in turn encourages more confident music making.
  • Pre-empting a performance with the statement I played it better at home immediately sets up negative feelings and a greater possibility for errors because your awareness of your anxiety is heightened.
  • The memory of a good performance in the comfort of one’s home can be used to reinforce positive feelings when playing for others – in an exam, audition or concert – and is a useful tool in countering anxiety and encouraging a good performance. Equally, when in a stressful performance situation, imagine you are at your piano at home, feeling (reasonably) relaxed and comfortable as you play.
  • Change the message: rather than I played it better at home, maybe try thinking I played well at home, I have done my practising and preparation and I am ready to play well now
  • In a performance situation, instead of saying I am nervous, trying saying I am excited. This simple change of vocabulary immediately turns a negative message into a positive one.

Faking it: stagecraft for graded piano exams and performance diplomas

I am continually surprised at how infrequently stagecraft is taught as a specific skill to developing musicians, from children taking graded music exams to students at music college. I think this stems in part from a misplaced view that stagecraft is only for “professional” musicians. Yet the ability to comport oneself well in a performance situation is a crucial skill for the musician, whatever their level of skill or ability, and well-organised, practised stagecraft can add an extra layer of confidence and polish to one’s performance. It also offers a useful life skill, for giving presentations or public speaking, for example, and helps to build confidence generally. Personally, I think stagecraft and presentation skills should be part of the graded exam syllabus, certainly for the higher grades

In performance diplomas candidates are assessed on their presentation skills and stagecraft, and in the Trinity diplomas this is marked as a separate aspect of the diploma recital and includes elements such as appropriate attire (“for an afternoon or early evening recital”), programme notes and communication skills. While candidates are not currently assessed on presentation skills in graded music exams, a certain amount of polished stagecraft can help the exam go well by instilling positive feelings in the candidate, and I feel it is especially appropriate in the advanced grades (6-8).

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk to the piano without tripping over the hem of one’s concert dress, or how to bow properly. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience (or examiner) begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience (or examiner) can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

Actors well appreciate and understand the need to take on a specific character or persona, and to inhabit that character for the duration of the play. As musicians we also need to employ a degree of “acting” to step outside the practice room and into the persona of “performer”. Those with little experience of performing can feel very exposed when playing in front of others, and these feelings of exposure can contribute to performance anxiety. I have found it helpful in my own performances to “act” the part of a performer, which puts me at one remove from my anxiety. It can also put one into an appropriately focussed mindset ready for a public performance.

Good preparation is crucial for all, regardless of grade or ability level. The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a concert, meaning that he knew he’d done the right kind of quality practice to ensure he would not be derailed by slips or errors, or by distractions from the audience etc. A well-prepared teacher will ensure his/her students are equally well-prepared ahead of an exam, audition or other performance opportunity.

Some ways to foster good stagecraft and presentation

Encourage students to take their time in the exam/performance situation: I like to remind my students that it is not their responsibility to ensure the exam runs to time – that is the job of the examiner and steward at the exam centre (this, however, is not the case in diploma recitals where it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure the programme is within the designated time limit). Enter the room/stage confidently, greet the examiner politely and walk straight to the piano. Ensure the piano stool is the right height, that one feels comfortable.

Do not to rush to start playing but take a moment to think oneself into the opening of the piece – its sound, mood and character. Don’t hurry into the following pieces. Again, take a moment to consider the mood and character to be conveyed. In a diploma recital, the pauses between pieces can be integral to a professional overall performance: some works segue into one another logically, others require more time to “reset” the mood (for example, a very fast piece followed by a more contemplative work may need a longer pause between pieces). Don’t fill the time between pieces by talking to the examiner/s or fiddling with your nails but remain poised and focussed, “in the moment” of the performance and ready to continue.

At the end of the performance, don’t scurry away from the piano as if you can’t wait to leave (even if you feel like this, take time, “act” confident and remain poised). In a diploma recital you may wish to bow or acknowledge the examiner/s (a little dip of the head and some eye contact). Walk confidently from the room.

All these aspects can be practised at home (in front of parents and friends) and with the teacher. My piano is in my living room and when preparing for performance, I ask students to “come on stage” from the hall while I sit away from the piano, being the “audience” and giving the student someone at which to direct their performance.

I called this article “faking it”, recalling a former student of mine who liked to “channel” her favourite musician (Nicola Benedetti) in a performance situation. When preparing for a performance we would discuss “what would Nicola do?” and my student would try to imitate Nicola’s poise. Another student found it helpful to look at pictures of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (who always looks as if she adores performing!), and I have personally found observing musicians in live concerts very helpful in teaching myself good stagecraft and poise.

Here’s actor and comedian David Walliams showing us how not to do it…..


Related article

Performance anxiety: a stressful subject

Performance anxiety – a stressful subject

Years ago I went to a new dentist. I went with some trepidation as I had not been for regular check-ups for some years, mainly due to quite severe anxiety. When asked why I had stayed away from my dental appointments, I admitted that I was very fearful of the dentist. The dentist (a man) replied by laughing loudly and sarcastically telling me I was being very silly indeed. This made my anxiety even worse.

Some years later I had to have root canal work followed by the fitting of a dental crown. By this time I had moved to another part of London and found a dentist who was very understanding about my dental anxiety (not quite a phobia, but not far off). She allowed me to talk about my fear without interrupting me or telling me I was “being silly” or “childish” and explained that fear can sometimes come through a feeling of not being in control of a situation. “You can walk away from here any time you like, if you don’t feel comfortable’ she told me, going on to reiterate that I could choose to be in control of the situation and that she would do her utmost to make my experience as pain-free as possible. Her gentleness and empathy enabled me to largely overcome my anxiety and I went through the rather laborious root canal work without so much as a twinge of pain and fairly manageable anxiety.

In the course of 11 years of teaching, I have encountered quite a lot of anxiety in both my own students and the adult amateur pianists with whom I work and socialise at workshops and piano meetup events. How we as teachers approach anxiety in our students is a crucial part of our role and one which needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding.

When I was having piano lessons as a child and teenager anxiety never came up, and was never discussed. It was assumed that I would sail through my grade exams (which I largely did) and I don’t actually remember being nervous on exam day (my mother would compensate for this by being extremely anxious on my behalf!). My piano teacher never gave me any guidance on managing anxiety ahead of exams or festival performances. This is indicative of a general attitude towards performance anxiety which has prevailed until fairly recently – that one did not talk about it and certainly did not admit to suffering from it. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times now and the positive efforts of certain teachers, musicians and music colleges mean that anxiety can be discussed in a more open and sympathetic way, while sufferers can now access support and therapy to help them understand and manage their symptoms.

And “management” of symptoms rather than “cure” is an important distinction, in my opinion. The unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety (for example, racing heart, sweating, trembling, nausea) are part of the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, including the release of powerful stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and are common to us all, to a greater or lesser extent. An understanding that these symptoms are normal can go some way to alleviating them. When helping a student with anxiety issues, I remind them that we all feel like this, even the most seasoned professional artists.

Psychologically, anxiety can stem from many sources. In piano students, specifically adults, it may be associated with unpleasant experiences during childhood piano lessons – the overly authoritarian or unduly negative teacher, the overbearing pushy parent with unrealistic expectations, the embarrassment of a botched music exam, for example. In addition, as we get older, we seem to become more anxious about the responses of others and exposing ourselves publicly in a performance situation. We worry that people will laugh or sneer if we make mistakes and that as a consequence we will feel stupid or incompetent. Adult pianists often suffer from negative self-talk as well – that destructive “inner critic” whose critical running commentary on one’s playing can derail a performance and leave one feeling demoralised.

There are a number of simple strategies which teachers can employ to help students manage their anxiety, and rather than asking students why they feel nervous, focus on finding positive ways to manage their anxiety:

  • Take any anxiety seriously, and be respectful and sympathetic. Cheery statements like “you really don’t need to feel nervous because you know how to play the piano!” are not helpful.
  • Remind students that feeling anxious is normal, and common to us all, and that even top professionals feel nervous. Give them permission to feel anxious.
  • Remind students that the teacher is not there to “judge”, but to offer support and guidance on how to improve
  • Ensure the student is fully prepared ahead of an exam, festival, concert or audition. This should include not only detailed, methodical practising of pieces and supporting tests (technical work, aural, sight-reading, etc if relevant), but also practice performances – to teacher, to other students, to friends and family, and perhaps culminating in a mini concert
  • For adult students, an informal performance event, perhaps at the teacher’s home, or at a meetup or piano club, can offer the opportunity to play for others in a relaxed, non-threatening environment and a chance to discuss their anxiety with others (realising that other people feel the same can be a great comfort) and share ideas on managing nerves.
  • Reassure students that examiners are looking for expressive, musically-aware performances, rather than bland note-perfect playing. A few slips or misplayed notes in an otherwise musical performance will not lead to exam failure.
  • Techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy can help turn negative self-talk into positive messages of personal affirmation: “I am not scared, I am excited!“, “I can do this because I am well-prepared“, “I am doing this because I love the piano“.
  • Power poses have been proven to reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and can make one feel “bigger” and stronger emotionally too.
  • Mindfulness and trying to remain “in the moment” of the performance, rather than pre-empting or imagining what might happen. It can also help block out distracting noises from audience etc.

 

These are fairly simple strategies which are easy to implement. Those who perform more frequently gradually develop their own personal toolkit for managing their anxiety (for example, I have reached a state of acceptance about the nerves, ensure I am well-prepared and use CBT techniques for self-affirmation). But for those people with more severe or deep-seated anxiety, more specialist support may be required. A colleague of mine practices Cognitive Hypnotherapy – more about her services here

I Can’t Go On – factsheet on managing performance anxiety from BAPAM

The Psychology of Piano Technique – Murray McLachlan

130bad77-b230-4f95-b01e-c0a12b4d2371This, the third book by Murray McLachlan’s for Faber Music on piano technique, takes a more leftfield approach to piano playing and piano technique, tackling esoteric, psychological and philosophical issues such as visualisation techniques, inspiration, musicians’ health and well-being (including dealing with performance anxiety), career development, and encouraging independent learning and interpretative decision-making. This non-traditional approach is underpinned by the premise that we should love the piano and its literature, and always seek joy and creativity in our practising and learning. If this sounds like a New Age self-help book for pianists, be assured it is not: McLachlan, an internationally-renowned pianist and teacher, writes with intelligence and authority based on his own experience as a performer and teacher and many years spent in the industry, and his approach is pragmatic and practical, offering wisdom for pianists, whether professional or amateur, students and teachers.

I particularly liked the chapters on finding flow in practising, visualisation techniques (something I use in my own teaching and playing), avoiding dogmatism (in teaching and interpretation) and stepping beyond urtext editions to find one’s personal voice at the piano. The book does not need to be read straight through and indeed I have enjoyed dipping in and out of random chapters. The text is eminently readable with clearly-presented musical extracts.

Recommended.

 

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571540317

£12.99

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Adventures in Interpretation

There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience

Graham Fitch, ‘Practising the Piano’

I recently did an interesting exercise with all 12 of my students (young people whose ages range from 13 to 17) in which we examined and played a short piece of contemporary piano music by British composer Paul Burnell called ‘Just Before Dawn’. At this stage, I gave the students no more information about the piece.

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On first sight, the music looks both incredibly simple, yet also slightly confusing since there is only one stave with an arrangement of notes whose tails point both up and downwards. Most early and intermediate piano students probably have not encountered a score like this before. Initially, I asked each student to sight-read the music (the notes are not difficult). This in itself presented a challenge to a couple of students who found their left hand creeping down into the bass to play the notes whose tails pointed downwards. At this point, I simply highlighted the fact that there was only one stave marked with a treble clef and then left the student to work out how the notes should be shared between the hands.

After the piece had been played through once, I read the student the composer’s programme note for the piece

The music attempts to evoke a magical time just as as summer day is about to break, but when the stars can still clearly be seen in the sky

I then asked the student to play the piece again with the composer’s description in mind. The result was 12 distinct versions of the same piece – descriptive, expressive and personal. I then asked each student how they felt the composer indicated particularly aspects, such as the rays of the sun or the stars still visible in the sky. Some students felt the dotted minims with fermatas represented the sun, while others thought these notes were the stars still twinkling in the sky. One student referenced John Cage when we were discussing the simplicity of the music (this student “performed” Cage’s 4’33” at one of our concerts); the same student couldn’t believe I was playing ‘Just Before Dawn’ in a concert the day after his lesson and queried why one would play something “so easy” in a public concert. This led on to an interesting conversation about what constitutes “difficult” or “easy” music and what kind of music is “appropriate” for public performance (the subject of a forthcoming blog article).

I found the exercise really interesting (and I hope my students did to), for it offered an intriguing insight into the notion of musical “interpretation” and how one’s personality, perception, musical knowledge/musicality, life experience etc comes into play when we make music. As I said to each student, “there is no right way, I’m simply interested to hear what you make of this piece”. When I went to perform the piece in a public concert, my students’ individual performances and views of the music came to mind and I found myself shaping the music in a different way.

I am looking forward to repeating this exercise with some adult pianists at a later date.

Download the score of ‘Just Before Dawn’ here

Explore more of Paul Burnell’s piano music here