The Mindful Pianist by pianist, teacher composer and examiner, Mark Tanner is the latest volume in the Piano Professional series published by Faber Music in association with EPTA, UK (the European Piano Teachers’ Association). “Mindful” is the word du jour, and the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic technique of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations – has become increasingly popular in today’s stressful and busy world. This book, however, is not some groovy, new age, Zen guide to piano playing, but rather takes its inspiration and approach from the definitions of the word “Mindful”at the top of this article. With contributions from a number of leading pianists and piano pedagogues, including Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, Margaret Fingerhut, Penelope Roskell, Leslie Howard and Madeline Bruser, the book draws on the author’s and contributors’ own experiences of playing and teaching the piano, and explores ways in which pianists, amateur or professional, can be more attentive, careful, self-compassionate and mindful in their day-to-day engagement with the piano and its literature.
Written in an engaging and accessible style, yet clearly supported by many years of practical experience as a teacher and performer, and academic research, the book encourages the pianist to take a fresh perspective on playing and performing by applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano. Through 4 distinct parts, Mark Tanner explores the crucial connection between mind and body, and how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined and ultimately more rewarding. He begins with simple breathing exercises which enable one to focus while at the piano before a note has even been struck and includes practical advice on overcoming feelings of inadequacy when a practise session goes less well, or the self-esteem issues which accompany performing. He tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam with wisdom and gentleness – throughout the text, one has the sense of Mark encouraging us to be kind to ourselves and to show self-compassion. The section of exams (‘The View from the Examiner’s Chair’) is written from a wealth of personal experience and is particular helpful in offering perspective to those teachers, and students, who may feel exams place undue pressure on aspiring young pianists. There is also a section on “mindful listening” (‘The Virtuoso Listener’) which encourages us to sharpen our listening abilities, both at the piano and when we hear music on the radio, in concert, on disc etc.
‘The Mindful Pianist’ is a long, detailed and highly satisfying read, and I will be extracting Mark’s wisdom to share with my own students as well as putting into practise some of his methods in my own playing and performing.
This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect your level of satisfaction with the piano lessons you are giving, or you or your child is receiving. Elissa Milne
Thinking about studying at music college? This guest post by Madelaine Jones, a third-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, will give you a flavour of student life at a top London conservatoire…..
“So where do you study, then? What subject?”
“Oh, I’m a piano student. I study at a conservatoire.”
Cue either the hostile look of ‘that’s not actually a degree, is it?’ (unfortunately, I have experienced this), the confusion at the fact that I attend an alien type of institution that sounds shockingly similar to something you grow plants in (amusingly, I have also experienced this), or the look of sheer terror at the fact that I clearly must spend 14 hours a day chained to a piano and have no shred of a life away from a keyboard. To fellow musicians who’ve never experienced conservatoire life, there is this strange misconception that conservatoire musicians are work-machines who never do anything but practice, practice, practice – and while I’m sure there are some music students out there whose lives resemble something of the sort, the vast majority of conservatoire students have far more varied and interesting lives than you’d ever given them credit for.
Over the last three years of college, I have met people who work consistently throughout the year, putting a few hours in every day, come rain or shine. I have also met people who won’t touch a piano for weeks at a time and will wing their exams after cramming furiously at the last minute. Similarly, I’ve met people who study avidly, listening and reading as much as they possibly can. I’ve also met people who haven’t touched a book since they left school and who would far rather go to a Lady Gaga concert than a Wigmore Hall recital any day of the week. The spectrum of people, abilities and ambitions at a music college is simply staggering, and to cast a blanket over the average conservatoire student and their experience of college life would be absolutely impossible.
Personally speaking, the most important part of any conservatoire education is Principal Study time (or, to scrap the jargon, one-to-one instrumental lessons with a teacher). During your time at college, your teacher is your mentor and probably the biggest influence you’re going to have musically – I do even know some people who picked their college solely for their instrumental teacher. As with scary practice myths, there seems to be this misconception that all teachers at conservatoires are incredibly hard taskmasters who crack the whip incessantly and have ridiculous expectations. True, there are some teachers like that – and generally it’s the pupils who want to be pushed who opt for those teachers. But equally, there are plenty of empathetic teachers out there. My Principal Study teacher is quite simply one of the most understanding and patient teachers I have ever had (given my somewhat temperamental disposition, she’s got the patience of a saint!), and the lack of pushiness doesn’t in any way deter me or make me want to work less. If anything, it inspires me to work harder so that I can try and repay her for her kindness and understanding by becoming a better pianist. But there are some people I know who would hate to have a teacher that, frankly, didn’t kick them up the backside every five minutes, else they’d get complacent.
The freedom to do what you want at a conservatoire is, without any shadow of a doubt, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of timetabled activities, I don’t actually have a lot of classes: there are a few academic classes every week, a few optional ensemble classes, a performance tutorial, but in terms of compulsory lectures to attend, there’s really not much to pin your day around. This can be a blessing if you’re motivated enough to use it wisely: you can practice, read about music (or anything else), go to concerts, widen your view on the world, and still have time to get all your work for college done. You can also fill your time with extra-curricular projects and performances. Over the past two years, I’ve taken harpsichord lessons and occasionally participated in Early Music projects, which has been a great experience. Other people I know have signed up for various orchestral projects or completely saturated their timetable with chamber music. So, for people who really want to get involved, having a sparse timetable with access to practice facilities and a whole range of optional classes is a blessing. However, the question of motivation is always an issue. Let’s face it, if you had nothing but a couple of hours of classes on your timetable every day, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak more than the odd lie-in too? Wouldn’t that picnic in the park, mid-June and gorgeously sunny, sound more appealing than a day in a sweaty practice room to you? Where there is freedom, there is always the temptation to stray off the path of hard work. It’s just up to the individual how much they want to let themselves stray.
So when people ask me what a conservatoire is like, as you can see, there’s such a giant scope of different experiences that it’s difficult to pin down a single explanation. It will vary from person to person, conservatoire to conservatoire (experiences in other colleges may be different – those of you who attend ridiculously competitive institutions, berate me if you wish). To sum up the average experience, given those I know and see on a day-to-day basis, I would say this: a conservatoire is strange little bubble of a world where everybody talks about Schumann like they know him personally, drinks coffee incessantly, finds it normal to spend more than 10 hours in college and only have spent half of them actually practising and fills the rest of the time either frittering away their life in the café, avoiding work, or, if they’re one of the blessedly motivated few, reading and listening and broadening their mind. It really is a truly wonderful – if a little surreal – place to study, and even in the stressy exam periods, I am very happy to say I chose to come to a conservatoire and have enjoyed my time immensely so far (sadly, I’m now halfway through my degree). To me, the best part of it all is that since everyone is studying the same subject, and college is so small, there’s a great sense of camaraderie in a conservatoire which you don’t get in your average university. Everyone has a shared love, and everyone’s in the same boat – a boat which, with any luck, would have good sound-proofing.
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. She reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack, and is a regular guest contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.
Cadences are the punctuation marks in music (see my earlier post on Musical Punctuation Marks). Some cadences are very final (.) while others pause for only a moment (,). Some introduce the performer/listener to a new idea or section in the music (:), others leave the listener wanting more (….). Cadences can asks questions (?), and can create surprise (!). They help create suspense and tension in music. And they can even be used incorrectly, which leads to a disturbing or disappointing effect.
Cadences help create the pacing and flow of your music. They can give the listener’s ear a chance to rest at the end of a phrase or help them understand the structure of the music by clearly marking off different sections.
Cadences are easy to hear, but are sometimes difficult to recognise, as there are several distinct types of cadence. A cadence comes at the end of a passage of music and each type of cadence has a particular harmonic progression (see my post on Major Scales for more about the degrees of the scale).
The strongest and most easily recognised cadence is the Perfect Cadence. A perfect cadence sounds final, finished. This is because it is built from very strict harmonic requirements:
harmonic progression from the dominant (V) to tonic (I) or “home” key
the roots of both chords are in the bass
the melody must end in the tonic (“home) key
A perfect cadence is nearly always found at the very end of a piece of music, or the end of a section. Sometimes a seventh is added to the dominant chord, creating what is called a “dominant seventh”. A dominant seventh always wants to go “home”, and when we hear a dominant seventh chord, our ear craves the resolution that comes when the chord moves to the tonic. The Perfect Cadence is often described as “masculine”, meaning that it has a very firm, decisive sound.
The Plagal Cadence is often called the “amen” cadence because it is frequently used as a setting for the word “amen” at the end of hymns. In a Plagal Cadence, the harmonic progression is from the sub-dominant (the fourth note of the scale) to the tonic or IV – I. It is softer and warmer than a Perfect Cadence, and is often described as a “feminine” ending. It is less forceful and more peaceful.
An Imperfect Cadence sounds incomplete because it does not finish on the tonic (“home”), giving he sense of a comma or a question mark. Although there is a definite feeling of pause and rest, there is also a feeling of incompleteness. The imperfect cadence suggests that more needs to be said, either as a continuation or an answering phrase.It creates suspension and sets up an urge to move on to the tonic to make the music sound properly finished. It moves from any chord to the dominant (V).
An Interrupted Cadence is the “surprise” or “deceptive” cadence, because it doesn’t go where you expect it to. The imperfect cadence isn’t successful unless it is set up to surprise the ear of the listener. Because a dominant (V) chord has such a strong natural tendency to move to the tonic (“home”), the easiest way to create the expectation and surprise the listener is by moving from the dominant (V) to anything but the tonic.
The Picardy Third (also known as Tierce de Picardie) is a device where a major tonic chord is used at the end of a passage in the minor key. It can be found in any perfect or plagal cadence where the prevailing key is in the minor. It creates the sense of a “happy ending” in music, and is often used to great effect in Baroque music.
Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G minor, Opus 15, no. 13 makes particularly fine use of suspensions and cadences, especially in the latter, hymn-like section of the piece. Listen to it here: Chopin: Nocturne No.6 in G minor, Op.15 No.3
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:
Phrases are like musical ‘sentences’, and, a phrase in music expresses a complete idea. In classical music, phrases are symmetrical in length, but in modern music a phrase can be any length. Phrasing helps to shape the music, and to give it life, form and ‘punctuation’. Phrasing relates to the way in which individual notes in a group of consecutive notes are played, and represents the many deviations and adjustments the musician needs to make to bring expression (feelings) to the music, to demonstrate stylistic and cultural awareness (i.e. “where the music comes from”, the context of its composition, and the style of music – e.g. Romantic, Baroque etc). Musicians need to shape (“phrase”) the music in such a way that is obvious and detectable by the listener.
Phrases are usually marked with curved lines (called slurs), indicating that a particular group of notes “belong” together as one musical idea. These can also be legato markings, but not always; notes may be marked staccato under a slur. Sometimes, though, no phrases are marked and it is up to you as the pianist to work out where the phrases should be.
Composers sometimes include dynamic markings in a phrase to show you how they would like you to shape the music. For example, if the music moves up in pitch (gets higher), the composer might put a sign to get louder (crescendo), with a sign to get quieter (diminuendo) as the music moves down in pitch (gets lower). You can get a good idea of how to shape a phrase by singing it out loud: the human voice rises and falls naturally, and the end of a phrase is where you would take a breath if you were singing it.
Music that comes from the Baroque period (17th and early 18th centuries), by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, tends not to have any phrase markings – or indeed any other markings (unless these have been added by an editor; a score without editorial additions is called “urtext” meaning “original”). This was quite normal for the time: the composer would expect the musician to know how to shape the music, where to add staccato, legato, to get quieter or get louder, and so on.
There are two ways in which phrasing can be approached:
Intuitively – i.e. by feel or sense of the music. Intuitive phrasing borrows from the phrasing in spoken and punctuated language – the rise and fall of the voice, the speed of speech. Chopin once said to a student, “he who phrases incorrectly is like a man who does not understand the language he speaks.” If we listen to ourselves and others speaking, we notice that we do not speak in a flat, monotonous way, at the same speed the whole time. Just imagine what we would sound like if we did: very boring! Likewise, music can be shaped, “punctuated” in the same way as language.
Analytically – relying entirely on the written score and one’s knowledge of the way music is structured.
In reality, we probably use both approaches when attempting to phrase music, though the intuitive approach is more useful, in my view, as it produces a more natural result.
As a general rule, it is helpful to remember these points when trying to add colour, shape and interest to a phrase:
Phrases end with a ‘breath’.
The last note of a phrase is the quietest.
The peak is often found on the long note of a phrase, or the highest note of a phrase.
Never play two notes in a row at the same level.
Two-note slurs (“drop slurs”) are always louder then softer.
Baroque (“baah-rock”) is a style of art, which includes music, architecture and painting, and which lasted from around 1600 to around 1750. The greatest composer of the Baroque period is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
Baroque is a style of music, rather than an exact period of time. In other words, some composers lived during the Baroque period, but their music isn’t necessarily “totally Baroque” in style (for example, Domenico Scarlatti, or Georg Frederic Handel). The best way to get to know Baroque music is to listen to it (this is true for all classical music!). When you listen to Baroque music, you will begin to notice two distinct features:
‘Twiddly bits’. Baroque music has lots of twiddles on notes. The proper name for these twiddles is “ornaments”, “decoration” or “trills”. These were often used to add interest to the music, especially during a repeated section, or to add “sound” if the piece was played on the harpsichord which cannot sustain sound in the same way as the piano. If you look at Baroque architecture, you will see lots of twiddly bits in that too. All this decoration helps to make the architecture much more interesting – just like in the music. One of my students, Eli, is a big fan of Bach’s music and describes the trills and mordents (a kind of ornament) in the Menuet in G minor which he learnt for his Grade 2 exam as “the last bit of topping on the pizza”, or the “icing on the cake”.
Baroque music is made up of many different strands or “tunes” which all come together – or sometimes oppose each other – to create the whole piece. This is called “counterpoint” and is a key feature of music from the Baroque period.
Baroque music often seems very ordered, and logical, but it’s never boring. Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1674-1741) wrote The Four Seasons, which is a wonderful piece for orchestra which describes the different seasons: try listening to the Tempest (storm) in from ‘Summer’ for some really descriptive music.
Baroque music remains very popular today and is widely performed, sometimes on “period instruments” – instruments which are either from the Baroque period (and therefore very rare) or are authentic copies of Baroque instruments.
The piano as we know it didn’t exist during the Baroque period, so composers such as Bach and Scarlatti were writing for other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, spinet (baby harpsichord), clavichord and organ. Today many pianists play Baroque music on the piano. One of the most famous works for keyboard is the Goldberg Variations, by J S Bach. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) made two definitive recordings of the Goldberg Variations, in 1955 and 1982. Here he is playing the ‘Aria’, which is the first piece of the work:
J S Bach: Brandenberg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, Cantatas, Harpsichord and Violin Concertos, St John Passion (written for Easter)
George Frideric Handel: The Messiah (includes the “Hallelujah” chorus), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Keyboard Suites, operas. (Although German by birth, Handel lived in London, and you can still visit his house and play some of the harpsichords there.)
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, many concertos for solo instrument (for example, two mandolins) and orchestra, operas
Domenico Scarlatti: 100s of keyboard (harpsichord) sonatas, of many contrasting styles and moods
Other composers from the Baroque period: Teleman, Rameau, Couperin, Albinoni, Allegri, Lully, Purcell, Corelli, Pergolesi
‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Europa Galante