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.
On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As pianist and renowned teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.”
To me, this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.
Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.
Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone” or a flow state. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions.
Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality (SB)
Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.
Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.
The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come
Seymour Bernstein, ‘With Your Own Two Hands’ (Schirmer, 1981)
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: