Making the music 3-D

This week Eli, one of my students who has been learning with me for about 4 years, offered a wonderfully simple, yet insightful description of how we play musically, and ways in which we attempt to “tell the story” or “paint the picture” in music. He called it “making the music 3-D”. It came up as we were working on Requiem for a Little Bird by Gustave Sandré (current Trinity Guildhall Grade 3 piano syllabus), a piece with a surprising emotional depth, which Eli conveys with great thought and understanding.

In this work, the composer uses three main components to convey a sense of mourning and loss: a minor key, an Adagio tempo marking, and dramatic, contrasting dynamics. The notes are not especially difficult, but capturing the emotion of the piece is, and this is quite a sophisticated choice for a young student. Every week, I am impressed by the thought and care Eli puts into his performance.

How do we make our music “3-D”? What is it that we need to do to make the music leap off the printed page and suggest particular emotions or scenes to the listener? Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Deep practising: by this I mean a real understanding, through thoughtful practising, of everything that is on the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo markings, expression marks – and how these are used by the composer to convey his intentions in the music
  • Further listening: when I am learning new repertoire, I always “listen around” it – to works by the same composer or the composer’s contemporaries, and music of a similar genre or style. And not just piano music either.
  • Create visual cues: if the music suggests a particular picture or scene, why not try and find an image and pin it to the score. A visual cue can really help when you are trying to give shape to the music
  • Imagine the sound: this is something I learnt from my own teacher. Imagine the sound you want to achieve in your head before you play. Perhaps it is a flute, or a human voice, a violin or a trumpet. Or even a full orchestra. Somehow, imagining the sound can result in a miraculous change in the sound we make.
  • Use the right gestures: many students forget that music is there to be performed, whether to teacher, friends and family, or in an exam, festival or concert situation. Our body language can reflect the mood of the music and can help the audience’s understanding and appreciation of it. For example, in a slow, thoughtful piece such as the Requiem for a Little Bird, gentle, fluid gestures, floating the hand from one phrase to another, and not snatching the hands away from the keys at the end of the piece are most appropriate for the mood of this piece.
  • Adapting all of the above to suit the mood of individual repertoire. Eli knows that he needs to play in a more upright and lighter manner in Mozart’s Menuett in F K.5 he has also been learning.

Taken all together, these aspects can really enhance our performance, and help to guide the audience in their understanding of the piece as well. These aspects are not necessarily easy to teach, but it is my firm belief that encouraging “musicianship” and learning to play “musically” are crucial right from the earliest stages of musical study.

‘Sooner or later’ – Tempo Rubato & the art of stolen time

This post relates to my earlier article ‘Curved Lines’ – phrases and how to shape music

I recently attended a masterclass for pianists, the theme of which was ‘Sooner or Later?’; that is, how tempo (speed) and the placing of a note, or group of notes, can affect the mood, drama, colour and shape of music. This technique is generally called tempo rubato – literally, in Italian, “stolen time”, and it refers to a subtle slowing or speeding up of tempo within the music. It is most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period, but we can also add tempo rubato, and similar effects, to music of any period – and indeed any genre (classical, jazz, pop, etc.). In fact, it helps music to sound natural: music with a very strict, metronomic pulse (beat), with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, would be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Just as the human voice has changes in dynamic (sound), tempo (speed) and cadence (movement), playing with rubato gives music expressive freedom, allowing it space, pr room to “breathe”.

When listening to music, the audience wants to be “surprised” or “satisfied” or by what they hear, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the music (unusual chords, changes in articulation – staccato/legato/accents) as well as examples of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction.

Rubato is not always written into the score as a musical sign, so it is up to you, as the pianist, to decide where it might be most effective to alter the tempo of the music slightly. As a simple rule of thumb, we generally slow down at the end of a piece, or the end of a section – unless the composer tells us otherwise with a marking such as accelerando (getting faster) or stringendo (pressing forward, which suggests an increase in speed and a greater sense of urgency in the music). This helps to signal to the audience that the music is reaching a conclusion or end point. (And always imagine, when playing to an audience, that they know nothing about the music, so you need to give them “musical signposts” to help them find their way through it.)

When thinking about slowing down towards the end of a phrase or section in music, imagine the bounce of a ping-pong ball – but in reverse: it is the gradual pulling back of tempo that can be most effective.

Sometimes, we might want to increase the tempo slightly to emphasise a crescendo: this can be particularly effective with a run of notes in a rising scale or arpeggio. This can create the effect of the music being allowed to “take flight” as it rises upwards on the register (i.e. towards the highest notes of the piano).

The next time you see an accent marked in your music, take a moment to consider why the composer has put it there. Is it simply to spotlight a chord, or a particularly note? Or perhaps the composer wants to create a surprise for the audience? Rather than simply playing the note with extra force/emphasis, experiment with placing the note fractionally later: the tiny delay creates a far more dramatic effect than just hammering the note. Try a similar technique with an unusual chord or dissonance – again, that fractional delay adds drama and makes the resolution (when the music moves to a more familiar chord, or the home key) far more satisfying.

The same idea can be used with repeated notes, for example in the RH quavers of Gurlitt’s Allegro Non Troppo (Trinity Guildhall, Grade 2 piano). The RH part would be very monotonous and dull to listen to if every single note were the same, as if played strictly to the beat of a metronome. But by allowing a little more space between the notes, for example, towards the end of a phrase or where there are dissonant chords, the music suddenly becomes more interesting.

We can learn a lot about rubato by listening to singers singing music. The human voice adds natural shape to a musical phrase or melody: as notes rise up the register, so the voice rises fractionally in dynamic. When practising, try singing a phrase and then re-imagining that sound at the piano

Remember, the best rubato comes from inside: it is hard to teach and for it to sound convincing and natural, it should feel unforced. Don’t be tempted to mess around with the tempo too much – rubato is “stolen time’, after all, and, as my teacher always ways, “you have to give it back eventually!”.

Listen to these music examples and see if you can hear any tempo rubato:

Felix Mendelssohn – Song Without Words, Op.67/No. 5. Moderato in B minor “The Shepherd’s complaint”

Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight”: Adagio sostenuto

Fryderyk Chopin – Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66

Billy Mayerl – Printer’s Devil

More advanced students may like to read a post from my sister blog on taking time in music

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.”

Soft dough, warm oil – and no bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared on my companion blog

Guest post: Playfulness in piano playing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Penelope Roskell

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

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

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