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

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New resources for pianists, piano teachers and parents

A couple of useful new resources for pianists, teachers and the parents of piano students which have come my way recently.

818099The first, Piano Exercises, is a DVD by Mikael Pettersson, a Swedish concert pianist based in the UK. The exercises were created by Mikael to help pianists develop their technique to play without tension and with accuracy and fluency. Mikael’s approach is straightforward: the exercises are demonstrated clearly  by Mikael himself with useful close-up shots of the hands and fingers, but while the format may look simple, the exercises encourage the development of sophisticated technique including wrist and forearm rotation, lateral arm movement, speed and accuracy when coping with leaps, rapid scale patterns, and glissandi. The DVD can be used by more advanced pianists independently of a teacher, or by students with the assistance of teacher, and can then be incorporated into a regular practise regime. More information/download the exercises

51rtft-uaul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Encouraging students to practise is of course a crucial part of the piano teacher’s role, and if the students are children teachers rely on the parents to ensure practising is done between lessons. Understanding how to practise productively is important for both students and their parents who supervise the practising and a new book by Peter Walsh, an Australian pianist and piano teacher, offers practical advice for parents of piano students. In The Non-Musician’s Guide to Parenting a Piano Player, Peter covers aspects such as encouraging an interest in the piano, choosing the right instrument, choosing the right teacher and creating the right learning environment at home. In addition, the chapters on practising are particularly helpful. Many parents (and also quite a few students!) think practising is simply playing through the pieces or scales. Peter explains the purpose of practising and how parents can assist their children in practising efficiently, productively and enjoyably. This includes advice on how much time to allocate to practising, posture at the piano for children and teenagers, encouraging concentration, how practising can be subdivided into sections covering technique, revision and rehearsal and exam/performance preparation, using a simplified version of Josef Hoffman’s “practice pie-chart” to explain these aspects. This section of the book is particularly useful as it demonstrates that parents do not need to have specialist musical knowledge in order to support their children in their practising. There is also a section on preparing for exams and performance. The back of the book contains a list of FAQs and a simple glossary of musical and technical terms. The overall approach is non-specialist and accessible. Recommended.

Purrfect Practice ‘Technique Trainer’

Purrfect Practice was created by Australian piano teacher Jackie Sharp. Her new Technique Trainer 1 is intended as the first volume in a three-part series of e-books of technical and musical exercises that develop the many skills necessary for achieving excellence and artistry at the piano.

With an engaging and accessible design, Technique Trainer covers all the main technical aspects of piano playing, including advice on correct hand shape, together with an understanding of the importance of the involvement of the wrists and arms in piano playing. There are attractive illustrations to demonstrate key points and 25 exercises to enable students to practise the techniques outlined in the book. In addition, there are 25 bonus “learning activities” to help students increase their awareness and apply the techniques studied in their practising. All the exercises encourage students to assess their playing as they tick off completed goals. The book also includes links to video demos made by the author which offer visual guidance and help reinforce each exercise.

The book packs a lot into its 60 pages and some of the technique covered is quite advanced, including using arm weight to create dynamic shading, different kinds of staccato and detached touch, voicing chords, poly-rhythms, and trills. For younger or less advanced students, the book would work well if used by the teacher in conjunction with other repertoire as a way of teaching and reinforcing aspects of technique. The older or more advanced student would probably be happy to work through the book independently and in their own time. All the exercises demonstrate how technique is used as a foundation for developing artistry and expression at the piano.

My only reservations about the book are occasional technical terms which are not fully explained or clarified (e.g. “mezzo staccato“) which assume a certain level of knowledge. The quality of the video clips is rather patchy. But on the whole, Technique Trainer offers a very useful and clearly designed tutor book for piano teachers and students alike.

For further information about the book and its author, please visit www.purrfectpractice.com.au

Future books include ‘Scales – the Purrfect Practice’

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 www.crosseyedpianist.wordpress.com

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.

For information about courses, private tuition, books and DVDs please visit:

www.peneloperoskell.co.uk