“Practise a tricky section five times. If you make a mistake, go back and start again. Play it perfectly five times, and you can consider it “done” and then move onto the next thing….”

This is a mantra oft-repeated to my students, most of whom greet such useful, teacherly advice with much shrugging of shoulders and rolling of eyes. One or two remember it, and so when I ask them how they intend to practise a problem area, they will repeat my mantra back to me. I assure them that I also use the same dictum when I am practising, but they don’t always look convinced!

In reality, I probably practise a tricky section many more than five times at one sitting, but the “five times rule” is helpful in keeping me focussed when a problematic passage is beginning to frustrate. “One more go and you can move on…” I mutter to myself as I repeat that same passage for the nth time and wonder if I will ever permit myself to move on to another section. Sometimes, when I’ve been practising the nasty bits of the Chopin Op 10 no 3 Etude over and over again for nearly an hour, I treat myself – and my neighbours who are probably forced to listen to the tedious repetitions – to a complete play-through of the piece. This is not just self-indulgent wish-fulfilment, where I hope that everything will fall into the right place at the right time; it also serves a practical purpose – to check that what I have been practising really has been taken in by head and hands.

Repetitive practise breeds familiarity, not just with the music open on the rack in front of you, annotated with all sorts of very personal markings, fingerings, reminders and hints which become crucial signposts on the map (pink dots to highlight to remind me to pedal carefully, the words “WATCH IT!!” in bold, gestural strokes, exhorting me to keep focussed in a passage where my attention is liable to wander to check what my hands are doing, causing me to lose my place in the score), but also with the landscape of the keyboard and the physical sensation of the notes under the fingers. Repetition informs muscular memory, enabling the fingers to fall in the right place more often than not, and, eventually, one hopes, every time. Learning the patterns, the feel of a particular passage as well as the sound, all contribute to the overall process. In time, all these ‘learning components” come together, and one can enjoy that special moment when everything seems to slot into place and you play as if standing back from the music momentarily, playing at arm’s length, as it were. I love this sense of disengagement, of watching myself play. I feel it sometimes when I’m swimming, or running – a rare, special synergy. Yet, as my teacher pointed out when we were discussing it once, it is at this point that the mind and body are fully engaged, concentrating fiercely.

Even though I tend to employ the same strategies for learning new work, it never fails to amaze me how an hour of going over the same passage again and again can result in noticeable progress along the sometimes steep learning curve. There are times too, though, when a passage repeated again and again just fails to “go in”. I remember feeling this with a short piece by Delius I tried to learn last winter. It was a gorgeous piece, but full of bear traps to trip up the unwary, and it always felt awkward under my hands. However hard I tried with it, it never felt comfortable, and in the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat and set it aside. It is rare, these days, for me to give up on a piece of music, but sometimes even the “five times rule” fails to achieve the desired outcome.

Practising yesterday at the end of the afternoon, when the temperature had cooled a little and it was more comfortable to work in my piano room, it occurred to me that often there is a right time, and a wrong time, to practise certain pieces.

I’m learning a late Haydn Sonata, his penultimate one (Hob. XVI: 51 No. 61, composed in London in the 1790s) in cheerful D major (that’s royal blue, if we are talking ‘synaesthesically’!), with a first movement that is both sprightly and gentle, moving forward from a proud opening voice to a dialogue which alternates between melody and accompaniment. The brief, graceful development section shows some unexpected twists, with a truly Beethovenian climax, and some delightful cantabile passages. It closes surpisingly quietly. The second movement has chorale and fugal qualities, with offbeat dynamic accents, again prefiguring Beethoven. It moves forward with a clear purpose towards an abrupt ending. This is a grandiose sonata, though perhaps not as august as the E-flat major sonata which succeeds it.

I used to play quite a lot of Haydn when I was in my early teens, and then rather forgot about him, favouring Beethoven and Schubert instead. Although the D Major sonata lasts little more than five minutes, there is nothing mere about its content: it is one of those pieces which looks easy – the notes are not difficult and are comfortable under the hand – but has hidden depths, requiring some careful learning. It’s a good compliment to the rest of my current repertoire (Chopin, Gershwin, Debussy and Poulenc). I love the clarity of a Classical sonata, and it has warmth and nobility within its two short movements.

Yesterday, I practised for an hour and a half, Poulenc first, then Chopin Op 10 no 3 (just the tricky bits – the chromatic augmented fourths, the dreaded sixths, the brief cross-rhythms in the last section), before throwing myself, rather too energetically it must be said, at Gershwin’s first Prelude, which I love at the moment (and hope I will continue to love as I have another three pages, and the Third Prelude still to learn!). The Haydn seemed a good piece to round off my practise session, but as soon as I started to play it (badly!), I knew I had come to it at the wrong time of day. My hands and arms felt leaden and tired, my fingers fat and jelly-like, sliding all over the place, smearing notes and muffing easy runs. The octaves dragged, the triplets were uneven, and I ended up feeling very hot and frustrated.

Haydn merits an early start, I think, when one is clear-headed and fresh, and the piano room is cool. The piece deserves care and attention as each note must be heard and valued. It needs to sound unforced, yet elegant, lofty yet unprententious. Today I began my practising with the Haydn and the difference was noticeable: it was a whole lot better –  indeed, it felt like a different piece!

The Poulenc Suite in C is another case in point. This too benefits from early morning practising. Like the Haydn, it needs great clarity, with a pureness of expression which highlights both the naive and the elegant qualities of the melodies.

Debussy, on the other hand, seems to fare better when practised in the afternoon – and the hot days, with a light breeze drifting in through the open French doors, are the perfect backdrop for his ‘Voiles’. I find myself listening to the wind rustling the bamboo trees in my garden, lifting leaves off the ground, swirling little eddies of dust – and sometimes, just sometimes, I find I can recreate the same sensations at the piano.

It’s my mother’s seventieth birthday and I have organised a little party in my courtyard garden for her, her family, and her ‘London friends’, people she met when she still lived in north London, before she escaped to the country.

Some of the friends go back a long way: two colleagues from her History of Art MA at Chelsea College of Art in the 1980s, a fellow artist whom she met while doing her Fine Art BA (the friend’s daughter is a good friend of mine; in fact, we were at university together), a couple who have been family friends for 40 years. In the hot July sunshine, the friends gather in my little garden, drink rosé wine, and eat the selection of salads and dips I have prepared. The atmosphere is cheerful, relaxed and friendly.

“I hope you’re going to play,” my mother said the day before the party. I assured her that I would, but that I would not be playing Farewell To Stromness, a favourite of my mother’s and the piece she has chosen for her funeral ceremony, because I had not practised it. “Oh, I don’t want you to play that anyway,” she declared, leaving me to think of up a suitable mini-programme for an afternoon birthday party in July.

Michael, a long-time friend of both my mother’s and mine, arrives with a sheaf of scores but won’t reveal what he is planning to play. He played La Cathedrale Engloutie at my students’ concert the previous weekend, and I have a suspicion he might play it again as it’s another of my mother’s favourites. I realise, as I rifle through the scores which live on the lid of my piano and which represent my current learning, that my repertoire is varied and disparate: Poulenc, Chopin, Haydn, Debussy, Schubert and Gershwin. And nothing really ‘concert-ready’. The Opus 25 No. 7 Etude, which I played at my teacher’s concert in March, is very beautiful, but too melancholic for a sunny afternoon. The late Haydn Sonata in D is rather too grandiose, and the Poulenc is still a little rough round the edges. Schubert’s fourth Impromptu from the D899 set is also a favourite, but the trio seems too passionate, too pleading. In the end, I settle for the Gershwin Prelude No 2, which I played at my students’ concert, segueing straight into Debussy’s Le Petit Negre. The Gershwin, with its nod to Summertime and its lazy, languid tone, seems just about perfect. Afterwards, I decide Schubert’s second Klavierstück, from the D946, will round off my recital nicely. True, this piece has its storms and passions, like the Impromptu, but the opening melody – an aria from a forgotten opera – which returns twice, is charming and elegant, and pretty enough for the occasion. I’m not sure if Schubert should be played on two glasses of wine, but it does give me the necessary chutzpah to play for the assembled guests!

The room in which my piano lives is very hot at the moment (something my tuner continually bemoans when he comes to visit), and by the time I’m on the last page of the Schubert, I’m inelegantly pouring with perspiration and desperate for another chilled glass of something. I retire to the summer house to “talk piano” with Michael. We discuss ‘rubato‘, that subtle slackening of tempo. “It’s ‘stolen time’, so you have to give it back eventually!” I say bossily. Michael insists that there should never be rubato in Bach, nor in Beethoven, who, he says (quite rightly) is very firm about the tempos of his music, but I argue that even the music of Bach and Scarlatti demands some slackening in tempo here and there, to emphasise shape, mood, colour or cadence. “It’s a different kind of rubato,” I explain, remembering that Michael’s repertoire is more Romantically-oriented than mine: he favours Schumann (the score of the ‘Kreisleriana’ is often left on the rack of his Steinway when I go to play it, just to torment me), Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Granados. The discussion about rubato leads us onto the subject of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 3, which I am learning at the moment. “How on earth do you play the sixths?” he asks, referring to the fiendish Con Bravura passage which marks the climax of the piece. “They have no pattern or coherence to me.”

“There is a pattern to them,” I say. “And the fingering scheme helps too. I spent a week practising it on the kitchen table in the chalet in France at Easter. The other guests thought I was bonkers, but it worked a treat!”

Michael persuades me to play it, and I tell him that only he, and possibly one other person in the garden, will know where I get it wrong! Unsurprisingly, I go to pieces with the sixths. I am just aware of Michael standing behind me while I’m playing, and afterwards I say, “You shouldn’t have mentioned the sixths! I was worrying about them too much and that’s why I went wrong!” Of course, I know I can play them – painfully slowly at the moment, but accurately.

Michael then sits down to play, beginning with some really charming Elgar, Dream Children, a little winsome, very pretty. Then a transcription of the Fauré ‘Sicilienne’ from Peleas et Melisande, and finishing off with Debussy: Clair de Lune and La Cathedrale Engloutie (aahh!). I sit in the cool of the sitting room with his wife, enjoying the great pleasure of hearing my piano being played so very well (usually, I only hear my students banging away at it, with the odd moment of vaguely cantabile playing – and I don’t always enjoy my own playing either!). I had been worrying that the piano was slipping badly out of tune in the heat, but it sounds wonderful in Michael’s hands. And what a treat for the little audience gathered in my garden, and beyond – my immediate neighbours and the friend who lives across the road – to hear such beautiful music on a summer’s afternoon.

Opening the new Grade 2 piano study book yesterday to check out the repertoire for the 2010-11 season, the name Felix Swinstead leapt off the page at me, and took me straight back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. I remember learning quite a few pieces by Swinstead as a young piano student, and Felix Gerald Swinstead is one of those composers, like Dunhill and Markham Lee, that those of us who learned the piano as children associate with our early studies. Many of his pieces were studies, or genre pieces,  easy enough for children from about Grade 1 onwards, with winsome titles like ‘Cornfields’, ‘In a Playful Mood’, ‘Day Dream’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘A Tender Flower’ and ‘Malvern Hills’, and evoke a pre-war golden time. ‘In a Playful Mood’ rings a bell with me: I probably played it when I was six or seven, and I probably didn’t enjoy it that much as my then teacher had a tendency to make me play the same piece week after week, until I was bored witless with it.

Recently, returning to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I opened my old ABRSM edition and saw another teacher’s annotations, including her diagrams explaining the construction of the fugue form (Sue Murdoch, Rickmansworth, circa 1980-1985). It brought a great rush of memories and nostalgia: of cycling to her house for my lessons, of playing her grand piano with a dog across my feet and a cat staring at me from the lid, of exams taken in the studio of a local professional pianist (a room devoid of all furniture except for the vast black Minotaur of a Steinway), and of being told off by her husband (a prof at the RAM, who was scarily tall with a huge booming voice) for saying I was about to play “only some Beethoven” (it was the Sonata Op 10/i).

I like to think my students will enjoy similar reminiscences of their lessons with me when they are grown up. What will they remember, I wonder….?

My forays into the periphery of jazz repertoire have made me reconsider and adapt some techniques to suit the mood, nature and simple ability to play the pieces by Gershwin I am learning at present. This issue came up on the piano course in March, when one of the students, who presented the first two Gershwin Preludes for the masterclass, was urged by teacher to put aside all her classical training and thought processes, and to start thinking and playing like a jazz pianist. Thus, in the opening measures of the first Prelude, she was urged to “slap” the keys, literally throwing the hand at the keyboard, to allow the weight of the arm to create tenuto, and to employ heavy, lazy staccato. The difference in the sound of the piece was instant. It was immediately more “cool”. unforced, lazy almost. This kind of playing is very difficult to achieve – and this brief lesson in jazz piano technique proved that even the most improvisatory playing is based on very solid foundations of technique and harmonic awareness.

I’ve been putting some of these teaching “tricks” into practice with my students, a number of whom have expressed interest in learning some jazz, and while I would never ever profess to be a teacher of jazz piano (it’s a whole ‘nother world as far as I’m concerned!), I’m happy to work on some simple pieces with my students.

One student, who joined my studio last summer, was “escaping” from jazz. Her previous teacher was obviously keen on jazz and was teaching the ABRSM jazz syllabus which is very separate and distinct from the ‘classical’ piano syllabus. Like me, Bella was finding the music quite incomprehensible. Together we looked at the score, puzzled by some of the markings. I’ve been playing the piano for a long time (over 35 years), and I pride myself on my excellent sight-reading skills which enable me to pick up most music and gain a reasonable understanding of it on first view. Grade 2 jazz repertoire, however, was a mystery. What did the instruction “straight eights” mean? And what were those dashes where the notes should have been on the stave? (We realised eventually that this was a marking for improvisation.) Some internet research didn’t enlighten me much, and I was relieved when Bella declared she wanted to return to classical repertoire. Indeed, it was a relief to both of us to open the Grade 2 book and see a comforting page of Haydn.

Fortunately, Gershwin’s scores look like ‘traditional’ piano music: there are no weird markings, and he uses standard Italian terms, and places where crossed hands are required are less for virtuoso effect and more for ease of playing. So, by not having to translate the score into a language I understand, I can devote more time to honing technique to suit the music.

My students are growing familiar with my weird and wonderful visualisation techniques. Asking them to “tell the story” of the music has produced some wonderful effects, especially in those students who have been working on exam repertoire, where musicality is as important – if not more so – as playing the notes accurately. Reminding them that the piano can be “orchestrated” or played to mimic a particular instrument is also useful. Another trick I employ is asking a student to “hear” or “sing” the music in their head before playing. My teacher does this with me and it really does work. Another technique, employed at a recent lesson, was asking me to play the opening movement of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes closed, thus forcing me to think about touch and quality of sound.

Most of my students now know about the “giant invisible hand” which “lives” in my piano room. This helps them to articulate their hands towards the black keys by moving their elbow, or to push the wrist down to play drop slurs. It also pushes the forearm along to move the hand and wrist fluently when playing scales and arpeggios. It sounds daft, but this, more than anything else, is the visualisation technique which works the best. Even my adult students have come to know it and tell me they find it useful when practising at home.

Something else my teacher does is play on my bare forearm to demonstrate touch. The skin on the forearm is very receptive and it’s amazing how a quick demo of how I should be playing the opening measures of my Chopin Etude can be translated into sound on the keyboard. I have not yet tried this with my students; sadly, these days of child protection and over-cautiousness about touching children have made me wary of doing anything more than occasionally adjusting a child’s hand position.

Little Sam, who is only 8 and is already showing an affinity for jazz after only a year of lessons (he pulled off a characterful performance of ‘The Entertainer’ at my summer concert), proved at his lesson yesterday that he understands about “jazz hands”. He quickly picked up the idea of “slapping” the keys, lifting his hand off the keyboard momentarily before allowing it to fall heavily onto an E flat, thus emphasising the syncopation in the bar (he’s learning a piece called ‘Homework Blues’). Later, when I was looking at the opening of Gershwin’s first Prelude, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, which just goes to prove how one’s teaching can inform one’s own playing: it seems that by teaching a new technique it crystallises it in my mind – and fingers.

And now I really must do some practising…….

I’ve never been that keen on jazz, and, if I’m honest, it’s because I don’t really understand it. For all it’s grooviness and funkiness, it’s very esoteric, almost to the point of being impenetrable, sometimes even more inaccessible than the most obscure classical music. I am told, on a fairly regular basis, that the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is a genius, once a child prodigy, classically trained, who gave his first formal piano recital at the age of 7. However, whenever I have heard recordings of him playing, it just sounds like random notes, a bit plinky-plonky here and there, sounds that move off into the strange tangents of Jarrett-land, avenues and cul-de-sacs of improv which seem to have little coherence or structure. I’ll probably get into trouble with jazz fans and Jarrett-afficionados for saying that, but hey ho…..

Of course, I’ve always been aware of Gershwin. How could one not be, when ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Porgy and Bess’, and his piano concerto are some of the most famous works which bridge the gap between the classical and jazz worlds. His music epitomises the excitement of the 1920s, as the world emerged from the darkness of the First World War and people began to enjoy life again, now liberated from the social mores of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

My first attempt at playing Gershwin was a piano reduction of ‘Promenade’, more commonly know as ‘Walking the Dog’, a cute little number originally written for clarinet with small orchestra as incidental music for the film `Shall we Dance` (1937) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (The music accompanies Fred and Ginger as they exercise their dogs on a ship deck somewhere mid-Atlantic.) It was fun to learn and relatively easy to play.

I had heard the second prelude from the Three Preludes while looking for an MP3 of ‘Promenade’. I liked its languid mood, its tempo, Andante con moto e poco rubato, its use of blues chords, its nod to ‘Summertime’ in the main melody, wending its way above a smooth, steady quasi ostinato bass-line. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby”. I first heard it, and the first prelude from the set, played live by one of the students on my teacher’s piano course in March. I got hooked on the second prelude and decided to learn it for my students’ concert. It has been a useful and occasionally steep learning curve, for, as my teacher pointed out, it has been necessary to set aside much of my classical training and try to think like a jazz pianist. At first this was very hard: letting go of nearly 40 years of training and method is not easy, and to start with, the piece sounded stiff and formal, with “classical” ornaments, and a melody that refused to ‘swing’. Gradually, though, I learnt to let go and the piece began to assume its own identity under my fingers. A run through for my teacher a couple of weeks ago confirmed this, and by the time I played it in my summer concert, I felt it had exactly the right mood: lazy and ‘cool’.

The first prelude from the set, marked Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, is altogether more ‘jazzy’, with its syncopated rhythms based on Brazilian “baiao”, and chords containing flattened sevenths (which sound – and feel – like “real” jazz chords). It begins with a 5-note blues motif and virtually all the melodic material in the piece is based on this. I’m just beginning to get my fingers, and head, around it. On first sight, I thought “Crikey! I can’t possibly play THAT”, but a bit of careful reading, going through it line by line with a pencil clamped between my teeth, and already it’s a lot clearer. It’s fun to play, as it contains fragments of a number of virtuoso techniques, including repeated notes, octaves, scales and crossed hands, each of which is used for only a moment before the piece catches a glimpse of some new idea.

I love this music, and I can safely say I am well and truly hooked on Gershwin. It’s satisfying to play – those big chords feel wonderful under the fingers – and a refreshing contrast to Chopin, Schubert et al, music that’s at ease with itself. I am thinking of playing the first Prelude at my Christmas concert, and offering all three as part of my performance Diploma programme.