The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.

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Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information

Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or contour within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!

– Artur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the listener wants to be surprised or satisfied, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, intervals, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also 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 specific direction and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.

In Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5, the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply give extra emphasis or force on these notes, but a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying arrival at the note. It is the “placing” of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

In addition, hairpin crescendo markings can be interpreated as an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes.

Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. It is the very subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano. Often rubato within a piece develops over time, as one grows more and more familiar with the contours and shifting moods of the music. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced.

Mendelssohn – Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5

https://open.spotify.com/track/58fBJ0A96evPyloVHWjXJc 

Frank Bridge – In Autumn: II, Through the Eaves

 

Concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith presents a one-day course for advanced (Diploma-level) pianists. Teaching will be combined with Alexander Technique (given by a qualified Alexander technique teacher ), healthy practise and approaches to memorisation.  For this one-day, action-packed course, Warren Mailley-Smith, as principal coach, draws on 20 years’ performing, teaching and coaching experience to make this a worthwhile and enjoyable experience for all. The course is specifically aimed at diploma-level pianists, of any age, looking to reduce unhelpful tension in their playing and guard against injury, and develop the ability to play from memory.

The course will include:

  • dealing with performance anxiety
  • memorisation
  • healthy practise approaches
  • injury avoidance
  • application of Alexander technique
  • participants concert
  • Tea, coffee, lunch, evening BBQ and drinks

£100

Starts at 9am on Saturday 1st September at Park ViewMusic Rooms, Beckenham, Kent

For further information and booking please visit parkviewmusic.com

 


r8c8duxkThe award-winning concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith has made his solo debuts to critical acclaim at Wigmore Hall London and Carnegie Hall, New York.  In 2011 he made his much anticipated debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

Warren is in increasing demand as a solo concert artist, having been described recently by Classic FM as ‘Stunning…’, ‘Fantastic…’  ‘Sensational’, ‘Huge UK talent…’, ‘Gorgeous…!’  and by BBC Music Magazine as ‘Rising Star – Great Artist of Tomorrow”  .  He was recently featured as CD of the Week and Video of the Week on Classic FM and Classic FM TV respectively.

He has received over thirty invitations to perform for the British Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, Highgrove House and Sandringham House.

Warren studied at the Royal College of Music where he won numerous postgraduate prizes including a Countess of Munster Award and the French Piano Music Prize.  He then took further private studies with Peter Feuchtwanger and the late Ronald Smith.

Warren’s solo career now sees him performing in festivals and concert venues across the UK, accepting invitations from further afield to perform in Europe and the US.  His concerto repertoire includes works by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and Tchaikovsky and he works regularly with duo partners Rowena Calvert (cello), Susan Parkes (Soprano) and Matt Jones (violin).

Warren is currently in demand for his teaching expertise both privately and in masterclasses.

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the teaching notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does slightly depress me to see a piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972!), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, there is a complete refreshment of repertoire and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades. The supporting tests remain unchanged, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the very early grades (1-3) tend towards “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists, but adult learners will enjoy Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s A Memory of Paris (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ Anatolian 08 (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s Dream: No 10 from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a sufficiently broad range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM is very conscious of its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength by offering a syllabus which combines rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website.  The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia contentinteractive features and resources such as musical examplesworksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theoryimprovisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updatedeasily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

slow-practice-screen-shot

 

An earlier version of this article appeared on my sister blog http://www.franspianostudio.me

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to completely miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these successes as “bragging rights” to be paraded before other parents and children in the school playground or used as bargaining tools when applying to a particular school.

Do these exam achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure….. Admittedly, at no point in the article does Ms Millard mention musicianship or musicality: her focus is simply on her children’s accumulation of grades. I do applaud her, however, for submitting herself to Grade 5 piano, “to see just how terrifying taking a grade really was”, but she does not mention if she derived any actual pleasure or satisfaction in learning the repertoire or any of the musical or personal developmental benefits of taking a music exam. But at least she has a degree of insight into what she is putting her children through in insisting they take all their grade exams.

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I really hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my ABRSM Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier (yes, it really was that awful, despite the fact that I played well and achieved a decent pass). A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad sweep of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment and progress. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared with support from a teacher who can advise on aspects such as stagecraft, presentation and managing anxiety). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Box-ticking music-exams are utterly unhelpful, both to development of musicians and to those subjects that are lured into UCAS points-collecting.

Look at it this way: how many music teachers here would regard an A-level in biology as being indicative of a good future as a concert pianist?

A quote from a member of a music teachers’ online forum

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

Rosie Millard

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

My students have the option to take grade exams if they wish. No one is forced to take an exam and some students simply wish to play music which they enjoy and which enables them to develop as musicians without the pressure of exams. Sometimes they opt to have their playing assessed by a teaching colleague of mine, to gain experience of playing for other people and useful feedback from another listener. Other students enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, but this is always done within a broader focus (learning additional related repertoire, listening around the pieces, historical contexts etc).

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. In short, it is about enjoyment.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent