In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.” In other words, know your limits and keep within them. You may want to learn the Mephisto Waltz, but if you are not technically, physically or intellectually ready for it, you will feel frustrated.
2. Record and film yourself.
Recording and filming practice and performance is a crucial tool in evaluating how we are progressing. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. Make notes on your recording in your score or practice diary, away from the piano.
Don’t just listen once. Use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range.
A video is helpful for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.
3. E is for Excellence
When we practice, whatever we are practising, we should aim for ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone quality, focused attention. Do not play forcefully through difficult passages or at a tempo which is beyond us.
4. Mistakes are helpful!
Errors highlight gaps in our preparation, providing crucial feedback. Remember – there is a ‘perfect wrong note’! Isolate the problems, understand why they happened, and strive to solve them so they do not occur again.
5. Ask others for feedback
The views of teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends are all useful. Get into the habit of playing for others and actively seek their feedback. What did they like or dislike about the performance? We should ask others to critique not just our playing but also programme notes, concert attire, stagecraft and presentation skills. Take on board all comments and do not be perturbed by negative feedback; rather, use it positively to improve the performance.
6. Don’t cloud the vision
Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance.
Consider what you liked and disliked about this or that phrase, the ornamentation, dynamic colour, expressiveness, phrasing, use of rubato, etc.
I am posting a link to pianist Alisdair Hogarth’s excellent recent blog article in which he discusses concert preparation and overcoming performance anxiety. The article contains much useful food for thought, for both professional and amateur musicians, who may be preparing for a concert, exam or similar performance experience.
The title of Alisdair’s post comes from Barry Green’s acclaimed book The Inner Game of Music, in which the author offers helpful strategies, drawn from tennis coaching, to apply the “inner game” to learning and performing music.
Alisdair will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview.
“The more I play, the more I am convinced the pedal is the soul of the pianoforte!”
“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, and that making a lot of noise is a way to drown the music you’re slaughtering!”
Pedaling is an aspect of piano technique which is frequently misunderstood and abused. Ask a junior student what the right hand pedal is for and they will invariably reply “to make the piano louder”. The right hand pedal is often wrongly called “the loud pedal”, or is regarded as an “on-off switch”, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose and uses of the “sustain” or “damper” pedal. Pedaling is hard to do well, and I regularly come across instances of sloppy, lazy or misjudged pedaling when I am reviewing at professional concerts.
The sustain pedal has two principal purposes:
1. Allowing the sound to continue even after we release the keys;
2. Changing the timbre of the sound, making it deeper, warmer, more intense, more ‘alive’.
In order to pedal well, it is important to understand what is happening, mechanically, inside the piano, and to engage the ears so that they are alert to all the subtle sounds and variations the pedal can produce. When the pedal is depressed, all the dampers are lifted off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. The effect of the vibrations is to create a fuller, warmer and more intense sound. When I demonstrate this to students, I play a C-major chord without the pedal, and then play the chord again with the pedal. A student who is listening carefully will notice the cloud or “bloom” of sound which seems to rise from the piano (as opposed to just saying “it sounds louder”). This bloom of sound is the result of ‘sympathetic vibrations’, and will mostly be pitches related to the principal note. Since the resonance of the entire instrument is called into play when the dampers are lifted off the strings, the chief effect of the damper pedal is a change in the sound quality of the piano. And this, I think, is the key point to remember – that the damper pedal is about quality of sound, rather than volume of sound
The point when the pedal is depressed can have a particular effect on the sound of the piano. For example, when the pedal is depressed before the note is struck, all strings are available to resonate, and the sound will have a richness from the beginning. While it is held down, the pedal accumulates sound with each additional note struck. This property can be used to create or enhance a crescendo, particularly in a context of more rapid notes where little pedal is being used. Conversely, by lifting the pedal slowly, there is a gradual decrease in the sound, which creates a diminuendo.
There are also degrees of pedal, such as half, quarter or even eighth pedal. This technique of pedaling is particularly useful in Mozart, or during runs and passagework, where it gives substance to the tone without blurring the sounds. For example, in Schubert’s E flat Impromptu from the D899 set, I use one-eighth pedal throughout the rapid triplet runs to provide depth without losing clarity: we want to hear every single note, but we don’t want the music to sound too dry.
Every piano is different and so it is important to experiment – and listen carefully: special colours and immediacy of effect can be achieved by synchronising pedal changes with finger attack, while pedaling before playing can soften the opening of a phrase. Pedal use is also determined by the size and location of the instrument.
Experienced pianists use the pedal instinctively. I often get ticked off by cheeky students for pedaling music which has no pedal markings. This usually prompts a discussion on the use of the pedal to create certain effects, and how pedal markings are written into the score. Good pedal technique is based on experience, careful listening, and thoughtful practice.
Legato pedaling, in its simplest form, is the act of joining two otherwise unconnected notes or chords together. Logically this can only happen when the sound of the first note/chord stops and the sound of the second note/chord begins at the same time. To achieve this, the pedal must come up exactly at the point at which the next chord sounds. Where it then goes down is a matter of judgement to do with the type of musical context or the effect desired, speed of the passage etc.
Here is a simple but effective exercise, easily comprehensible for junior piano students, to practice good legato pedaling.
Practice this exercise by depressing the pedal on the 2nd beat of each bar and bringing it up exactly on the downbeat of the next new chord. Legato pedaling makes use of coordination opposites: in other words, the foot releases the pedal exactly when the hand goes down. The pedal then goes down again without being snatched and rushed at some point after the first beat.
Ped and * marks are often placed inaccurately, which can make interpretation of the composer’s intentions regarding pedaling confusing. For example, the Ped…….* pedal markings in Chopin are often misleading, and should not be interpreted literally: it is more likely that Chopin intended continuous use of the sustain pedal, and that this type of pedal marking would be more accurate: __/\_/\__ (etc.).
It is said that Chopin “used the pedals with marvelous discretion,” (Auguste Marmontel, Debussy’s teacher and a former student of Chopin), and Chopin himself declared that “The correct employment of the pedal remains a study for life.”
When writing a legato pedaling scheme onto music for both my students and myself, I tend to use this marking __/\_/\__, rather than the more traditional Ped…….*, simply because it’s clearer, the “peaks” indicating when the pedal should be lifted and depressed.
Direct, finger and “dirty” pedalling
Direct pedaling is where the pedal goes down exactly as the hands do. The style of the music will influence how the pedal is used: for example, in classical repertoire, a direct pedal, corresponding with the hands, can often be applied to two-note slurs, sfzorzandi, and cadential chords without distorting articulation and phrasing. “Finger pedaling” should be considered with Alberti bass figures.
“Dirty” pedaling requires acute listening skills and is appropriate when a more misty sound and colour are desired, or when the texture needs to be thinned out gradually. Lift the pedal very slowly. I have found this technique particularly useful in Liszt when the composer designates a smorzando with a diminuendo.
Debussy and the sustain pedal
Pedaling was – and is! – very important in the playing of Debussy’s piano music, though Debussy almost never marked pedaling on the score. Where he does, it should be observed carefully. Too many pianists, professional and amateur, believe that the pedal in Debussy is used to create the famous “impressionistic blur” so often associated with his music. In fact, “he wanted the pedal used in long harmonic strokes, without breaks or confusion. Occasionally he allowed the pedal to encroach a tiny fraction from one harmony into the next………….. In any case, the blur should be used only for special effects, and with utmost discretion.” [Nichols]
Debussy’s works often imply the use of pedal, because he writes bass notes that cannot be sustained without the help of the pedal. At the same time there are often chord changes that require the pedal to be lifted in order to avoid blurring. Techniques such as half-pedal and “dirty” pedal can be used to create satisfying effects in his piano music.
We all know the feeling – you’re sat on the stool, anxious before a first rehearsal with a singer. Doubtless you’ll have practised the piece, sorted the fingerings, and on meeting the culprit of your hours of toil, you’ll find them to be a perfectly human, ordinary musical being with whom you can get on splendidly, and the rehearsal will go swimmingly. That is, before the seven words that would send a shiver of dread down any aspiring pianist’s spine: “Can you put that down a tone?”
Indeed, transposition is rapidly becoming the Atlantis of pianism, with seemingly very few pianists left in the musical stratosphere that have a grip on the elusive art – and to those who think I am preaching, I am most certainly not one of the few. Last summer, I decided to sit a diploma in accompaniment in which one of the requirements was sight-transposition, and I can honestly say I have never been so thoroughly vexed over such a small component of an exam before. On the day, after preparing for months with a hymn book at the recommendation of a teacher (six hymns up and down a tone every day – healthy work but proved to be a winner in the end), I found it was nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. I’m certainly no master transposer, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so in front of another human being again, but with significant practice and preparation, it was no more difficult to learn than any other piano skill I’ve acquired.
So why on earth are we so scared of it?
It seems to me that there is an obvious answer, staring us in the face: unfamiliarity. How many of our teachers drilled scales into us as a child? I’m guessing practically all of them. Sight-reading? The vast majority (and how thankful we are, even if we hated it at the time!). Transposition? I expect not a single hand in the room will have gone up.
I am not launching a tirade against teachers, since they already bear the blame for far too many things as it is; given such a small amount of contact time, teachers simply cannot cover all the bases, and something which does not feature on exam syllabuses or even yet exist to a young learner given its ‘advanced skill’ status is understandably going to be swept under the rug. But why is this considered such a niche skill in the first place, and why are exam boards not bringing this in at a far earlier stage than diploma level? Why are we not encouraging young children to go away and try to transpose fragments of music? It improves knowledge of keys – if you don’t know the scales and chords for the keys you’ve played in properly, you can’t possibly transpose into them. It improves memory – if you understand the relationship of the chords inside out, you’re far less likely to forget the notes than a learn-by-rote ‘A B C’ approach. It improves aural skills – transposition is, to a very high degree, dependent on aural awareness and the ability to hear and anticipate what is coming next.
To those of you who think I’m asking too much of young learners, try it. Give a young pupil a small fragment of melody, and then ask them to play it on a different note. Talk about the differences, any ‘black notes’ that may have appeared, and you will find they pick it up a lot more quickly and less painfully than you expect. What you’ve just taught someone is how to transpose on a very basic level. In fact, you do it all the time when you teach children to play scales. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve mystified transposition so much that people think it impossibly difficult, learners and teachers alike. Just as with any other skill, you have to start somewhere. If you pick a Chopin Etude you can barely play in the correct key and try to put it up or down a tritone, of course you’re going to struggle. If you take a simple hymn and move it to a related key, you’re going to find you make far better progress.
Naturally, with every other skill under the sun to practise, I doubt we (or our pupils) will now all fall to religiously practising our hymns in every key every day. But next time you’re frustrated with a piece and can’t understand the ins-and-outs of it properly, why not try popping it up or down a tone? If nothing else, it could become a neat party trick…
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, reviewing for Bachtrack and posting on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones
As adult pianists we all know how hard it is to carve out practice time every day. Our days slip by full of errands, phone calls, appointments and chauffeuring kids. Sometimes whole weeks or even months fly by while we’re bombarded with family emergencies, travel, or job obligations. But we’re constantly nagged by that inner voice that tells us that consistency and time at the piano are required for steady improvement.
For the past few months I’ve been very lucky to have a lull in activity on the home front. With my daughter happily off studying abroad and two sons away at college, I chat with them often and know that they are safe, healthy and independent. For five months I was able to fill my non-teaching hours at the piano preparing for each week’s Go Play Project recording. But now things are heating up. I’m getting ready to launch a new website and learning everything I can about marketing, branding and book proposals. I’m preparing students for their annual National Guild Auditions and Spring recitals. And I’m getting excited about my daughter coming home to finish high school and start the college search and application process. My time at the piano these days is limited.
When I do find the time to sit down at the piano I aim for deliberate practice. But I also find that more often than not, simply finding the easiest way to play a difficult passage is often the best way. The shape of the phrase leads me to find the best fingering or hand movement. Awkward hand positions are made more comfortable by simply moving the hand into the black keys. Large leaps are spot on when I move my arm in an arc and look before I leap. Cantabile comes from the fingertips along with a freely suspended arm and close listening. Fast octaves? For me it’s all in the rebound. Playing the piano is not hard work. It’s not about getting in shape or building muscles. In fact it’s the opposite of the “no pain, no gain” rule of sports. When you’re doing it right, it feels good.
So to all those pianists who are bombarded by life’s obligations, take heart. Piano playing is not always about how regularly you practice or how long you practice or even how deliberate you practice. It just might be about grabbing that half hour before a student arrives at the door, or those first minutes of daylight with your morning coffee, and ‘coming home’ to the piano. It’s about sinking into the keys and expressing yourself through your fingertips. It’s about deep listening and communication. And in the end it just might about the child leaving home for college or the military. Or about the recent break-up or new romance, the death in the family or the new baby’s birth.
Catherine Shefski is pianist, teacher and blogger who is currently recording one piano piece a week for The Go Play Project.
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