by Catherine Shefski

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Last week, I heard Leon McCawley in a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. He played Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano (the ‘Sarabande’ from which was one of my Diploma pieces) and I was fascinated by the playfulness and lightness in his hands and fingers as he played the outer movements of the piece (both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Toccata’ demand digital dexterity and fleetness). I observed a softness in his arms too, but it was very subtle, and, as my teacher pointed out when I was discussing it with her, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed it, because it was not something I was aware of at the time.

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.

Another excellent three days in the company of other advanced pianists – some students, some piano teachers like me, and some professional pianists – on the piano course run by my teacher, Penelope Roskell. We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, from Scarlatti to Stephen Montague, and discussed and practiced aspects of technique such as soft hands and forearms, ‘Mozartian’ staccato (what Penelope descibes as “detached legato”), ‘orchestrating’ sonatas and piano works by Haydn and Mozart, and how to achieve a beautiful cantabile sound in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat (D899 No. 3) and Chopin’s ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude (Opus 25, No. 1). And much more besides….. Our coffee and lunch breaks were full of interesting ‘piano chat’ and it was both instructive and enjoyable to exchange ideas with other pianists and teachers. The next course is on September – details at the end of the post.

Despite finding the first course (in April 2009) very daunting, because of the very high standard of the other participants, I have always gained a huge amount from these courses: they are instructional, inspiring, very supportive, and non-competitive. Everyone comes to the course with different needs and interests, from help with tension or performance anxiety, or simply a desire to play through some repertoire to other people in a relaxed setting. The course always ends with a concert, to which friends and family are welcome. The performance aspect of these courses has done wonders for my confidence and I have lost any shyness I had about performing, and now actively enjoy it. The 30 seconds of contemplative silence which greeted my performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Opus 62, No. 2 was the ultimate compliment at the concert yesterday afternoon, and I was flattered and touched by some of the comments I received afterwards.

What we played during the course:

Debussy – Preludes Book I: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Villa-Lobos – Prole de bebe No. 1: ‘O Polochinello’

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in F minor, XII, WTC Book 2

Chopin – Nocturne in E, Op. 62, No. 2 (me)

Mendelssohn – Variations Serieuses, Op. 54

Chopin – Berceuse, Op. 57

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No. 4, in F sharp major, Op. 30

Mozart – Piano Sonata in A minor, K 310 (1st & 2nd movements)

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat, No. 59, Hob. XVI:49 (1st movement)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in D, K 576

Chopin – Waltz in E minor, No. 14

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 10 No. 2

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 5 (1st movement)

Dave Brubeck – ‘Dad Plays the Harmonica’

Henry Cowell – ‘Exultation’

Stephen Montague – ‘The Headless Horseman’

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974 (me)

Chopin – Etude, Opus 25 No. 1 ‘Aeolian Harp’

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511 (me)

Scarlatti – Sonata K.215

Martin Butler – ‘After Concord’

Joanna MacGregor – Lowside Blues

Diana Burrell – ‘Constellations’

Schubert – Impromptu in G flat, D899 no. 3

Chopin – Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp major, WTC Book 2, III

Prokfiev – Piano Sonata No. 3 (1st movement)

Liszt – Concert Study: ‘Un Sospiro’

Charles Tebbs – ‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ (Charles is a pianist and composer who attended the course and performed some of his own pieces for us)

You can hear most of the pieces via this Spotify playlist

‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ by Charles Tebbs

More on piano courses here (includes details of Penelope Roskell’s September course)

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511

It’s one of the great romantic images, isn’t it? The lone performer, faced with the huge black beast of a full-size concert grand piano on a bare stage, armed with nothing but his or her memory. And it’s one of the most absurd things musicians put themselves through. We have Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt to thank (or blame!) for the tradition of the concert pianist playing from memory, and both were significant in turning the piano recital into the spectacle it is today. Before the mid-nineteenth century, pianists were not expected to play from memory. Few pianists today would dispute this legacy, and now it is almost de rigeur, so much so that if you go to a concert where the pianist plays from the score, you may hear mutterings amongst the audience, suggesting the performer isn’t up to the job. Which is of course rubbish: sometimes, especially in contemporary or very complicated repertoire, it is simply not possible to memorise all of it. No other musician is expected to play from memory, though some virtuosi, and of course opera singers do.

When I had piano lessons as a child and teenager, I was not taught how to memorize music. Thus, there are very few pieces in my repertoire which I can play from memory now. However, in the course of my study for my Diploma, I realised the benefits of memorization, and I’ve made the practice and exercise of memory part of my daily diet in my practising. Piano students in music colleges and conservatoires are expected to memorise all their music and to perform from memory, and are taught the skills to facilitate successful memorization.

Playing from memory is not a virtuoso affectation. It allows the performer greater freedom of expression and communication with listeners, and if one is not glued to a score, one can be far more gestural. Memorization demonstrates a high degree of skill and application (high-level musicians often display mental agility akin to that of chess masters), and people often exclaim of concert pianists “how on earth does he/she remember all those notes?” (as pianists, we have to learn more than double the number of notes of any other musician). While each individual musician will have his or her own particular method of memorization, there are a number of proven strategies to assist in memorising music, and the storage and recall of information.

For the pianist, there are four kinds of memory, all of which must be employed when learning music:

Visual Memory: human beings use this part of their memory function to record large amounts of information, such as faces and colours and everyday objects. Music is made up of patterns and shapes, and the pianist uses visual memory to “picture” the score, as well as to recall the physical gestures involved in playing.

Aural/Auditory Memory: this is what enables us to sing in the shower! Music is an assortment of sounds, arranged in a certain order. The pianist uses aural memory to know he/she is playing the correct notes and to anticipate what he/she will play in the next few seconds.

Muscular/Kinaesthesic Memory: the ability to recall all the movements, gestures and physical sensations required to play music. Muscular memory is trained by repetitive practice: just as the tennis player practices his over-arm serve in exactly the same way each time to ensure a perfect delivery, so the pianist must employ repetitive practice to ensure the fingers land on the right notes every time.

Analytical/Conceptual Memory: the pianist’s ability to fully comprehend, absorb and retain the score through his/her intimate study and knowledge of it. This involves understanding structure, harmony, dynamics and nuances, phrasing, reference points, modulations, repetitions etc, as well as the context in which the music was composed, whether it is Baroque, Classical or Romantic, for example. This “total immersion” in the score should result in a rich, multi-layered awareness of it.

Many young students rely, often unconsciously, on auditory and visual memory, or on auditory and muscular memory, and many can play competently from memory. However, to play expertly from memory, and to ensure that one’s ability to download and deliver music accurately is completely secure, all four aspects of memory must be trained and maintained.

Students should be encouraged from the very first lesson to memorise their music, but discouraged from relying purely on muscular memory. They need to understand both the building blocks of the music, and its unique language.

Secure memorisation can lead to an assured performance and less performance anxiety. However, even the very best people can suffer from memory lapses, perhaps due to anxiety, lack of proper preparation, tiredness, stress, or any number of other factors. I’ve witnessed memory lapses in concert a few times: on each occasion, the performer managed to maintain the harmonic framework of the music, thus making the errors less obvious, but no less unsettling, and I’ve often wondered how many times post-performance the performer went over that section of the score to exorcise the mistake.

More on strategies for memorisation from The Musician’s Way blog.

Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski

http://allpiano.wordpress.com