Some years ago, before I resumed playing the piano seriously and started taking lessons again, I would open a score, look at the forest of notes and think “I’ll never be able to play that!”. I’d visit my friend Michael, who owns a beautiful Steinway B (purchased when he retired, instead of the clichéd sports car), see Schumann’s Kreisleriana open on the music rack, and my heart would sink. “I’ll never be able to play that!”.

There are certain pieces which represent the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire: the Rach 3, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Balakirev’s Islamey, Chopin’s two sets of Etudes, to name but a few. Pieces which have become the preserve of the virtuoso pianist to showcase technical prowess and extreme pianism. We probably have Franz Liszt – he of the famously difficult Transcendental Etudes – to thank for the elevation of the pianist from salon ivory-tinkler, providing a pleasing accompaniment to drinks, supper and chat, to onstage superstar whose pianistic pyrotechnics caused ladies to faint and piano strings to break

About 18 months into my study with my current teacher, I heard Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor, no. 7 from the Opus 25, on Radio Three’s Breakfast show, and was instantly entranced by its melancholic tone, the singing left hand cello-like melody (this Etude is nicknamed “the cello”), the floating chords in the right hand, in which the simplest secondary melody is embedded. I downloaded the score from Pianostreet and started to learn it. Eventually I performed it at a concert at my teacher’s house last year, and also on a 1920s Bluthner owned by Sir Alfred Beit, at Russborough in County Wicklow. “I can play a Chopin Etude” I told myself, when my confidence needed a boost. I felt I had at last entered that exclusive Himalayan club.

Playing the Russborough Bluthner

My teacher then suggested another Etude, this time the E major from the Opus 10, a piece I had always wanted to be able to play. This is one of the most famous of Chopin’s Etudes (along with the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Black Key’, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ and the ‘Butterfly’), which adds an extra degree of difficulty in the learning process. As my teacher said, “It’s so famous, and you want to play it well”. Aside from the dread sixths in the middle section (which, once analysed, unpicked, and put back together again, are not so fearsome – there is a pattern, yes, really!), it’s not as hard as it looks. Oh, all right, it is pretty difficult – allowing the right hand melody to sing above the accompaniment and achieving balance between the hands being the chief issues of this piece – but it is certainly not insurmountable, and my teacher would not have suggested I learn it if she did not think I could cope with it. This massive boost to my confidence has enabled me to go on to learn one of Chopin’s Ballades (the first, in G minor), some pieces by Liszt from the Années, and one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Waiting patiently in my score library is Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Opus 61, one or more of the Scherzi, more Liszt, Hindemith, more Messiaen…. Now, when I open a score, I do not immediately react negatively: “I’ll never be able to play that!” has been replaced with “OK, where do I start?”.

Analaysing the score, going through it with a pencil, looking for patterns and sequences, listening to other people playing it, and general familiarity with what the printed page looks like before you all assist in learning. There is also a physical-versus-mental aspect: convince yourself on first sight of a new piece that you can’t play it, and you probably won’t. But sit down and sight read through it, get your fingers round the notes, enjoy the architecture and melody of the piece, spend time with the music, inhabit it, and quite soon it will become familiar; eventually it will be like an old friend (which is how I feel about the Messiaen now, despite finding it utterly terrifying for the first few months of learning it!).

There are other practical considerations, of course. Some music is physically very difficult or tiring to play, although I dispute the claim that you need big hands to play Liszt or Rachmaninov. You don’t; just a strategy for getting around the music efficiently and comfortably. Some pieces do not lie comfortably under the hand; others are simply exhausting to play and sometimes one is practising only to improve stamina.

Young students often lack the confidence to pick up music on their own, without a teacher’s help to guide them through the score. When I start a student on a new piece, we go through it together. I ask the student to highlight any signs or terms they don’t understand, to mark patterns and sequences, and to generally take the music apart and separate it into manageable chunks. Thus, a page of score which at first appeared daunting can be quickly simplified, making the learning process easier. Of course, many young students want to be able to play the piece straight through, preferably loud and fast (!), and find the crucial detailed study dull and arduous. But working in this way reaps huge rewards: I find I can learn – and retain – music much more quickly now, and “tricks” learnt from, say, a Chopin Etude, can be applied to other music. The “dread sixths” passage of the Opus 10, No. 3 enabled me to devise a simple strategy for a similar section in Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. A case of “Well, hello! I’ve seen this before!”.

The piano repertoire is vast, hugely varied, and wonderful: don’t discount certain pieces because you think you’ll never be able to play them – but remember: sometimes the simplest pieces are the hardest!

Chopin, Etude Opus 25, No. 7 – Murray Perahia

Liszt, ‘La Campanella’ – Jorge Bolet

Mozart, Adagio for Glass Harmonica

Berezovsky plays ‘Islamey’

Non-specialists and lay people have this idea that serious pianists spend hours and hours, every day, practising scales, arpeggios and other technical work and exercises to keep the fingers, and the mind, nimble. When I was in my early teens, working towards my Grade 8, I practised my technical work religiously, rattling up and down the keyboard until my fingers tingled and my head hurt. This was an essential part of my daily practising: as a result I can remember nearly all the scales I had to learn for Grade 8. As I said to some students who were waiting to take their Grade 6 piano exams at the exam centre yesterday, “Once learnt, you never forget your scales! It’s like riding a bike.”

I am quite fierce with my students about learning scales, partly because, as I tell them, scales are useful: they teach good keyboard geography, and are crucial in understanding key signatures. They also encourage quick thinking and nimble fingers, and assist in playing by ear and grasping the basics of chords and harmony. Some of my students love scales: Laurie (11, working towards Grade 2) always insists on commencing his lesson with a scale warm up. As a consequence, his technical work is very secure and he has quickly mastered playing scales hands together (a requirement for Grade 2). “Do you practice your scales, Fran?” my students ask me, and I smile and look apologetic and admit that I don’t.

And nor does my teacher, a professional concert pianist and Professor of piano at one of London’s foremost conservatoires. Nor does she recommend rigorous exercises such as Cramer or Hanon (which I know some people swear by). Instead, she prefers to create exercises from the piece itself, something she has encouraged me to do, and which I find incredibly useful. The great thing about doing this is that you have an instant finger exercise which is relevant to the music you are currently learning, but which can also be adapted and applied to other music. Take the drop slur: a simple, plaintive little piece by Bartok from his suite ‘For Children’ called Former Friends (Quasi Adagio) has proved invaluable in teaching drop slur technique. The opening bar is perfect as the right-hand notes (A-E E-D) sit easily under the fingers and the thumb can be dropped down on to the first A, while the fifth finger floats up and off the E. After teaching this piece to a number of students (it forms part of the current Grade 1 repertoire), I then applied the technique to the Chopin Etude I was learning (Opus 10, No 3). There are some tricky drop slur measures (mm. 32-33 and 36-37) which have benefitted from “the Bartok Effect”. And later, in the “dread sixths” measures (mm. 45-54, marked ‘Con bravura’, just to add to one’s woes!), applying this technique had a remarkable, transformative effect on my ability to cope with this passage.

One of the pieces by Debussy I am working on at the moment, the ‘Prelude’ from the suite Pour le Piano, requires playfulness and nimbleness in the fingers throughout. The interaction between the hands is quite difficult to achieve in the opening measures and the second theme: in many ways, one is trying to create the sense of “one hand playing” while retaining a playful, swirling movement. This piece is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents, and, with that in mind, I turned to Bach for some finger exercises. I’d downloaded the infamous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ for one of my students, and playing it, in a very tongue-in-cheek way the other day, I discovered plenty of useful material to help practice the Debussy. Meanwhile, a little prelude by Delius (from the ‘Three Preludes’) has a nice figure of thirds in semiquavers which is great for training fleet fingers.

The Etude or ‘Study’ was intended for pianists to practice specific techniques, such as rapid passage work, octave playing, playing in thirds and so forth, and, before Chopin, the Etude was very much a student exercise (the most well-known composers of piano etudes are probably Clementi, Cramer, Moscheles and Czerny). Chopin, in his Opp. 10 and 25 Etudes, elevated the genre to something far, far greater than the dry student study, and his Etudes are considered some of the greatest, and most challenging music in the piano repertoire. To the pianist, they offered an entirely new set of technical challenges, while also becoming a regular part of the concert repertoire, combining technique and musical substance to create a complete artistic form, which was taken up by later composers, most significantly Franz Liszt. Thus, the first of the Opus 10, for example, is a crystalline, filligree of a piece, lasting just under two minutes, while the Opus 25 No. 7 (which I learnt last year), is a 5-minute melancholic meditation on perfect tone and phrasing, particularly in the left-hand. Some have become very famous – the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Tristesse’ and the ‘Aeolian Harp’.

Applying techniques I mastered from learning two of Chopin’s Etudes last year (the Opus 10, No. 3, and the Opus 25, No. 5) proves that despite their high artistic form and musical values, they are still studies, offering the pianist the opportunity to learn particular techniques which can be applied to other music. Both Etudes have informed my learning of Liszt’s sublime Sonetto 123 del Petrarca – and coming at this piece with a degree of “prior knowledge” has made the learning of it easier. And that drop slur exercise has proved invaluable in the recurring “rocking lullaby” motif in Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge (no. 4 of the ‘Vingts Regards….’)

Don’t feel you should stick rigidly to traditional technical studies, like Cramer and Hanon (and, believe, me I’ve “been there and done that”, and I’m not convinced of the usefulness of such learning aids). Make up your own exercises from the pieces you are working on, and, if you can’t play a whole Chopin Etude, take an element of it and turn it into your own exercise.

Resources

Bartok – ‘Former Friends’ (Quasi Adagio), from For Children

Claude Debussy, from Pour le Piano: Prelude p1

Delius – Prelude II

Chopin, Etude Opus 10, No. 3

Brahms, 51 Exercises

Richter playing Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No. 7

Messiaen – Vingt regards de l’enfant Jesus. No. IV. Regard de la Vierge (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

I’m reblogging a link to this wonderful video of Martha Argerich playing Liszt from Notes from a Pianist. Even if you don’t like, or know the music of Liszt (and if you don’t, this is the year to discover his music), this is fascinating viewing for it gives a close up of the pianist’s hands in action. Look out for the left hand thumb and hammer-like little finger in the opening measures which creates that extraordinary muffled tolling bell motif. And later, the sheer power in her hands in the ‘cavalry charge’.

The piece, the seventh from the suite Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, is an elegy written in  1849 in response to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1848 by the Hapsburgs.

This article on the Piano Addict blog interested me, not least because I feel we spend far too much of our lives these days trying to do things at high speed, without allowing ourselves time to stand still and think, or to look up occasionally to admire a beautiful sunset or starlit sky, or to listen – to the birds singing in the garden, or the beauty and intricacy of a Bach Chorale. Or to just sit quietly and do nothing, even for just a few moments

As a foodie as well as a pianist, I have an interest in the Slow Food Movement and concur with many of  its values. And like the author of the Piano Addict article, I think similar values could be applied to the way we play the piano, teach the piano, and study and listen to music.

Many, many teachers, practitioners, mentors and students advocate “slow practice”, playing a piece at half-tempo, or slower, to allow one time to examine all its elements, and to consider and learn them properly. When I’m teaching – and the majority of my students are quite young children – I find that students want to rush headlong into pieces, and to be able to play everything that is put before them very fast and (too often!) very loud. Children (and some adults) often do not have the patience or the understanding to take time to acquaint themselves properly with the way the music is constructed, to look for the composer’s signposts, and to consider, before playing a single note, the kind of sound, mood and character that the music requires.

Lately, I have been trying to apply my own admittedly rather cerebral approach to music to my students, and the first thing we do on encountering a new piece, is to study it. “Have a look through this and tell me if there is anything in there you don’t understand, don’t like the look of, or want to ask me about….” is usually how we start. This very basic analysis will, I hope, set my students on a learning path that will ensure they take time to study the music before actually putting their fingers and hands on the keyboard. It allows important “thinking time” and, for the more advanced musician, is an essential part of the process of learning new work. As an aside, I also do a lot of contextual reading and listening, especially if I am embarking on a piece by a composer whose oeuvre is relatively new or unknown to me (such as Olivier Messiaen).

Slow practice is often the only way to tackle tricky or rapid passage work, awkward chord progressions, or uncomfortable fingering; it is also the best way to become really intimate with a piece of music, to understand the composer’s intentions and to examine all the interior architecture of the work. Listen to Perahia or Gould playing Bach, and you can hear from the way the music is played that these pianists (and they are not alone) have taken the time to understand the interior structures, textures and colours of the music.

During my lesson this week, my teacher suggested practising the trickier parts of the Bach Toccata (BWV 830 from the 6th Partita) I am learning “in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne”. I was amazed at the difference this made, not just to the sound but also to the feel of the music under the fingers: my hands and arms were instantly more relaxed, more languid (but no less alert), as Bach’s Baroque arabesques were transposed to a 19th-century Parisian salon. Bach is always beautiful, but played like this, it was really beautiful (especially played on my teacher’s lovely antique Bechstein). Practising the piece at home yesterday, the effect was the same (despite the noise of a drill outside). In the end, I played the entire piece in this way, and I will continue to practise it like this until all the awkward passages are secure, and I can play them accurately and in a more relaxed manner.

I was struck by the need for Slow Piano techniques in my studio, not just for myself, but also for my students, when a parent asked me recently if it would be possible to “fast-track” her child to Grade 4 by the time applications have to be made to senior school (in eighteen month’s time; apparently, this may secure a music scholarship to a local private school). It reminded me of my own learning, at roughly the same age as the child in question, when I was on an “exam treadmill”. As soon as one grade was passed, I would embark on the syllabus for the next one. What I should have been doing was playing and enjoying repertoire to bridge the gap between grades for a few months, something I have been doing with a number of students who have recently passed Grades 1 and 2.

So, maybe Slow Piano is all about taking time to enjoy and savour the music we are studying, playing for pleasure, and listening to, and encouraging others to do the same. And the only competition is with oneself, to achieve perfection, through slow, meticulous and thoughtful practise. It’s a big ask, but one that is definitely worth pursuing.

With that in mind, I’m off for some slow piano practise of my Bach Toccata……………that is, when I’ve fed the cats, made a cake, and prepared dinner for tonight, had my hair cut and written out some music for lessons later…..

Sviatoslav Richter demonstrating “Slow Piano”  techniques in Schubert’s Sonata D894 – one of the most thoughtful readings of this sonata I know. The opening movement is marked molto moderato….

I wrote these notes for my adult students to help them overcome their anxiety about performing in my forthcoming concert. They are coming to my home a couple of days before the event for an evening ‘soirée’ of music and wine – an opportunity to play their concert pieces in (I hope!) a non-threatening environment, amongst friends.

First, it’s ok to feel nervous! It is normal, and it is a sign that the body’s “fight or flight mechanism” – i.e. the production of adrenaline – is working properly. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways; the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Moist hands
  • Trembling hands
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

I find Pilates-type deep breathing (“thoracic breathing”) very useful for dealing with anxiety. The physical act of breathing like this calms you down. It also forces you to focus. When I am playing and I make a mistake, or I find my concentration slipping, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This helps me refocus.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a useful skill, and will make any kind of public performance, musical or otherwise, easier to deal with.

1.    Before you perform, take time to remind yourself that you have practiced to the best of your ability, that you know the piece intimately, and that even a small slip is not going to put you off. Confidence comes from knowing the piece intimately. Before the main performance, play it for family and friends and imagine yourself in a concert situation.

2.    Do not be self-critical. Do not pre-judge the event or draw conclusions about what just happened or what might happen. Self-criticism is pointless because it destroys your focus and takes you out of the here and now. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything. Do not over-analyse, play from the heart.

3.    Avoid inner dialogue. Do not distract yourself with the “what ifs” and the “maybes”. Focus on the music. Hear it in your head and imagine your fingers on the keyboard.

4.    Do not pre-judge the audience’s reaction. Remember, no one is going to boo, slow hand-clap or heckle. Most people who go to concerts, whether given by professional or amateur musicians, are full of admiration for anyone can get up on stage and do it. Everyone who comes to our concerts is there because they want to be there, to support the performers and to enjoy the music.

5.    When you go to the piano, acknowledge the audience – without them it would not be concert! – but then try to blank them out: look straight ahead at the score.

6.    When you sit down to play, take a moment to compose yourself. It is up to you when you start – the audience must be patient. Think about where your hands should be on the keyboard. Get acquainted with the look of the piano – if it’s an unfamiliar instrument.

7.    Just before you begin, take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. As you exhale, allow your fingers to float onto the keys – and then begin. Remember to breathe when you’re playing – it’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they are playing! If you feel your focus slipping, use the deep-breathing technique to help you.

8.    When you have finished, let your hands float off the keyboard. Wait for a moment and then stand and acknowledge the audience again

Cue rapturous applause!

“It sounds wrong, but it’s right” is something I say to my students quite regularly. And sometimes I say it to myself as well, when a ‘crunchy’ or unexpected harmony catches me out, and I have to go back and check that what I played was in fact correct.

Fairly early on in their lessons with me, my students learn about intervals, “the distance between one note and another” as it says helpfully in the tutor book I use. We play them and listen to them and describe them: a major second, a “pinched” sound, usually elicits a shriek of distaste at its dissonance; a third is pleasant, warm; a fourth, when played in different places on the keyboard, “sounds Chinese” (it sounds “medieval” to me); a fifth is a bare, open sound – it needs the middle note to form a satisfying chord; a sixth is easy on the ear; a seventh “hurts” almost as much as a second, though when converted into a dominant seventh chord, it is enjoyable, especially the sense of relief when the harmony goes “home”.

An unfamiliar, or especially crunchy harmony – and in the simple pieces (pre-grade, and Grades 1 to 2) my students are learning these are often very bare chords, formed of only two notes and are therefore far more noticeable – can bring a student up short, cause them to stop playing, go back and play that section again, thinking they have made a mistake. “It sounds wrong but it’s right” I say patiently, urging them to keep playing. Afterwards, we play “spot the interval”, and it becomes apparent that the problem was not an incorrect note, merely that the ear did not like the sound!

Saskia, who is working on ‘Tarantella’ from the Grade 1 repertoire, a rather charming, plaintive little A minor dance by Pauline Hall (she of the excellent Piano Time series), does not like the chords in the first section, which alternate between a straight A-minor tonic chord and a chord composed of A, D and E. “I can’t play it!” she grumbled at her lesson this afternoon, and then proceeded to play it perfectly, albeit somewhat tentatively. We have been trying to achieve the effect of a strummed guitar in the left hand, with soft chord changes, while the right hand melody dances moodily over the top. Going back to the score, I showed her why she did not like that A-D-E chord, and explained that it was a deliberate device on the part of the composer to create moments of tension, and delayed gratification, before the resolution comes on the next beat. “Music would be very boring if we didn’t have these crunchy harmonies and surprising moments,” I said.

It is this sense of delayed gratification that makes the Chopin Ballade I am working on (and indeed all his other music I play, or listen to), so fascinating, so suspenseful, and so utterly addictive. He forces player and listener to work hard, taking the ear on amazing harmonic journeys, to distant highways and byways, and so when it comes, the resolution, the “reward”, is all the more wonderful and satisfying. Sometimes it may sound ‘wrong’, but in Chopin’s extraordinary hands it is most definitely right.