A post by Geraldine in A Bottle inspired this one. There’s a wrong way and a right way to offer corrections to a student. I hope I am doing it the right way….

Continually picking up a student over small slips and errors will dent their confidence and erode their ability to trust their musical self. Teaching a student how to identify errors, by ear and by feel, and how to learn from them is crucial. If a student stumbles over a passage but cannot point out where the error happened, they need to be shown where and why the mistake occurred. “Listen to yourself playing” I tell my students, and they look at me askance. Of course you must use your ears when you play, just as you use your brain, your fingers and your eyes.

A good teacher knows each student individually, can remember where they are in their study, and adapts his or her teaching style to suit each student. A bad teacher cannot remember names, or the student’s progress, and teaches every student in exactly the same, formulaic way.

A good teacher allows the student to play through the entire piece first, without interruption. A good teacher listens critically and supportively. When the student has finished, a good teacher first points out the places where the student played well and praises the student for his or her playing. Then the serious work begins.

A bad teacher halts the student mid-way to highlight errors or correct mistakes. This is a very bad habit, as it encourages ‘stop-start’ practising and a message is sent to the student’s brain that this is an acceptable way of playing, even if the student (and the teacher!) knows it is not. In a performance or examination situation, stopping and starting is not acceptable, but if a student becomes accustomed to doing it in practice (reinforced by teacher’s behaviour during lessons), he or she does not learn a coping mechanism for quick recovery when a mistake occurs. Mistakes need to be seen in context, and understood, but students should also be encouraged to “play through” errors.

One of my students, in fact, a student who has been with me the longest, a competent 11 year old called Lucy, still often asks me when she is playing “is this right?”. Most of the time she is right, and me keeping quiet, or simply saying “keep going, we’ll talk about it in a moment”, is enabling her to trust her musical instincts and work out problems for herself.

A good teacher encourages students to think for themselves, work out their own fingering schemes, and helps them to see solutions to problems. A bad teacher just tells them how to do it without allowing any forum for discussion or feedback, thus ridding the student of any sense of control over the music, and making the student entirely reliant on the teacher (who may not always be right!).

A good teacher encourages students to see how a particular technique learnt in one piece (see my earlier post on technical exercises) can be applied to another. A bad teacher says “You will do it this way. Or else….”

Sometimes even the youngest student has something fresh and insightful to say to me about the music they are learning. And when I pass on such an anecdote to my teacher, I realise that we are all connected in an infinite circle of learning and mentoring.

Further reading:

The Perfect Wrong NoteWilliam Westney

The Inner Game of MusicBarry Green

The Art of PractisingMadeline Bruser

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato, or vivace – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

One of my latest activities with my students is to get them to work out their own fingering schemes (with me sitting beside them to offer guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through. It is also more sensible to allow a student to suggest his or her own preferred fingerings than for me to add what I think they should be doing. Many editions, especially study books and music for children, come with quite involved, suggested fingering – but it should be remembered that these schemes are just that: suggestions, and if a scheme does not work for a particular student, it can be overruled!

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score. In the Bach Toccata (from the Partita BWV 83), a consistent fingering scheme is essential to maintain the flow of the music, especially in the semi-quaver passages (of which there are plenty!), and in one or two places, it is necessary for the right hand to play notes normally assigned to left hand, which can be awkward if one is not forewarned. There are also a few places where I simply do not like the scheme I have worked out with the help of my teacher (a fifth finger or a thumb on a black note, for example). Here, we have added articulation, usually staccato, as if to highlight the more awkward passages; interestingly, this adds more colour and texture to the music – and I can play it comfortably too!

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register. Almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree in part with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, but I feel that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

One of my teacher’s great skills is in working out a fingering scheme that is both natural and musical, thus avoiding unnecessary strain on the hands (something I am all to aware of with my chronic tenosynovitis in the right hand). She has written widely on this subject (she contributes a regular column on technique to Piano Professional magazine) and has published a book The Art of Piano Fingering, which offers unique and enlightening explanations of how to finger scales and arpeggios, and discussion of how to apply these principles to specific pieces of music. It contains some surprising innovations, and is a must for all advanced pianists.

Rather than write an exhaustive summary of my piano lesson today, I am simply going to note the things I discussed and worked on with my teacher. While the notes are specific to the music I am working on currently (the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830, and the ‘Prelude’ from Debussy’s Pour le Piano), they have a general relevance, and I hope readers will find them useful. This post is also an opportunity for me to review, while writing, my piano lesson and what I need to focus on in the coming weeks.

We began with the Bach (Partita No.6). This piece is intended for my Diploma recital, but learning it has also reminded me of how satisfying it is to play Bach. His music is intricate, textural and cerebral, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece, having not played any Bach seriously since I left school (I am ashamed to admit!).

Overall – well played, in some places “beautifully played”, a nice sense of grandeur in the arpeggiated figures in the opening and closing sections, some good three-part playing where I’ve clearly analysed the structure of the fugue. Piece needs to be neatened up, with more colour and shape. Listen to the Chromatic Fantasia for reference as this piece shares some similar motifs. Needs more “flourish” in places. Be sure to maintain the sense of a steady pulse throughout. Do not use the pedal as a cover for sections which are difficult or less secure.

mm. 1 & 2 (and all similar measures): achieve a greater sense of grandeur and flourish through the arpeggiated figures. Keep dotted figure legato and maintain sense of forward movement into crotchets. Avoid “chunky” hands and “notey” sound through these sections. Try to move smoothly between chords with a horizontal motion.

mm. 3-6 (and all similar measures): try for “swirling” motion between the hands, almost a sense of “one hand playing”. Keep these sections lighter (as a contrast to opening measures). Distinct “toccare” feel. Slight tenuto on first note of each figure, for example, in mm. 15-16 to emphasise the chromaticism.

Take difficult or insecure bars in the Fugue and practice them slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. As I found in my lesson, this technique enables the hands to relax. The more difficult bars should sound unforced: resist pushing into the keys in these sections, especially in more tricky three-part sections.

Semi-quaver passage work: relax the hands, again to achieve unforced sound.

Debussy: ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano – This piece sits rather well with the Bach Toccata as it is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents (specifically Couperin, rather than Bach), and has very distinct “toccata” elements in its constant forward motion and the “divine arabesque of Bach”. It also contains “antagonistic” elements and oppositions of extremes, such as dynamic or colour. Despite these apparently “serious”, Baroque features, there is a delightful playfulness in this piece.

mm. 1-42 – as in the Bach Toccata, think about shared movement and “swirling” between the hands, almost a sense of the hands “playing” with each other.

mm. 42-54 – keep wrists, forearms and elbows bouncy through these big chords. Practise mf, and gradually use back to increase sound. Glissandos – don’t hang around!

mm. 55-56 – Whole tone scale: try and achieve “harp” sound, hands drawn rapidly across strings, with sweeping movement. Practice the runs in groups of 8 notes (4 per hand).

mm. 57-64 – RH “shake”, likewise from m. 69 in LH. Keep fingers “playful” through this section.

Contrary motion scale preceding Cadenza – again, keep hands light, nimble and playful. Practise RH measures slowly

Cadenza – runs should be “kaleidoscopic”, like a “harp”, fingers swept across the keys.

Final 6 bars – keep in Tempo primo. Very grand. These big chords should set up the silence for the sublime opening of the ‘Sarabande’.

Overall, this piece needs to remain playful, both technically and musically.

This week I am wrestling with one of my personal pianistic bête noirs: the dread cross-rhythm (or ‘poly-rhythm’). I am ashamed to confess that at my time of life (mid-40s) and pianistic ability (advanced), I have never truly mastered playing a cross-rhythm (for example, triplets in right hand over duplet quavers in left hand). I suspect I was never taught how to do it properly by the teacher I had in my teens, though I do recall that one of my Grade 8 pieces, a Chopin Nocturne in D minor, had a few cross-rhythms, which were just skimmed over: I seemed to play them all right, and I passed my Grade 8 with a creditable mark. Unfortunately, for me, being able to play a cross-rhythm convincingly, and, more importantly, correctly, is a basic requirement for a pianist of my level of (so-called) expertise. It is also essential for the Debussy I am learning for my Diploma (the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano), which contains a small section of triplets over semiquavers. For the uninitiated, playing a cross-rhythm is the pianistic equivalent of rubbing your stomach with one hand whilst patting your head with the other (or vice versa).

Over the years, my silly difficulty with the cross-rhythm has forced me to exclude a great deal of music from my repertoire: a good deal of Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev has, until recently, remained a mystery to me, because I only have to see a group of triplets against quavers, and I go cold with fear.

A few years ago, I taught myself the opening movement of Schubert’s great last sonata, the D960 in B-flat Major. (I also taught myself the rest of sonata, but the glorious first movement was my main preoccupation). In the development section, there are six, yes six, bars of triplets in the right hand over duplets (pairs of quavers) in the left hand. This section marks the climax of the movement, and, when played correctly, is extraordinarily dramatic, as the two strands of music come together. Whenever I encountered this section, I just “fudged” it, playing a rough approximation of what it should sound like and feeling relieved when I reached the end of the section. A brief encounter with a piano teacher (one who I quickly dropped like the proverbial hot potato when I discovered some rather unsavoury truths about him – but that’s another story) gave me a little ditty to help cope with the cross-rhythms in the Schubert. A quick trawl of the internet earlier today, while trying to find a proper exercise to help me with the Debussy, threw up a number of rhymes and suchlike for this purpose, the most popular being “Nice Cup of Tea” or the variant “Cold Cup of Tea” to cope with triplets against duplets. Rhythmically, it works like this:

Nice (both notes together) Cup (2nd triplet) of (2nd duplet) Tea (3rd triplet).

It helps to tap the rhythm out on alternate knees while saying the words a few times before attempting it at the keyboard. This ‘system’ works for very short passages of three against two, or better still, one triplet group against two quavers. But try saying Nice Cup of Tea over and over again for six bars – as for the Schubert – and it quickly becomes apparent that one needs a more rigorous approach.

When I played the Schubert for my current teacher, at my first lesson with her, she immediately picked up my difficulty with the cross-rhythms in the development section, and gave me a neat exercise, which forces one to keep a regular pulse going (essential to ensure the notes of the cross-rhythm fall in the right place). Take the simplest one-octave C major arpeggio in the right hand, in triplets, descending from the C above middle C (C-G-E, C-E-G etc), while the left hand plays crotchet C’s and G’s on the beat (say, in 2/4 time). Get a good sense of the pulse before dividing the left hand rhythm into quaver duplets, and allowing the second duplet to fall just after the second triplet of the group. Be careful not to allow the triplets to turn into a dotted rhythm. I found this exercise really helpful as it prevents one from playing too mechanically and does not interrupt the flow of the music.

Other people advocate a more mathematical approach, involving diagrams and numbers. This is for 3 against 4, pulled from an ABRSM forum on the subject:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2
x       x        x       x      (x falls on every third beat)
o          o          o     (o falls on every fourth beat)

Now, count aloud while patting alternate knees: 1(Both) 2 3 4(left) 5(right) 6 7(left) 8 9(right) 10(left) 11 12

Do this very slowly at first and build up speed, until you can ‘feel’ the rhythm and you won’t have to count it in your head.

Sounds simple? I will be trying this method tomorrow with the Debussy….. I suspect there will be a degree of “fudging” involved: the tempo of the piece means that one could wing it, but I am sure my teacher would notice it – and I want to play it correctly! Very slow practice, playing the notes from left to right in the order they are written and making sure to stress the strong beat where both hands fall together may help my poor brain (and fingers) from getting in a tangle! Knowing each hand’s part intimately (from memory, ideally) should help too. Expect a follow up post on this subject in a few weeks’ time!

Meanwhile, here are some resources which I found helpful.

The first of Brahms’s 51 Exercises is an exercise in cross-rhythm, rather than a fingering exercise. Download a PDF file Brahms 51 Exercises No. 1

PDF Worksheet on Cross-Rhythms

The holiday is over, and my students return next week for the start of the spring term – which means I must get organised! As I start to plan the upcoming term, with the usual emphasis on finessing pieces for exams later in the spring, and encouraging students to think “musically”, a quote from the pianist Artur Schnabel comes to mind, that bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard.

When I introduce the way music is constructed and written to novice students, I explain that bar lines are there to “keep the music tidy”, and that each ‘measure’ of music is separated by a bar line. This immediately sets them up as notional hurdles to keep the unruly sheep of notes tethered in the right place. Quite soon after, students meet phrase marks, and are then presented with a conflict: bar lines forces the eye read music vertically, while phrase marks ask the eye to read horizontally.

Many novice students play music bar by bar,  literally “vertical” playing, since seeing the notes contained within each bar as a single entity that must not be allowed to stray along the stave seems to force the hand and fingers to adopt a piston-like up and down action, which can result in very chunky, “notey” and overly accented playing. Meanwhile, I try to encourage students to see music in terms of phrases, or “sentences”, as long strings of melody, and urge them to “read ahead” so that they are continually anticipating what is to come. Alongside this, I ask students to think about the movement of their hands, and to play with more relaxed, elliptical movements (“polishing” was one of the words I used with Bella to help her achieve a lovely fluidity in her Bach Prelude). This is one of the great conflicts of playing the piano: the mechanical action of the instrument requires an up-down movement to produce a sound, but to produce beautiful sound – which is what we all strive for, whether the quietest pianissimo or the most forceful fortissimo – one must free arms, hands and fingers to play with looser, more parallel movements, and learn how to distribute weight through the fingers or to allow the arms and back to draw weight away from the fingers.

With practice, one learns to read the music horizontally, and good keyboard geography will enable a student to stop checking their hand/finger position every bar. And so, from reading line by line, one goes on to take in the whole page in a single glance. I tell my adult students that reading music is like driving: one must look at the road ahead to anticipate hazards, speed markings, and stop signs. Anticipation is crucial, for it allows one to play fluently, and seeing beyond the bar lines helps to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on the first beat of every bar. When looking at new music, I now ask all my students, children or adults, to point out phrase marks, tempo, dynamic and articulation markings, and any other signs or symbols which they need to be aware of in their journey through the score. Thus, the music becomes a map – and the job of the pianist is to navigate and interpret it.

Of course, it would be far easier, in many ways, if bar lines did not exist. Without these hurdles and dividers, our eyes would automatically take in the score horizontally and read along the stave rather than up and down it, and we would be able to achieve more nuanced phrasing and fluent playing. As it is, the majority of music we encounter will be divided into measures, and so we must train our eyes to see past the bar lines, to read the score as a whole rather than in small sections, and to strive for a coherent, fluid and well-shaped reading,

With all this in mind, I really should be practising…….