Piano-Yoga® is a unique method of piano playing, performing and teaching designed for all levels of pianists. It has been created and developed by Russian virtuoso pianist and educator GèNIA.

In Piano-Yoga® we believe that creating an optimal environment which promotes the student’s sense of well-being is the best approach to learning the piano.  When we feel relaxed, think positively and our concentration is at its peak, we can learn more quickly and efficiently. In this state, learning can even feel like having fun, where studying and mastering something new become an effortless and pleasurable experience.

It is true that some of the best educational systems (like the Russian school, for example) are based on a strict, disciplined approach to learning, where competition is the upmost motivation for success and the strongest students are stretched to the maximum.  Such systems have produced amazing results, but the weakest emotionally often give up, unable to progress and develop.

Whilst Piano-Yoga® aims to help students to perfect their technique this is only a tool, as our foremost motivation is to make the piano playing process as enjoyable and pleasurable as possible, within the wider framework of the student’s lifestyle.  In order to do this not only do we instruct students specifically in the Piano-Yoga® technique, but we also show them how to efficiently schedule their practice sessions, and how to take care of their health and their body in order to get the most out of their practice and create a positive mindset.

I like to address this issue by using ideas taken from ancient Indian Ayurvedic philosophy – the traditional Hindu system of medicine, based on the idea of bringing balance to the body using diet, herbal treatments, yogic postures and breathing.  In line with the discipline of Ayurveda we ask students to pay attention to what they eat, ask them to monitor how they feel each day, and if they are not happy with the results we teach them how to change their sense of well-being, correcting it through various exercises, simple posture adjustments and the use of aromatherapy.  We very much encourage our students to create a practice environment full of clean energy, and where the student feels comfortable, safe, private and nurtured.

Would you like to try this for yourself?  Here’s what you can do in just one week:

  • Notice when your energy is at its best and try to practise at that time

Are you a morning person or evening? Is the afternoon the best or the worst time for you? Try to practise when you brain is at its best and your muscles are not stiff.

  • Find out if there is a regular time you can practise and, if possible, stick to it.

Getting into a routine will help the body to feel comfortable in its environment and will enable you to concentrate faster and more acutely.

  • Try not to practise on an empty stomach, but also not on a full one.  According to how you feel we recommend using the main principles of Ayurveda

According to Ayurvedic principles a person can either be TAMASIC (sluggish/slow), RAJASIC (hyperactive/fast) or SATTVIC (balanced) depending on their current state of mind.  If you are feeling unsettled you will most certainly be feeling either Tamasic or Rajasic and therefore should aim to bring yourself back into a Sattvic (balanced) state.

Decide how you are feeling at this present moment: TAMASIC or RAJASIC?

For people in TAMASIC (sluggish/slow) state I recommend:

Going for a brisk walk before practice, if possible.

Playing the piano at a moderate or fast tempo but not too slowly!

Eating a moderate amount of RAJASIC foods before practice to induce more energy into your system (chocolate, tea, coffee (but not too much of these, otherwise you may find yourself in a rajasic state) as well as fish, eggs, chilli peppers and strongly-flavored herbs and spices to help bring yourself into a state of balance. Do some physical exercise. Yoga is excellent as long as it is a vinyasa sequence (dynamic flowing yoga practice).  This encourages better blood circulation and warms up the muscles.

For people in a RAJASIC (hyperactive/nervous) state I would recommend:

Going for a slow walk or doing some simple slow stretches, mainly with forward bends (make sure that you do not have any back issues and know how to do stretches safely).

Playing everything on the piano slower then usual. Eat some TAMASIC food before the practice time to induce a calming effect on the body (i.e. meat, cooked vegetables, mushrooms, dried, tinned and frozen fruit).

Practising slow, deep breathing as it has an excellent calming effect on the body. (The yogic breath technique of Ujjayi is particularly good if you are familiar with it – otherwise I would recommend initial guidance from a qualified yoga teacher).

Trying to meditate and rest more between short practice sessions.

  • Make sure that you feel comfortable in your environment

In the morning have plenty of fresh air in the room (no dust, as not only is it bad for your health, but it is terrible for the energy of the place).  In the evening make sure that the room is warm and well lit, but that the lights are not too bright, as this can make you feel tired.

  • Do some physical exercises before your piano practice

Doing some physical work can do wonders for your body and mind. Either walking, running, yoga, pilates or swimming: anything that keeps your body alive, well toned and oxygenated. 10–15 minutes of exercise before your piano practice can dramatically improve your playing and your ability to concentrate!

  • Have some fluids by your side

Preferably have some water (ideally at room temperature, unless you feel hot) or some tea (herbal would be the best, but if you are feeling tired sometimes black tea or coffee can help – make sure that these do not make you too over-active).

  • Use aromatherapy as this can do wonders from your practice

Before embarking on the use of aromatherapy, I strongly suggest that you do some homework, find out what oils and smells you like and how they make you feel. The oils could either be applied to your skin as a cream or used as a room spray or in oil burners. You really need to know what products you are using and which method is the most effective for you, as it can create a very strong effect and this can really elevate your mood, improve your concentration or simply make you feel happier!

I use room sprays the most, and these days create my own fragrances by mixing various oils.  It is so simple: fill a glass bottle with water and add various oils that you like; they usually change with seasons, the time of day and my mood, hence I have many different bottles. Use a diffuser to spray these out.  My favorite morning mix at the moment is a combination of cypress, lemon grass, peppermint and lime.

Below are a few examples of how different oils can help you, but really you need to check out yourself what works for you.  There are endless possibilities for creating various smells.

    • Bergamot helps to fight anxiety, confusion, depression, relieve headaches, and reduce irritability and stress.
    • Pepper is great for fighting apathy, relieving colds, cramps, flu, muscle ache, shock, creating calm and boosting energy.
    • Ylang-ylang helps to fight depression, stress, improve sleep and enhance mood.
    • Rose helps with anxiety, depression and fear, creating nurturing and positive feelings.
    • Clary Sage helps to fight hyperactivity, improve sleep, avoid panic attacks, and induce peace of mind.

Try to pay attention to these few ideas and see how they can improve your practice!

Having said all this, it is important to have a clear goal (know what you would like to achieve from each practice session) and maintain a planned practice process. Try to be undisturbed during your sessions.  And always approach your practice thinking constructively: don’t see problems, only solutions!

Here is a little video about our Piano-Yoga® Retreat in Cyprus, which we have created as the ultimate holistic approach to piano learning.  It includes piano masterclasses and seminars, yoga exercises, food tasting, wonderful sightseeing excursions and communication with inspiring, like-minded people!

Enjoy!

Further information:

GeNIA’s biography

Piano-Yoga®

As my autumn teaching term is about to start, a post on practising seems appropriate. Several of my students have already fessed up to me, via email and Facebook, that they have done little or no practising over the summer break. I’m disappointed, of course, especially as one is working towards Grade 3 at the moment, but I’m not surprised. Children have a wealth of other activities to distract them, and seem to regard the long summer holiday as the ultimate down time. Piano practice goes the way of schoolwork: forgotten for six weeks.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (with apologies to Jane Austen), that regular, focussed practising reaps rewards. On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.” On a simpler level, to me this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone”. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions. “Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality” (SB). Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

And remember:

“The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come”

(Seymour Bernstein)

Photo: Matt Henek

The final week of the 2011 Proms season began with a flamboyant and exhilarating concert given by the superb Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who celebrate their 110th anniversary this year. They were joined by pianist Hélène Grimaud, playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the piece with which she made her Proms debut in 2001. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

'La Ghirlandata' - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Originally conceived as songs for tenor, the piano versions of these pieces, which Liszt included in his second, Italian, year of his Années de Pélérinage, all retain a strong sense of the sung melodic line. All three are based on Sonnets, or Canzone, by the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). They are meditations on love, specifically the poet’s passionate love for Laura de Noves. In the first, Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day…., Canzone LXI, sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 104), he prays for divine blessing on the joys and sufferings of love. The second, Pace non trovo (I find no peace….. Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47) is more agitated. In it, the poet ponders the confused state love has put him in. Enthralled to his lady, he feels imprisoned yet free, he burns with love, yet feels he is made of ice: in modern psychological parlance, a true state of ‘limerence’. The third, I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I Beheld on Earth Angelic Grace…., Canzone CLVI; sometimes incorrectly listed as Sonnet 123), is an ardent love poem in which the poet describes the perfect beauty and purity of his love and its effect on all of Heaven and Nature.

In Liszt’s piano transcriptions, his extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, but they do not take their cues directly from the text (a comparison with the scores of the original song versions is useful when studying these works). Rather, they reflect Liszt’s own response to the poetry in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.

The ‘Sonetto 123’ was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music (apart from half-hearted dabbles with the ‘Consolations’): within the first few bars – measures of ethereal, floating triplets – I was hooked. I am now learning the ‘Sonetto 47’.

Although the song versions were originally conceived for a high tenor voice, Liszt later adapted them for baritone. I find Thomas Quasthoff gives a fine reading of all three Sonneti. Here he is in the Sonetto 47, and here is tenor John Aler in the same work:

I’ve listened to several recordings of the Années during my study, and find Wilhelm Kempff’s readings of the Tre Sonetti hard to beat. Lazar Berman’s recording is also very fine, and Christine Stevenson’s new release of Italie (plus the ‘water’ pieces from Years 1 and 3) is notable for her very thoughtful and insightful approach, which perfectly highlights the dramatic structure of the pieces. Further information here.

Resources:

The Lied, Art Song and Choral Texts Archive

The original song versions of the Tre Sonetti, including libretto, can be downloaded from IMSLP.

Lisztomania

Were you at the Proms last night? Even if you weren’t, you probably know by now that the concert, given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta and Gil Shaham, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters who barracked and sang, thus forcing Radio Three to abandon its broadcast of the concert. It is not the first time a concert given by Israeli musicians has been interrupted by protest – and it won’t be the last either. Although more rigorous security checks were in place ahead of the concert, these did not prevent protesters invading the hall: they had booked their tickets way in advance. Hints that there would be trouble at this concert were made ahead of event, via Twitter (where I heard about it) and various other social media and news channels, and petitions had been made to the BBC, suggesting the concert be cancelled.

Reading various reactions, including a hefty handful of tweets and links from Norman Lebrecht, I felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Last March I attended a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, given by the Jerusalem Quartet, four young Jewish string players who reside in Jerusalem. There was a rag-tag group of noisy protesters outside the hall when I arrived, being fielded calmly by John Gilhooly, the hall’s Director. Stupidly, perhaps, I thought little of it, because I never believed the “sacred shoebox” of the Wigmore Hall could be invaded by protest, anger and violence. I was wrong. At least six protesters were dotted around the hall (they had also purchased their tickets in advance), and each made their best effort to interrupt the performance, knowing that it was being broadcast on Radio Three. One protester, a perfectly respectable-looking middle aged woman, was sitting next to me. She stood and heckled loudly, and was immediately attacked (this is the only word I can think to use) by a gentleman sitting in front of me. He dragged the woman by the hair across my lap and roundly demanded that she shut up so that we could enjoy the concert. But of course we couldn’t: by now the Mozart quartet was spoiled, for all of us, and certain members of the audience, angry that their lunchtime music had been disturbed, were now heckling the hecklers. Eventually all the protesters were removed, and we tried to settle down to try and enjoy the rest of the performance. But the dynamic within the hall had changed because a space which had, until then, been sacrosanct, a place of refuge and comfort to escape the exigencies of everyday life, politics, war, celebrity gossip, had been invaded by anger and protest. I suspect that the concert-goers at the Proms last night felt very much the same. One thing is certain: the protesters have not particularly helped their cause by invading the Proms in way that they did.

The UK is, supposedly, a free country. To me that means we have the right to protest, to express our views freely. It should also mean that certain places, such as the Wigmore Hall, are permitted to remain separate from the important issues of the day. It is naive to deny that there is no relationship between the arts and politics, but that does not excuse the invasion of art spaces and venues by those who chose to deny the rest of us our freedom, our human right, to enjoy music or art, no matter who is performing it, or who created it. Places like the Wigmore Hall should be refuges, places where no one can reach you, and the Wigmore guards that privacy most assiduously. It is this preciously guarded freedom which the protesters last night, and last March, set out to destroy. Incidentally, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who behaved with great dignity and calmness during their interrupted recital, spoke to the audience and the protesters simply to state “we are musicians, not soldiers”.

I am not sufficiently conversant with the politics of the Arab-Israeli situation to comment here: what I do know is that such issues should be kept out of the way of music. Leave music alone, please. The Wigmore Hall is my “church”, and the wonderful music I hear there regularly transports me to another, better world: it is one of the few places left where we can escape governmental politics and protest.

For a fuller account of last night’s concert, read this review from the Arts Desk. Some video clips of the concert, and plenty of comments, are on Norman Lebrecht’s blog.

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’