I am delighted to present my third article for ‘Pianist’ Magazine’s e-newsletter, on the use of the sustain pedal, often misused and misunderstood by pianists and piano students. The article includes a helpful exercise to assist in mastering the art of good legato pedalling (an exercise which I know works as I have used it successfully with a number of my students).
There is also a link to a feature on the London Piano Meetup Group and the South London Concert Series, which I run with my friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage.
People who know me well – and who have eaten at my dinner table – probably feel it was inevitable that I would eventually combine my twin passions of food and pianism in a blog post.
This time last year I was in the midst of final preparations for my ATCL Performance Diploma. I was also hooked on Masterchef the Professionals, a BBC TV competition for working chefs. This time this year I am once again immersed in Diploma preparations (for the higher LTCL), and nightly glued to Masterchef the Professionals.
So how can a cookery tv game show (which is how Masterchef began nearly 20 years ago) provide inspiration to the pianist, and musician in general?
The programme features some very talented individuals. Many of the dishes they submit to the highly discriminating judges are amazing: creative, imaginative and beautifully prepared. In order to progress through the contest, the participants must complete a variety of tests, including skills tests which examine things like the ability to joint a bird correctly, prepare a lobster or make Hollandaise sauce (three ways). They must also prepare a classic dish, set by Michael Roux Jr, as well as cooking and serving a two-course meal for food critics. As the competition progresses, the tasks become more challenging.
The more I watched Masterchef, and the further the competition proceeded towards its exciting denouement, the more it became apparent to me that the chefs who consistently came out top (and the one who eventually won the competition, Ash Mair), all had their “skills sets” perfected. At the foundation of everything they cooked was a solid understanding of technique, ingredients, flavour combinations, and time-management, combined with creative flair and imagination. And as I watched, it occurred to me that musicians, especially those preparing for concerts, competitions, festivals or exams, also need to have secure “skills sets” (i.e. technique).
Technique is at the foundation of everything we do as pianists (and this is true for anyone who works in a profession/craft requiring skill and dexterity – for example, sportspeople, surgeons, sculptors, plumbers). Piano technique is not just finger dexterity but – just as for a chef – an aggregate of many skills. It is an understanding of how movement can influence the way we play the piano, the sounds we make, our ability to move rapidly around the keyboard. It is “a way of using your body to play the piano” (Maria Joao Pires). I see technique as the solid architectural framework on which we hang our creativity, artistic and interpretative vision, our musicality, and our communication with the listener. And technique must never just be about acquiring “finger technique”; we should always practice in a musical way – because practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music.
Sure, you come across people who play the piano well, but maybe you wonder, when you hear them play, why their fortes are too strident, or their tonal control lacks true cantabile sound. Both aspects require an ability to understand how we use the body to create particular sounds and effects on the keyboard. So, like the chefs on Masterchef the Professionals, we must bring together our skill set and our musicality to enable us to play better.
Another aspect which was very obvious from Masterchef was that all the finalists were highly organised time managers. They knew how long their dishes would take to prepare and they were expert at multi-tasking. They also had a well-developed understanding of how the different components of a dish should come together to create a whole meal. In the same way, the skilled musician understands how to construct a programme that will delight, excite and surprise the listener. The ingredients of a good programme should pique the listener’s appetite well before the soloist arrives on stage (when I select concerts to review, I largely base my choices on interesting repertoire and programming rather than performer). A concert pianist friend of mine once told me that his teacher (Phyllis Sellick) described a programme featuring music by the same composer as “a list!”, but “seasoning” your programme well can make a concert focusing on a single composer a fascinating and engaging experience – for listener and performer.
Let me backtrack a little in the process and explain how Masterchef influenced my Diploma preparations in the run up to the exam last December:
Be well-prepared: allowing oneself enough time to fully prepare each piece. Last-minute preparations are never a good idea, whatever level of exam you are taking. Being well-prepared can also counteract nerves on the day.
Time-management: make sure your programme runs to the correct timings as given in the exam regulations. At Diploma level, you will be marked down if your programme is too short, or over-runs. Time your pieces individually as well as your entire programme. And think about the silences between the pieces too: some pieces hang together naturally (I played a Bach Toccata and Debussy’s Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’ virtually back-to-back in my Diploma recital, to demonstrate the connections between the pieces, but a longer pause between the Schubert E flat Impromptu and Liszt Sonetto 123 was necessary, in part to allow me to catch my breath!)
Plan your menu. Your programme is your menu: plan it wisely. In my experience, as a regular concert-goer and occasional performer, the best programmes are those which offer different levels of energy, perhaps building to the climax of a big virtuosic piece, or piano sonata at the midway point. If the programme is very weighty, remember that the audience needs a break too.
Presentation: at Diploma level you are marked on your presentation skills and stagecraft, and your attire and manner must be professional. Dress appropriately for an afternoon or early evening recital, and practice playing in your concert clothes ahead of the actual date. (I had trouble with my shoes, for example, as I cannot pedal in high heels! And make sure your page turner is correctly attired too: mine wore plain black shirt and trousers).
Stay focussed: nerves can get the better of you but if you are well-prepared you should have no reason to feel nervous (beyond the “positive nerves” of looking forward to presenting your programme to an audience/examiner).
A couple of other tips for practising have come up as I’ve watched this year’s Masterchef The Professionals contest:
Last year, I played the Schubert E flat Impromptu to a pianist friend, twice, as part of my preparations. He told me I was using the pedal too much and ordered me to practice the piece without the pedal (except in the trio). At first, I found this a difficult and unpleasant experience, not least because the piece sounded dreadful without pedal on my piano. After a while, however, I began to notice new details about the music, which had hitherto been hidden by my rather over-enthusiastic foot. Likewise, on Masterchef last year, one of the finalists made a ‘Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie’. He took all the components of a classic chicken pie, stripped them down and presented them in an elegant and witty way. When I made it myself, I realised why my friend had suggested practising the Schubert without pedal: when I went back to play the piece for my teacher, with one-eighth pedal, the result was more refined, musical and had far greater clarity.
So, it’s worth taking the trouble to strip the music back to its components: this does not necessarily mean doing an exhaustive analysis of the score, but being aware of all the little details that make up the whole. Practising sans pedal allows you to hear better what is going on in the music – maybe some interior voices or melodic lines were not obvious before? Understand what makes the whole and try to bring all the individual parts together to make a coherent and elegant finished version.
I’ve been working on my LTCL repertoire for nearly a year now, and soon it will be “decision time” as to when I take the exam (spring or summer 2013). The experience of the previous Diploma – and the inspiration from Masterchef! – means I feel far better prepared this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning aspects of technique including pedaling (specifically for Mozart A minor Rondo, K511, which requires very little, and very sensitive pedaling), and building stamina to enable me to play a brash and exuberant Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau (op 33, in E flat). I’ve done a lot of “tasting” – listening around my repertoire to gain inspiration from recordings, other works by the same composers, live performances etc. My ‘menu’ is nearly ready to be run by friends and colleagues who will sample it ahead of the exam:
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974
Takemitsu – Rain Tree SketchII
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Rachmaninov – Two Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 – No. 7 in E flat & No. 8 in G minor
I was learning a piece called ‘Baby Bear’, and I was having difficulty with it. It was about the sixth piece in my grade one book, and I think you actually had to play hands together or something incredibly challenging like that. My mother sat down with me and patiently helped me through it. For some reason that always stuck in my mind – it’s one of the few memories I have of a warm and caring feeling between my mom and I.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
The lack of good piano teachers. I figured there has got to be some way of offering students better than what I received. But it was also just by chance – some neighbourhood kids needed lessons, so I taught them. I was 16 which means I’ve now been teaching over 40 years.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
First off the bat is Richard Hunt, an Englishman who ended up in Montreal and later founded Quartango, one of the best tango groups around. He taught me for only two years when I was 8 and 9 years old, but he instilled a love of music in me that I carry to this day. He was very clever and he let me have fun! We even had some of our lessons on the church organ instead of the piano.
Then there was Phil Cohen who had been Yvonne Hubert’s assistant (she had been a student of Cortot and taught such Canadian greats as Janina Fialkowska, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Ronald Turini who later studied with Horowitz, Andre Laplante and Louis Lortie). Phil was fascinated with the psycho-physical aspects of performance and would do strange things with your hand that made you play way better but you weren’t sure what exactly was going on.
When I finished my studies with Phil I wanted to understand what had just happened to me, so I did a training in Feldenkrais Method, and I count Moshe Feldenkrais as my next most memorable and significant teacher.
I concluded that Phil had given me an amazing degree of refinement, but I had never acquired the firm foundation upon which such sophistication needs rest. So I went to study with Kemal Gekić in Yugoslavia. More or less a product of the Russian School, he rebuilt everything from the ground up and indeed gave my hand a strength and security it had never had before.
Finally, in the past few years I have again been having occasional sessions with Phil – getting some reminders about that sophisticated part and synthesizing what I’ve learned from both Phil and Kemal to develop what I call Craft of Piano Method, the approach presented in my three books on piano technique.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
All of the above. Also Richard Feynman, the physicist and author of ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’, and Werner Erhard, whose work now goes by the name Landmark Education. Also G. I. Gurdjieff. And various psychological disciplines…… what they gave me is the idea always to make it a positive, creative experience. To respect the person. To try to discover the person. Never to fault the student for not understanding but to fault myself for failing to discover the language that would have him or her understand.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
Hoo boy, there are hundreds of those… Recently I worked with a violinist in Pensacola, Florida, who had shoulder pain. I had him continue his up bow way past the violin, towards the ceiling, then around in a big circle. Then his down bow expanded into a big circle in the other direction. Then I had him play not moving his bow at all but moving his violin back and forth underneath the bow. Finally I explained to him where his arms are attached to his body: do you know? It is only at the central end of the collarbone where it attaches to the sternum. I put my bunched fingertips one on each of these collarbone-sternum joints and palpated them while he played, just kept physically in touch with them. His sound went through the roof. It had been improving steadily but this was a quantum leap, it had power, sonority, richness, expressivity – it gave us all goosebumps.
I recently worked with a young Italian pianist in Geneva. She had been given a steady diet of arm weight technique and told not to move her fingers too much. When I showed her a way of moving her fingers which gave them activity and tonus without stiffening them or causing any stiffness elsewhere, her playing became amazingly poetic. I was blown away because I didn’t have to tell her to be more expressive or poetic, we just worked to undo the physical block which had been preventing her natural expression from finding its voice.
I taught an American pianist in Trossingen, Germany many years ago. Her hand suffered (as so many do) from over-relaxation, and I worked to build up its structure, just to get it to stand nicely on the keyboard even before we tried to play anything. All of a sudden she says, “Gee, I feel so muscular!” We all laughed, because of course, it wasn’t her muscles at all that were giving her the sense of power, it was her skeletal structure.
I remember teaching a Chinese student during my year in Wuhan. She was playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata and couldn’t really get the special atmosphere of the second theme. I tried explaining to her how Liszt was pulled in two directions, towards divine love but also towards carnal love, and that we don’t really know which one this theme represents. I myself feel it as towards the divine, how about you? No result. I try another tack: “Imagine you are the Emperor of China and it is your yearly pilgrimage to the Sun Temple. You must pray to the Gods for rain, and if you fail, your people will die of famine. You enter the temple, you pray with all your heart, and suddenly, a sound of brass from the sky, a divine melody descends from the clouds – you know your prayers have been answered. Play this theme as if it was that heavenly melody.” She played and we were literally in tears. It was indeed heavenly. It was a prayer. I was fascinated because I had to go into her culture to access the universal quality of that theme. Trying to get her to understand Liszt’s culture met with no success, but her own culture proved an admirable path for her to understand that music, music which does indeed speak to us all. She needed her own culture to access the right side of her brain, which of course possesses a perfect understanding of the spiritual element in this theme.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
Exciting: their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity, their receptivity, and their willingness to be beginners. Challenging: 1) the slightly rusty nature of their brains, compared to the incredible flexibility and speed of their younger colleagues. 2) having to fix the sometimes vast amounts of garbage they have been taught over the years…
What do you expect from your students?
Curiosity, engagement, dedication….
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
They are excellent, a stimulus to high level work. Competitions are the equivalent of a scientific congress where people go to meet their colleagues, share ideas and be stimulated. It’s a chance to feel like you are part of a community instead of this weirdo who mostly sits between four walls practicing on his or her own. Whenever I prepared a competition I played better, because I knew I had to. Perhaps theoretically I should play my best simply out of love for the composer, but I find the practical stimulus of a concrete goal a much more effective kick in the pants.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
Sing a simple song, sense your own voice. Let your fingers begin to find that song on the piano. Experience your fingers on the piano as an extension of your voice.
Tap simple rhythms, one hand on your knee, the other on a piano key. Let rhythmic sense be as important as the sense of the notes from the very beginning.
Play first, read second.
Never let the task of reading distract you from the task of making music.
Never let relaxation lead you into a state of emasculated collapse.
“Don’t bang” does not mean “play like a wimp,” it means “find a way to play where you stand up into your hand’s structure instead of letting it collapse. Banging mostly comes from weakness not too much strength.
Have your hands learn to stand, walk, run and jump well on the keyboard, then give them musical tasks that give them a reason for doing these things.
Never let technique distract you from the sound you are making, the music you are making. They are intimately connected.
Understand your hand’s structure and function, then find out where it is not working optimally for you. Find out how the body participates in supporting the hand in working well.
What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
They feed each other. I couldn’t really do one well without the other.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
Passed on: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, de Pachamann. They all had supreme virtuosity, compared to which most of the best pianists today only move their fingers well. This virtuosity is way beyond digital dexterity – it’s creating orchestral sonorities and emotional characterizations that grow naturally and organically out of the soundscapes the composers created.
Living: Kemal Gekić. He is the one pianist today who is breaking new ground in this realm. He is using his transcendent mastery of the keyboard to explore new emotional and spiritual elements in the music he plays, and dealing with adjustments to the sonority at the micro- or even nano- level to evoke unbelievably huge changes in the expressive dimension.
Canadian pianist Alan Fraser is best known as the author of three major volumes on piano technique: The Craft of Piano Playing (also in DVD), Honing the Pianistic Self-Image, and All Thumbs: Well-Coordinated Piano Technique. Fraser’s new approach grows out of his many decades’ study with Phil Cohen and Kemal Gekić, synthesizing the best features of previous schools of piano technique in order to move beyond them. Analyzing piano technique in the light of the Feldenkrais Method of neuromotor reeducation (Fraser is a senior Feldenkrais practitioner) allows Fraser to unlock the hand’s innate potency at the keyboard by returning to its inherent structure and function. Instead of distracting from musical aspects of piano playing, Fraser’s focus on the physical brings the pianist, by improving his physical relationship to his instrument, back into contact with his essential artistic self. Thus Fraser’s students gain not only in technical mastery; but in their artistic expression which develops a whole new dimension of tonal breadth, emotional subtlety and spirituality.
In 2011 Fraser inaugurated the Alan Fraser Piano Institute, a week-long intensive course designed to create a breakthrough in one’s piano technique. Branches of the Institute have already sprung up at Smith College, Massachusetts; Salt Lake City, Utah; Concord New Hampshire; Stuttgart, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; Nice, France; and Haarlem, the Netherlands. In addition to his Institutes, Alan Fraser gives recitals and master classes throughout Europe and North America, and continues to teach at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. He has composed several vocal works including two masses and a Magnificat, and is a respected digital sound engineer who edited Kemal Gekić’s monumental recording of the 27 Chopin Etudes.
by Penelope Roskell, pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
If we reflect on the language that we use in our teaching, we will probably notice that many of the words we use imply a rather serious, one might even say tedious view of life: practise hard, exercises, repetition, accuracy, evenness, examinations – no wonder so many students find piano playing boring compared to the fun of playing with friends or computer games!
I think we all need to remind ourselves frequently of the possible alternative words: ease, beauty, flow, flourish, caress, communication, fun, delight, and, most importantly perhaps, playfulness. I personally don’t remember ever having heard that word in any piano lesson when I was a student!
If we see and hear a true virtuoso play, we are not aware of fear or wrong notes, or stiffness in the joints, or awkward, ungainly movements. We are taken up in the joy and delight of sheer playfulness of physicality on the piano. Now, of course some people tend to look down their noses on “mere virtuosos” as somehow lacking in seriousness, and it is true that in some cases their playfulness may also equate with a certain superficiality of character. But when that delightful virtuosity is combined with depth of feeling, a rigorous intellect and real artistry, then we witness the pinnacle of piano playing in all its fullness.
It is a recognised fact that children learn more quickly and enthusiastically through play, and I believe this also applies to teaching piano technique, both for children and for adults. If we watch a child spending time alone at the piano, they delight primarily in any activities that involve movement around the piano. This might be big jumps, glissandi, staccato, big banging chords – they don’t generally relish playing the sort of two note legato “tunes” we find in many beginners’ tutor books.
Imagine how it must feel for a very active six year old to be asked not only to sit still for half an hour, but also not to move his arms beyond the middle C five-finger position (thumbs on middle C, elbows in, wrists swivelled inwards, shoulders up)! This straight-jacketed feeling can be absorbed into their experience of piano playing from the earliest stages, and can become a very entrenched habit.
Kurtag in ‘Jatekok’ (which means “Games”) attempts to address this problem in a fascinating way – approaching each aspect of piano playing with a very broad gesture (such as clusters around the piano) which then becomes more refined into a piece with notes which need to be played accurately. Various other tutor books recognise the advantage of embracing the whole of the keyboard. The Little Keyboard Monster series, for example, contains some delightfully imaginative pieces using glissandi, leaps etc. from an early level.
The fear of playing wrong notes is very powerful, and can lead to tension throughout the muscular structure. At all levels, I think it is important to balance the need for accuracy with freedom of movement, sometimes to exhort the student: “don’t worry about wrong notes at the moment – feel the technique freely first, then refine it!” Paradoxically, if we aim first for beauty of sound, muscular freedom and emotional expression, almost invariably we play more right notes in the long run.
Although I do frequently teach my students Etudes (particularly, at advanced level, the Chopin and Debussy Etudes from which so much can be learnt), I often find that much valuable time can be wasted learning several pages of somewhat indifferent music for just one aspect of technique – time which could have been much better spent learning some great repertoire. I feel there is much benefit to be gained for each teacher to develop his own notebook of very short exercises which cover all the necessary movements require for specific techniques. These should be simple and short enough to be taught by imitation, rather than by note-learning. The resulting enjoyment is liberating.
I was recently teaching an adult pupil the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano (Debussy). She had worked at it very thoroughly, but the result was somewhat heavy and wooden. So, we started to make up some exercises together (perhaps I can now call these “games”) which were partly based on passages in this piece.
These exercises are very difficult to describe, because the main feature of them is of fluid, swirling hand and arm movements which flow, interact and overlap each other (if you have ever seen a chef tossing pizza dough between his hand you will know the sort of movements I mean). The arm, wrist and hand are extremely soft and fluid and the fingers just “play” very lightly on the keys. Each exercise should be played as fast as possible – caution is not recommended. There is no credit to be gained from playing correct notes, but the beauty of sound is encouraged. In fact, all the exercises are played by imitation (not reading the notes) so that the tension of note-reading and the fear of playing wrong notes are eliminated.
Each piece can be the starting point for similar “games”, and game can be simplified or made more complex, depending on the level of the student. The pupils themselves can start to make up their own. One new technique can be introduced in each lesson in this very amiable way. The possibilities are endless – and fun!
technique |tekˈnēk| noun
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something
Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintended, have their effect on the sound you produce
Technique lies at the foundation of piano playing, and good technique can serve the beginner student right through to advanced level. However, it should never be the “be all and end all”. Rather, it should serve the music – to create when required, for example, the lightest staccato, the most cantabile melodic line, a bubbling Alberti bass, sprightly trills and tremolandos, the most fluid legato.
Pianists are often praised for having “fine technique” or “superb technique”: this can range from obvious things such as physical agility/velocity and stamina to more esoteric, “hidden” aspects such as arm weight, wrist rotation, and alignment. These days, with the prevalence amongst mostly oriental generic pianists for putting technique above all else, piano “technique” has come to mean sheer physical capability, speed and sound production (usually too loud!) without a true understanding of how a particular technique specifically relates to the music, and the effects the composer is asking for.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is staccato, of which there are different kinds:
Arm staccato gives equal measure to each note and is particularly useful for a crisp, short or bouncy sound. Involve the forearm and keep the wrist soft. Avoid pure wrist staccato as this pulls up the fingers and creates tension. Aim for a free drop of the arm and then bounce off the keyboard on the rebound.
Jeu Perlé literally “pearly playing”, this is particularly useful for semi-quaver passage work in Mozart and the like, also in Debussy, where such passages should be played quickly, lightly and clearly, and where too much obvious articulation would create dryness. It is a type of staccato playing that creates the tiniest sense of separation between each note (like the knots between the pearls in a necklace), and requires small movements and a close attack. Play the note and let it bounce up at you – i.e. do not pick the fingers up.
Finger staccato/flicking staccato Possibly the hardest staccato technique to perfect, this requires the fingers to flick off the keys and back towards the palm of the hand. Beware of tension in the hand and wrist when practising this technique, and employ the alignment of arm and wrists to fingers. To play repeated notes with finger staccato, practice using different fingers (say 1,2,3,4) but allowing the wrist and arm to take the fingers into position with a “polishing” movement in the wrist (I imagine there is a tiny pencil under my wrist, drawing an ellipse shape).
A pianist who has done their homework, and has fully studied, understood and absorbed the composer’s intentions and instructions in the score, will know what kind of staccato technique to employ for a particular section or passage.
When starting out with any new aspect of technique, whether teaching it or doing it for yourself, it helps to enlarge the movement. Thus, when I am teaching rotary movement, I get the student to make the movement in a broad brush away from the piano. I like to use the image of windscreen wipers for this – a visual cue which children find particularly easy to understand. Also, one is trying to suggest an ‘outwards-inwards’ movement rather than the reverse. Never attempt to teach a technique you have not learnt and understood yourself first.
Don’t practice technique in isolation, but rather understand how it should be employed in your music and then make a technical exercise out of a small passage or section from that music. Doing exercises like those by Czerny or Hanon are, in my view, less worthwhile than a technical exercise you have devised yourself to practice a particular aspect of your repertoire; it is also more interesting! Having said that, I have found Brahms’s ’51 Piano Exercises’ helpful, and also tuneful to play.
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