Category Archives: piano playing

Upgrade vs the perils of cognitive strain

How would you fancy a new ‘processor’? An instant upgrade, which gives you the ability to read music at x3, x5 or even x10 your previous capacity. Sounds good eh?

I had a wonderful break-through with a piano pupil towards the end of last term. He is a fine musician and clearly loves playing the piano, but he is also a classic example of a student who enjoys playing, but not so much the work involved in getting there!

He is very bright and is not afraid to read, and perhaps surprisingly, therein lies one of his weaknesses; he reads everything, all of the time, until such point as the music is ‘in the system’ and muscle memory has taken over. In itself the reading part is fine, but it’s hard work on the brain, reading all that data all of the time, and this is the part which he doesn’t enjoy. My teaching focus with him has always been to find ways to engage his intellect, so that the practice process itself becomes interesting and challenging to him, rather than just a chore to be accomplished. To quote Daniel Pink (Drive, 2009) “The joy is in the pursuit more than the realisation. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.” 

So how about that upgrade then?

We have been working on the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, op.14/1. Having asked him to prepare a section of the movement, I was disappointed to find that he had come back, as ever, able to play the notes, but not really having learned them; and not just that, but complaining that he just couldn’t get excited about having to learn all those notes. I’m not surprised – once the cognitive strain sets in (and it doesn’t take long) it’s not much fun.

beethovenop14no1

So how about using another resource in addition to reading; memory perhaps? Bar 58 is in b minor, and it really is just arpeggios. Let’s look at the detail: the first falling arpeggio shape starts on F#, and then it’s just three more falling arpeggio groups, all starting on B but an octave lower each time. The final one rises again. There are 25 notes in these two bars, 25 bits of data. But we can reduce that to 5, at most.

Bars (60-61). The bass falls by a step (and indeed that pattern continues through to bar 66). What kind of chord is this? A dominant seventh on D – but note that the fifth (A) is missing. Apart from that, it’s the very same shape as bars 58-59, and even starts on the same note, F#. Nice pattern 🙂

And then bars 62-63. G major [perhaps not surprising following the D7 chord.] The same shape as before, so all we need to remember is that the RH starts on a G. Bearing in mind that everything else is the same as bars 58-59, I’d go so far as to suggest that these 25 notes can be reduced to ONE detail only; the RH starts on a G. Bars 64-65 is another dominant seventh, as before with the fifth (F#) missing.

These eight bars have now become an intriguing memory game. There may be a little bit of thinking still to do, but nothing like the cognitive strain required to read all of those notes at speed; in fact, we’ve opened up an entirely new set of skills. No reading needed at all, which incidentally frees up the eyes to see some of those patterns which we’ve found. The joy is, it has taken him all of about 5 minutes to take all of this in, it’s engaged him fully, and the work is done! And now he’s keen to continue into the next passage and apply the same method.

footnote
The key here is in actively looking for patterns, and without a working knowledge of theory a student is never going to unlock this upgrade. ABRSM may have dumbed down their grade 5 theory exam of late, but the requirement to pass it in order to progress onto the higher practical grades remains very sensible. Teaching theory needs to be an integral part of every instrumental lesson.

*footnote to footnote
Over the past few weeks the change in this student’s learning is so evident. He has moved from reading to actively seeking patterns, and he is now using his memory as an active strategy rather than it just being a passive by-product. Upgrade most definitely achieved!

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I can’t hear it when I play it

I have taken to sticking post-it notes on my piano, and noting down some of the things which my pupils say in lessons which I think might come in useful, perhaps for another pupil. One such note has been up there for several months now – it says “I can’t hear it when I play it.”

Sometimes coordinating everything when we play the piano can take so much mental effort that we just can’t spare any thought for what comes next. It’s like our field of vision is reduced so that we only see the moment which is happening right now, the very chord which we are desperately trying to decypher. Not unlike a young child reading a long and complex word like

i ma gin a tion

So much focus goes on processing each individual syllable that the sense of the word is lost completely. But suppose we gave the child the first bit – imagine – and then asked them to read the a – tion bit. Being able to hear the bigger picture would enable them to read with relative ease.

So today with my piano pupil I asked her to consider this: “can you hear in your head how the next little bit goes?” The answer was a clear yes. So then we played the phrase again, and this time I asked her to make sure that she was thinking ahead and hearing the next bit before she got there, not as she played it. Success!

There is a fine balance between learning to play the notes and learning to hear the notes. Personally I think that just playing the notes can be overrated, especially if this is at the expense of everything else. Training the ears should come first.

Piano Festival 2014

As I have continued to wrestle with the whole issue of music practice, perhaps the most common question which has come around again and again is this: what motivates children to practise? There are a few possible answers, but one is of course to have a target to aim for.

For some, an exam is the obvious target, and although these are important, I often feel that they can in some way be a bit of a let down. As I write, I have just finished a second day of music exams in which I have accompanied no fewer than twenty students (including nine Grade 8s). Although they have been really enjoyable, I can’t help feeling that all this preparation just to sing or play to one person, who sits looking necessarily critical and scribbles for most of the time, is a bit of an anti-climax, even when the exam goes really well.

By contrast, I was hugely inspired by a book which I read during half term, Play it again by Alan Rusbridger. Although this is principally an account of how Rusbridger went about learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in the sameplayitagain year The Guardian took down The News of the World, Rusbridger returns again and again to the theme of amateur vs professional music making. In short, if we play the piano, it can be hugely enjoyable to hear other people play, and in many respects it doesn’t matter whether they are better or worse than us; we share the common experience of knowing what it feels like to play, of what is difficult, of what it is like to be crippled by nerves when we perform for others, of how much work goes into preparing a performance. Or even just hearing a piece which we really like and thinking ‘I wonder if I could play that?’

Our Piano Festival began on Saturday afternoon with a visit by Peter Donohoe, who quite by chance happened to be playing at the Holburne Museum in Bath on that same evening – the penultimate recital in a series in which he is playing the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (the final one is on 5 April, see you there!) This was no formal recital, and indeed over the course of an hour and a half Peter gave us some extraordinary insights into subjects as diverse as Soviet Russia in the 1980s, perfectionism, memorising music, the perils of Wikipedia, and the inability of a modern-era London cabbie to get from the Southbank to Paddington Station without a satnav! He hadn’t even decided what he was going to play to us before he sat down at the piano, and after playing Beethoven’s op.101 he asked for requests; Chopin’s Ballade no.4 followed, and then the first three pieces in Brahms op.118, and then to finish, Scriabin’s Sonata no.5 (Peter’s own ‘request.’) And in much the same way as when Andrei Gavrilov visited last term, it was just an amazing privilege for us to enjoy hearing a world class pianist in such intimate surroundings. Peter’s relaxed what would you like to hear? approach was just about as far removed from a professional recital as you could imagine, but so much more engaging and personal. Just wonderful!

And so to Sunday’s Piano Festival, a full 4 hours of piano playing. Classes were designed to ensure that everyone had a chance to play – hence the Band Class for those who prefer to pick out chords (complete with drums, bass and vocals), a Duet Class for those who were reluctant to play by themselves, the Over 24s Class (!), and even the b.1809-10 Class – music by Mendelssohn and Chopin! Most of the classes included members of staff playing alongside pupils – some exceptionally proficient, others less confident. My hope was for our young pianists to realise that playing the piano is something which lots of other people do too – their History teacher plays Khachaturian no less, and our new Deputy Head is partial to a bit of Mendelssohn! Unlike competitive music festivals, most of our afternoon was simply about playing to each other, and I was absolutely delighted by the number of pianists who put themselves forward – nearly forty in total. All had clearly prepared for their performances, and their combined effort in aiming for their individual targets has been to participate in an afternoon which has given so much encouragement to everyone present. Yes, playing in public can be scary, but managed carefully it can inspire us to persevere too.

Huge thanks must go to our adjudicator for the afternoon, Melanie Spanswick, who had some excellent advice for everyone who played, and who judged the only competitive part of the day, the final Piano Prize Class. Our six ‘finalists’ were Livvy Belchambers, Fiona Boddington, Cora von Siemens, Paul Karamura, Dan Watt and Freya Elsy, with Fiona’s performance of March from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons chosen as the winning performance. The prize for the best newcomer went to Gabriella Watt from our own Monkton Prep School who played the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.

monkton piano

Piano Masterclass with Andrei Gavrilov

One of the great benefits of having such a fine piano in an equally wonderful hall is that we are able to attract some amazing musicians to come and share their gifts with us. On Monday we had the huge privilege of welcoming one of the truly great pianists in the world, Andrei Gavrilov to Monkton to give a masterclass.

Andrei has had an extraordinary career and listening to him talk about music, never mind playing the piano, was utterly captivating. As well as the masterclasses he also recorded a video interview with a friend of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has over the past year or so interviewed some 25 world class pianists. Andrei’s interview will shortly be posted here, and is well worth watching! Melanie has also posted a blog following Andrei’s visit on Monday.

For my part, rather than paraphrase what Melanie has already written, a few personal reflections on Monday evening.

fi and andrei rwu

Fiona’s lesson with Andrei, on Chopin’s Nocturne no.20 in c# minor, was actually deeply moving. That might seem like a strange thing to say about a lesson, but over the course of half an hour he opened a door into Chopin’s world which left us feeling almost like we were actually there; the prayer-like sobriety of the opening chords; the middle section being like a memory or a dream, unreal. And the combination of his vivid description and his own mesmerising playing created such a strong image that Fiona’s playing was transformed. It is all too easy for some who can (and Andrei can, all too easily!) to say ‘it goes like this!’ I have seen many masterclasses and lessons where, despite numerous demonstrations, the student still really doesn’t quite know what the teacher is wanting. Not here – Andrei’s musical imagery was so clear that we were all in no doubt at all.

The other moving part of the evening was Andrei’s performance of Prokofiev’s fiendish Suggestion diabolique op.4. There were only about 8 or 9 of us in the audience at the end of the session, and although I have been to many piano recitals in the past, none have really compared to this. He wasn’t obliged to play, but he did play, for just a handful of us – amongst friends if you like – because he wanted to. And what a performance. I was lost for words, and I think I probably embarrassed myself with the look of shock on my face when he finished! Andrei, on the other hand, just jumped up from the piano stool with a big grin, said it was time to go, gave us each a big hug, and made his exit. I have a new hero!

Reading notation: Know it, don’t read it

I have recently taken on a new piano pupil, and I was surprised to see that in several passages of a piece which he had been learning he had written the names above all of the right hand notes. Most of these notes were on leger lines above the treble stave, and he had evidently found these difficult to read – well they are more difficult to read aren’t they? 

Ledgerlines

However, what he had failed to notice was that the left hand was just an octave lower than the right throughout. Which means that he didn’t actually have to read the right hand notes at all. He could play it okay, but I just don’t think it had dawned on him that a little bit of knowledge (in this case simply ‘hands an octave apart’) was much more helpful than knowing the names of all those notes.

This is a classic case of being so concerned with reading the score that we forget to observe the glaringly obvious. When I pointed this out, he was equally bemused as to why he had written on his score!

I set him a new piece to learn: To a Wild Rose by MacDowell. He did a brilliant job of learning it in just a week, but to my surprise he had written in all the note names in the right hand, just for a couple of bars.

wild roseHe was relying entirely on his reading skills to help him to recall these notes, and as already highlighted, leger lines aren’t his favourite! But there are other things which can help here:

  • we noticed that the bottom line traces a chord of E7, and the top line is also a succession of rising thirds
  • the first two bars have sixths between top and bottom notes in the right hand, and these extend to sevenths in the second two bars
  • the physical shape of the right hand chords, and in particular the different combinations of black and white notes, enable us to remember what they look and feel like.
  • a second finger on the B in the third bar gives a secure link between the alternating chords, again helping to forge a physical connection between the two chords

Taking a passage like this apart, and noting all of the musical, theoretical, physical and aural connections, will ensure that we really know it. And in many instances, our aural or memory skills might be better than our reading skills, in which case why rely solely on the reading skills? In short, we shouldn’t; we need to be prepared to use all of our musicianship skills, all of the time.

Reading notation: If you can’t say it, you can’t play it

When learning a piece of music – and when teaching a new piece of music – I always consider how I can make things as easy as possible, and this invariably means breaking the music down into tiny pieces so that every element is as simple as possible. For a pianist, that might well mean separate hands, but even beyond that it might be to break down each bar so that we can identify different hand shapes, finger patterns, harmonic outlines, interval relationships and so on. Paul Harris would call this making connections. This turns reading into learning.

When it comes to rhythm, this might also mean putting down the instrument and just dealing with the rhythm bit. After all, if you can’t even clap or sing the rhythm, or even just say it, then what are the chances of being able to play it on your instrument? Zero, I’d say.

Some of my pupils are quite surprised when I first ask them to take their hands off the keys and work at the rhythm by itself – after all, this is a piano lesson, and singing or clapping can be a little embarrassing! But they soon realise that actually it’s really helpful to know how the rhythm goes by itself, and that it’s a lot easier because they have less to think about.

Last week I found myself helping a pupil with a difficult rhythm in a Field Nocturne – 4 against 3. Having practised hands separately – the right thing to do – she had been trying her best to put the two together, but was frustrated that it wasn’t working. The reality was that she just didn’t know how the two parts fitted together.

IMSLP272546-PMLP24011-field_8_nocturnes_349854157

First things first; dealing with a complex rhythm and that mobile left hand accompaniment is just too much to cope with, so let’s remove the pitch element. In fact, let’s just take the piano out of the equation altogether and just deal with the rhythm by itself. I suspect that this idea doesn’t always occur to the instrumentalist, but it should.

Stage one is to work out how they fit together. They say that maths and music go together, and I guess this is what they mean! 4 against 3 looks like this:

4 against 3

Practise tapping left and right hands on knees until fluent.

Stage two, let’s sing the melody line so that we actually know how it goes, rather than just being able to play it – two very different things.

Stage three. A fusion of the rhythm and melody – but still no piano. We sing the right hand melody, and either tap the left hand rhythm, or better still, sing that too! So we end up singing the top line (down an octave, obviously) and doing our best to sing it in tune, and also saying/singing badly the left hand in the correct rhythm. Clearly it’s impossible to sing a two part piano piece, but in essence we’ll do our best. The most important thing is this: although the singing itself might not be brilliant, it represents what is going on in our inner hearing, and if it works in there, it will work on the outside too.

Stage four. If you can say it, you can play it! Now that the whole thing is mastered, we simply add the element of playing the notes.

In real time, this took about 10 minutes of the lesson, maybe 15. And in this time, we didn’t touch the piano. Does that matter? Not in the slightest, this is a music lesson. The best bit is that, having done the hands separately work already, it went together instantly, and I do mean instantly. With a huge smile!

Diploma – so what have I learned?

Several weeks have now passed since I took the dipABRSM diploma in Piano Performance. Results are not published until early in September*, and although I am of course eager to know how I fared, there is no doubt that I have learned a huge amount from this enterprise regardless of what the examiners say! Since it was undertaken largely as a professional development exercise, herewith some thoughts on what I have gained from the experience.

Before that, a little professional context lest I do myself some injustice. As an organist I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, and whilst there I won all the major prizes for organ playing, as well as obtaining an MMus in Performance Studies and the ARCM and ARCO diplomas. I am highly trained, and know how to give a first class performance. So my objective here was not to see whether I can pass a piano playing diploma, but rather to see whether I can give a 35 minute piano recital, under pressure, from memory.

I can. The principle thing which I have learned is that, given the right mind set, it is possible to achieve things which might otherwise seem well out of reach. If I’m honest I knew this already – but what I have realised is that this is a fundamental problem for some learners, and that many simply can’t get past I can’t. This is something which I hear all the time in the course of my teaching, and although I do my best to be sympathetic I’m afraid I don’t have much time for it! Arguably that’s what teaching is about – turning I can’t into I can – but the student also has to have the courage to set a new course. And it does take courage. And it can take time, and will often require a great deal of hard work and effort, and I mean a great deal.

I have lost count of the number of times that a pupil has told me, for instance, that they can’t sing the melody of their piano piece, but on realising that I am not going to give up asking they have eventually taken courage and gone on to sing it back perfectly! The I can’t here is just an excuse and not to be taken seriously – more like I won’t or I’m worried I’m going to fail so I’m not going to try. More often than not, from my perspective, the hard facts say that there is no reason at all why it shouldn’t be possible, which is why I tend to take on the dreaded I can’t rather than allowing my pupils to succumb to it. The best learners are those who take on their I can’ts and work out how to overcome them.

I’m not going to pretend that this diploma has not been a big deal for me, and the target which I set myself has not been an easy one to meet. With the music, the diploma exam would have been extremely straightforward, and for me, pretty pointless actually. Without the music, a new set of skills required and a great deal of work has gone into turning a dream into a reality; and having come through the other side I can now enjoy all sorts of new opportunities which were closed to me before. In fact, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that this experience has transformed me as a musician.

But if there is just one thing which I will take away from this venture – apart from the extraordinary change in my own playing as a result of the freedom which memory allows – it is a renewed desire to ensure that my teaching is challenging. Not to be unreasonably demanding, but to ensure that our musicians are encouraged and taught how to make demands of themselves, to fight through a few I can’ts and realise that they can achieve amazing things if they have the right mind set.

[*Passed with distinction!]