Category Archives: piano playing

Diploma progress

In January I stated my intention (see Fantasy Piano Recital) to prepare for an ABRSM diploma, and the five months since then has been the most amazing journey of discovery for me. Not all of it good, it has to be said, but a learning experience which has been hugely worthwhile. Some random observations…

My family have more or less banned me from practising at home, and my 11 year old son can sing my entire 35 minute recital note-perfect from beginning to end! I have always loved practising, and it is fair to say that this project has brought out some of my more obsessional qualities! However, I don’t think it’s all bad news; as a father, I guess I have been modelling commitment and perseverance to my four sons, and indeed in the last week my eldest (aged 17) has decided that he wants to apply to the Royal College of Music next year! And so the cycle continues….!

Apart from the Stravinsky, which I wrestled with largely unsuccessfully as a teenager, all of this repertoire was new to me in January, and I set out with the intention of integrating the memory aspect from the very beginning. In other words, rather than learning the notes and then working out how to memorise them, I deliberately set out to commit short passages to memory from the outset. The result has been that over the past few months I have spent more and more time practising with no music in front of me at all, to the extent that it has become entirely normal not to have it there.

Some parts of the repertoire have been much more difficult to memorise than others. The Schubert, for instance, is physically very ‘samey’ throughout, and the obscure key does not help – looking down, my eyes say B major, but the score says C flat major! And in the slow movement of the Beethoven it has been equally difficult to remember the subtle differences between very similar sections. On the other hand, some of the more technical passages (sequences in Bach and scales and arpeggios in Beethoven and Fauré) have been surprisingly easy to memorise, especially once the basic harmonic plan of the section has been established. The Stravinsky is so physical that actually the muscle memory seems to remain the most reliable method.

Whatever the methods, over the course of the past few weeks the entire programme has fallen into place, in as much as I have been able to play from beginning to end with increasing confidence, and certainly with no need to look at the scores. If anything, I have needed to make a concerted effort to open the music to check details of dynamics and phrasing as it has been months now since I have even looked at the dots!


The freedom gained has been truly wonderful. I have spent a great deal of time with our Model B Steinway in the David Bowerman Hall, and whereas in the past I have been content to sit at a closed piano and play the notes in front of me, I now open the lid and even remove the music desk so that I can hear the instrument more clearly; I listen more carefully. And now that the eyes are free, there are so many things to look at, to concentrate on. Fingers, fingers reflected in the fallboard, hammers hitting the strings, beautiful aesthetics of a fine concert hall, or nothing at all – eyes closed. I’ve experimented with them all, and the different focus which each one brings has been such an enjoyable experience.

Being without music has certainly sharpened my senses. Physically, I am now much more at liberty to see what I am doing with my fingers; watching the weight of the right hand little finger in the Schubert Impromptu makes such a difference to my focus. But this in nothing compared with how much the ear is switched on to sound!

So with less than a month to go, I took the plunge on Tuesday evening and performed to a real audience, my first solo piano recital in 26 years! I am an extremely experienced performer as organist, piano accompanist and conductor, but the single element under scrutiny here was whether my memory could cope with the additional strain of nerves. Getting fired up and excited about playing in a match can be hugely beneficial, but it is perhaps less helpful when you need to retain a vast amount of highly refined detail for a sustained period! The outcome – I really didn’t enjoy one moment of it, since I spent the whole time thinking “Don’t forget it, you’re going to forget it” and barely any making music. A schoolboy error? Yes!!

Not all is lost though, quite the opposite in fact. I think it was a necessary experience, and apart from anything else it has realigned my focus significantly. For although my own self-imposed target (not required for the exam) is to play from memory, the exam itself is neither a piano diploma nor a memory diploma – it is a performance diploma. Time to stop stressing about the memory and move on and up to the next level.

The other outcome is that this was a brilliant learning experience, not only for me but also for my willing audience, made up for members of the choral society and a few school colleagues and pupils. As a teacher, I think it is vitally important that they should see that I am still learning, and moreover that I am not afraid to show them that learning is not always easy. As ever, although the exam day looms larger and I want to do the very best that I can on the day, the process has been transformational, and will bear fruit long after the outcome (pass or fail?!) has faded.


Fantasy Piano Recital

As a piano student, I was never taught to memorise music – in my ignorance, I think I just assumed that it was something which you could either do or you couldn’t, and since I couldn’t, I didn’t. I suspect that I was also guilty of going to piano recitals  and singularly failing to observe what I now believe to be an extraordinary feat, that of memorising a whole recital programme with apparent ease. This, coupled with the equally extraordinary technical and musical mastery which the world’s finest pianists also command, makes me wonder whether the sharing out of gifts sometimes seems a little unfair!

With this in mind, a recent article in The New York Times, which suggests that playing with the score is more acceptable these days, couldn’t have come at a worse time for me! For me, being a real pianist means all of the above, and having just discovered (okay, perhaps a little late in life!) that actually I can memorise, I don’t need to hear just now that maybe it’s not so important after all.

Learning to memorise is difficult, and requires a methodical approach with reference to the technical, aural, harmonic and visual, to name just a few of the many strands which come together to form a system which is utterly reliable. Plus determination, self-belief, perseverance, time and a great deal of hard work. I am not for a moment suggesting that pianists who play with the music are not able to convey great musicianship; it’s just that I am looking for that artistic freedom which comes from knowing the score completely. And if it proves difficult? I’ll find a way, but can’t is not an option for me. [link here to an excellent blog by Mel Spanswick on the same subject.]

In order to force my own arm on the issue, I have set myself the challenge of preparing for an ABRSM diploma this year. Candidates are required to give a 35 minute recital; memory is not a requirement, but I am adding this self-imposed element to the challenge. My ultimate objective – to be a better pianist. And along the way I am increasingly awed by those pianists who hold so much music in their heads!

He is my proposed recital programme:

Bach Prelude & Fugue in g minor (Bk 1), BWV 861
Beethoven Sonata in c minor, op.10 no.1 complete
Schubert Impromptu in G flat, D.899 no.3
Fauré Impromptu op.31 no.2 in f minor
Stravinsky Piano-Rag-Music

To help in my preparation, and in particular to gain further insights into possible interpretations, I would love some ideas for a Fantasy Piano Recital. Please feel free to nominate your preferred pianist for each of the works above ie. Bach – Glenn Gould, Beethoven – Barenboim etc. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


[subsequent progress reports here and here!]

“Is this your giraffe sir?”

When we first learn to read, we tackle one word at a time, and hopefully as we revisit the same words again and again they become more familiar. Some longer,  less familiar words can cause problems though. This ……. is ……. my ……. ??


At this point, we might get stuck. ‘This’ was a tricky word compared with ‘is’ and ‘my’, but we’ve encountered it a few times before and we’re wise to it now! But the last one in the sentence, the long one beginning with ‘t’, is going to take some working out.

There is an easier solution of course, and it’s the one which we hope the more observant child will work out for himself. The answer is that on the page, along with the tricky word, there is a great big picture of a lovely green tractor. That starts with ‘tr’ – that must be it – tractor!

If the task set was to read the sentence, we just passed. Technically we might not have read the last word – we sort of guessed it – but it was a good guess, based on plenty of very strong evidence, and we got it right. Job done.

“I won a g……… at the fun fair, but sadly it didn’t even survive the journey home.”

If this conjures up the image of someone standing in a lay-by, wondering how on earth they are going to explain to the police exactly what happened to the giraffe, then I suspect that you have never been to a fun fair!

In both of these random examples, context has a big part to play in our understanding of the words. We can fill in the gaps with relative ease by drawing on additional skills which we have, aside from the purely cerebral task of decoding letters into words. We do this all the time, and I mean all the time – whatever we are doing, in fact, our intuition is assessing past experiences in order to give us the most appropriate response in any situation. In everything we do, in every moment of every day.

So why should we approach sight-reading music any differently?

All too often I encounter young musicians (and some older ones too) who are so intent on decoding the dots on the page that they completely forget to observe the context – or worse, it has never even occurred to them to observe it in the first place. These are the ones who spend ages trying to work out the word ‘tractor’ when there is a huge picture of a tractor staring them in the face!

Sight-reading needs to involve sight-understanding, even at the most elementary level. A Grade 1 pianist needs to know what key the piece is in, not in order to test her on her knowledge of theory, but much more importantly, so that she can put her hands in the right place on the keyboard. She also needs to know that if two successive notes are on adjacent spaces, they are a third apart; armed with this handy piece of knowledge, she can play the second note without reading it, but instead by knowing where it lies in relation to the previous one. If her ears are switched on, it will not be a surprise to her when the piece ends on a note which previous experience says she should expect to hear. None of these things involve reading as such, but all improve her reading enormously.

As a student progresses it is imperative that these musicianship skills are developed at the same time – otherwise they will simply find themselves wading through more and more complex music with less and less understanding. It is not all about reading, far from it in fact. It is about understanding the context of the notes, and allowing our musicianship to take some of the strain by plugging the gaps with answers based on plenty of strong evidence provided by ear and intellect – that is, just in the same way as we read words. Approached in this way (in my experience, both of doing it and in teaching it) sight-reading soon becomes much easier, and therefore more enjoyable, and we do more of it, and get even better…. Very empowering!


Elbows in!

I remember being told as a young pianist that I should curve my fingers, but I can’t remember at the time thinking why this might be a good idea – I just followed my teacher’s instructions obediently.

However, I believe that it is imperative that a teacher explains why, so that their pupil understands the logic behind it; after all, it is not difficult to understand. As a pupil, I think it is probably quite easy to conclude that the reason that we are to curve our fingers is

because our teacher says so!

In reality, and certainly until we are used to it, it can seem awkward. ‘It’s diffulct enough playing the notes, it’s one more thing to that I have to remember, and I don’t see why I need to do this when it all seems, to me, to work perfectly adequately with flat fingers thanks very much!’

Nowhere is poor technique more obvious than in scales, and in particular in crossing the fourth finger over the thumb (descending right hand, ascending left hand). With flat fingers, the thumb and fourth fingers are miles apart – well, several inches anyway – but with curved fingers, they are significantly closer. To cross the thumb with flat fingers, the fourth finger has to travel through a huge arc, twisting the whole hand out of shape, and thrusting the elbow out sideways; and of course once the fourth finger has landed, the whole hand (and elbow) needs to be brought rapidly back into place. Sadly, however, I see far too many children playing scales in this way. Every third or fourth note in the scale demands this huge physical adjustment, first in one direction and then back again; when scales are tackled at speed, is it any wonder that they are so uneven and frankly just difficult to play? Is it surprising then they these students find scales difficult and frustrating? And don’t get me started on arpeggios!!

The best demonstration of this problem is to shake a pupil’s elbow whilst they are trying to play a scale, and insist that they keep going whatever happens! The results are hilarious, but there is also an instant penny-dropping moment when they realise that this is what is actually happening when they play with straight fingers.

With curved fingers, the fourth finger can travel in a straight line from where it was (already very close by) to just over the thumb, with no need to move either the hand or the elbow. Just hugely efficient and effortless. Why would you play in any other way? Well, the only reason I can think of is if the teacher has not explained the rules of the game properly, which seems a little unfair to me. It just takes a few moments to explain, and it will transform a child’s playing.