In The Studio: Why is technical work always left till the “last minute”? – Part One

The short answer: because the majority of students just, plain and simple, don’t like it.

The long answer: it is difficult to be objective in this area of pedagogy, mainly because I love technical work. I love studies – I love Hanon – I love scales and arpeggios. Every time I convey this to a student, I get “you’re crazy” or “wow, what is wrong with you?” which, normally, then encourages  bouts of laughter before moving on to something else. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing your hands glide up a piano or swiftly taking an arpeggio at break-neck speed without fault. The majority of my students, however, just don’t see it this way (with the exception of one or two), and even when I present a masterclass, a top question that is always asked is “how can I get them to practice technical work?”

It really does come down to HOW you teach it and not WHY you teach it. We all know that the concept of technical work consists of the building blocks for successful pianism. So, why then, are there so many famous pianists (past and present) who lay claim to NEVER utilising a scale or an arpeggio in their practice? Why are there so many pianists who believe that it is the repertoire itself which provides all the technical work they need? It is because they have found ways of making technique work for THEM and not the other way around. Many of them DID start with scales and arpeggios when they were younger and later evolved into pianists who started deciphering, unraveling, and using the technical challenges in their repertoire to their advantage.

While I appreciate this, I am not an exponent of using JUST repertoire to teach technique (even though I can see the advantages), instead, I believe in a combination of all things from collections of exercises, scales, and repertoire. My aim as a teacher is to always try my best to provide pathways to solutions regarding current physiological hurdles (tension, posture, injury) and technical inadequacy. In discovering various methods of teaching technique (of which there are thousands), there are some core fundamentals I like to teach my students aside from the usual “scales and arpeggio manual” – first and foremost, I like them to become investigators. To me, this is the most important skill I can give to any of my students. Without it, technique is a pointless and, dare I say it, obsolete journey.

The concept of the ‘mistake’, why it happens, and when student needs to become investigator:

“When a car crash happens, the impact is NOT the mistake. The mistake happens before hand. When someone is illegally talking on their mobile phone while driving, someone has run a red light, or a driver misses a “Give Way” sign, THAT is what we need to be looking at. Anything that happens afterwards is the RESULT of the mistake.”

This is how I explain mistakes to my older pupils. The point is that so many people believe the crash itself to be the mistake when it isn’t. If this were the case, there would be no need for Crime Scene Investigators, Traffic Control, or forensic teams to rush to the scene of the resulting accident. These people are required to investigate the circumstances leading up to the crash in order to determine WHY it has happened. These “accidents” in music happen the same way.

By encouraging students to become investigators, we open up the doors for a “critical thinking” or “self-directed” approach to analysis of their playing and of their technique. For example (and one that I see a lot of) is the Dominant 7th of F. The keys which need to be played are C-E-G-Bb with the fingering of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ascending and 4-3-2-1, 4-3-2-1, descending. It is when the arpeggio descends that I tend to see a banging 4th finger (akin to hearing the triplet accented sound in three note arpeggios) it also when I have heard many a piano teacher say “stop banging that 4th finger” which, unfortunately, puts all of the focus on the fourth finger. The banging fourth finger is the RESULT of a mistake that happens previously. There are a tonne of reasons for this: incorrect hand position, inability to touch and release with correct weight, lazy or late movement of the wrist, lack of rotation, incorrect direction – the “where am I going to?” effect, flat fingers and inflexible forearm, shoulder and tension across the scapular, hunching and poor posture. This is precisely the moment where teacher needs to be encouraging student to investigate more thoroughly. One of the most popular “old wives” techniques of getting rid of this 4th finger accent is asking a student to count in 5 when playing the four note arpeggios (similarly, count in 4 when playing three note arpeggios), but, as successful as this can be, it alone is not going to fix the problem if it happens to be rooted in tension and poor posture.

I have seen many exciting outcomes with technique by teaching my students to investigate why something is going wrong, or, what is happening in the lead up to the “car crash”. Teaching technique can be a struggle, mostly because it isn’t fully understood by the student (and sometimes, too, by the teacher!). Furthermore, an analytical framework is often just left up to the teacher, when understanding mistakes should be encouraged between student and teacher. This stepping stone is paramount in all aspects of technique, from the physical to the mental.

In part two: questions to guide a student through the investigative process, methods for exciting technical work approaches such as books, games, resources, and personal studio tools. And also…why technique really DOES tend to be left till the “last minute”.

 

 

Perspectives: What I have discovered when learning modern music

Recently, I launched my next series of concerts across the east coast of Australia called “New. Novel. Next” and in my own private practice and, recently, in performances, I have discovered a few things about what it is to successfully convey music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“New. Novel. Next.” was borne out of wanting to step away from Chopin and expand my musical horizons with compositional styles that I had not played since my conservatorium days. In 2014 and 2015 I played 28 recitals which featured the music of Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt and, admittedly, I was tired. Whilst I can appreciate (and be HUGELY envious of) those high-octane recitalists with 200 concert-a-year calendars containing nothing but the Schumann Fantasie and Beethoven Sonatas, I felt drained and bored after barely 30 over two years.

So, at the end of 2015, I decided that 2016 would focus on modern music; trying to understand it better, and trying to expand my repertoire by including it more in programs. The end result was the recital series “New. Novel. Next.” which is a rotational recital program of 60 pieces (this means that 60 pieces are chosen and then rotated through each concert – no one concert is the same experience) that encompass everything from Debussy onward. For this recital series, I also commissioned a work from an American composer, Forrest Starling, to boost the experience of bringing something new to the table.

The following composers are represented on the programs:

Denes Agay, Miriam Hyde, Frank Hutchens, Forrest Starling, Aaron Copland, Robert Muczynsky, Alfred and Mirrie Hill, Peter Sculthorpe, Larry Sitsky, Bela Bartok, Glenn Hunter, Nigel Sabin, John Cage, Dmitri Shostakovich, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alan Silvestri, John Williams, Zez Confrey, Jelly Roll Morton, Jesse Greer, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Rodion Shchedrin, Keith Humble, Dulcie Holland, Stephen Sondheim, Art Tatum, John Ireland, and Frank Bridge.

As is usual in all of my recitals, there is a strong Australian contingent. The reasons behind this (concerning ALL of my recitals) will be shared in another post. Essentially, I was trying to cover all areas within modern music – atonalism, post romanticism, aleotoricism, serialism, English pastoralism, stream of consciousness composing, jazz, novelty solo, transcription, popular music/musicals, film scores, and video game music. I think, for the most part, I succeeded in narrowing a lot of this music down in order to rotate it through a series of 20 recitals throughout the year. It has been an amazing experience so far (9 concerts down!) and I am sure the next 11 will be just as exciting. I have met interesting people, students, teachers, and fellow performers who have asked some interesting questions, including one I heard more than once: what have you discovered from doing this?

The answer is immediate: I have discovered contrast on a whole new level.

Let me explain…

When I play the music of Chopin, it’s the same. The music itself is different from piece to piece, but the execution remains the same; the touch and tonal control needed in Chopin remains the same, even when it is pushed to its limits through various virtuosic technical hurdles. It seems like I am diminishing the craft of performing his music, but what I am really saying is that the technique and style for Chopin is inherent regardless of difficulty or ease. I believe this can be said for Mozart, Liszt, etc as well. With modern music, my scope and range was tested and tested again. I have since used elbows for aggressive tone clusters, I have well and truly ripped skin off the back of my hand playing glissandi (especially in one piece that utilises them non-stop!), I have plucked strings, clapped, whistled, made whale noises, I have thumped and flogged the keys with my fist, and I have done things with pedals that I didn’t think was possible. Another advantage is the copious amounts of reading I have done in the last few months – biographies, technical treatises, research papers, essays, and textbooks on modern piano playing and interpretation, composers, and history. I found myself constantly aware of trying to mentally break free from the classical constraint of thinking of “tone”this and “tone”that, and, as a result, became much more of a learning experience than I could ever have imagined (this is not to say that modern music is to be played without attention to tone! On the contrary, tone is of the utmost importance but with many different elements and freedoms! Anti-Classicist, if you will)

I won’t wax lyrical any further other than to say that I am enjoying this series of recitals very much. I’m enjoying the reading, the history, the listening, the practicing, the different technical approaches, and the myriad of responses (emotional and otherwise) that I have received from audience members. The after concert talks have been excellent and inspiring to say the least.

One last discovery – the guest home that I generally stay in when playing in Sydney has a neighbouring dog who remains silent when I practice…

I can report that he absolutely hates the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

D.

 

Rarity Wednesday: “Chopin” from Lanterne Magique Op. 66 no. 2 – Benjamin Godard

As explained in an earlier post, Rarity Wednesday is just a brief little post that comes out mid-week with the idea of presenting a rarely heard/performed piece for your consideration. I appreciate that not every piece will be to the liking of all, but it is hoped that, regardless, it encourages further research. The Romantic period is a mind-blowingly excellent example of a period of time that produced such treasures of the unknown! Benjamin Godard, relatively famous for a small amount of works, fits into this category with the majority of his compositions hidden from the limelight.

Chopin’ op. 66 no. 2 from Lanternes Magiques – Benjamin Godard

Aside from the many transcriptions of the Berceuse from the opera, Jocelyn, French composer Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) had an enormous output which remains, unfortunately, untouched. His life was a short one, dying from tuberculosis at 45, with many works (including large symphonies and no less than 8 operas) absent from the modern concert program. Although originally a violinist, Godard left a sizeable amount of piano music which includes Mazurkas, Waltzes, Etudes, and Character Pieces. None of the works are daringly virtuosic like other pianist/composers of the time; they are more comfortably placed beside the highly stylised piano music of Moritz Moszkowski. The piece we are looking at today comes from the collection of pieces divided into five books called Lanterne Magique (The Magic Lantern) Op. 50, 55, 66, 110, 115. Each opus number contains a handful of character pieces either based on dances from foreign lands, scherzi, nocturnes, programmatic pieces,or characterisations of composers. Incidentally, the most famous piece across all of the collections is the piece Chopin Op. 66 No. 2

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard's waltz!

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard’s waltz!

The piece is a perfect homage to the Polish composer Frederic Chopin. One only needs to look at the score to see direct rhythmic and harmonic quotes from a handful of Chopin’s waltzes, Mazurkas, the Nocturne Op. 32/1, and the Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. It isn’t above a grade 7-8 AMEB standard, and thanks to John Thompson’s Modern Piano Method, gets some coverage with student pianists. Chromaticism abounds with a few twists and turns for the student:

A few little tricks and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

A few little twists and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

We have melodies which are interchangeable between left and right hands (reminiscent of a certain “Grande Valse Brilliant”) and an overall harmonic flavour that is very much in line with the style of the Polish master. The piece wouldn’t be complete without a sweeping, ascending run of chromatics and then an arpeggio cascade to finish:

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A pastiche of Grand Valse Brillante and Impromptu all woven into a new and beautiful soundscape

A pastiche of ‘Chopinesque’ Valse and Impromptu all woven into a new soundscape

A delicious blend of Fantasie Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A salon blend of Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A sweeping

A sweeping “drawing room” finish!

I’ve been wanting to teach this piece as a “regular” with my advanced students for many years now. I thought about it the other day and immediately raced to grab it from the shelf for a play-thru. Here is the best recording I could find on YouTube: The score is readily available on IMSLP (links provided below) http://imslp.org/wiki/Lanterne_magique_III,_Op.66_(Godard,_Benjamin) Enjoy! Dan xo

Books and Resources: Purrfect Practice

Each year, I am invited to the lovely community of Camden, New South Wales, to perform in honour of my last piano teacher, Dr. Marilyn Meier. As well as a wonderful teacher, Marilyn was a great friend of mine who welcomed me into her family and who became my two-piano partner professionally. She believed in me above all and sang my praises constantly; she was critical and investigative and made me strive for bigger, better things. Even though she is no longer with us, the boost she gave to my career is something I’ll never forget as long as I live. However, this line of thought is a story for another time.

The Amazing Grace Academy of Performing Excellence (AGAPE) is directed by pianist and teacher, Heather Bieman. Heather is a lovely, accommodating woman who fosters a love music in her students and is a kind, caring, knowledgeable mentor to her teaching faculty. It is always a pleasure to attend AGAPE each year and work with students on some beautiful repertoire. I am also very fortunate to meet a number of piano teachers in the area who come along for a chat and who always have a barrage of questions for me. Last year, I conducted a masterclass and was terribly excited because I was hoping to finally meet Jackie Sharp. Jackie is a pianist, pedagogue, and professional teacher, whose YouTube videos and pedagogical research was inspiring a great many private instructors both nationally and internationally. At this point in time, Jackie had been developing her Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 e-book and a lot of interest was generated within the Australian pedagogical community. I didn’t get to meet Jackie on this occasion and discuss her technique trainer, which is a shame, but I did acquire my own copy of the e-book version to use and review for this blog post – I am sure we will get to meet in the future.

I have reviewed many technique books as part of university work/literature studies and, at one stage, as part of a thesis which heavily critiqued certain evolutionary aspects of the etude in everyday piano practice. As with a lot of this research, I obtained books of etudes and finger exercises and spent my days playing through them to assess their value overall (technical and otherwise!). There were always supplementary writings, pictures, and anecdotes to accompany a lot of the studies I practiced which was great help from an analytical standpoint. Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 combines a lot of these similar approaches into one handy reference guide for teacher and student alike. These are the two main areas which were huge deal makers for me:

TECHNOLOGY

If there is one area where Technique Trainer REALLY succeeds, it is with the videos that Jackie uses in conjunction with her book. Jackie, herself a fine pianist, provides links to YouTube videos at the top of each exercise in the book. Once the link is clicked, we are taken to a clip that isn’t just another grainy hand demonstration with no sound (as is common with a lot of example videos given by some shoddy “pedagogues” on YouTube), but we listen as Jackie talks us through the exercise slowly, then, in some cases, with more speed. Her camera angles are more than helpful as we can actually see important movements of the hand, wrist, and fingers, making the illustrations in her book more pertinent. More often than not, many videos have camera angles which are missing the important aspects of hand movement and coordination.

The combination of technology with piano teaching nowadays is, I feel, par for the course. Jackie has more than succeeded with this approach.

RE-INFORCEMENT AND PRE-CHECKLISTS

Technique Trainer 1 encourages students to think before they play, think while they are playing, and think after. Each exercise comes with a checklist of things to be aware of while you play as well as things to think about after you’ve played. Checklists contain markers that focus on areas like strong joints, up-down motions, rotation, etc. These checklists promote positive re-inforcement of technical work as the book progresses. Quite often, Jackie will revisit certain areas of the hand just to keep things in perspective – you don’t just do something once and think you’re a master!

I, and other teachers whom I have spoken with, have found that some students are making an effort to focus better on what they are doing to the point where they will actively engage in a discussion about it afterwards. For me, that’s just another selling point for books like this.

(Let me tell you, getting students to converse on aspects of technique/musicality after they’ve finished is, by far, not the easiest thing in the world)

The format of the exercises is clear and concise. The colours are minimal but bright and contrasting. The book is certainly not exhaustive when placed alongside the likes of Joseffy and Berringer, but then again I don’t think that is Jackie’s aim either. Whereas these two books assume that a fundamental knowledge of piano playing has already been achieved, Jackie takes us right back to a bare bones approach. It is an approach that facilitates gracious piano playing with ease RIGHT from the beginning stages. It is an approach that promotes less tension in the limbs/joints/muscles by fostering carefully considered movements and motions. Finally, it is an approach that promotes musicality – that is the most important aspect about this book.

I don’t believe that this resource should only be in the hands of the beginner – it should be in the hands of every teacher. Jackie’s work is not a regurgitation of bygone pedagogical principles, it is a fresh work that has been made easily accessible to teacher and student. It is very affordable and comes in a studio licensing format or a single copy. It has used the advent of technology in the studio to its advantage and it doesn’t sacrifice musicality EVER for the sake of a dry exercise.

Well done, Jackie! I cannot wait for the other volumes.

5 Stars

Please Visit: http://www.purrfectpractice.com.au

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Easy: because her music appeals to every aspect of my teaching and performing practice.

Over the years, especially as a ‘student’ pianist, I always wondered if I was going to find my niche. Much the same as Ashkenazy, Lortie, and countless others have traversed the complete works of Chopin, I wanted to find the composer who was going to be just for me; I was so frightened of becoming a modern-day pianist who was required to “specialise” in everything. It’s not that I don’t see the value in being multifarious in an approach to music, I just wanted a composer where the passion would be continually ignited; playing their music would be “my” thing.
Thankfully, I found that in the music of Miriam Hyde. Oddly enough, this has been going on for years without me recognising it.

It began with a grade 6 exam – my first ever piano exam, I might add. I remember hearing a piece by Hyde called Woodland Sketch and wanting to learn it. The girl in my class who used to play it was, herself, a marvellous pianist and I was forever asking her to perform it for me; it was my first Miriam Hyde experience. The piano exam allowed for the last piece to be an “own choice” item, so I leapt at the opportunity to play Woodland Sketch. The rest is history and I have recorded it and performed it ever since. I use it for encores, I teach it to my students, and I am fairly certain that it will remain a piece very close to my heart for years to come.

This lead to experiences with other, beautifully characteristic pieces on the AMEB exam list: Ear Rings from Spain, Minarets, Study in A minor, Water Nymph, and Scherzo Fantastico. At university, I performed many of her concert works and even accompanied a few of her songs. This opened the doors to many of her poems and her autobiographical work, Complete Accord. Among all of this, I got to perform The Fountain and Study in Blue, White, and Gold for her in a workshop environment. I always viewed her as quite a stern woman in her approach but, after the workshop, I experienced a gentle nature which I continue to remember fondly; it remains my last interaction with her.

Since then, my research has been concerned with investigating her pedagogical and concert works for piano. Miriam was a fine concert pianist with a formidable technique – the evidence of this can be found in the recordings of her piano concerti among others. These pianistic elements filter their way through to her compositions from Preliminary to LMUSA and many of these works (Woodland Sketch included) remain the favourites of piano student and piano teacher alike.

With companies like The Keys Press in Perth, Wirrapang Publishers in NSW, along with wonderful people like Dr. Rita Crews, Phillip Wilcher, Hyde’s daughter Christine Edwards, and Professor Larry Sitsky, there is now a growing collection of information regarding her life, pianism, and seemingly endless list of achievements. I am fortunate enough to be adding to that with what is the largest recorded collection of her works for piano (80 videos so far on youtube!). Even though I have a long period of work ahead of me, I am indebted to many of these Australian luminaries for their help. Their writing and, in some cases, their friendship, has helped motivate me even more. I am always discovering new things about Miriam Hyde – there is never a dull moment. I continue being in love with the process of shining light on her work as I progress with honours and masters research.

My first CD will be released in August. It has been recorded and is now in post production. The Complete Piano Music of Miriam Hyde Volume 1 is a labour of love. I specifically searched for recording studios in Sydney and was over the moon when I found Sound Heaven Studios in The Blue Mountains – a place Miriam admired. It felt good to record this music surrounded by such beautiful scenery, which, in essence, is what Miriam’s music is all about.

Enjoy!

Dan
xo

Woodland Sketch: