Technique

Professor Tech 2 – Scales or Pieces? Part 1

Many years ago, I was told a story by a student of the great pianist Claudio Arrau. It was remarked that Arrau didn’t necessarily dislike technique, but that he wasn’t especially charmed by wasting many hours on tradiational forms of technique acquisition – namely, scales and arpeggios.

me: “Impossible! how on earth did he exercise the technique he had? how did he teach it?”

The myth goes that Arrau simply believed that students acquired technique by studying more and more pieces. As such, this notion has preoccupied my thoughts as I work through the 51 Exercises of Brahms. (Thankfully, Idil Biret has recorded this exercises on her complete Brahms collection for Naxos!). My brain is 50/50 when it comes to Arrau’s ideology on technique. While I can agree that a lot of what we learn in standard technique – or, what I like to call ‘examination technique’ –  is useless (such as all scales in double 6ths! Wtf?), I disagree with technique being derived from pieces alone. As an example, I remember this passage from the Mozart Rondo in DK485:

…and what I treasure about this passage was that it felt so ‘good’ when playing it. Why? Because I knew my D major scale! In fact, we can look at any passage work in any piece and see the benefits of knowing the scales and arpeggios before we attempt what is in the score. I shudder to think how any pianist would get through a devlish work like the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Hummel without having all the scales and arpeggios in their arsenal. See this jaw dropping work here:

The Arrau legend is one I can’t stomach. It doesn’t sit right that a man who played all Mozart, all Beethoven, all Schumann, all Debussy, a huge amount of Liszt and Bach, would have neglected serious technical work. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems incredibly pretentious even for a man who was believed to be one of the loveliest and kindest souls. I shall investigate further!

Part 2 tomorrow 🙂

Professor Tech 1 – 12 Studies for Piano by Walter Carroll

Welcome to Professor Tech! This is your weekly dive into all things piano technique!

It is no secret to friends and colleagues that I have an unhealthy obsession with sheet music collecting. In my travels, I have garnered some amazing contacts within libraries all over the world and I have met some truly inspirational people who have the same compulsion. In this department, sites like Ebay have been a ‘best friend’; I have found it without equal when searching for some diamonds. Then, of course, there is IMSLP. No words can be said about such a website other than ‘necessary’, ‘brilliant’, and ‘jaw dropping’. It is through websites such as these that one begins to realise just how much piano music has been published over the last 200 years and how much has been overlooked.

Which brings me to Walter Carroll.

Carroll (4 July 1869 – 9 October 1955) was an English organist, composer, lecturer, and pedagogue. Much like composer Stephen Heller, he is best remembered for his charming piano pieces for the student pianist. He began his professional life in accounting/office administration before pursuing his undergraduate and postgraduate music studies. He performed as a church organist, church composer, and studied advanced theory with Henri Hiles, himself a leading music educator and Oxford scholar.

In Australia, Walter Carroll isn’t totally unknown. His music has featured in our exam syllabus publications for many years and his descriptive piano suites ‘River and Rainbow’ and ‘Sea Idylls’ are still to be found in most piano teacher collections. His pieces suit levels including elementary, late intermediate, and early advanced. The pieces are always descriptive and programmatic and he often provides student pianists with titles that aid in the process of learning.

The 12 Studies for Piano –

Some years ago, whilst in Katoomba, New South Wales, I was fortunate enough to have some time off from recording my first Miriam Hyde Complete Works CD and spent the day going through many of the antique stores across the Blue Mountains. If any of you get the chance to visit the Blue Mountains, your days can easily be occupied with curio-hunting of the most fascinating kind. I had known of the store Mr. Pickwicks via Ebay. Over the years, I have purchased many secondhand scores from them. Their sheet music collection is massive and is housed in the basement of the building. It was here that I decided to spend an enormously large amount of money on a pile of scores. Amongst those pieces was the Forsyth Edition of the Twelve Studies for Piano by Carroll. I can remember flicking through the score then and singing the melodies in my head. I was immediately interested in the harmonic language of a few of the studies. Then there was piqued curiosity at Carroll’s use of a range of time signatures. He starts with the simplicity of 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 before using complex signatures such as 6/8, 9/8, and *gasp* 4/8. I figured I had a good find on my hands…

Moving forward, I have used these studies A LOT in my studio – they do deserve much wider recognition. For the majority of my intermediate students, they are drawn to the soundscape that Carroll utilises for all 12 works. They do not contain difficult key signatures and are not excessively speedy with their metronome markings. Particular favourites are Study No. 4 and Study No. 5. Students tell me how easy the studies sit within the hands and how the arpeggios feel ‘easy’ to play after a while. The magic of some of these etudes is that they SOUND more difficult than they actually are. Let’s take a closer look…

ANALYSIS

Carroll Intro

I just love an edition that comes with composer notes! These days, it is still a rare thing in a lot of new music publications. Carroll gives detailed notes concerning each study within the collection. The instructions are concise and contain definitions of terms and aural guides for students as they learn. These notes are a blessing for any piano teacher. I take all composer-notes on board in my teaching, even though I prefer to take some of these studies a little faster than asked. Interpretation wise, they’re invaluable additions to any printed score. The following brief glimpse of each piece comes with ‘focus for the student’ and ‘focus for the teacher’ notes underneath. The ‘focus for each student’ is the immediate challenge of the piece. The ‘focus for the teachers’ concerns the challenges which may slip ‘under the radar’ as the student is learning.

Study No. 1 “At a moderate pace” – G Major

Carroll 1

Focus for the student:

– Mezzo Staccato,
– Two Note Slurs,
– Melody Notes in Weaker Fingers,
– Loose Arm/Shoulder Playing

Focus for the teacher:

– Tone. As Carroll states “through looseness and listening, we achieve a beautiful tone”.
– Shape of a 6th (especially as a precursor to octave work).
– Ideal piece for introducing large intervals for small hands.
– Introducing advanced chord playing (the intervals are a form of mixed, blocked broken chords in 6ths).
– Tension observation in weaker fingers (a main focus within all intervalic playing)

I have asked an advanced student to play this piece with the mezzo staccato removed and to be played only legato – this helped with the melody projection and also targeted more advanced techniques. This method is, however, problematic for small hands. It is much easier to perform when students are shown how to move a loose arm in the direction of the next 6th, rather than just using ‘fingers’. This study is about shape of the 6ths as much as it is about looseness of the arms.

Grade: AMEB 2-3, SMP Level 3

Study No. 2 “Rather Quick” – C Major

Carroll 2

Focus for the student:

– Cultivation of wrist staccato.
– No pedal unless marked (the last 6 bars)

Focus for the teacher:

– Wrist suppleness
– Flexibility
– Projection of melody in outer fingers (interval balance) in harmonic intervals/chords
– Dynamic control (leggiero playing required rather than bombastic or ‘banging’ approach)
– Tone colour in short crescendo and diminuendo passages

Grade: AMEB Grade 2, SMP Level 2/3

Study No. 3 ‘Graceful, and rather quick’ – C Major

Carroll 3

Focus for the student:

– Arm Crossing
– Chords
– Tone Colour

Focus for the teacher:

– Loose arms
– Chord shape
– Dynamic control
– Pre-planning and opportunity to introduce theory to help with memorisation (simple chord analysis. Chord I, IV, V, transitions to relative minor, V of Minor)
– Pedalling/Special Effects

Grade: AMEB Grade 2, SMP Level 2/3

Study No. 4: ‘Flowing and Ebbing’ – D minor

Carroll 4

Focus for the student:

– Phrasing
– Melody between the hands

Focus for the teacher:

– Creating the ‘ebb and flow’ soundscape
– Movement (climax points in melody. The ‘up and down’)
– Carroll states that there is something ‘of the sea’ in this piece and should be imagined as such to help with the pushing and pulling of the waves
– Touch and release correctly in phrasing
– Arm movement and weight

Grade: AMEB grade 2, SMP Level 2

Study No. 5 ‘Rippling’: E Minor

Carroll 5

Focus for the student:

– Hand rotary movement
– Finger touch/Control
– Exactness, smoothness, evenness in tone
– Broken Chords

Focus for the teacher:

– Chord blocking
– Articulation changes
– Pedalling
– Buiding speed, agility
– Non-exaggerated movement/neatness

Study No. 6 ‘Crisp’ – A Minor

Carroll 6

Focus for the student:

– Staccato intervals
– Forearm staccato
– Speed with alternating hands

Focus for the teacher:

– Chord blocking
– Displaced chordal playing
– Accenting
– Alternating chords/hands
– Evenness and control at high speed
– Dynamic shading

Grade: AMEB Grade 4, SMP Level 3/4

Study No. 7 ‘Dim and restful’  – C Major

Carroll 7

Focus for the student:

– Melody and Accompaniment
– Arpeggios/Intervals

Focus for the teacher:

– Balance/Aural Acuity
– Left hand stretches
– Pedalling
– Mixed articulation
– Loose arms/Projection

Grade: AMEB Grade 3-4, SMP Level 3/4

Study No. 8 ‘Swift’ – D minor

Carroll 8

Focus for the student:

– Melody and Accompaniment
– Viruosity (finger work)
– Balance

Focus for the teacher:

– Broken Chords
– Arpeggios
– Phrasing/mixed articulations (left hand)
– Low fingers/Close to keys
– Relaxation of arm but controlled
– Evenness
– Longer lines/phrase work/singing

Grade: AMEB 4/5 SMP Level 4/5

Study No. 9 ‘Leisurely’ – G Major

Carroll 9

This is, perhaps, the most difficult of all the studies for two reasons:

  1. The chromaticism (namely the use of intervals of a second) make it hard to grasp the key ‘aurally’
  2. The soundscape and constantly changing formations make it difficult to sound ‘leisurely’.

Focus for the student:

– Control
– Accuracy
– Co-ordination between the hands

Focus for the teacher:

– Harmonic dissection and investigation (revealing the melodic material for the less aurally advanced student by way of removing chromaticism)
– Phrasing, specifically, execution of complex two-note slur patterns
– Pedalling (specifically to avoid harmonic ‘clashes’)
– Swift arm movement/Pre-planning gymnastically

Grade: AMEB Grade 5, SMP Level 4/5

Study No. 10 ‘Fairly Fast’ – E Flat Major

Carroll 10

Focus for the student:

– Rhythm and variations on upbeats
– Left hand melody
– Alternating hands/Speed
– Co-ordination

Focus for the teacher:

– Stability and control
– Variety of articulation
– Demisemiquaver
– Melody and accompaniment between the hands
– Balance
– Virtuosity in broken chords

Grade: AMEB Grade 5, SMP Level 4/5

Study No. 11 ‘Rather Slow’ – A Flat Major

Carroll 11

Focus for the student:

– 9/8 time signature
– Scale playing
– Melody and Accompaniment
Focus for the teacher:

– Legato interval playing
– Chordal melody playing (outer fingers)
– Cantabile playing

Grade: AMEB Grade 4, SMP Level 4

Study No. 12 ‘Full of Life’ – C Major

Carroll 12

The final study is similar to study three but in a broken chord fashion. The considerable virtuosity required for this study and the large coverage of the keyboard, make for a big finish of the full set. It is, however, not as difficult as some of the previous studies.

Focus for the student:

– Rapidity and control
– Arpeggios
– Free arm movement

Focus for the teacher:

– Block chord practice methods
– Pre-planning of hands for rapid crossing
– Posture for freedom of movement (arms)
– Carroll refers to a ‘good teacher’ being able to help the student recognise the sequences within the formation of broken chords/arpeggios

Grade: AMEB Grade 4, SMP Level 4

Professor Tech says:

In reality, these studies really are not beyond the grade 2/3 student. Musically, a lot of care needs to be taken to perform them convincingly, especially with the instability of No. 9. From a technical standpoint, there is a lot of ground covered in this collection. For me, personally, the appeal is the harmonic language of the studies. With these 12 pieces, we escape the dryness of a lot of technical work which is common at this level. The excitement that composers like Czerny, Clementi, and Bertini, bring with their studies really only appears in their more advanced pieces. I enjoy the fact that there is a lot of pedal usage in this collection. That, in and of itself, is an appealing aspect of these compositions.

I would definitely recommend this collection for any teacher library. Here, in Australia, we have an ‘extra list’ option on our piano exam syllabus. Students are able to choose pieces on or off the syllabus. As such, these studies would be perfect for inclusion in exam repertoire. The beauty of these small pieces is that they can double as stand alone compositions, aside from being under the title of ‘study’. If there was any criticism, it is that Carroll might have used the title ‘prelude’ or ‘song without words’ for some of these. Also, some of them could be played slightly faster than noted. However, that’s all purely subjective.

Professor Tech Rating:
Professor Tech Rating 5-5

This collection of studies is still available. You can purchase it from the following website:

https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/twelve-studies-sheet-music/19466451

Now, get back to practice!

Prof. Tech

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”.

 

 

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