Thursday, September 22, 2016

Investigating the Inventions

I'm hearing lots of work on the Bach Two-Part Inventions at WBU lately. These are great works to introduce pianists to the finer points of Baroque style while working on independence of hands. They also serve as a perfect entryway to the preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier. However, young pianists can find them extremely challenging because of the counterpoint. While my colleague was away last week, I found myself offering advice to freshmen preparing these works and a few points seemed to come up repeatedly.

  • Slow and steady practice is necessary. Young pianists often want to attempt to play at top speed from the beginning. This is never advisable, but it is certainly not going to produce success when studying Bach.
  • There is great value in practicing each hand separately. Because these works become very complex very quickly, it is useful to work on one hand at a time. While doing so, it is important to also.....
  • Be meticulous! Make sure that you are playing accidentals throughout the entire measure. Analyze rhythmic patterns carefully and demand accuracy from the start. Settle on good fingering patterns early in the process and don't forget to address articulation as well. Don't fool yourself into thinking you will remember all of your choices either -- take the time to mark your score (possibly in a colored pencil!) as you are working. It may be tedious work now, but you will be thankful for it later.
  • When putting hands together, work from one strong beat to the next. Fewer things can be more frustrating and discouraging than attempting to play a long passage in an Invention when things simply are not going well. Shorten the length of the passage -- maybe to a few beats or a single measure -- as you are putting both lines together. This increases the chance for success and highlights technical patterns that may exist between the hands. Personally, I find that working from the beginning of the measure to the next downbeat -- crossing the bar line -- helps me fix problems while maintaining a constant sense of rhythmic propulsion.
  • Ruthlessly fight for steady rhythms! Students often get into the habit of inserting hesitations into the polyphonic writing. The thought is that note accuracy is most important and that rhythmic accuracy can come later. Unfortunately, these pauses in the musical line quickly become set in muscle memory and are extremely hard to correct later. Instead of hesitating, slow things down and play the invention only as fast as you can play with both note and rhythmic accuracy.
  • Inventions are all about SHAPE! The Inventions are often approached as technical exercises. These charming works are musical gems! As you are perfecting the notes and polishing rhythms, don't lose sight of the music. Listen for the rise and fall of the line. Notice how the two voices play off of each other, creating a sparkling dialogue. As you find the music, the Inventions will become much more exciting to study, causing you to spend more time with the work rather than dreading more time trying to fix the problems. Simply put, let the two voices sing and enjoy the melody.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Song Transcriptions Today

I have always enjoyed playing accompaniments of the art song repertoire. However, since I'm not a trained singer, I find that my ability to fully enjoy the song is sometimes diminished because of the absence of the vocal line. Recently, I have found myself looking to song transcriptions to quench my thirst for song repertoire while providing engaging solo repertoire. It's the best of both worlds!

At its most basic level, a transcription is a piece for solo piano that is based on a larger work from the chamber, orchestral, song, or operatic repertoire. Most pianists are familiar with the masterful transcriptions by Liszt, but there are actually many more of them than you might expect in the classical realm. Clara Schumann has some lovely settings of many of her husband's best loved songs. Edvard Grieg transcribed his own songs as well. While many of the other transcriptions were provided by lesser known figures, the results are often quite nice -- especially since they were based on pieces that are considered standards of the repertoire.

We continue to stumble across transcriptions in modern settings as well. Often composed for mainly pedagogical purposes, music bins are filled with transcriptions of folk songs as well as current pop songs, show tunes, Disney songs, and themes from major movie soundtracks. Because the sounds are familiar to most students, the transcription can often be a motivating factor for the student who is struggling to make progress at the instrument.

In my own world, I find that I am learning new transcriptions on a fairly regular basis in the form of hymn arrangements. These compositions take the familiar tune -- in this case, the hymn tune -- rework its harmony, and embellish the melody while ensuring that the basic tune remains recognizable by the audience. The result is a work that can easily fit into most worship services without the need for additional explanation while allowing pianists to display their skill as an act of worship.

Whether you are looking to include standard works by master composers, contemporary songs, or classic hymn arrangements into your current repertoire, consider giving transcriptions a try. I think you are certain to find something in the genre that will appeal to your musical taste.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Role of Duets in the Piano Studio

I love playing piano duets! I always have, too. Throughout my studies, getting to play great music with another pianist has proven to be lots of fun while still addressing important pedagogical issues. Because it is not always convenient to include piano duets in our studios, sadly many teachers neglect this portion of the repertoire. Here are just a few of the benefits that students of all levels can gain from diving into these rich works.

  • Improves recognition of notes and rhythmic figures. From the very beginning, young children benefit from duet playing because the parts are often below their current level, allowing them to focus on reading the notes and rhythms accurately. As students progress, duet playing's focus on a single clef (in most cases) also develops their sight-reading skills.
  • Strengthens aural skills. Since all of the music is not coming from a single set of hands, student pianists quickly learn that they must depend upon their ear in order to insure that the two parts are fitting together properly. Additionally, students are exposed to chord progressions in duet playing that are often technically too demanding for their solo repertoire
  • Develops independence of playing. Pianists quickly learn how to confidently play their part while hearing another theme or rhythmic pattern in opposition to their own.
  • Improves the inner sense of rhythm. Students no longer have the luxury of adjusting the tempo to fit their technical needs. Those playing duets quickly realize that the beat must be maintained in order for the performance to work.
  • Allows soloist to experience performing in ensemble. The study of piano is primarily a solo pursuit. Making music, however, is not always a solo effort. The duet repertoire is a wonderful introduction to the sense of community, collaboration, and camaraderie musicians enjoy when playing in ensembles.
  • Serves as excellent preparation for future roles as accompanist and chamber player. Few pianists will enjoy a career exclusively as a soloist. Truthfully, much of our time will be spent as accompanists and chamber musicians. Playing duets -- especially with students at a lower ability level -- can be a great introduction to the art of collaboration and the skills necessary for a successful performance.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tips for Transposition

Pianists try to avoid it like the plague. The very thought of it can send shivers down the spine. Who in their right mind would willingly agree to play a piece in a key other than the one it is printed in? Transposing is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Even though most pianists hate doing it, transposing is an essential skill for the collaborator. Here are a few tips to make your transposing assignments a little easier.
  • Begin with a chordal analysis of the piece. Knowing how chords progress makes things much easier in the new key. This is also the time to begin marking passages that look as though they will be problematic. If you think it will be helpful, write the chord names in the score as well -- especially in the most difficult passages.
  • Notice shapes, intervals, and repetitions that appear in phrases. A passage that has a repeated figure suddenly becomes much easier to transpose when we deal with the pattern instead of each individual note.
  • How will chromatic alterations impact the new key? Will the printed sharp result in a natural instead in the new key? Depending upon the spacing of the score, it might be helpful to write in the altered notes in the new key with a colored pencil.
  • Pay careful attention to extended cadences and modulations. These passages can be some of the most complex harmonically. I begin the transposing process at these points so I know where things are ultimately going.
  • Practice, practice, practice! There is no substitute for it. The key to feeling confident about your transposing is to feel comfortable with the piece in the new key. It just takes time and a lot of thought.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Finding the Right Fingering

The beginning of the fall semester is right around the corner. That means that pianists of all levels are gearing up to begin working on new repertoire. It's an exciting part of what we do and is one of my favorite times of the creative process. Along with the fun and excitement can come times of frustration as we struggle to navigate challenging passages. While there are many things that can be the source of the problem, often I have found that one of the biggest things standing between me and a successful performance is finding the fingering pattern that works best in the passage. There seem to be so many possibilities.....and the only "rule" is that the pattern you select simply must work consistently. Here are some of the things I typically work through when trying to find the best fingering for a challenging passage.

Decide where you need to end. Does the hand continue to play at the end of the difficult passage? If so, what finger needs to be available for the continuation of the line? Mark these fingerings because this information will help as you begin the process.

Determine what finger starts the passage. This is only necessary if the tricky portion is flowing out of a phrase that is actively moving before the craziness starts. If the tough part can begin with a hand shift -- especially if it comes after a rest -- then the starting finger may not be essential to figure out at this point.

Now that you know where you need to begin and end, begin to figure the fingering out by working through the passage backwards. I know it sounds crazy, but it actually makes things much easier to figure out and will give you extra practice through the more complicated aspects of the passage by working through it from the end.
  • Begin on the finger that you have determined needs to end the passage. Look backward and determine how much can be played without having to make a shift. (Here's a hint.....I generally look for thumb placements.) Let your training in scales, arpeggios, and alternating passages (1-3-2-4) guide your thought process. Mark where your thumb lands and realize that the fingering you are selecting right now is not set in stone. There will be opportunities later to modify it.
  • Continue looking backward to determine what finger needs to make the cross over the thumb. Once again, think about the fingerings you have used in other pieces. For instance, if my right thumb has landed on a C and the note immediately before it is a Bb, I'm probably going to try using the 4th finger there. Make note of the cross finger and continue back to the next thumb.
  • Combine the separate phrases and make minor adjustments as needed. When you add the new section of fingerings, does the first one you decided on still work? If it does, you're ready to move to the next section. If things feel strange, decide if you need to make a change. Normally, I try to make only one adjustment at a time so I don't forget exactly what I've done! Once you've settled on the changes you need to make in the passage, update your markings in the score.
  • Continue the process in this way, adding one short passage at a time. You are not adding musical phrases, but instead you are focusing on the technical structure of the phrase -- how it fits in the hand.
  • WRITE DOWN YOUR FINGERINGS ALONG THE WAY! I cannot emphasize this enough. In order to master a challenging technical passage, it is essential that you use the same fingers every time you practice. Most pianists find that they only need to write down non-sequential fingerings in the score. That allows the brain to realize that something unusual happens here, so I need to pay attention.
  • Once you have developed a fingering for the entire passage, continue to modify as needed and then set it to memory! I encourage students to identify tricky passages early in their learning and to find good finger patterns as soon as they can in the process. There is no reason to develop poor habits that you will ultimately have to unlearn later.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Helping Struggling Students in Group Settings

Teaching piano in a group setting is becoming more and more common. There are advantages to the set-up. We can teach more students with less time since much of the early instruction can be introduced in the same way for most students. For many teachers, however, the situation can be challenging and intimidating. Few of us were taught in a group, so transferring concepts from an individual delivery to one appropriate for a lecture hall can be tough. What's more troublesome is how to offer help to students that are struggling with a concept. Do we hold the rest of the class back or begin teaching a bunch of private lessons in a large room? Here are some of the ways that I have found to offer help to a struggling student while maintaining the structure and integrity of group instruction.

Repetition! Repetition! Repetition! Once a new concept has been introduced and the task has been successfully completed by the majority of the students, it is time to begin working on something new. However, mastery of the recently achieved skill also needs to occur. When you have students that are struggling with a skill, try to find a piece that refines the newly acquired skill while also introducing a new concept. This allows the struggling student to continue focusing on the problem area while offering practice for the rest of the class without making them feel as though they are stalling out. If you can't find an appropriate piece, consider composing one yourself or assigning composition projects to your students.

Move from the known to the unknown. Whenever possible, connect new skills to those that have already been mastered for easier understanding. For example, before introducing scales that involve the crossing of the thumb, I have students play a melody that requires the index finger to reach over the thumb. By experiencing the movement of the finger out of the 5-finger pattern, students are ready to begin exploring how the hand naturally moves with a finger cross.

Include instruction on how to practice. Students generally want to succeed. They understand that personal practice is necessary to succeed. What they are often missing is a full understanding of HOW to practice. Demonstrate how to pull out sections of the piece to focus on. Help students develop practice techniques that lead to mastery of that section. Encourage students to use similar approaches in their private rehearsal. As you introduce new practice techniques, students will become more capable of determining what technique is most helpful for each passage.

Offer mini-lessons. Before asking students to play for a grade, I try to offer a brief mini-lesson a few weeks in advance. These short 5 or 10 minute sessions pull students out of the group setting and allow them to get personalized attention. After a student plays the piece (or assigned segment) for me, we begin with an evaluation of the performance before identifying the next step needed to arrive at the desired outcome. If several steps are needed or the student seems overwhelmed, this is an opportunity to develop a road map or practice path that breaks the final goal into smaller, achievable goals. If a practice path is developed, it is advisable to include deadlines for each small goal in pursuit of the final outcome. With support and reassurance, the student will gradually become confident in creating their own road map to practice success.

What additional suggestions do you have for ensuring that all of your students succeed? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Will You Play for My Wedding?

It's a question that most pianists will hear repeatedly throughout their career. I've played for more than my fair share of wedding ceremonies. Family weddings. Weddings of college friends and fraternity brothers. Other friends, acquaintances, as well as random individuals have contracted my services for their special days. Now that I've played so many weddings, I can confidently say I have made some mistakes and learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some of the tips that I wish someone had told me when I first started this summer rite of passage for the pianist.

  • Establish your base rate. Playing for weddings is part of the business of making a living as a pianist. It is important that you know your base rate as well as what services are included. Average rates for pianists vary by location, so begin by doing some research on the average cost of wedding musicians. Once you know the range, determine how busy you want to be and set your rate accordingly. As you set your rate, take into account your level of experience, availability, and professional credentials. At this point, it is also helpful to determine what basic services are included/available for every wedding you play. In my current situation, I don't want to play ceremonies very often, so I have a rate at the higher end of the spectrum that includes processional pieces for the bridal party, a standard recessional march, and the accompaniment of one vocal solo. If other services are needed (e.g. prelude, postlude, transposition), there will be additional charges.
  • Have a list of suggested pieces available for the bride at your first consultation. When you speak with the bride, get a sense of what type of wedding she is looking for. Is she a traditional bride or is she looking for something "different" from the norm? Is there a strong religious component to the service that needs to be reflected in the music? As you define various wedding scenarios, you will be able to suggest appropriate pieces. If the bride has something specific in mind, be able to clearly state if you know the piece and have music in your library or if it's something you will need to obtain and learn. The latter situation will be reflected in your fees.
  • Realize that most brides and wedding coordinators you work with are not musicians. This means that they can't always clearly tell you what they need. It is your job to read between the lines, offer ideas based on your expertise, and make the music work. (The same can be said of many of the "singers" that are asked to perform at the wedding. It's not unusual to find that they are a merely a friend who can carry a tune, but has no formal training.)
  • Speaking of singers, carefully craft your policy on transposition and the use of lead sheets. Do you offer these services at all? How far in advance must transpositions be finalized and unchangeable? These skills are highly specialized and require more time than learning an arrangement from the page. Make sure that your comfort level with these skills are reflected in your rates. (If I'm going to transpose something with just a few days notice...that's fine, but YOU WILL PAY DEARLY!)
  • Determine any exceptions to your established policy. Hopefully, every pianist has friends and family members that they will want to celebrate with as they prepare to marry. Most performers offer their services at a reduced rate or even offer them as their gift to the couple. Work through these exceptions in your own mind -- but don't advertise them to potential couples -- in advance so you can make sure that you are taking care of yourself in all circumstances. My personal policy is that I play for members of my immediate family for free; "immediate family" is based on my definition and no one else's. Additionally, I have made it a practice to offer my services as wedding gifts to a select group of fraternity brothers. I have identified the years included and have made very few exceptions based on personal relationship with men who fall outside of those specific years. Anyone else that falls into an "exception" category -- close family friend, extended family, other fraternity brothers -- are offered a reduced rate. I let them know what the ceremony would normally cost and then inform them of the discount. Sometimes these individuals are insulted that I don't offer to play for free; others insist on paying the full rate. I have found it important for me to remember that while this is a joyous celebration for the couple and that I want to celebrate with them, it is also a business endeavor for me that I have to be compensated for.
Let's end this post with a few HELPFUL TIPS I've learned over the years during wedding rehearsals and ceremonies.
  • Meet vocal soloists 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the rehearsal. If you meet earlier, you will end up doing more playing and the bride inevitably becomes involved. Additionally, wedding rehearsals rarely begin on time, so you will have a little wiggle room. If everyone has learned their part, this should be more than enough time for the rehearsal. In the event that additional rehearsal is absolutely necessary, it is always possible to hang around in the sanctuary for a few minutes after the wedding rehearsal to fix problem areas.
  • Processionals can be the most problematic portion of the rehearsal. Suggest to the coordinator that the party walk through the processional without music first so you can get an idea of how much music will be needed. Truthfully, you are just looking for cues to make transitions to the next piece of music (e.g. last member of the bridal party, movement of the mothers, etc.) and making sure everyone knows where they are going before adding music to the mix.
  • Keep an eye out for sight line problems from the piano. If there is an issue, mention it to the coordinator quietly and together come up with a solution. In most cases, the last groomsman/bridesmaid is able to communicate with you without distracting the audience's focus from the center of the ceremony.