Thursday, October 6, 2016

Accidentals Galore

Earlier this week, I was working on accompaniments for German lieder and found myself struggling. I simply couldn't get the notes right! I was playing slowly and pulling sections out of context to work through them. When I stepped back for a moment to think, I realized the problem was the extreme chromaticism. It felt as though there was a sharp, flat, or natural on almost every note! That's when I decided what I would write about in this week's blog post.....just how do we learn repertoire easily when there are accidentals galore?

The first step in plowing through these passages is to step away from the keyboard and thoroughly examine the passage. What's going on harmonically? Can I identify the chords that are being used? I'm not talking about using Roman numerals either -- leave that work for your theory class! At this point, I just want to recognize that this G minor triad is moving to an F# diminished triad in 1st inversion. You might find that you are encountering triads that have been respelled as well. Don't worry about how the chords are functioning; use names for them that you will recognize and recall. (I'm much more likely to play an F# minor triad accurately in the heat of performance than I am a Gb minor chord. Call me crazy....but it's how my brain is wired, so I'm not going to fight it!)

Now move back to the keyboard and begin to block out the chords. As you begin to hear the progressions and understand how interesting the accidentals make the passage, work out the passage as written at a slow tempo. Make sure that you are practicing methodically and with careful attention to the details. If you find that you are missing an accidental repeatedly, write it in! I find that colored pencils are a great tool to use in this situation. I use one color to mark fingerings and another for accidentals. This helps my eyes to focus on what is needed without having to sort through all the information I have on the page. A score that is filled with symbols and comments is not a sign that the performer is unskilled; rather, it suggests that the pianist is being thorough in their pursuit of accuracy and artistry!

Insert the isolated passage back into context as soon as you are able (even at a slow tempo). Sections that are highly chromatic tend to build on themselves and difficulty can arise getting into and out of the said passage. The sooner you can put the plethora of accidentals back into the whole piece, the more confident you will ultimately feel about the passage.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why Learn Scales?

One of the most hated assignments for developing musicians is the dreaded appearance of scales. Students complain because scales are boring. They hate the demand that specific fingers be used. By this point in every term, I hear the question.....Why do we have to learn scales anyway?  Here are a few of my answers from a pianistic point of view.

  • Scales build finger dexterity while developing basic technique. Fingers four and five are naturally weak. Passing the thumb under the fingers (and the reverse) are not common motions. Scales are an easy way to build fine motor skills in a balanced way while establishing common finger patterns that will be used routinely in the standard repertoire.
  • Understanding scale structures helps with score analysis and memorization. Scales emphasize the relationship between sol and do as well as the function of the leading tone. The more we know about the scale's structure, the easier we can begin to understand how chords progress in music -- and that leads to easier memorization.
  • Knowing scales assists in sight reading and learning repertoire. Scales are the basis of much of our music. They are found in repertoire of all types in various ways. If I can recognize a scale that I have already mastered, it is not unexpected that the fingering pattern for the scale passage will be the same as that which I have drilled into my head.
  • Scales improve the pianist's aural skills. Although playing scales can sometimes feel mundane, by actively listening to the progression of the notes from one to another, the pianist will actually strengthen their ears as they develop relationships between the various scale degrees.
  • The process of learning scales is an introduction to the rehearsal process. Discipline is required to learn scales correctly. Scales can also present some technical problems for the developing pianist. The skills and tenacity required to master the scale patterns will serve the musician in the future as they face challenging repertoire.

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.