Tenuto, Tenēre, Tenure

Tenuto, Tenēre, Tenure

One of the most misunderstood articulations in the arena of piano techniques, tenuto, traditionally suffers from lack of identity.

“What am I? Who am I? What is my purpose in this life” asks tenuto, and often there are vague answers and contextual definitions that are often conveniently chosen by both teachers and performers—guilty as charged, your honor.

I like to simplify things when tenuto appears in my score. I simplify chiefly because of my vast ignorance when it comes to performance and pianistic articulations, but also for a reason that, despite my musical incapacities, I find noble; I simplify the explanation of tenuto, because my pupils deserve a clear definition of what tenuto represents and how to perform it. At least in their early encounters with this articulation.

Thus, I believe students must have a concrete “first” answer of what something means, before trying to translate it into different musical contexts and even define it themselves eventually.

How to play tenuto

For me tenuto on the piano means to play a note (or chord) with an inner intention to crescendo it—“amplify it”. An impossible task for the piano, crescendoing an already pressed note, shouldn’t stop us, however, from dreaming and imagining that a note has the potential to widen once it has been pressed and that it can be urged to kind of grab the next one.

Tenuto is so different from immediate dynamics that show the intensity of a note’s attack, such as fz, or sffz, and, naturally, different from dynamics such as p or ff. Unlike other piano techniques, tenuto implies that its ultimate effect is to have an inner development.

This for me is in essence when Elaine Gould writes “…holding a note for its full length…” in her monumental masterpiece Behind Bars. She also adds in her brief explanation that tenuto can also be “…a slight separation from surrounding notes…”, but I tend to concentrate on her first definition, that coincides with mine. Since, if a composer had to really persuade the listener that he intents to separate each note, all he had to do is to just write a note au naturel. No need really to add the tenuto line, since the end result, arguably, can be indistinguishable from the non-legato articulation. Except… if you stress the note. Hm…

And this is why in most contexts and composers, I would shamelessly assert to my pupils that there is perhaps only one definition to this tenuto riddle. Then, when students will have grasped my central definition of it, they can then experiment with stresses, durations, eras, schools of pianism, etc., and even later develop their own philosophy behind this dreaded articulation.

Let’s see in context:

Bach

At the ending of Christian Petzold’s Minuet in G Major (anh 114), every so often we see in editions that the last note (G) is to be played tenuto—Bach didn’t add this to the original 1725 manuscript. For most performers tenutoing this last note means that they should carefully place their hand on the key and firmly (quickly) press the note to achieve a deeper, kind of louder effect, and sort of emphasise that last note. See example below:

 

For me, a use of tenuto in this context implies that this very last note is equally important, and signals a not-so-unnoticed ending to this famous minuet. It demands from the performer to try and crescendo that very last note, as you would on the last chord of the first movement of Beethoven’s 4thquartet. See below; performers would customarily crescendo that last chord after it has been struck, and let it develop before its rounded-up finish.

Rachmaninov

In Rachmaninov’s prelude No 3, Op.23 in G minor, the use of tenuto (edition Boosey & Hawkes) signals a conscious effort of the first chord to both have a presence (mf), and also to “crescendo” before it grabs the next one in A major.  See example below:

This attempt to crescendo that first chord is by no means futile, and tenuto possesses a unique capability, indeed, to describe this dynamical endeavour: You wouldn’t necessarily use a crescendo line here (even a dotted one), because it would have been harder to show that this first chord of the piece has a significant presence, as well— At the same time, the use of a musical directions, such as sfz or >, won’t do here either, because they would subconsciously imply a defuse of that first chord after it was played— The engraver here, clearly wanted the pianist to think that this first chord is “opening-up” its dynamic level.

A contrasting crescendo of an already pressed key, however, can be seen in the next example from Brahm’s third violin and piano sonata op.108 in D minor (third movement, bar 37, Edition Peters).

Here, Brahms wants an inner crescendo on the D of the left hand, but he wants the crescendoing to develop from the ground up in contrast to tenuto; Brahms doesn’t want that D to have a weighty musical posture, because it will arguably steal some presence from the C major chord of the next bar.  See example below:

Prokofiev

Here’s another example that shows that notes with tenuto on the piano are asked to do something that is not pragmatically possible. In the following example from Prokofiev’s fourth piano sonata, the composer is adamant that there’s only one way to show that the notes on tenuto are to be held for as much as possible, and even develop after they have been pressed.

Non-legato or any other articulation won’t be enough for the composer to assert that even the notes that belong in the weaker part of the measure, do still have a long journey to travel. See below:

As am I closing this, and before I further talk your heads off,  I would like to gently remind you that portato is equally waiting just around the corner to baffle you… Pfff.

But that’s for another episode.

Copyright © Nikolaos Kokkinis – 30th of April 2019

 

 

The examples in this article were engraved from their original sources (where mentioned) using the notation software MuseScore version  3.0.5.21343. The quotes used in this article are taken from Elaine Gould’s book on music notation Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation (Faber Edition). This essential book can be acquired from here or from here, amongst others.

The Rule of Five

The Rule of Five

Terry hung up the phone. He’s had enough. He was disgusted, alienated, but most of all, scared.

The events manager at the Palm Springs Hotel and Resort had just, less than a minute ago, urged him to, lo-and-behold, learn the Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Well, as a matter of fact, not only learn, but, to Terry’s monumental surprise, play as well. “He’s a cheeky scoundrel”, Terry thought of the manager. The bride had apparently rethought the whole reception scenario and decided – in, obviously, a moment of extraordinary inspiration – that her husband’s to be photo slides should be accompanied by Mozart’s epic start, of a not so unpopular opera, the famed La Nozze Di Figaro. “Even the break dancers down the Palm Canyon Drive would’ve known that tune. I mean, they probably wouldn’t recognise the actual title of the work or its provenance per se, but, blimey, they must have heard the tune. That goes without saying. Imagine though, the people of my kind, the educated folk. They should know by heart every corner of that tune”. Terry exclaimed in despair. “And why that overture? Because the bride said, ‘it’s the right song to wash his sins away from his Casanova years.’ According to the manager, she gullibly thought that Casanova was an opera hero too, and that the overture was a ‘song’. Go figure.”

Terry was one of those types, disadvantageous as he always thought it may be, that didn’t want to disappoint. On this occasion, he thought that refusing to play the Overture, could have jeopardised his musical career down the line – he knew deep inside, of course, that this couldn’t be the case even if a million years have passed – but, somehow, he always found an unpredictable way to succumb to that type of pressure and say “yes” to unnecessary troubles. Also, he had just sensed, by the way the manager uttered his words, that his job was considered to be of trivial nature; meaning to Terry’s mind, that the overture was seen by a third party as a piece-of-cake piece for a pianist of his calibre to learn. And so, following that mounting pressure, Terry thought all the more, that he shouldn’t deny the said endeavour.

And to make things psychologically worse, he just remembered that two months earlier he had explicitly asked the manager if he was required to play anything else from Mozart, since he was already accompanying Liona Harris-Jones – the up and coming Californian soprano – on the Der Vieni Non Tardar in the wedding receptiononly to be reassured that this notion couldn’t be further from materialising, since playing more Mozart didn’t constitute a fit with the rest of the music program.

But, as dubious musician fate always appears uninvited in these occasions, poor Terry had to now learn the notes and make do with the little time left. Three days. He knew, of course, that he could have pulled that piece off in a jiffy had he had to play it in a lesser venue, but this time, given the short notice and the heaviness of the situation, he was practically walking on thin ice. “Anything can go wrong and I don’t want the video to end up on YouTube’s Funniest Weddings’ Videos Viral Collection.Well, if there is such channel available, that is.” Terry softly massaged his forehead with his right palm, in despair.

“Well, I can’t let myself down this time, either. I must find a solution. My wife is going to kill me, of course, but what shall I do? I must barricade myself in the shed, glue my fingers to the piano, and learn that horrid intro. But then, should I simply call the manager and say no? Is it too late now? Maybe not. But is it the right thing to do? Don’t know. I feel tied up somehow and simply cannot pull myself together and call the manager at this juncture. I think I should just honour the nickname I have given to myself; The Doer.” Terry thought sarcastically. “The Doer…. What a ludicrous nickname. What a ludicrous nickname!” He said out loud twice. Terry had secretly given himself that very nickname seven years earlier, when he pulled off one of his most legendary career tricks, and landed himself the job as the weekend pianist at the Palm Springs Hotel and Resort. What had happened was, that the regular pianist, in his effort to avoid a cyclist on his way to the resort, crashed his car on a tree. The crash was so strong that his electric keyboard flew over from the back seat, jammed his right leg, crushing his knee and snapping a ligament, sending him straight to the ER. Jarred –  that same manager that we were talking about at the start – called Terry, and with a deliberately velvety voice that made Terry feel like the greatest virtuoso alive, persuaded him to step in at the very last moment to save the day, after promising him that it was indeed a gig so easy that it could have been played by an intermediate level pianist, and naturally offered him twice the standard fee for inconveniencing him. Meanwhile, the official pianist, now in the hospital and traumatized by the crash, to his credit, in a moment of reflection, decided that he should make his career playing for the disadvantaged in hospitals and everywhere else he could,  and two months later, after he was discharged from the hospital, he embarked on a cruise with his father to re-evaluate his priorities in life. So basically, Terry kept playing for the resort for the rest of the season, and continued renewing his contract ever since. Anyway.

But before I describe to you what the poor old Terry did in order to reach the position to perform the Overture at the wedding, I owe to tell you what happened on the night the regular pianist got hospitalized and why because of this, Terry nicknamed himself “The Doer”. Well, Terry did indeed arrive at the resort that night to find the Gallery’s Steinway & Sons model D waiting for him in the restaurant downstairs. The management had just brought the piano downstairs using the staff elevator, because the hospitalised pianist’s Roland FP-30 together with his mixer and PA system, was now locked in his crashed VW beetle 53 miles away. Terry, was so ecstatic to be playing on a Steinway model D that he gave his all. So, that evening he played from Mozart, to Scarlatti sonatas, to Clyderman, to Chopin and to, believe it or not, Liberace. But the nickname he worthily gave to himself only came after a ninety-four year old lady, bless her, came to him following a standing ovation to the ecstatic finale of Liverace’s Boogie Woogie. She asked a sweating Terry, to sing for her and her husband the popular Strangers In The Night song. The momentum of the evening was traveling at such an exhilarating pace that Terry just went with it and started actually singing and playing that song to make the nonagenarian happy. That was actually his first time singing and playing the piano in front of an audience. But, as it turned out, not the last. I forgot to mention at the beginning that Terry was considering himself a solo pianist. He never played and sang at the same time in his career. He regularly accompanied singers and instrumentalists, but never sung, however. So, if I may say and I hope you would agree with me that he can be deservedly called “The Doer” just by accomplishing this endeavor, well, “live”. After the Strangers In The Night, and until the end of the night, he combined solo pieces together with some popular songs to the delight of his audience. Sorry, but I had to tell this little story before I continued, because it emphasised the strength of character and stamina needed to accomplish the feat you’re about to read in a minute.

 

Friday 06:45. Almost three days to the wedding. Terry, a family man and a gigging musician, knew like no other that every second in a performer’s life was of utmost importance. He prepared a big mug of coffee and went to his shed to strategise about how he was going to learn the Overture.

He sat at the piano and looked at the music. Chaos. The notes weren’t a problem, but the speed, was.  This type of piece, had a unique problem: Since it was technically easy, ever so popular and the melody was on the front line, so to speak, any possible mishap would have been easily noticed. If Terry was to play a composer, such as Schnittke that uses clusters, I’d doubt that any member of the audience would have stood up pointing out a wrong note or rhythm. And I actually doubt that a similar scenario have ever occurred. — Could you imagine, in a live performance of Schnittke’s second piano sonata a member of the audience stand up and complain that the pianist played a wrong note? I’d doubt that this could happen in a million years — However, when it comes to popular works such as our La Nozze Di Figaro, a wrong note becomes much easier to spot, thus the anxiety not to mishit a key increases tenfold. And that was Terry’s biggest concern; not to miss a “critical” note that will unsettle the wedding-goers and, of course, the bride.

“I must secure the notes in this tune and make it sound like it’s no biggie. To do this though, I can’t just practise relentlessly without structural aim. I have to find a way to bend the learning curve, well, downwards, and fast-track the memorisation process. What should I do though?”

Terry clasped his hands and held his chin with his thumbs in agony. A few quite moments passed. And then, it hit him.

“Hang on a second!” He said calmly in a thoughtful voice.

“You know what? I think I found the solution to this riddle. I must call Nikos, the legendary publisher of PianoPractising.com. Yes, he will find the solution, for sure, being a great musician himself! Not to mention, that he has a great character with many favourable attributes. For example, he is very brave, extremely mature, and horribly generous. He is also a heroic pianist, and legend has it that he once played Chopin’s 24 preludes backwards. But let’s not forget that he competed in the Fastest Pianist Alive competition and came first in the trills category. What a legend! I really think he is indeed a great man. And as far as I can tell, he is the least pompous person I’ve ever met. He secretly told me once that he managed to save an old woman from the teeth of a white shark just by playing Richard Clyderman’s Mariage d’amour from the upper deck of a cruise-liner, allowing the shark to gently retreat backwards, But, as he is so modest, he simply wanted to conceal that story from the public eye. And many more heroic acts, but that’s not the place nor the time to discuss. Not to mention that he is a great writer. But anyway.”

Terry picked up the phone…

The phone kept ringing for at least a minute,  and just before Terry was about to hung up, a voice at the end of the line said:

“PianoPractising.com headquarters! With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with!?”

“Hey Nikos, it’s Terry.”

“Terry, my old pal, how are you doing!? Me? Very well indeed! Still saving the world from implausible Cadenza interpretations and unnecessary slowing-downs on difficult passages. But enough of me. Please, tell me about you Terry! You know me. If I start talking I could go on and on, and on, but when friends call I’m obliged to keep my words to the minimum, as they say, which means to keep my mouth shut and listen carefully. How’s Gina and the kids? Is she still holding a grudge against me for playing Rach’s first movement Cadenza at three o’clock in the morning when I last stayed with you guys? I hope she does because I deserved it. My behavior was extremely unacceptable, not only because I woke the kids up but also because I should have started from the beginning of the movement rather that diving in straight to the Cadenza without warming up. Who could have believed it! Me, playing without a warm-up. One should know better than that.”

“Um, Nikos, sorry to interrupt, but I’m in deep water over here and I could certainly use a bit of help.”

“Oh. I thought you just called to ask how’s my new lizard.”

“Um. Well, Nikos, no. I called because I need your advice on a pianistic issue that I must resolve by Sunday afternoon.”

“Um… advice… free… um… money zilch…. friendship…um… ok. Sure. What’s up?”

And this is how Terry called our friend Nikos asking him to help him save the day.

Nikos advised him to use his “Rule Of Five”. The rule of five simply dictated the following:

A musician has to play a chosen passage perfectly for five consecutive times, before commencing to learn the next one.

Here’s how it’s done with the use of an example:

Say, you need to learn a passage that consists of 12 bars. Depending on difficulty and length of bars, you are free to choose the length of the passage that you are plan to repeat. Let’s assume that you chose to start with the first two bars. What you need to do is the following: First you start from the first bar and play though to the end of the second. Now you have to be observant. If you made a mistake, be it rhythmical, melodic or other, you have to redo the first time. If then you play that first time well, you tick it off and continue to the second repeat. The same applies to the second time. So, you keep playing until you played “perfectly” your chosen passage for five times in a row. Then, you can continue to the next passage. It’s that simple.

This method, despite sounding gruelling and slow-moving, does in fact manage to ultimately accelerate the learning process of a work of music, especially in time-limited situations. That’s all. As a general advice, choose a passage that has a beginning and an ending type of structure.

 

Terry did indeed perform the Overture at the wedding. His playing was ever so exhilarating and his agile fingers catapulted the audience’s adrenaline to the skies.  For all his prior anxieties, no mistakes showed up in his performance and definitely not in critical places; all the melodic lines were clear and crisp and only here and there the left hand would have the odd foggy feel.

He was content and happy to finally complete yet another musical challenge acceptably. The bride? She was ecstatic as well, but for other, non music-related reasons. She wouldn’t know any different, anyway.

As for me? I’m Jerry, a carpenter and an amateur pianist that I live next door to Nikos’s. My story on how I experienced the Rule Of Five is much shorter but also very dull — I just couldn’t learn a piece in time for my girlfriend’s birthday, and since I knew Nikos I went over to his place one morning and asked for advice — You see? A boring story. So, that’s why I chose to tell you a more deserving story I heard from Nikos himself. Terry’s story.

 

Nikos Kokkinis © 25th of January 2019

Many thanks to GABRIEL for the image used in this article.For more images visit below.

The Forbidden Question

The Forbidden Question

“Alarmbells are ringing uncontrollably” driiiiiiin!!!! Drooooooonnnnn!!! Draaaaanggggg!!!

“Ambulance sirens are tearing the skies in a maniacal fashion!!!” Piiiiiuuuuuuu!!! Piuuuuuuuu!!!!!

“People are running away like mad, from their seats in the cafeterias, having left behind their laptops on their social media pages!!!”

ººººº

“Why should I practise the piano?” You innocently typed on your browser’s search-field.

If you typed those words on your laptop, mobile, tablet or any other vanity device and pressed “search,” chances are that you DO NOT like the piano that much anymore. Terribly sorry to break the news.

Why do I sound harsh and say those things though? Because I’m a horrible person? Perhaps. Because I don’t care to become a fashionable teacher that promises musical lives full of smiles and greatness? Perhaps too. Actually, that’s for sure. But also, I’m saying those words because I want you to learn about music and its peculiarities, and protect you from the educational savages that destroy lives with a sentence, such as “why don’t you want to become a musician?” That’s why I have promised myself, never to lure a student into becoming a musician. It has to come from within themselves. They first have to express this unfailing desire, by their own capacities. And then, if I can, I must help them to achieve their goals. But let’s see a bit more about the question at the top:

Will I ever type the following words and search online? “Why should I like eating ice cream?” Of course not. You know why? Because I don’t need to. I know that I will love ice cream for the rest of eternity, even if I’m about to die from diabetes. That would have been the most over-the-top question I could have ever asked. Do you get my gist?

Same applies to your question; what happens is, that you don’t like practising that much, and frankly you grew to dislike this monster of an instrument, the piano.

The good news is that you came to the right destination; The right destination to make you understand more about music and piano, of course, and not make you like the piano back. That ship has sailed. And frankly, it’s not any of my business and I shouldn’t try to persuade anyone to like the piano. That’s not the point of this article or this website, or a teacher’s educational purpose; that is to make their students like their instrument. Teachers are there to help students LEARN their respective instrument and not make them LIKE their instrument. This is a huge misconception that tantalised pianists, parents and starting educators from, well, the beginning of piano-time.

But let’s discuss a bit more about our question. And, by all means, do not feel guilty. At all! You’re not the only one that hates our precious instrument.

Why People Stop Liking Something

 

People, as you may have noticed, often stop liking something in their lives and start liking something else.  It’s a common thing.

This, in my opinion, is a Darwinian predisposition. —I have no proof of that nor have I researched on that, but it only makes sense based on my time as a musician and the few books that I’ve read— Otherwise, everybody would love the piano forever and there would have been a huge amount of pianistic aura around. That wouldn’t have been good, won’t you agree?

So, to reassure you, it’s only natural that people stop liking things at one point or another in their lifetime. Same applies to the piano. If you recently stopped liking it, you’re just the most horrible person, ever! Sorry. Just kidding. Of course you’re not! You are fine. It’s normal. Imagine if you, your auntie, your friend, your scuba-diving instructor and everyone you knew liked the piano and became proficient at it. What would have happened? For one, I wouldn’t have had a site like this to write my pompous, self-serving writings. Then, I wouldn’t be able to pretend to be an expert and preach my pianistic theories to the gullible piano aficionados, like yourself. Additionally, I wouldn’t be able to make money from this music business that I lead. Moreover, the competition would have been so high that interest in piano would have vanished altogether, since it would have been a normal thing for everybody to do.

Here’s an example: say, that you were a farmer. It wouldn’t have been the wisest business initiative if every farmer in your country was growing vineyards and you decided to do the same. It would have been disastrous for many, many reasons. —Please, contact me if you want a comprehensive article on that subject, it will only cost you 99p—

So, again, it’s very natural for you, to start feeling disconnected from this piano-thing. It’s ok. Get over it. It’s only natural to start disliking things in your life and develop an interest in something else, as soon as it’s not drugs, alcohol, other self-harm habits, and not liking Blackadder.

Why It’s Okay To Stop Liking The Piano

 

Stopliking the piano is okay because liking it involves some of the following things that people find difficult to accept and follow:

  • You need patience to produce concrete musical results.
  • You won’t necessarily receive immediate satisfaction from your playing (such as the satisfaction you’ll receive playing a video game or enjoying a latte in your local cafeteria.)
  • It’s horribly hard to learn.
  • Unless you wear nice clothes and appear cool in social media, not many people would think you’re important, since piano-playing quality doesn’t depend on looks.

And last, but not least:

  • In order to like piano altogether, you need to practise it in the first place. If you don’t practise the piano, you won’t see results and thus you won’t be able to feed the “liking” machine; the more you practice, the more you see results, the more you satisfy yourself and the more you like this very heavy instrument, the piano. This is a cognitive and muscular automation according to the university of PianoPractising.com.

Should You Practise The Piano After All?

 

Should you practice the piano after all? I mean, no you shouldn’t, actually. Again, if this question popped up in your mind, then perhaps you need to reassess things in your life. This question means that you already dislike the piano-practising processes. Here are some questions we need to ask before we delve ourselves into the piano world:

  • Why do I wonder if I like practising the piano or not?
  • Does practising the piano gives me satisfaction?
  • What I would rather be doing right now than practising the piano?
  • What I really enjoy doing in general that tops the piano?
  • Do I prefer drinking coffee and chatting on a beach rather than sweating on top of the Hammerklavier?

All those questions will inevitably be addressed at one point or another. Let’s hope though, that those questions are not raised when, for example, you have a family to feed, or when you are over forties!!!

Despite what the fashionable teachers say, life has indeed some deadlines, biggest of all, of course, is death, but also some other equally important ones! I mean, we owe to be optimistic and positive until our very last breath and all, but I doubt that I could learn the La Campanella when on my deathbed! Wouldn’t you agree? Or, do you think that perhaps there’s still some time to sort out those trills on the right hand before I kicked the bucket? So, get real quickly.

I hope I closed this article on a very positive note! Well, I still believe that there’s hidden somewhere in this article an aura of optimism, albeit hidden meticulously.

So, go and have a latte and think of all those things above. Maybe, you’ll become a happier person down the line.

©2018 Nikolaos Kokkinis – 25/08/2018

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Many thanks to Valerie Elash for using her image. For more wonderful images, visit here: https://unsplash.com/@elashv

Pianistically… Legato

Pianistically… Legato

Since the beginning of time, (um… yes, why not) pianists had one thought and one thought only; how to play legato. Legato-playing became so accustomed to pianistic vocabulary, that, in the course of time, knowing how to play legato, somehow meant, ultimately, knowing how to play the piano altogether.

We all remember our beloved teachers saying to us, “don’t forget the legato on page 473”, or, “play more legato”. Sometimes we knew what they meant, but often we were completely clueless on how to actually physically do that legato.

So, to cut to the chase, here’s what legato is and the main two types, I consider, exist:

Legato is simply when there is no sound-gap between the notes we play on the piano. Legato can be successfully performed in all registers of the instrument and within all dynamic levels. Legato, has also been used by editors and composers as a means of making a musical phrase sounding “rounded off”, or as a method to create smooth or lyrical melodic lines.

The two types of legato are: The “real legato” and the “assisted legato”. However, both, in the everyday piano performance, are equally valid.

 

Real Legato

What is “real legato”: Real legato is when we are able to physically join notes together without a sound-gap. Look at the example below; arguably, most pianists can play the following passage without having to lift the hand before pressing the next note:

In the passage above, you can create your desired results by pedaling, or you can just simply play the notes without a sound-gap, or by using your own dynamics. Bear in mind, that expression marks themselves or tempo changes cannot change the pragmatic nature of legato (for instance, you can play legato equally in fff passages or pp).

 

Assisted  Legato

The equally, musically-valid, “assisted legato” is used when we need to achieve the legato-effect using assisting methods. In the example below you can see that the left hand cannot physically join the notes, however, with careful use of pedal, it can create a legato illusion; this legato illusion is an unavoidable method since the fingers cannot be stretched enough to reach some of the notes, thus, declaring the use of pedal, legitimate.

Note, that it doesn’t necessarily constitute carelessness or negligence when one chooses to pedal passages rather than using real legato.

Starting a New Piece

Starting a New Piece

We should start a new piece as we do with everything that we want to take seriously in life; methodically and gracefully. A new piece needs to be treated as a newborn child; with care.

When starting a new piece we might want to answer the following questions: What is the reason of learning that particular piece? Is this piece just for our enjoyment? Is it to advance our technique to the next level? Is it for an audition or an exam? Whatever the reason to start a new piece might be, we will have to follow a specific routine in order to learn it properly. This is a journey of our senses, so we mustn’t arrogantly rush in and try to complete a piece quickly; confidently? Yes.

A new piece is a new experience in our life’s “suitcase” of achievements. Learning it properly is important for many reasons. Firstly, it can strengthen our technique and prepare us smoothly to the challenges of our future pieces. It will advance our perception of musical styles, so the next piece could be easier to apprehend.

Moreover, learning a piece properly from the start can have some practical rewards, such as making it easier to pick it up again in the future because it would have stayed in our memory for longer.

Learning a new piece is not only a technical journey but a spiritual too. In life, we learn much more when we don’t rush things. Similarly, if we rush into pressing the keys we won’t be able to learn a piece properly or quicker in that matter. This applies to everybody, no matter how “talented” they think they are.  There is a set of rules that we need to follow, each with our own strengths, to complete a piece. I’m sure that a lot of you are thinking: “just open the score and practice, that’s what I’m going to do after I have finished this article!”. That’s true actually, but we must put things in order first. So here’s how to raise your newborn piece.

We start by trying to sight-read the piece through with hands together.  We don’t have to do that if it’s a really long piece, but it is always a good practice for testing our sight-reading skills. See how the piece feels in yours hands. Most likely it will feel uncomfortable for the most part.However, here’s where your preservation instinct will kick in and you start practicing more methodically.

Next, we should practice hands separately. I know it can be boring to some of us, but remember, many things that take us to the next level in life are boring in their core. Start by practicing the right hand first. This is not a rule, other than we are lucky that in this hand most of our lovely and “tantalizing” composers have placed their pieces’ melodic lines; the tune if you like. The reason why a melodic line is written on the top registers is perhaps because composers generally think it provides a better harmonic balance between the hands. If I was pressed to somehow portray the melodic and harmonic difference in a piece, I would say that the melodic part is the “words” that a composer uses to make his or her musical statement, whereas the harmonic part is the mood that those words are “uttered”.

After we get to know the right hand (or the hand that has the tune), we are being introduced to its coworker– the left. Fortunately, we are lucky enough to have two hands, thus it can be handy when playing the piano! We perceive the left hand in the same fashion as with our right. Left hand is equally- if not more- important to the right as it usually provides us with a foundation for a piece’s melodic structure to rest on. It is the hand that makes the right hand’s “storyline” more noticeable and enriched! Try to think of the right hand as the top layer we see on a cake; but it is the bottom layers that establish the fundamental taste of a cake. Thus, the value of “tasting” the left hand separately is of great significance.

Next, accelerating towards learning the new piece, we apply the metronome effect. See Article: “˜the metronome effect’. A very important rule is that when we try to learn the new piece we should try and play everything correctly in order to avoid developing bad “habits” in a piece.  For instance, use the correct fingering from the start because it will take many more times later to change it than it took to learn it incorrectly. Plus, there is no reason to risk sabotaging the piece’s structure and phrasing by choosing to play it with an awkward technique. The same applies to the dynamics and the articulations. Apply the proposed dynamics and articulations from the very beginning. Also, needless to say, play the right notes from the beginning.

Now, many pianists wonder if they should play using the same technique when practicing at a slower tempo. The answer is yes. Execution of articulations and dynamics should not change when we practice slower but should remain regular. Except of course if we use a passage to improve a particular aspect of our technique. For instance, we might want to practice a fast legato arpeggio slowly and staccato in order to secure our finger-control. Or we might choose to change the rhythmical pattern of a passage and treat it as an exercise material. For instance, we could practice Chopin’s study op. 10 no1 by changing its smooth rhythm. So, instead of playing the consecutive semiquavers as written, we could play the first semiquaver of each count dotted, in order to improve the agility of certain right hand fingers.

Think! And then think some more. Here’s some simple questions you could ask yourself. What is this piece trying to tell us? What is the composer trying to tell us? Is he just writing frantic passages in order to just show off his ability in composing (quite often the case)? Why is he writing so laconically? Is he trying to tell us a story? What is the essence of the piece you are about to start? Why this, why that? Ask as many questions as possible. By answering some of these questions, you will get closer in solving many of the piece’s technical difficulties.

Which Passages to Practise Daily

Which Passages to Practise Daily

Every part of a piece is arguably always subject to constant improvement. However, fine pianists practice the “right” parts of a piece, every time. They know which passages to practice. They do not just practice the same passages over and over again!   (more…)

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