You all know I will be away for the next two weeks. So, please, work hard on your own.
During this period, revise a few things as I have been telling you these couple weeks:
Focus on what you are doing, how you are doing, what the problem is, and how to make it better and solve it without any judgmental thinking.
Focus on the music, the problem and solution, rather than yourselves and your own feelings. Practice non-judgmental observation and thoughts.
Do not criticize yourself and give yourself negative feedback and feeling when you cannot get through a spot (“why do I always mess up here…I am so bad at this…I can never get better…”). Instead, feel and think neutral, focus on the problem. “What did I do wrong? Was it my finger stand? Were my upper arms not engaged? Did I not understand that voice leading or the chord progression?” Do not feel anything negative and blame yourself for not getting it, and even when you get the solution (which is a huge breakthrough), you are not done yet. That is the beginning of your problem solving process. You have to drill it until it becomes an autopilot motion to you.
Therefore, the process is:
1. Identify the problem
-“what went wrong”
2. Find the solution
-“how do make it better”
3. Drill that solution
-until you do not have to think about how to do it at all, that it simply becomes natural to you
Usually, getting to step 1 is easy. If you get to step 2 quickly, I congratulate you. It’s not easy at all to find that perfect solution to your problem. So this is the beginning of your successful attempt to get that perfect playing. The most difficult part would then be getting to the autopilot mode, that you can do it instantly and naturally without even thinking about it. This takes a lot of time, effort, patience and perseverance. You have to keep trying, work continuously. It might take 100 times or 10000 times, but if you stop right at 99th or 9999th times, then you would not get it.
Therefore, do not give up when there is a little setback along the way, and keep trying with faith.
*Main point: 3 steps: identify the problem, find the solution, drill that solution.
2. Body awareness: bodily involvement, shoulder sockets and upper arms
I always stress the importance of activating your upper arms to your playing. And these couple weeks I have been reminding you specifically about the involvement of your shoulder sockets. Feel your shoulder joints, the circular movement of them when you bring awareness to your upper arms and engage them to move your whole arms to transfer the weight/energy down all the way under your fingertips (that one focused ballpoint tip) and bring your fingers into action.
*Main point: feel your upper arms that you are engaging them at all times during your playing, until it has become an autopilot motion to you.
3. Wrist motion
Remember what I told you about the function of the wrists?
1. Stop the sound after the attack
2. Separate a note / slur (e.g. two-note slur) from the next one
3. Emphasize a note /give an abrupt accent on a note
Therefore, if you want to maintain a long legato smooth phrase, do not use your wrists. The motion stops the sound of a note, the connection to the next note and the flow of the line/music.
Certainly there are times that we use the wrists (as in the occasions above). But these couple weeks, try not using the wrists so much and instead, focus on using the whole arms with attention on your upper arms.
*Main point: focus on your upper arm movement and keep your wrists parallel at most times, maintaining one straight line from your wrist to your elbow. When you have to use the wrists, think bringing them UP instead of moving them down.
Breathe deeply. Breathe in and out continuously and smoothly. Breathe like you are doing sports. Breathe more and deeper especially when you are nervous and the music grows more dramatic.
*Main point: keep practicing your breathing.
Okay, that’s the time I have before I board for my flight. See you all again soon. Hopefully I see and hear something new in your playing when I get back.
How To Do Better In Your Sight-Reading Tests (Part II)
You cannot improve your sight-reading skills instantly. But with a more efficient way of reading, and more attention to details, you can sharpen your skills in a relatively short period of time.
One thing about sight-reading that most players neglect is the speed of analyzing the details. YOU MUST TRAIN YOURSELF TO READ FASTER AND TO PROCESS DETAILS IN A VERY SHORT AND LIMITED TIME FRAME. Although the time limit given in any of the graded ABRSM exams (usually 30 seconds in graded exams, up to 5 minutes in the diploma levels) is a of very short time and eventually you do want to train yourself to read quickly in the time given, this is NOT the time limit you want to give yourself when you start training your sight-reading ability.
You must give yourself more time to read the music at the beginning. Say 3 (for lower grades 1-5) to 5 minutes (for upper grades 6-8). Or even a few minutes more. The main point is to try to READ EVERYTHING. It is important to READ FROM THE TOP.
Start with the TITLE (for grades 6-8). The title indicates the character and style of the piece, sometimes even the tempo (for example if it says march, then you would have a general idea of how a march is like).
Then the TEMPO indication. There is an italian term right on top of the beginning of the song and many ignore it. You have to know what the term means and it indicates the general tempo as well. Get a rough idea of how fast/slow the tempo would be.
Next is the CLEFS. Do not take it for granted that they must be treble and bass clefs. Sometimes the song might start with two treble clefs, or more uncommonly but possibly, two bass clefs. So make sure you check the clefs before you start.
Now, it comes to the KEY SIGNATURE. Read how many sharps or flats there, and try to determine what key the piece is in. Think about the major AND relative minor keys of the key signature. Then, check the beginning and the ending of the piece, see what chords or bass notes it starts and finishes at. For example, if the key signature indicates it’s an A major or F# minor, check to see if the piece starts with an A major or a F# minor chord or bass note, and more importantly, if it ENDS with an A major or a F# minor chord or bass note. Whichever chord it ends on must be the tonic of the key (at least for all the graded levels I am mentioning right now). I usually would ask my students to play the scale of that key the music is in in order to get a sense (and sound) of how the key is like.
Next thing is the TIME SIGNATURE. It is of utmost importance that you read the time signature very carefully. It would be easier if it’s in simple time, like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. Pay extra attention to the bottom number. What is the TIME VALUE OF ONE BEAT? The more common ones after 4 would be 8 (quaver/8th note), or 2 (minim/half note) (of course there are others like 16, or even 32 which is probably not found in graded levels). So be careful of that information there. If it is in a compound time like 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, make sure you know they are the compound 2, 3 and 4, and one beat is a dotted crotchet/quarter, or 3 quavers/8ths. Sometimes for the intermediate levels there are irregular times such as 5/8 or 7/8. Then you have to subdivide them into 2+3/8 or 3+2/8 (for 5/8), or 4+3/8, 3+4/8, 2+2+3/8 or 3+2+2/8 (for 7/8), depending on the groupings of the notes.
Next, determine the PULSE. HOW FAST IS ONE BEAT? It is very important that you establish a very clear pulse right from the start. Try to get the regular pulse from the first two measures of the music. At the beginning of this training, count the beat out loud for two measures. Establish that pulse as is without distractions of the pitch and rhythm is the best way to get a steady pulse right. Then find that same established pulse with the pitch and rhythm elements. Eventually, you would be able to get the pulse immediately in the music. I just cannot emphasize more how important establishing the pulse right from the start is.
(To be continued…)
Today I woke up, literally, at the break of dawn. And then, I made a decision.
A bold decision I had avoided making for the longest time.
I thought it would be tough. Or so I thought.
I thought it was supposed to be gradual. But it was not.
I thought there were many options to this problem. Yet there were not.
I gave myself too many excuses, believing the problem look bigger than it was, making it difficult for myself to choose a solution. A solution that looked so simple to be true and that I shied away from choosing it, only knowing it all along at the back of my head that it was the only solution to this problem. A problem that I finally dissected carefully, slice by slice and, looked closely (however cruel that might be to my own ego) in detail.
But I knew, too many choices meant no choices, unless I made one.
Then I acted upon my courage and made that choice.
And once I decided to choose, it was easy. I felt that cloud in my head was gone. I felt powerful with that decision making.
It does not mean that the problem is instantly solved and gone (pff! in the air). Nothing like that at all. I just simply know what to do now. I take on this direction with a clear thought, understanding that I am on the right track.
And frankly, there is usually only one real solution to that one problem.
It’s just like the way I always tell you, “choose to think positive about your playing, believe in your ability to progress, and this will be the start of your real playing”. I believe in this motto a hundred percent. Just choose this positive thought, and go with this direction. Nothing wishy-washy about it. It is just this black and white.
Don’t say, “oh, but it’s too difficult. I am not good at it.” Or, “how can it be so simple? Just think positive and everything changes?” Well, if it is that simple, why not do it? And if it is not that simple, why not try harder to make that decision and see what happens?
The truth is, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. Everything starts with your mind. Your mind controls the way you think, the way you play, the way you move your bodies, your arms, your wrists, your fingers, your feet.
So tell me again, is it simple or not now?
Once you have that clear thought, that focus, on HOW TO PLAY BETTER, instead of how not to make mistake, everything turns around. Everything is not the same anymore. In fact, everything starts to fall into place.
You start to see things more clearly, how to move your hands, how to align your fingers with the keys, how to activate your arms and bodies, how to interpret the music. Suddenly, you open up a brand new world of music appreciation and understanding, not to mention a brand new way of piano playing.
I have told you all about how I practiced that five-finger exercise back at my graduate school days. Every Day. When I should only be working on the big pieces.
Yet I knew, I had to fix my techniques. So I pressed on, working on it every day, with that wrist weight, five minutes a day. Then ten minutes, fifteen minutes. Then I worked on those big pieces with that weight as well. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
I did not know how long that would take. But I kept going, believing that I would get there, step by step, however tiny each step that might be. Then, one day, I knew, I got it.
That feeling of getting it was, marvelous. And that technique remained with me still.
But what if I didn’t do it? Thinking it was a waste of time?
Then I would never get it. It was as simple as that.
Another thing is, stop blaming others or the apparent restrictions for your own problems. “Oh, my hands are too small, my fingers/my legs too short, I am too thin/tiny that I cannot put the weight under my fingers/into the keys…. I’ve learnt bad techniques for the past ten years! How can I fix them??… I just read very slowly, my sight reading is so bad…I had bad teachers who didn’t teach me anything/taught me in many wrong ways… I just don’t know how to practice… I just don’t have time to practice… it’s just too difficult…” I wonder, how do those who cannot see play so well? How do those who have less fingers and with less physical ability play so fine? Should they be the ones to complain first??..
Then, please. Stop playing. Because you are not ready to put effort into this. You just don’t have the heart and soul for this. And you have only yourself to blame. Because you know what? YOU are your own obstacle. YOU are the one who limit yourself from improving. YOU are the problem and the solution. No one, not even me, can help you if YOU do not want to try harder and play better.
But you said, “no, I DO want to play better”. Now, think twice and think harder, and ask yourself this, “DO I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BETTER? HAVE I DONE ENOUGH TO THINK AND PLAY BETTER?”
I believe you have the answer now.
So choose to be positive. Choose to think you can improve and play better. Every single day. When you wake up, look into that mirror, and tell yourself, “I am great. I can play better today. Because I choose to.”
Try it. It is a very powerful thing. (Or at least it’s funny enough to do so)
In fact, YOU can be a very powerful person. Only you haven’t unleashed your superpower yet.
Sometimes things do get tough, but always remember, you have chosen the right path. Just stick with it. And you shall see the light. Hopefully soon.
And one day, just one day, I shall see that right answer for me at the end of that road.
P.S. I know you all want to know, what my problem was. I let you know when I get my answer :)
My students have been working on this sonata.
Many have played this but I frankly do not enjoy the sonata as a whole that much and I am not a big fan of Haydn’s piano sonatas.
But this movement, is simply, gorgeous. No words.
Teresa Wong plays Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C, Hob.XVI/50 second movement, “Adagio” :