Month: November 2015

The Five Basic Patterns in Piano Technique (Part I)

Reference Book: “On Piano Playing” by Gyorgy Sandor

In his book “On Piano Playing”, Sandor identifies five basic technical patterns in piano playing. And he lists them in the following order:

1. Free Fall
2. Five-Fingers, Scales and Arpeggios
3. Rotation
4. Staccato
5. Thrust

Here I would like to explain no. 1 Free Fall and no. 5 Thrust together, with the following passages selected from my upcoming book “Piano Freedom”. (to be published in 2016).

***

FREE FALL

Free fall is all about gravity.

As I repeatedly say to my students, it only requires us two ounces to hold a key down. So what is all the fuss about hitting a key so hard with a lot of force and continuing to hold it with tightening fingers and arms?

Although free fall uses gravity, it does not mean we do not have to do anything as we play. We still have to play the right keys at the right time, right? That means we have to control the use of gravity accordingly.

According to Sándor, there are three steps in this free fall technique:

Lift, Drop, Land and Rebound.

 

1 . Lift

From the term “lift”, it is obvious that we have to lift something up. But we have to lift with the following order: from upper arm, then the forearm, followed by hands and finally fingers.

There should be some distance for the fingers to drop from to the keyboard. Sándor suggests around ten inches. I don’t think one needs to measure the distance too precisely but approximately a considerable distance from above the keyboard as Sándor suggests would be just fine.

Another thing to notice is that the joints – meaning the shoulder joints, elbows, wrists and finger knuckles – should be “resilient and firm”, plus are “fixed only at the instant the fingers depresses the key”. (42)

2. Drop

Such action is in fact quite passive as the active parts go to the lifting and rebounding. You should feel your whole arm, hand and fingers being completely relaxed right after the drop. Pay special attention to such feeling in your slow practice of the technique as it would be the most difficult part of the whole action to get right.

3. Land and Rebound

This is when the keys are executed and notes sounded.

“This fixation causes the transference of energy into the keys and a slight rebound of the hand and fingers, and notably, of the wrist.” (42)

“A very important detail to watch out for is that the wrist must be in a relatively low position at landing so that it can cushion naturally.” (42-3)

When Do We Use Free Fall?

Gravity works on its own terms, distance is given for acceleration and insufficient speed will be generated in free fall without the addition of a throw. Therefore we can only employ free fall in passages in moderate tempo. Nothing can “drop fast”!

I would say we use free fall for big-sounding chords/octaves with longer duration (note value) in music of slower tempo, as we need time to generate the action, time that we do not have in fast-pacing passages or pieces.

 

THRUST

To quote Sándor,

“we place the fingers right on the surface of the keys and push the keys down with a sudden instantaneous contraction of some of the strongest body and arm muscles (the chest, stomach, back triceps and forearm flexor muscles). This action generates maximum speed in the fingertips.” (108)

“In this thrust, unlike the techniques described before, the fingers are in constant contact with the keys; they touch the keys before, during and after the actual sudden muscle contraction takes place.” (108)

“The fingers stay on the surface of the keys, and the arms are slightly bent.” (109)

Do you understand this technique? Let me give you an example:

Think about playing a ball game, for example: badminton or volleyball. Now there is a ball coming from the other side and it is high in the air, you want to get it really bad. So you have to jump unusually high to get that ball. Now you are standing with your feet grounded into the floor. In order to get to that unbelievable height, you push your feet into the floor so that you can spring from it and catch the ball.

That push is the thrust, your fingers to the keys — except your fingers do not leave the keys after the push.

The push is, like Sándor describes, an “instantaneous” action. To push your fingers into the keys, you must make use of your upper body, especially your chest muscles and arm muscles. Notice if the triceps (the back muscles of your upper arms) are working. When you push your fingers into the keys and execute the notes, you can feel your upper body is also moving back at the same time, like a re-bounce. It is as if you are pushing yourself away something scary or someone you are absolutely angry with so that your whole person is also moving back, bouncing towards the opposite direction from where you have pushed against. You should be able to feel a momentum there.

What Are The Differences Between Free Fall And Thrust?

  1. You use free fall with your fingers dropped down to the keys from high above and push away from the keys after the execution of notes.. With thrust, your fingers always stay on the keys, before and after the keys are struck.
  1. Free fall is all about gravity. You do not have to push. You just have the hand position ready and let your arms fall. The speed of the action is slower. For thrust however, you have to push with great speed within a split second. You do need to create more force.
  1. Free fall can create much louder sound as the velocity of the action is much stronger. Thrust on the other hand is applied for smaller sonority like medium loud or even soft sound.
  1. Free fall is more suitable for easier chords with less notes, e.g. octaves and regular chord patterns. Thrust should be applied for more extended chords with more notes and complicated harmony so as to gain more security in getting the notes right.

 

In this following video, I illustrate briefly what Thrust and Free Fall are respectively.

 

Learn about Clavichord, Harpsichord, Fortepiano and Piano !

Great videos for anyone who wants to learn more about our beautiful piano and its predecessors: clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano! Their sounds are all so charming and delightful each in their unique way!

 

 

 

 

Recommendations on Useful Piano Technical Exercises (Part I)

(中文) Why do we need technical exercises and which exercises I recommend piano players to practice with.

Bach: Toccata in E minor BWV 914

(Also see Chinese version)

Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914 

  • “Toccata”: meaning “to touch” (“toccare” in Italian), a highly virtuosic keyboard genre
  • Bach’s toccatas: combination of German toccata style (more serious counterpoint and complex structure) and Italian toccata style (more showy and flamboyant), with alternating free-style (prelude) and strict structure (fugue) – “stylus phantasticus”
  • Basically two sets of prelude and fugue
  • Seven toccatas in total, this being the shortest of all
  • This toccata is also the only one that starts with a slow section
  • Four sections in this toccata:
  1. A prelude in a rather improvisatory style resembling the composer’s later organ work such as Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  2. A little “fugato”, a double fugue for four voices, lively and rhythmic, 
  3. Adagio: recitative style, combination of Italian aria and Northern German fantasia style, highly improvisatory
  4. A final three-voice fugue with an extended subject, in allegro, idiomatic violin writing, also thought to be originally written for organ, showing tremendous influence from Italian toccata writing (“Naples Manuscript”)

A more “liberal” rendition of the toccata:

 

A lesser known performer yet with another beautiful version of the same toccata:

More background details and analysis in our membership area post.

 

Teresa Wong

Three Key Qualities of a Successful Piano Teacher 

In our Piano Pedagogy Course (Level I), I discuss with student teachers what they think it is to be a “successful piano teacher”. In return they ask me the same question. I have thought about it for a while, and now I think I have the answer.
1. Encourage students to try and do better, and let them understand that failure/mistake/fear is part of process necessary for success/achievement 
Being a successful teacher can mean different things to different people. For me, it means helping students to succeed to reach the goals they want to achieve. There are many tools I create to help them do that along the way. Sometimes those are not the processes and hurdles the students expect to do and go through. But I know – with my expertise and experience as a pianist and teacher – that those processes and hurdles are exactly what the students must conquer to get to where they truly want to be.
2. Point out the good things students achieve and help them replicate the same successful result
I personally believe strongly in positive reinforcement and focus on bringing out the best in my students. I point out what they are doing good and and how they are doing to achieve the same result again. I demonstrate more at the piano not only for students to see how I play it and how it should sound (tone wise, not just “correctness”). I want my students and student teachers to trust their own ability, the ability to go far and beyond what they can do right now.
It is the faith and confidence in oneself that one is able to surpass the old and present self that would take oneself the long way, reaching this unconquered territory once unimaginable to even glimpse.
3. Make a detailed plan of students learning path and share it with students /parents and have them involved in the planning as well 
A successful teacher is also able to show the students they have the ability to achieve those seemingly unreachable goals by doing careful and detailed planning and sharing it with the students. For instance, I always plan ahead with set goals in both short term (weekly and monthly) and long term (quarterly/monthly/par exam). See here (Chinese post) and here (English post) for my sample plans.
With the above three qualities, I believe one already is a successful teacher.
Teresa Wong

 

(中文) 鋼琴文憑考試:「設定目標」 (goal setting)

Sorry, this entry is only available in 中文.

Practice Guide for Piano Beginners (Kids/Adults)

I always get asked about how much time a student should spend on practice. For me, I understand the busy schedule of a kid /adult, and frankly, I do not expect anyone to spend lots of time only at the piano as there are just so many things to do every day! Also, I am all about efficiency and effectiveness now, that I want the maximum result in the shortest time. But that can only be achieved by maximum level of focus, awareness and determination to succeed. So, it is not just about what the teacher can do in a lesson, but also how the student would do in a practice session!

Now here is a rough guideline to those (students AND especially parents) who are new to this whole music instrument learning journey.

For our Piano Beginner Course, I recommend this:

Semester 1 
15 minutes a day, 5 days a week
E.g. Monday to Friday
Instructions: Set a regular time for daily practice 

It is a very important matter that students know they need to have a regular routine for their practice, so setting the same time for daily practice is a great way to go. When sometimes it might not be plausible to log in the same time every day (like 5pm SHARP is completely ridiculous and out of line probably, we are not in a military camp here!), simply set a time for piano practice after a certain daily task is completed would do the trick.

E.g. 5-5.15pm (after homework /before dinner) or 8-8.15pm (before bed)

I never try to press anyone to have a DAILY practice, which really means seven days a week. Certainly I would be glad that any student would do that, but it is not really necessary or strict like that (unless of course you are getting trained to become a professional musician/your child is a music prodigy! But then you/your child would just do it out of the love and passion for music without anyone urging you/him/her to do so already). So here is a sample practice schedule:

Sample practice schedule-
M T W T F
5-5.15pm
T W T F        S 

5-5.15pm      10-10.15am

Students should go through all elements in each practice session, and that includes songs, scales, and sometimes writing/reading (as in our piano beginner coursebook). We have a very clear guidelines in our student book on what and how much time to spend on each element, so both student /and parent can follow the guidelines and practice accordingly to get maximum results.

I hope this is clear enough for anyone who has just started with us (or with someone else) on their piano journey, and even to the teachers who feel lost when telling their students to plan their practice routines. I am always glad to see anyone starting to play the piano NOW, from 4 to 104!

Teresa Wong

*This is a minimum requirement of daily practice routine. Students are encouraged to either do two 15-minute sessions (morning and evening) or one longer sessions of 20-30 minutes if keen to learn and progress faster, and have more fun at the piano!

My First Christmas Keyboard Book

Let’s enjoy Christmas by learning to some nice Christmas music! Read what I have found recently in the bookstore… great for children to play and have a taste of music in this festive season of love and celebration!

Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor op. posth.

(中文) Teresa Wong plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor op. posth.
黃穎妍彈奏蕭邦的升C小調夜曲Op. posth.

Three Crucial Steps to Prepare for a Successful Viva Voce Exam

Prior to the “big day” aka diploma exam day, I ask my students to do three steps in terms of viva voce preparation for me (assuming they have already done all other steps I have given them in the course of diploma exam preparation). And I would like to share with you these three important steps that would give any candidates feel much more prepared and confident to perform well in the coming exam.

The three steps to prepare for a successful viva voce session are:

  1. Think
  2. Write
  3. Speak 

 

  1. Think

THINK about what and how you are going to answer the questions the examiners pose during the exam. I always give my students a bunch of potential questions the examiners will ask. It is very important to prepare ahead. Don’t just think, “oh, I will know how to answer them during the exam.” No way! Even you have the information at hand/in your head, it is crucial that you think about how to put the information together in a clear, simple presentable speech. And that leads to the second step..

2. Write

WRITE. THEM. DOWN. Seriously. This is the next step you must do especially when you worry a lot about how to say what you need to say in the real exam. I hear a lot of this or a variation of this, “oh, I will know how to answer them because I have the information in my head.” Really? I don’t think so. If you cannot write them down, you cannot answer them. It doesn’t have to be written in full paragraph/sentences (although it certainly helps), but at least in point form, using clear, simple sentence structure. And for those who are not native speakers: this is NOT an oral English exam, so don’t worry too much about the grammatical mistakes or trying to sound like a native speaker or Shakespeare! – actually they might not even understand you if you speak like the latter anyway. The easiest way is to speak clearly and slowly in simple sentence (just use present tense in all circumstances to make it easier for yourself when in doubt), so that you can present your ideas through effectively and get points for that! I do advise those who worry about their oral English ability to write out everything in full sentences first, not to memorize them, but to…

3. Speak

SAY IT OUT LOUD! It is very important for anyone to not only practice their speaking, but also practice talking about music. I have met so many musicians/candidates who might know a lot about music yet fail to deliver their ideas through speech. It is great you can perform well for the recital part, but you do also need to speak well in your viva voce too! Therefore, I always advise my students to TALK TO ME in our lessons, especially in the last few sessions prior to the exam. I ask them questions, and they give me answers in terms of the general repertoire, background of pieces, form and analysis, composer information, etc etc. I also check their programme notes and pose some questions based on what they wrote (and help with some editing- they do have to write their own notes first!). I encourage students to practice talking out loud at home for the viva voce practice and come back with the answers so I can help correct the content as well as sentence structure. That way students feel much more prepared and confident going to the real exam session.

 

I welcome any questions on the viva voce/programme notes/piano diploma exams in general.

A guided video to how to revise for your viva voce exam part:

Teresa Wong

dipABRSM (Piano Performance): Viva Voce Preparation Notes

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(中文) 鋼琴初學課程簡介 (Piano Beginner Course)

Sorry, this entry is only available in 中文.