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Relative Values of Notes
Playing at an incorrect speed is not one of the most frequent criticisms seen on exam marking papers – a far more common concern is the PULSE. Unlike the tempo of the piece, which can vary, the pulse – or beat – of the music must be constant. To obtain this, pupils need to ensure that the relative values of the notes are always correct: for example, semiquavers must be twice as fast as quavers, not just ‘a little bit faster’. The pulse should also be unaffected by ornaments: these must never delay the pianist from reaching his next beat on time. Again, problems with pulse can sometimes be solved by using a metronome or playing along with the CD.
Some pulse problems are caused by the failure to read ahead. This can often be done by making good use of the ‘easy’ (in some cases repeated) notes to plan for whatever’s coming next. Unfortunately, many pupils see easy or repeated notes as an opportunity to play quickly.
In some cases, there may be a distance between successive notes and a pupil has to move his hand. While playing the previous bar, he must mentally prepare himself for what lies ahead so his hand is ready to make the leap. It’s often worth taking a small section and going over and over it to make sure a difficult note is reached on time.
DYANMICS present many challenges – even though it may seem a relatively easy concept to play either ‘loudly’ or ‘softly’. Mistakes at the early grades include a tendency to slow down on the ‘piano’ sections and speed up for ‘forte’. Once the pupil is made aware of this, it’s relatively easy to correct.
Play it Yourself
A far more difficult challenge is teaching a pupil to ‘feel’ the dynamics and GRADATIONS OF TONE himself – to know when he’s banging rather than playing ‘forte’ or to train him to realise a what point a crescendo should peak before a diminuendo begins. Sometimes the best way to convey this is to play the piece yourself – perhaps with slightly over-emphasised dynamics.
PEDALLING is quite a difficult skill to teach and, I must confess, I haven’t fully mastered it myself. As a general rule, I initially recommend putting the (right, sustaining) pedal down at the beginning of a bar, then releasing it and depressing it again at the beginning of the next bar. Then, when the pupil becomes more used to this idea, he should be encouraged to change the pedal where the harmony changes (or, for younger pupils it may be simpler to say: “change it on the left hand notes”).
Of course, skilful pedalling is far more complicated than this and eventually learners need to be shown that – although usually they need to fully ‘clear’ the pedal, there are times when it can be brought half-up before being depressed again to help the flow of the music. Some pupils pedal naturally, but for those who don’t I worn that over-pedalling is a criticism commonly raised by examiners.
Some pieces end with a long tied note – in one hand or both – and it may be tempting for the pianist to sustain this with the pedal and take his hands off the keys. However, I would advise keeping the hands on the piano as well: in a performance, the visual impression has a role to play and a pianist who takes his hands off too early may appear less connected with the music.
The left (‘una corda’) pedal, which is often know as the ‘soft pedal’ is less frequently used but learners need to be aware of the written directions ‘una corda’ when the pedal should be depressed and ‘tre corde’ when it should be released. Occasionally I may also recommend using this pedal in conjunction with the sustaining one in the quieter passages.
An ‘Extra’ Pedal
It is also important that pupils are aware of the existence of the third (‘sostenuto’) pedal on some pianos – otherwise those who practise on an instrument with just two may be confused when confronted with an ‘extra’ pedal in the exam. I have no experience of using the sostenuto pedal as my piano doesn’t have one but I know that its purpose is to sustain only those notes that are being held down as the pedal is depressed.
When a pupil says about a piece: “It keeps going wrong” or “It’s all gone wrong” it’s almost as if he thinks the music (or some kind of external force) has control. In fact, it’s often just a simple case of him misplacing one finger, which causes a knock-on effect on the following notes. The challenge is trying to persuade the pupil to slow the piece down, take it all apart and be aware of exactly what’s going on. He should be able to answer the question: “Where did it go wrong?” by pointing to an exact note or series of notes and: “What exactly went wrong?” by realising, for example, which note was misplaced, which finger misused or which rhythm misplayed.
(Especially) if he’s been learning it for a long time and if he’s been through a stage where it didn’t ‘all go wrong’ – he’ll be very reluctant to do anything other than start again at the beginning (usually at speed) and expect the problem to ‘sort itself out’. Sometimes, of course, a piece does appear to miraculously ‘sort itself out’ but it’s too risky to ignore the fact that sometimes something is going wrong and the pupil needs to be able to pinpoint exactly where this is and know how to correct it.
Once I have persuaded my pupil to do this (no mean feat!), I insist that he plays a particular section (often just one bar) several times. Then, he must start with the bar before it, yet still play the ‘dodgy’ bar correctly. Then start a few bars before, and so on. This method (which is like ‘building blocks’) is far more successful than merely correcting the troublesome bar and then starting from the beginning. (I have my own adulthood piano teacher to thank for passing on the ‘building blocks’ method).
‘Performance Practice’ or ‘Practice Practice’
As the exam date approaches, I focus less on the pieces themselves and more on the way a pupil practises. It’s vital that he has some experience of playing ‘as if in an exam’. So I recommend that before he starts playing a piece at home he should decide whether it’s a ‘practice practice’ (i.e. one where he must go back over mistakes and work hard to correct them by using the ‘building blocks’ method I’ve described) or a ‘performance practice’ – to reflect what he would do in an exam (in which case he must not go back over mistakes – just keep going, to give the impression of a well-rehearsed piece of music, but make a mental note of where mistakes occur and tackle these sections methodically once he’s finished playing).
I also encourage him to be his own ‘judge’, so once a piece has been played through in the lesson, I might ask him to give it marks out of 10 and tell me which things could be improved. I will then give my own assessment. I think it’s vital that a learner is able to consider his own work objectively, as far more of his piano-playing will (hopefully!) be done outside the lesson than within it.
Of course the one thing you can’t really teach, as it has to come from the pianist himself, is a ‘feel’ for the music. All you can do is encourage him to listen carefully to what he is playing and try to relax and enjoy it. This is easier said than done in an exam situation but generally, if a pianist has any natural musicality, he will manage to convey his sense of understanding and appreciation of what he is playing.