In her latest article for Pianist, Melanie Spanswick offers up some cracking advice.
As a teacher, I’m often asked how to instantaneously improve a performance. This is a perpetual dilemma when adjudicating at competitions and festivals. During the adjudication (before announcing the winners), I strive to help pianists in their quest for improvement, offering a few tips and practice ideas. The following suggestions have been born as a direct result of hearing numerous performances and I hope they are useful.
It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there’s often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining (or right) pedal. Why work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide under a cloud of pedal? For practice purposes, aim to play your piece sans pedal (from beginning to end).
Once confident, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out, so you can focus on the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passagework and chordal passages.
The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), sometimes manifests itself in a general lack of smooth or legato playing. It’s easy to forget to join notes effectively, especially when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, students can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset (depending on the piece; generally Baroque music will require a non-legato touch), adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested.
If you have already studied and learned a piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ or legato fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
Starting and ending in the same tempo can prove problematic, and this ties in with the important matter of providing adequate thinking time before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to mentally prepare; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will apportion time to collect thoughts and allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, and aim to count two bars before playing, almost as an introduction.
Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a carefully chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).
Too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating is not to move at all. Rigidity (which can lead to tension) can cause a harsh sound and, sometimes, inaccuracies. In order to play in a loose, supple manner, it’s important to develop flexibility by cultivating a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the keyboard.
Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists relaxed and use arms in a way so that they encourage hands to move freely. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
Close to the keys
Aim to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms should ideally be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action.
Implementing just a couple of these suggestions will instantly improve and lift your piano playing, creating a more assured performance.