Notes & News

Pedal studies that really work

Yesterday the Maryland State music teachers sent me the gift of 4 terrific students to work with in a master class. The subject of pedaling came up several times. This is one of those topics that most of us devote too little time to in the lesson. It can be tedious and time-consuming; and it always seems like there’s something more interesting to talk about.

I found the answer to this problem in an old publication (copyright 1906!). It’s First Pedal Studies, by Jessie L. Gaynor, it’s a gem, and it’s still in print.

Below you’ll see part of the first and last pages of the book. Under each staff there is a rhythm line for the pedal. It’s not for beginners, as you can see; second year is a good time to introduce it. I go through the book slowly: I assign one of the 22 studies each week. Very soon they become not only useful pedagogically but satisfying musically.

Once the routine is familiar to a student, she learns it on her own. If I see if the level is getting to high for that, I simply discontinue assignments and pick them up when appropriate.

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Brian Le in France


September 27, 2018: Brian’s guest performance in Lyon, France. Next stop: Japan! where he competes in the prestigious Hamamatsu International Piano Competition. Remember Risa Takamura? She’s on her way to England to school (on scholarship!), but her mother, Kei, remains in Tokyo and plans be in Brian’s audience. Studio connections wrap around the world.

How to Decode a Musical Score

We can learn a lot about a piece without even playing a single note of it. A musical score may look like it’s full of secrets, but we can uncover the secrets if we look carefully and think about what we see.

The composer always gives us hints:

  • The title
  • Tempo marks
  • Descriptive words in the music, such as leggiero, marcato or con fuoco.
  • Overall dynamics. Where is the loudest part, the softest part? Is the piece mostly loud, mostly soft, or constantly changing?

You can ask yourself…

Rhythm questions

  • Which rhythm patterns does the composer use more than twice?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that only happens once?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that looks confusing? Write in the count. Start with the simplest part of the measure—the first count, for example, or any long note. Write in the counts for that part; once you’ve done this, you can probably figure out where the remaining counts go.

Melody questions

  • Which hand plays the melody? If there is more than one line, or voice, played by one hand, which voice is more important?
  • Where else can you find this melody in the piece? How many times?
  • Does the melody move mostly by skips or by steps?
  • Do you see a scale, chord or arpeggio that you recognize?
  • Is there any melody that happens only once?
  • Do both hands ever play the same thing?
  • What’s the highest melody note in the piece? The lowest?

Accompaniment questions

  • What is the first note in each measure? Look at the downbeats of four measures in a row. Do you see a pattern?
  • What interval is used most often? Least often?
  • Do you recognize any chords?
  • Does the accompaniment ever look like a melody?

Phrase questions

  • How many measures does each phrase contain?
  • What is the highest melody note in the phrase? The lowest?

Watch Nancy O’Neill Breth demonstrate decoding a musical score.

Don’t Eat Cookies While You Practice

After years of teaching, it dawned on me that there must be a more effective, more pleasurable way to teach students how to practice than the highly repetitive and often ignored sermons I found myself delivering week after week.

I asked my students, What tips would you give to friends who want to improve their practicing? Some offered wry suggestions like “Don’t eat cookies when you practice or your Mom will yell at you,” but others came up with shrewd advice like “Pay as much attention to rests as you do to notes.”

Over time, I compiled dozens of simple, effective practice tips—some from my students, some passed down by my teachers (and their teachers), some shared by colleagues. I added these to my own inventions and published them as practice guides for students, parents and anyone seeking interesting practice strategies.

The Guide to Effective Practicing is a toolbox. I give every student a guide and little by little they learn what practice tip fixes which problem. I say, #21 will take the bumps out of bar 43, or try #7 to get better balance in the B theme. Later, at home, the student can look up #21 and #7 in his practice guide and follow through.

Eventually students learn to make their own practice prescriptions, matching one or several practice tips to their specific needs. So not only does the practice guide save my breath and our lesson time, it teaches smart practice habits, analysis and problem solving. I see these young people moving toward a level of musical independence that will make their lessons with me merely the first stage in a lifetime of engagement with the piano.

Learn More about the Practice Guides

How to Find the Right Fingering

  1. One hand at a time, play a phrase, or part of a phrase, very slowly. Using the printed finger numbers as guidelines, fill in the gaps with the implied fingering. Use your knowledge of scales and arpeggios to fill in the rest. Try it at the projected final tempo. If the fingering is still comfortable, proceed to step 2.
  2. Add the notes directly before and after the part you’ve just fingered.  Does your fingering fit with them?  If not, make the necessary changes. If so, go to step 3.
  3. Write the fingering in the music: write all numbers if the passage is complicated. Otherwise, write in guide numbers. In the scale and arpeggio passages, for example, the numbers that will help you most are 4, 3 and 1.

General principles to keep in mind

  • Establish a “permanent” fingering early on. Use it every time you play the passage and don’t change it unless you’re sure it doesn’t work.
  • If a passage is difficult to finger, find the spot that can only be done with one possible fingering, and work backward or forward from that spot.
  • Avoid using weak combinations, like 4-5, at important points.
  • When fingering repetitive patterns or sequences, try using the same fingering for each pattern. If keyboard geography makes any one pattern too awkward, change its fingering to fit, but don’t be afraid of using 1 or 5 on black keys.
  • If the printed fingering doesn’t work it can be changed. Have a good reason for changing it, though, and write your fingering in the music.
  • If you mis-finger something during practice, stop and write the fingering in the music immediately. If it’s already written in, circle or highlight it and drill immediately.
  • If mistakes keep occurring in a passage, search for a new “permanent” fingering.