Sunday, May 6, 2012

Using Ecamm Call Recorder for Skype Lessons

I had always wanted to participate in a piano master class but I never had the guts to volunteer for one. Fortunately, my first lesson with my new teacher was like a mini-master class. I was so impressed by our first Skype encounter that I wished I had recorded it for future review.

My teacher had to call off our lesson twice because he was feeling a bit under the weather. His downtime provided me the opportunity to scour for a plugin that would work for my Skype for Mac. The most recommended one seems to be Ecamm Call Recorder. There is a demo version but according to the free downloaders, it has an ugly water mark rendering it useless for posterity's sake. I settled for the paid version for only $20 (a hair cut or facial could be more expensive).

I set the Call Recorder to start recording right away when I take any video call, everything else on default settings. My teacher rang at the appointed time and as soon as I took the video call, I immediately noticed that the quality became quite horrible. The video was pixelated and then completely froze a few seconds. The audio was choppy then completely died.

The strange thing is that my teacher could see and hear me just fine so it was not a connection problem. I tried everything--stopping the recording, restarting Skype, restarting the laptop. Nothing worked. It got so bad that my teacher and I decided to reschedule the lesson while I figure out a way to solve it.

After uninstalling the Call Recorder, I reinstalled it back on a hunch. I tinkered with the settings, tested it by Skyping with my friend for one hour, and it worked! No lag, no video/audio deterioration.

I think the real trick was when I disabled any kind of compression for the video and audio. Even at maximum resolution (640 x 480) and maximum frame rate, everything worked fine. In fact, I would recommend setting at that resolution and frame rate to get the best possible quality.

The drawback is that the recording (.mov file) is rather big, about 70 Mb/min. Our lesson lasted for 45 minutes, yielding a file of 3.2 GB. This would nicely fit in one DVD and in today's laptops and PCs, this is already a trivial matter.

To save space or when uploading, Call Recorder comes with a number of free tools for re-encoding, compressing, and the like. I tried the one that supposedly shrinks the file fit for uploading to YouTube. It did reduce it to as much as 80% but the video and audio became out of sync in certain places. I decided to use Handbrake and MPEG Streamclip.

Good luck with your lessons!


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Piano Lessons via Skype

Traditional Lessons
In the past four years, my piano skills and overall musicality have improved dramatically by simply hanging out with some concert pianists whom I have the fortune of befriending. I never had regular formal lessons with any of them but they were kind enough to demonstrate sporadically to me some of their secrets of the trade. They also opened the doors for me to perform in a number of reputable venues, for which I will be forever thankful.

However, after mainly going solo on my piano education, I have decided to get myself a teacher. I only have two requirements: 1) he/she must be a concert pianist 2) he/she must be comfortable instructing amateur pianists (such as myself).

These sorts of performer-pedagogues are mostly found in conservatories and music colleges but will only take in students enrolled in those schools. Unfortunately, I am now based in a small town without any advanced music school and all piano teachers (I personally know most of them) are adept in teaching small kids and beginners but not somebody at my level.

The Quest for a Teacher

While randomly watching tutorial videos on Youtube, I stumbled upon a pianist who had both performance and instructional videos. First, I watched, listened, and evaluated intently what the pianist had to say on matter of practice and technique. Is he for real or just bluffing his way with the unsuspecting viewers (like many Youtube tutorial videos out there)?

I know and already do many of his tips but there were some matters that were completely alien to me. His willingness to share them in public is admirable (some performers tend to hold back on their "secrets"). For this, he passed my first test.

Second, I watched, listened, and evaluated closely how the pianist interpreted some pieces. Do I like his musical aesthetic? Is his playing nuanced and balanced? It is not enough for me that my would-be teacher play cleanly. He must be able to connect with me artistically. Nothing turns me more off than a musical mechanicus and somebody who just plays fast and loud.

I really like his interpretations of Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart. His playing was more on the nuanced side rather the bombastic type. There were some places in his playing where I feel he could be more passionate and "big" but it is really a matter of taste. I know he could do it but perhaps he chose not to.

Online Lesson Trial

So, I contacted him to ask him about lessons. I have heard of online private lessons through video conferencing such as Skype but I was skeptical. How can one learn the piano from somebody half the world away? More than 15 email exchanges later, including an MP3 I sent as an audition, we finally had our first session last night.

A Typical Online Lesson Setup
I am happy to report that my doubts about online private lessons have dissolved.

It is essentially the same as traditional piano lessons. Through videoconferencing (e.g., Skype), I get to interact with my teacher as if he were in the same room. Each of us has a piano. I play on my own piano, which I am used to, and he instructs me using his piano.

In most traditional piano lessons, there is only one piano which the student uses while the teacher watches on the side like a hawk. The teacher would only have access to a portion of the piano to play along. In online private lessons, it is like combining the teacher's studio and the student's home in one, a virtual master class so to speak.

The obvious limitation of this setup is that teacher cannot make "physical" interventions, especially on matters of technique. In online piano lessons, the teacher demonstrates to the best of his ability how to execute a particular technique. In the traditional setting, the teacher sometimes holds the student's hand, wrist, arm, or wherever to demonstrate or reinforce the concept. However, in my case, I am an adult and I am not at all comfortable being held or touched by a stranger. Thus, this non-physical contact actually suits me quite fine.

Another limitation is on the technology itself. More often than not, the built-in laptop mic or off-the-shelf web mic is meant for capturing and streaming voice, hardly adequate for capturing the range of pitches and dynamics of the piano. A lot of nuance could be lost and one may have to play louder to be heard better at the other end. Thus, it may be tricky to execute pianissimos and light touches.

Supposedly Improves Sound Quality
However, this is easily overcome by using a professional condenser mic. My teacher recommends the Yeti USB mic from Blue. I have yet to receive my order so I cannot really say much about it. I did attach a Shure microphone to my laptop and my teacher did not complain thus far.

One thing that my teacher and I are still getting used to is the time difference, a huge 14 hours. By the time he is about to start his day, I will have been ending it and vice versa. Another thing that I'm still trying to get a grip of is the price of the lesson. I'm in a country wherein typical piano lessons start from as little as $5/hour to high end ones (such as in a conservatory extension program) at $30/hour.

Since my teacher is based in the US, his fees are double that. But the alternative would be to go to the US to study with him, a very expensive proposition. A round-trip ticket to his city, not even counting living expenses, would be enough to pay for one year's online lessons.

The Verdict

The bottom line is online private lessons can be as effective as traditional piano lessons. I do not recommend it for total beginners, especially young children. At that level, physical contact is necessary to reinforce some basic technique and musical principles. When the student reaches the late intermediate or early advanced level, then he/she may consider online lessons.

The success of piano lessons, be it traditional or online, largely depends on two factors: the interest and determination of the student and the competence and knowledge of the pianist-teacher. A disinterested student may just be wasting his time and money while an inadequate teacher may just be blindly leading the student to irreparable technical and artistic damage.

I am still astounded by how internet technology has changed the world. Online music lessons was in the realm of science fiction in my teens (many moons ago). Perhaps within this lifetime, saying "beam me to Carnegie hall" is not a ridiculous proposition.

Happy learning!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Top 40 Schaum Piano Course Pieces

My piano teacher was probably the first one to introduce the Piano Course Series by John W. Schaum in our city almost 30 years ago. Before then, pupils mostly progressed through either the Michael Aaron or John Thompson books. She has been producing fairly competent piano players with these method books over the decades, which is probably the strongest argument for their usefulness.

I personally found the Schaum series slightly easier to follow than the Aaron and Thompson books. What attracted me the most were the catchy arrangements of popular classical tunes. Since most of the teaching pieces fit in just two-thirds of a page, it gave me the impression that I was progressing rather quickly. In one minute, I could play three to four pieces!

On the other hand, the Schaum series divides each grade prior to Grade 3 into two parts. Thus, one goes through Grade 1, 1 1/2, 2 1/2, half-steps as it were, with specific colors for each grade (the "Red Book", "Blue Book", etc.). While this gradual approach in piano pedagogy has its merits, I feel that there were a lot of extraneous pieces that were neither appealing, offered new difficulty, nor worth taking the trouble. Why there are no half steps for the higher grades (3-6) is a little strange to me--all the more reason to progress slowly in the upper grades in my opinion.

Another thing I have observed about the series is that it very much emphasizes the skill of sight reading. In the beginning of each book, there are tips, drills, and reminders about the importance of sight reading. I suppose Mr. Schaum himself may have been an excellent sight reader and may have wanted to impart his secrets to the young pianist. However, I do feel that undue emphasis is given to this skill more than technique and artistic development.

Edit: I've decided to expand the list to "Top 40" and replaced some of the pieces based on familiarity to today's listeners. I've also included the composer from whom these pieces were adapted. As you may notice, I'm partial to popular classical music from opera, symphony, and solo works.

I have picked my Top 40 pieces from the Schaum Series (books A to H). Most of them I studied in childhood but the more advanced ones (F to G), I have discovered on my own. I mostly picked two-page pieces but there are a couple of one page piece too:

A - Red Book - 1
1. Brahm's Lullaby (Brahms)
2. Swinging Along (Behr)
3. Snake Dance
4. Bells are Ringing (Beethoven)

B - Blue Book - 1.5
5. The Elevator
6. The Harpsichord Player (Bach)
7. Magic Flute (Mozart)
8. The Spider Dance

C - Purple Book - 2
9. Come On, Rangers (Rossini)
10. Wishing Well (Mozart)
11. AM and PM (Grieg-Chopin)
12. It Was in the Good Old Summertime (Spindler)
13.  From Pole to Pole (Chopin-Paderewski)
14. Estrellita (Ponce)
15. Lilac Time Serenade (Schubert)
16. Gertrude and Elizabeth (Beethoven)
17. Hawaiian Love Song (Truax)
18. Dangerous Journey (Koelling)

D - Orange Book - 2.5
19. A Harvest Melody (Beethoven)
20. El Caballero (Moszkowski)
21. The Masked Horseman (Schumann)
22. In the Hall of the Mountain King (Grieg)
23. Pals of the Saddle (von Suppe)
24. Garden of the Stars (Saint-Saens)
25. The Waltz King (Strauss)
26. Two Military Heroes (Strauss-Berlioz)
27. The Swan (Saint-Saens)
28. In an Eighteenth Century Flower Garden (Mozart)
29. The Cuckoo (Daquin)

E - Violet Book - 3
30. Camp of the Gypsies (Behr)
31. The Bullfighter's March (Bizet)
32. The Crystal Ballroom (Chopin)
33. Purple Sunset (Liszt)
34. Magic Carpet of Dreams (Debussy)
35. 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky)

F - Brown Book - 4
36. With Love in My Heart (Chopin)
37. The Great Gates of Kiev (Moussorgsky)
38. Clog Dance (Dvorak)

G - Amber Book - 5
39. Norwegian Concerto (Grieg)

H - Grey Book - 6
40. Russian Concerto (Rachmaninoff)

Of these books, my favorite would have to be C, D, and E in that order. These three books could be fully taught to the student. I very much enjoyed studying, practicing, and playing them for family and friends. Some of them sound difficult and sophisticated though they are quite manageable arrangements. In a minute or two, one gets instant applause!

For me, the weakest of the bunch would have to be Book F. Beginning at this level, Schaum seemed to have dispensed with the Baroque and Classical Periods and concentrated on the Romantic repertoire. I feel that this is premature as most students would still be in their teens by this time. They may overcome the technical difficulties but very few would have the level of musical maturity required in these works.

I feel that the student could skip this book without serious impairment. Perhaps the teacher could substitute it with Thompson or Aaron Grade 3 and 4 which have much better piece selection appropriate for the adolescent students in my opinion.

Books G and H are not bad. My problem with them is that many of the pieces in these books are almost exactly the same as the original but often shortened or the ending simplified. The level of difficulty of the original pieces and the Schaum-edited pieces are almost the same in these grades, so why not just study the original?

I wish that Schaum had focused more concert transcriptions of popular ensembles, operas, concertos, and symphonies at these levels, just as he did with the Norwegian Concerto (based on Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor) and the Russian Concerto (based on Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto). These are wonderful concerto transcriptions for the advancing pianists who are not quite ready for the real version but good enough to sound majestic and virtuosic among the general audience. They make excellent party pieces for the non-classical crowd too.

Suggestions to the teacher: After the student learns any primer piano book, you may follow the list above in assigning pieces. The assigned piece must be played very well before advancing to the next piece. It does not only mean zero wrong notes but more importantly, artistic playing--beautiful tone, engaging tempo, "color", etc. Each piece must be learned and played as if it were the recital piece.

I recommend supplementing the lessons with A Dozen A Day by Edna-Mae Burnam. I've never studied these books but many teachers and performers swear by them and use them in tandem with method books. When taught properly, the series should address basic technical needs and enhance sight reading.

Suggestions to intermediate and advanced students: If you are using Aaron, Thompson, or any other method book and have reached Grade 3 or higher, the Schaum series is still very useful for sight reading. As I have mentioned above, it seems that the Schaum was designed for sight reading more than performance. Try the exercises, drills, and tips mentioned in the books. Gradually read through the pieces in Books A to F. Many of the pieces in Book G and H are too hard to sight read but if you can do it, then so much the better.

Happy practicing!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to Study and Practice Scales and Arpeggios - First Steps on the Piano

The ability to play scales and arpeggios on the piano is one of the most fundamental and most important skills of a pianist. Unfortunately, many homegrown piano teachers skip this, perhaps because they have no patience to sit down with the student and go through them. Worse, they do not know them as they were not taught by their former teachers either. Of course, they can get away with it if they don't send their students to the conservatory or take qualifying exams such as the ABRSM.

Even then, the problem becomes apparent when the student advances in their lessons. Some of the symptoms include: not being able to recognize the key of the piece, not being able to "hear" the tonality, cadences, modulations, and other harmonic elements, clumsy fingering or asking for the fingering, poor technique, grappling at the keyboard, poor sightreading (often intimidated by numerous accidentals), etc.

Scales and arpeggios codify the most important techniques in piano playing and acquaint the ear to tonality. However, it does not make them easy to learn. It took me one year of dedicated study to learn all of the major and (harmonic) minor scales and arpeggios. Even so, I am still honing, refining, and polishing them. Thus, patience and perseverance are just as important, or perhaps more important, than mere musical precocity or talent.

The professionals do it

Don't take my word for it. Take it from these two pianist-gentlemen, incidentally both having "Josefs" as first names (both also had connections with Anton Rubinstein):

I consider the practising of scales important, not only for the fingers, but also for the discipline of the ear with regard to the feeling of tonality (key), understanding of intervals, and the comprehension of the total compass of the piano. - Josef Hofmann from Piano Playing: With Piano Questions Answered

They [students] have had no teacher in the early years with patience and sufficient will power to hold them back until they have been exhaustively drilled in scales and arpeggios. A smattering will not do. They must know all the scales in all the keys, major and minor, and they must literally 'know them backwards.' They must know the inter-relationship of the scales... The scales should be known so well that the student's fingers will fly to the right fingering of any part of any scales instinctively... Scales are musical multiplication tables. - Josef Lhevinne from Basic Principles of Pianoforte Playing

To proceed, you need the following:

1. Sheet of the scales and arpeggios. You may use Hanon exercise #39 but I remember feeling overwhelmed just looking at the 16th notes back then. I used Michael Aaron's Adult Piano Course Book II in reading the notes. It is basically the same as Hanon's except that the latter only spans two octaves while the other spans four and includes the melodic minor scale. I suggest the Aaron one for the beginner in scales (no melodic minor scale, only harmonic which is the most common).

2. Music notebook. Any would do.

3. Metronome. I prefer the digital kind. I have three analog metronomes in possession and they  eventually break down, not to mention needing rewinding after a few minutes--an annoyance especially when you practice continuously for half an hour or more. Alternatively, you may download a metronome program or app into your laptop, cellphone, or iPad and you have an instant metronome.

Preparatory Exercises

As I've mentioned, scales and arpeggios are actually challenging to learn. It is best taken up after finishing the third grade when the student is more comfortable with reading notes. Hofmann added, "Scales should not be attempted until a good finger-touch has been formed and the very important action of the thumb in the scale has been fully prepared."

In this regard, I suggest the first seven exercises of my Top 10 Hanon Exercises, especially the following:

#40 - Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is usually taught after the major and minor scales have been mastered. However, I believe that it is actually easier to learn and serve as a good preparation for scales because of the simpler thumb, wrist, and hand movements. In particular, it is useful for moving the thumb smoothly since the thumb always plays the white keys and moves under the third finger which plays from above on the black keys.

#20 - Little Arpeggios

This is a very effective exercise for stretching the fifth and fourth fingers and making them strong and independent. Many of the arpeggios are fingered for 5-4-1 (LH) and 1-4-5. The fourth finger being the weakest will drag the others. With this exercise, the fourth will gradually gain independence.

I did not include #38 because it is basically the C major scale. To be more useful, I will be modifying it to implement some of Lhevinne's ideas which will be a subject of future blog.

Sequence of Study

1. Start with the F major scale

Most teachers would start with the C scale because it has no accidentals (sharps and flats), therefore easier to read. However, I find the F major scale actually the trickiest because the B-flat note throws off the student from the standard fingering. It makes sense, at least to me, to start with this deceptively easy-looking scale.

a) Play the ascending and descending notes of the left hand (always start with the weaker hand) at 48 bpm per note, detached (portamento). Make sure your wrist allows the flowing movement of the thumb and the rest of the fingers. Play the right hand notes at the same speed, also detached. Play them together at 42 bpm per note (still detached). I suggest you do a crescendo ascending, starting with pianissimo (pp) and gradually increasing to forte (f) for the highest note and then falling back to a diminuendo when descending.

b) When there is no more awkwardness in the fingering and no more wrong notes, play the left hand notes but this time at 66 bpm per note, legato. Listen intently to the blending of the two consecutive notes. Do the same for the right hand, then play them together at 60 bpm per note, legato. I suggest the same dynamics treatment (crescendo for ascending, decrescendo for descending). Strive for a smooth sound.

c) If mastered, try increasing the speed from 72 to 88 bpm per note. Then, decrease the speed to 60 bpm but play two notes per beat (count 1 & 2 & 3 &) for two octaves. Stay at this speed for a few days or weeks then, try three notes per beat for three octaves (still at 60 bpm, count 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3) and finally, four notes per beat for four octaves (count 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4). Stay at 60 bpm for now.

d) If you find yourself making random wrong notes at high speed, revert to (a) and (b) to remedy this. If you make more than one mistake, copy the scale in your music notebook. Why? First, this will teach you how to notate (make sure you get the accidentals correctly). Second, this will reinforce the scale in your visual and aural memory. Third, this will improve your sightreading. You will instantly recognize the key signatures.

2. Study its parallel harmonic minor scale, f minor

Again, many teachers may not agree with this as most scale sheets are written according to the circle of fifths. They would rather assign the relative minor, in this case d minor, since the key signatures appear to be the same.

However, based again on personal experience, I can "hear" the shift in mood much better from the modulation of the major keys to its parallel minor keys than its relative minor keys. They will both start and end in the same tonic so the starting finger would be the same.

Follow the same the regimen as above (a to d) but this time, play the crescendo-dimuendo a little softer (pianissimo to mezzo forte, vice-versa). This further highlights the contrasting moods.

3. Study the F major arpeggio

When you have achieved four notes to a beat at 60 bpm for the scales, it is now time to study the arpeggio. An arpeggio is actually an extended scale based on the triad pattern. In some ways, this is harder because the fingering is more awkward and the wrist must rotate in circles while the arm assists the movement.

NEVER practice the arpeggios with pedal (some teachers actually tell their students to do so!).

Follow the same working principles of (a) to (d), adjusting the speeds as necessary.

4. Study the f minor arpeggio

Following the logic of #2, it is better to follow the major arpeggio with its parallel. You will immediately hear and feel the difference of the modulation. The same practice principles (a) to (d) apply but follow the dynamic suggestion in #2.

5. Move on to the next key

When I studied the scales, I did not follow the circle of fifths. Instead, I proceeded chromatically and still practice the keys this way. That is, I start with F (then its parallel f minor), G-flat (then its parallel f# minor), and so on and end with the E major (and its parallel minor e minor). Never mind the enharmonic prissiness.

However, I realize this may be difficult for the newbie in scales. I would recommend the following sequence: F major/f minor, G major/g minor, A major/a minor, B major/ b minor, C major/c minor, D major/d minor, E major/e minor.

After the white tonic keys are finished, continue with the black keys: G-flat major/f# minor, A-flat major/G# minor, B-flat major/B-flat minor, D-flat major/C# minor, E-flat major/E-flat minor.

Closing Remarks: Level 1

It is important not to rush the study of scales and arpeggios. Progress in the beginning will be slow and arduous but after the studying the first four keys (F, G, A, B and their parallel harmonic minor), the rest will flow like oil. I suggest targeting two keys per month (for example, F major scale, f minor scale, F major arpeggio, f minor arpeggio). In one year, you will have finished the 24 major and minor keys.

Resist the temptation to blaze through them ("smattering" as Lhevinne had said) but keep them in tempo (hence, use a metronome) and legato. Importantly, shape them through dynamics. This is one of the secrets of expressive playing.

Scales and arpeggios are like brushing one's teeth. A serious pianist should feel "guilty" or uneasy if he/she fails to go through them everyday. I suggest doing them first thing in the morning, immediately after waking up, before taking a shower or breakfast. Once you play everything at 60 bpm (four notes to a beat, four octaves), you will cycle through the keys in 10 to 12 minutes. It keeps the fingers, hands, and ears in good condition and the mind musically fresh. You will feel their magic when you practice your repertoire or read new music later in the day.

What's next? There are many more levels of refinements which will be the subject of my future articles. The suggestions outlined here is just the first baby steps. In fact, their mastery is a lifelong preoccupation of pianists and musicians.

I leave you with some more wise words from the two Josefs:

Lhevinne: their great practical value is for training the hand in fingering so that the best fingering in any key becomes automatic. In this way they save an enormous amount of time in later years. They also greatly facilitate sight reading, because the hand seems to lean instinctively to the most logical fingering, to elect it without thinking. Take it for granted, you may have too little scale practice, but you can never have too much.

Hofmann: Alas, why are those pesky scales so difficult, in fact, the most difficult thing to do on the piano?

Good luck and happy practicing!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Preliminary Exercise for Polyrhythm (2 against 3, 3 against 4)

One of the most mind boggling things I've ever had to sort out in my musical education was how to play polyrhythms. My teacher called it "2 against 3" but it actually encompasses any figuration wherein two or more independent rhythms need to be played together. Some of the most iconic examples from classical piano music are the following (click on the image to download the score):

1. Debussy Arabesque No. 1 in E major (YouTube):

2. Brahms Intermezzo in A major Op. 118 No. 2 (YouTube):

3. Chopin Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66 (YouTube):

Practically all major composers use polyrhythms in their music yet there are very few technical exercises that offer a "friendly" introduction to the early intermediate pianist. For instance, there are no polyrhythms in Hanon (or rhythmic variation exercises for that matter). Brahms wrote 51 exercises that incorporate it but they have other technical difficulties that suit the late intermediate pianists:

For the newbies to polyrhythms, I suggest the following steps to learning it:

1. Let the ear and mind internalize this rhythmic peculiarity. Try listening to the following examples: Example 1 and Example 2. Count the beat as you listen. Some have suggested to verbalize the notes for 2 against 3 as "Not dif-Fi-cult" although I must confess I have not really gotten the hang of it.

EDIT: I've just discovered this tapping exercise using "George Wa-Shing-ton" verbalization and I really find it useful. Check it out!

2. Download and print the exercise I have written. Do not play it right away.

3. Listen to the exercise in slow tempo (42 bpm, download), follow the score, and count the beats:

4. Play the first part of the exercise (2 against 3, up to the double bar) hands separate (start with the left hand and then the right) at 60 bpm. It is essential to use a metronome.

5. Play both hands at 42 bpm until flowing.

6. Gradually increase the tempo. I recommend the following tempi increases:

60 bpm download

78 bpm download

96 bpm download

108 bpm download

7. Work out the second part of the exercise (3 against 4).

A closer look at the exercise: It is actually a twist on the Hanon exercise #46. Each hand plays a trill while the other plays broken chords in triplets as accompaniment. There are two main parts.

The first part is an exercise in 2 against 3 or 3 against 2. The right hand begins playing short trills while the left hand provides a broken chord accompaniment.

The second part extends the first part as an exercise in 3 against 4 or 4 against 3. The broken chords remain as quarter note triplets but the trills are now in sixteenths notes, squeezing more for each beat. Each hand has the opportunity to play the trill and the accompaniment. Just like in the previous part.

When learning this exercise,  begin by playing it forte but as soon as you are comfortable, the trills must be louder than the accompaniment.

EDIT: For variety, transpose this exercise in C minor. It's basically the same notes but all Es, As, and Bs will be played flat. Alternatively, play it as a harmonic minor (B is natural) or melodic minor (A and B are natural ascending and become flat descending).

Where to go from here? After the exercise is mastered, it makes sense to reinforce this newly learned skill with a real piece. Any of the pieces illustrated above (Debussy's Arabesque, Brahm's Intermezzo, or Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu) would be a good goal.

However, to lessen the frustration of learning a lengthy piece, one might attempt Chopin's Nouvelle Etude No. 1 in f minor first Youtube. It's only two pages long but it has just the right technical issues (wide arpeggios, polyrhythms) as well as interpretative challenges fit for the intermediate pianist.

Good luck!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top 10 Hanon Exercises

A few days ago, I chanced upon my old, shiny, red Hanon book (online version). I remember my teacher assigning a couple of them to me but I never understood the underlying principle of these exercises. After much research around piano forums, I've realized that many pianists consider the Hanon exercises as antiquated, unmusical, obsolete, a waste of time and worse, injurious to one's hands (click here for more info). I immediately dropped these exercises but saved the scales and arpeggios.

Who is Hanon? See this related article. How important were the Hanon exercises? Read this interesting link.

Now, as a mature pianist and having learned much over time, I leafed through the Hanon book once again with critical eyes. Indeed, repetition of predictable patterns is the key concept of the Hanon exercises. It's just full of short and long repetitive figurations (trills, tremolos, repeated notes) written in many permutations (but mostly in the key of C). 

The principle is the same as physically training an athlete or working out in the gym. By doing repetitive drills, one's speed, stamina, and strength improve over a period of time.

After reviewing all of the exercises, I've arrived at the following conclusions: 1) about 80% of the exercises are indeed a waste of time, 2) most of them seem to be illogically ordered; but 3) about 20% have real applications in classical pieces.

I have picked 10 of the most useful ones, to be studied in the following order (please see end of list for my practice suggestions):

1. #46 - The Trill

Virtually all major composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, et al) used trills in their compositions. When properly executed, the trill mimics a bird call or even a vocal vibrato. When combined with the right dynamics and tempo, it has a penetrating effect on the listener.Technically, the trill is one of those best-kept secrets in improving overall speed and dexterity.

For this exercise, it is best to master them hands separate (HS). The trill of outer fingers (5-4-3) cannot simply compete with the trill of the inner fingers (1-2). On their own, they can achieve a degree of speed not possible when played hands together (HT). Play close attention to the following fingers: 5-4 and 4-3. Never trill them too much as to strain them.

For beginners: The exercise looks menacing and may be overwhelming for newbies. I suggest you reduce the exercise as follows: eliminate the extra trills on the 3rd and 4th beats (i.e, just do 2/4 instead of 4/4 time). Work the first 6 measures only.

For variety: You could try the exercise one octave lower. The hammers in the lower register are heavier, thus you will encounter more resistance. It's exactly like working out on an elliptical stepper. Once you're comfortable with a certain resistance, you increase it a bit. You can also transpose this exercise in practically any key if you get bored playing just white keys. Try in the key of A and E.

2. #44 - Repeated Notes

There are plentiful repeated notes in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev and other composers, often representing a drum or some percussion instrument figuration. In some of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, they mimic the strumming of a Spanish guitar or mandolin. A newbie is often tempted to use only one finger for the repeated notes when different fingerings are clearly written for each note. This simplification often results in the loss of "color" of the repeated notes and a build up of tension on the poor finger that plays everything.

For beginner: This exercise is also best practiced HS and if needed, reduced to 2/4 from 4/4 (eliminate third and fourth beats). The first four measures are a good warm up but once mastered, the student may simply skip this and start on the fifth measure up all the way to the last measure of the page. No need to do the repeat.

For the more experienced: After mastering the first four measures, skip to the second page. No need to do the repeat.

For the advanced: You may replace this exercise with #47. The repeat is unnecessary.

3. #6 - Basic Extension

There is big stretch from the first note to the second note of every measure--a sixth in fact. The real interesting thing are the inner notes that descend from a fixed upper note (played by the 5th on RH and 1st on the LH) in every measure. The descending notes are played by 4-3-2 on the RH 2-3-4 on the LH, as if a mirror image. This figuration is very common in Baroque and Classical period pieces (just look at some of the preludes of Bach, sonatinas of Clementi, variations of Beethoven, etc.).

If this exercise can already be played perfectly, the pianist may replace this with #31. This time, the stretch is an octave span. This should be very effective in preparing the hands for octave studies.

4. #40 - Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is one of those enthralling effects in classical music. In Beethoven's Fur Elise, there is the ever famous descending chromatic scale after the climax. Without a good grasp of chromatic scales, it is hard to interpret the music of Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and so many others who exploited chromaticism in their music.

The chromatic scale is actually easier to learn than the major and minor scales because the thumb, wrist, and arm movements are simpler. In some ways, it's a good preparation for the study of scales. Most chromatic scales are played "leggiero" or light. To do this, practice each note staccato in slow speed. As you increase speed, make the staccato lighter. This should produce a "feather-like" articulation.

For beginners: Study "At an octave" and "In contrary motion, beginning on the octave".

For the advanced: Add "At a minor sixth" and "In contrary motion, beginning on the major third".

5. #38 - Running notes

Every pianist must eventually deal with rapid running notes. It's just part of the trade. This exercise offers a  fair introduction to the role of the thumb in facilitating the execution of running notes.

There are two schools of thought regarding the use of the thumb: Thumb Under and Thumb Over. I won't go into detail regarding the merits and demerits of each but suffice it to say that from Hanon's thumb turning exercises (#32 to #36), one could deduce that he advocated the Thumb Under method. Whichever is most effective depends on the situation.

For the advanced: Play this C scale in interval of 10, i.e, the LH plays as is while the RH is raised a third up:

RH: e-f-g-a-b-c-d-e
LH: c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c

The fingering is also modified (numbers in bold are where the thumbs do their hard work):

RH: 3-1-2-3-4-1-2-3
LH: 1-4-3-2-1-3-2-1

6. #15 - Broken Thirds

Hanon is spot on with this exercise. Thirds (double or broken) is just everywhere in classical music and are one of the most difficult to execute convincingly. When played well, they sometimes mimic laughter or two persons singing together (tight counterpoint). It is said that Mozart conceded that his rival Muzeo Clementi played thirds better than him. Fast scales in thirds are so treacherous that some virtuosos cheat on the notorious D scale in thirds in the Brahms second piano concerto.

For the advanced: Add #50 (legato thirds) and #52 (scales in thirds).

7. #20 - Little Arpeggios

This exercise runs through the arpeggios (broken chords) in the second inversion based on the C scale. These chords are the C major, d minor, e minor, F major, G major, A minor, and b diminished. The general awkwardness in the LH fingering (5-4-2-1) and RH (1-2-4-5) in playing the first beat of every measure is the main reason why this exercise has to be mastered.

As preparation, play each first beat as a block chord until the grasp of the chords becomes very comfortable.

8. #53 - Octaves

Some of the most memorable moments in piano music are the big, thundering octave passages, such as in the concertos of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Saint Saens, and others. Pianists work on their octave technique for hours on end to achieve the desired effect. This exercise is a good stepping stone.

Start wtih chromatic scale in octave which is actually the last part of the exercise. Go through it slowly and try to bring out the outer notes, i.e., those being played by the 5th finger of either hands. When sufficiently mastered, start with the second page of this exercise.

9. #39 - All scales

10. #41 - All arpeggios

Perhaps the most important among all the exercises in the Hanon book are the scales (#39) and arpeggios (#41). So important are they that most conservatories and collegiate music schools require the prospective students to play them during auditions and with good reason. All the most essential technique are codified in the scales and arpeggios and together with octaves, thirds, and sixths, they make up for 80% of the technical difficulty in written music. 

I will write a separate blog detailing my suggestions on practising scales and arpeggios.

When to take up the Hanon exercises: It makes sense to introduce the Hanon exercises after the third grade of the John Thompson method book or its equivalent. The student should concentrate on mastering the first eight exercises in the above list. To his/her delight, he/she may discover that the exercises will have prepared him/her well to study Beethoven's Fur Elise, Clementi's Sonatinas, and other intermediate level pieces.

How to practice Hanon: Make sure you practice this hands separate (HS) first, gradually speeding up without sacrificing note clarity and evenness. Keep the wrist relaxed to avoid strain. When either hands are sufficiently warmed up, play them hands together (HT) but choose a speed that both hands can handle. This is normally slower than either hands could achieve separately.

For the more experienced: Instead of playing the exercises mechanically, you may shape them through dynamics. Begin softly (p) on the first measure, gradually do a crescendo, reaching a mezzopiano (mp) after a few measures, then attaining an mezzoforte (mf), then a forte (f) on the first descending measure. From here on, do the exact opposite, i.e., a diminuendo, falling back to piano (p) on the last measure. Also, try doing an allargando as you reach the high point of the exercise, then resume "a tempo" until the last measure where you may do a slargando.

For the more advanced: Instead of a uniform crescendo from the first measure to the middle of the piece, you can do a mini crescendo-diminuendo in every measure, corresponding to the rise and fall of the notes within that measure. As you move to the next measure, you begin with a volume slightly higher than the first note of the previous measure, then proceed to do a crescendo-dimuendo. The effect is like the rising and falling of waves. On reaching the descending measure, apply the opposite dynamic, i.e., diminuendo-crescendo. Maintain a steady tempo all throughout. I would highly recommend using a METRONOME to reign in the tempo.