Recommending a no-fuss scale book used to be a simple matter: just get a copy of the ABRSM Grade 5 book as was, and all the keys were there, clearly presented in order.
But following ABRSM’s 2021 piano scales revision this is no longer the case, their new graded scale books offering a shockingly slight smattering of just a few scales, as limiting as they are limited.
Good teachers everywhere are inevitably (if sadly) left looking for more helpful alternatives, and thankfully a number of well-known writers are presently forming an orderly queue to occupy the educational high ground that the exam board have so perplexingly ceded.
Paul Harris’s revised Improve Your Scales books look to a composite of all the exam boards for common sense, while Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer series from Faber Music will soon add an all-purpose scales book specially devised to fill the gap. I will be reviewing both these resources in the coming months.
Meanwhile, here’s a new book from Catherine McMillan, whose unique take on learning scales will particularly appeal to children, and whose stunningly presented Piano Scale Mnemonics book is now a studio essential.
American composer and arranger Phillip Keveren’s books have become increasingly popular staples in my studio, his recent collection Piano Calm (reviewed here) establishing itself as a particular favourite.
Keveren’s latest publication, brought to us as ever by Hal Leonard, is Circles: Character Etudes in 24 Keys, once again a collection of brand new original pieces aimed at intermediate pianists.
Without question, Penelope Roskell’s The Complete Pianist is the most monumental publication yet to arrive for review, and with 560 large format pages, 250 newly-devised exercises and more than 300 supporting online videos, I can well believe that it’s the most comprehensive book ever written on piano playing, as well as the most superbly presented.
Striking among the claims made for the book, we are told that Roskell’s approach is based not only on a lifetime’s experience of teaching and performing, but also on “ground-breaking research into healthy piano playing” …
The Complete Pianist thus offers the reader an…
“… innovative approach to piano technique based on the use of natural, ergonomic movement which achieves a rich range of sounds, allows greater artistic freedom, and helps to prevent injury.”
Have you ever had (or been) a piano student who struggles to learn good technique, or to retrain poor technique previously learned?
I certainly have! As a piano teacher specializing in adult learners, many of whom have studied in the past, it’s not uncommon that I must help a student improve or even completely overhaul their technique…
For example, there’s Monique, my 60-year-old student who last studied as a child. Try as she might, Monique has continued to struggle with flying pinkies and collapsing wrists.
Even students with relatively good technique may need improvements. For example, I’ve studied and teach the fundamentals of the Taubman technique. Bringing awareness to the many subtle movements involved such as forearm rotation, in-and-out movements and “shaping” can be challenging for any student.
How might teachers and self-learning students facilitate the learning or retraining of technique?
Perhaps it’s first worth asking: are there any prerequisites for learning or retraining technique?
Jakub Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies is an educationally useful and thoughtfully produced collection of 30 miniature pieces which address aspects both of technique and notation-reading at upper intermediate level. The book is certainly novel, and may have what it takes to establish itself as a contemporary classic in the pedagogy literature…
Please note: “Bernice” is not the student’s real name. However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.
Bernice is a 76-year-old learner who took up the piano about 5 years ago. She has made steady progress, is now early intermediate level, and particularly enjoys playing traditional classical favourites.
Bernice’s Wrist Problem
Bernice has recently developed some physical problems in her wrist area. On the right wrist, she has a large ganglion close to the base of her thumb, which cases mild discomfort. The surgeon she has consulted is going to remove this soon.
On the left wrist she has a more chronic problem. Here there is a ganglion just below the fifth finger, not noticeable to the eye, and a scan has revealed that it is pressing against a nerve. There is possibly also minor swelling in the tendon. The medical specialist cannot operate, but has suggested that with care and anti-inflammatories the problem may dissipate.
The mention of tendons might be enough to convince some that piano playing should be avoided altogether. It is natural that we teachers don’t want our students to experience pain, and most of us will be aware of the real danger that tendonitis presents to pianists.
However, the medical advice here is that it is fine for Bernice to continue playing the piano, provided she is careful and exercises moderation. The hospital specialist has pointed out that such problems, as well as arthritis, might become an ongoing issue, but that these need not stop her from pursing her love for music (which is real and important to her).
Happily then, we can assume that Bernice’s medical problems are essential “minor” at present. But this doesn’t diminish the discomfort she reported when coming to her lesson, nor her fear that she might not be able to continue playing.
In my recent article Why Bother with Scales? I considered the many benefits that arise from regularly playing and teaching scales and arpeggios.
In this shorter post I’m going to hone in on one especially important advantage which is sometimes overlooked entirely:
Regular scale and arpeggio practice trains the brain and the fingers to develop precision in judging and playing all intervals up to a fourth, using any standard combination of shapes and fingerings, and in all the standard keys.
This significant benefit is certainly not to be sniffed at, and fosters a technical ability that is otherwise unlikely to develop during the formative stages of learning the piano.
Pianists and teachers tend to have a variety of views about the value of “studies”, some strongly advocating daily practice of finger exercises, others suggesting they have little value away from the context of specific repertoire, in which case bespoke studies developed around tricky passages are preferable.
“All aspects of playing need consideration, not merely finger independence, tone control, and fluency – important though these obviously are for pianists. Scales, arpeggios, exercises and studies can all be helpful, but must be executed with an understanding of why they matter, and what is being developed.”
But I’ve never been a huge fan of Hanon, Czerny, et al, and have tended to agree with my teacher’s teacher, Ernö Dohnányi, who wrote (with irony, in the introduction to his own book of finger exercises!) –
“In music schools, piano tuition suffers mostly from far too much exercise material given for the purely technical development of the pupils, the many hours of practice spent on these not being in proportion to the results obtained. Musicality is hereby badly neglected and consequently shows many weak points.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that when Gayle Kowalchyk and E.L. Lancaster’s two books of Piano Studies for Technical Development landed on my desk for review, my initial gut reaction was to excuse them from the short-list for consideration. Until … I took a closer look.
We all have a “teaching philosophy”, whether we realise it or not. Mine strongly advocates holistic, personalised, life-centred education. My model of The Three Treasures of Musical Learning is a key component to complement these values.
Paying attention to all Three Treasures – and at all stages of learning, from the youngest beginner to the most advanced professional – leads to deeper learning, fuelling progress and fostering a lifelong love relationship with music.
In this article I will explain what the Three Treasures are, and offer some tips on how focusing on them can help us develop as effective teachers.
Earth Posture is a very simple Qigong stance which combines many of the most basic benefits of qigong practice, and offers a great entry point to qigong.
In this exercise you will focus on posture, alignment, balance, breathing, and release of tension. These are all crucially important for qigong practice – and for piano playing of course! Earth Posture also offers a fabulous way to quiet the mind prior to mediation, or as a meditation in itself.
Good posture – at least as assessed by external observation – seems elusive for many pianists. Qigong practice in general addresses posture through an internal awareness of alignment and balance. At the same time, Earth Posture facilitates good circulation, thus promoting improved general health.
These benefits are, of course, not instantaneous. I would advise practising Earth Posture daily for a few weeks to experience the maximum benefit. Even many experienced Qigong and T’ai Chi practitioners return to Earth Posture as a prelude to their practice.
The full instructions are written below, but you may find it more helpful to use this recording:
András Schiff – surely one of the most respected concert pianists of our time – made the following extraordinary observation in a recent interview with Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014):
“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”
Breathing is a subject that I have rarely seen discussed in connection with piano technique, and even less so in the context of pianists’ injuries, their causes, cures and corrections. Schiff is hitting on a point that it would seem is indeed too often overlooked.
In this article I will consider the links between natural breathing and Qigong practice, as well as offering a simple breathing exercise that anyone can try…