Monday, 29 November 2010

Inspiration from the Cat playing the piano!....Lang Lang did!

I'm not talking about those funny cats playing the piano on Youtube. How do you engage young children to want to learn the piano? Communicate to them in a genre familiar to them, with characters they know well. In this instance, it's Tom and Jerry, and the short film is called "The Cat Concerto". As my children 2 year old calls it, "Cat playing the piano." It was so popular and acclaimed at the time that it won an Academy Award (Oscar) in 1946 for best short subject: cartoons. Lang Lang credits this cartoon for inspiring him to learn the piano starting at the tender age of 3.
Here it is, Tom plays Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #2.

And the knock on effect? About 25-40 million people in China have been inspired to learn the piano, following in Lang Lang's footsteps according to the article "Yes, China's got talent – but that's not enough" from the Observer on 14 Nov 2010. Deservedly, Lang Lang was listed in 2009 Time Magazine's Top 100 Influential People in the World.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Dear Mozart...reading composers' private letters online

The Gutenburg project puts free out of copyright books in a digital format available to view online or download as an ebook (to your kindle perhaps). Books range from the works of Jane Austin, the Bible, Sun Tzu's Art of War, to Machiavelli's The Prince.

It is indeed a fabulous resource for the music scholar and student. A look at the music bookshelf of the Gutenburg project reveals many composers letters that have been translated into English.
Mozart's Signature

The following letters are available from the following composers:

  • Beethoven
  • Franz Liszt
  • Mozart
  • Haydn

Tips for your research
  • Perhaps cross reference the year of the composition of the piece you are playing and look for any mentions of the piece by the composer himself.  
  • If the composition was dedicated into someone in mind, are there mentions of that name? 
  • What was he thinking at the time? 
  • What major life events occur within the context of the piece in question?
  • Is there an insight into the personality of the composer? 
This may help breathe some of his personality into your performance! Summon the presence of the composer in absentia.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

8 creative ways to practice away from the piano keyboard (or any musical instrument)

I'm a great proponent of living, breathing and inhabiting the music you are playing. If you are getting in a rut in your practice routine, perhaps you're trying too hard. It's time to recreate the music through other perspectives.


1. Listen to a master - find a recording of the great interpreters of your chosen piece/composer (Barenboim for Beethoven, Rubinstein for Chopin, etc.) and hear their recording. You can hear recordings on youtube, download for purchase, or even borrow it from your local library if they have it.
2. Watch a recording or live performance
Youtube is a treasure trove of recordings of the great pianists performing pieces you are probably studying.
3. Summon the composer - Watch a biopic, documentary or drama based on the composer. You'll find it brings to life the music if you understand more about the composer's life, as so much of the music reflects the personality and life events of the composer. Perhaps - has the piece itself been featured in a film -  if so, what emotions does it depict in the film? Find out for instance, from the IMDB database which Chopin pieces featured in popular film.


4. Make it your own: Hum/Sing the piece from memory. Robert Schumann says:

  • It is not only necessary that you should be able to play your pieces on the instrument, but you should also be able to hum the air without the piano. Strengthen your imagination so, that you may not only retain the melody of a composition, but even the harmony which belongs to it  (Advice to Young Musicians, R.Schumann)

5. Visualise yourself playing the piece with your inner hearing
This is one of the best ways to make a piece more musical. You will probably start creating and formulating musical phrases you may have missed in your practice.
6. Make up words or phrases to accompany the music you are playing. Especially make up words that fit the mood of the piece.

7. Analyse the score
Look at the dynamics, think about how you are playing the piece, are there any details that you are missing? Are you being faithful to the score. Read all the markings, indications, etc. What are the passages that you have difficulty memorising and break down the section you find most difficult.

8. Finger practice on the piano foreboard or a table. You can strengthen your fingers and make sure you hand is not getting tense (with webbing of the hand)and that your finger joints don't collapse, also focus on a relaxed tapping of the fingers.

Free Sheet Music! Out of Copyright and in the Public Domain

Who says you can't have something free in the age of austerity. Can't afford sheet music? Well no problem as a lot of it you can get for free! Just check out the Music International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) It's a great resource if you're away from your sheet music and need your score quickly to practice with. Granted, it might not be the exact arrangement you've bought already but it'll be close! As of 19 November 2010 it holds 78,000 scores. You can see for example - Elgar's Salut D'amour - piano solo version, piano and violin, piano and clarinet, and even the orchestral version too!
I recently performed the piece. I couldn't wait to get started so I used the free version from the website to practice with until I bought the Peters edition version..

Read about the International Music Score Library Project's history on wikipedia

Inspiring pianists: James Rhodes - Piano Man Trailer

James Rhodes is on Sky Arts Channel (available to subscribing Sky viewers). The series is called Piano Man Here's a trailer below. James is an inspiration to me, he's about the same age, changed careers from finance to concert pianism with no formal academic training in music (meaning he didn't go to music conservatory) and not your typical concert pianist. Here James in the trailer discusses the French Suite #5 in G (by Bach)and how he sees it as a love letter.

Read more articles about James Rhodes:

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

What's the Piano Sage about? Chapter 1: Bringing Music to Life

This blog will give insights into the discovery process of musical discovery and learning.

Question to the sage? can you play this piece, what's it about?
This piece is about Zulu warriors - from looking at the left hand chords
C and G, which is repeated in 4/4 time, this is basically the drumming sounds.

Lesson learned: know the background of the piece! A big clue is the title. How often does a piano learner play a piece and they don't have the spirit, swing of the piece? Is this what differentiates an etude (or study) from a musical piece? Is this technical vs musical? Too often do we learn pieces in the early grades with Gavotte or Minuet and we forget these were once dances! Ask your student would you dance to it? Does it have a pulse and a strong first beat. Demonstrate demonstrate.

Live and learn the music!