Chopin's Coda

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I am 16 and have been learning piano for 10 years and i am a chopin lover. I have just completed his 1st ballad but i am having trouble with the ending (my hands get tired). Are there any exercises that i could do to loosen up my hands or maby a good etude that could help. thanks.
 - Ara

Dear Ara,

Aw man! Exercises! Etudes! Those are no fun! The first time I learned the 1st Ballade, I had similar trouble with the coda -- my hands got really, really exhausted. I worked really hard on it, always making certain my hands were relaxed and rotating properly (don't try to do it all with your fingers; use your arm and wrist to your advantage!) and always listening carefully to the beautiful textures and harmonies. In the end, it wasn't perfect and I still struggled.

A few years later (and many pieces later) I worked the ballade up again for a concert. Low and behold, the coda came very easily to me! My technique had improved sufficiently to render the coda's difficulties obsolete. Soooooo -- work hard, but be patient as well.

- Greg (Oct. 23, 2009)

How to Practice

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Hello Greg!
I visit often since I discovered your page last year. You have, many times, given me the motivation to practice by watching just how INCREDIBLE your musical and technical skills are. You and other amazing pianists gave me the personal urge to pursue this level for myself, too. I have always wanted to ask you questions, but I suppose now is the time after coming home from an embarrassing performance -- a harsh wake up call to not rely on motion memory. (Oops!) I'm 17 years old and have been playing piano for ten years. I'm a "late bloomer", as in I didn't take piano seriously until the past year. It became a frustrating, but somewhat rewarding journey of learning what works and what doesn't. So far, I've made huge strides with a new teacher, learning how to play relaxed, and relearning how to play dynamics in a relaxed manner which helped my playing tremendously on top of what I already know. Now here are the questions: What makes "quality practice"? What about practicing that makes it enjoyable for you? And out of curiosity, what are your stages of learning a new piece? I know the importance of practice, but for years I've been doing so by playing notes over and over without much thoughts into them. I now know it won't work in the long run if I want to advance, which I would very much love to do. I'm also slowly discovering how the instrument works, limitations and all, in order to apply them into my playing. This is the most difficult challenge for me because I have all these wonderful ideas in my head, but have trouble projecting them through the piano. I assume it's also a difficult question to answer through the internet, but if you have any tips and suggestions on this, I would greatly appreciate them. Thank you for your time!
 -Shirley

Dear Shirley,

How should one practice? Aw man! How am I supposed to answer that one in such a modest forum!? You effectively described how NOT to practice ("I've been doing so by playing notes over and over without much thoughts into them"), but it's terribly difficult to describe how one should practice. Every piece needs a different approach.

I suppose I have four general tips for you:

1) Your practicing should mean something. Don't waste your time with auto-pilot drill work.

2) Always be "present" when you practice. Effective practicing requires 100% of your attention. If I can't focus, I don't waste my time practicing; this means I sit down at the piano only when I'm well rested and willing separate myself from the rest of the world for a few hours. Challenge yourself to see how focused you can be. How dramatically can you improve a single line of music? How beautifully can you voice a single chord? How effectively can you create an entirely new universe? How colorfully can you shape a single line of counterpoint?

3) I almost always endorse slow practice! Take your music apart -- and I mean, really take it apart. One of my favorite things to do is to play the music one chord at a time. I stop on each chord and listen to its beauty. What makes it beautiful? Is it the third? the seventh in the bass? the wide spacing? Try voicing the chord in different ways; unlock the potential of the chord. I also like working out passages one hand a time; using both hands to play the single staff of music. (For example, I use both hands to play just the left hand part.) Essentially, I want my ear to hear the potential of a passage without the technical obstacles. Once the most beautiful sound possible is in my ear, I work out the part in the correct manner. My ear then guides my solo hand to create the sounds I just created using both hands. You can also turn fast passage work into slow, exaggerated, breathtaking music; that always offers me hours of fun!

(Slow work helps your ears discover more nuances and uncover new layers of detail, so that by the time the music is racing by, you have a solid understanding of what's going on. However, all of your slow work should never contribute to a calculated performance at full tempo. In performance, you toss everything to the wind and play freely.)

4) Related to all of the above, I recommend practicing away from the piano. Listen to the music in your head. (Don't listen to a recording! Literally conjure the sounds in your head.) Shape the music exactly as you want it to sound at the piano. This is surprisingly difficult, but it is efficient and effective. As mentioned above, the more you know how you want to sound at the piano, the more your hands will know what to do.

- Greg (May 10, 2009)

Childhood Now, Audition Later

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
My daughter is 9 years old and has been playing since she was 5. Her current teacher is a young woman who is a graduate of Juiliard. My daughter practises 3 hours a day, 7 days a week and loves her music. Her current pieces are Mozart Sonata K333 1st Mvt, Bach Sinfonia #13 and Rachmaninoff OP 32 Prelude No. 5. She is home schooled which gives her the freedom to work on her music. When she was 7 she was the youngest winner of The Bradshaw and Buono Piano Competition in New York We flew from California and she and some other young students played at Weil Recital Hall in Cargnegie Hall. She is very confident on stage at such a young age. It took her many months to bring the Mozart Sonata up to a level that her teacher would let her play it in a piano festival performance. Her teacher is quite strict about finger numbers etc. The Bach Sinfonia was easier becuase she had played many Bach pieces before it. I hope that someday she may make it to a music school like Juiliard if that is what she wants. I have researched the undergraduate audition requirements for the school. Is it too early to begin thinking about the pieces that she must be able to play for the audition and ask her teacher to lead her in that direction? I know that it takes alot of time before a student is ready to play a substantial composition by Chopin, Schuman, Brahms, Liszt ,etc as Juiliard might require. A concerned parent,
 - William

Dear William,

I have rarely been as confident when answering a question on my website as I am answering yours.

Yes, it is too early to begin thinking about your daughter's Juilliard audition repertoire. She is nine years old! Good grief, I didn't even start playing the piano until I was eight! My parents wanted nothing more than for their three sons to be "well-rounded," happy children, and I believe it made all the difference. I certainly wouldn't be the pianist I am today without having spent all that time outside building tree forts, participating in the science clubs, or visiting the public library on a weekly basis.

I know plenty of nine-year-olds who are instructed to spend four hours a day practicing, but I think it is unnecessary. There are so many child prodigies out there, and although several hours of daily practice may give the child early fame and a host of compliments, it will do very little to provide any sort of career later on. Besides, I've seen one too many child prodigies turn into unhealthy adults to ever recommend such a life upon anyone.

Invest in her childhood now, and you'll have plenty of time to worry about her Juilliard audition later.

- Greg

Love Life

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
My love life sucks. I haven't been on a date in over a year. I find the piano more interesting than any of the guys I've met lately. What should I do?
Desolate in Deutschland

Dear Desolate,

Good grief! I'm not a psychologist, nor do I pretend to be!

Regardless, I can offer you two bits of common sense. 1) Be authentic. If you'd rather interest yourself with the piano, no one's stopping you. If you'd rather be out on dates, get yourself out there. 2) The piano is there to enhance real life, not supplant it.

Now, if your some reason, you are intimating that pianists (myself included) are stuck in the practice room and have no love lives, I suggest you reconsider! "Us Weekly" could easily devote an entire issue to the torrid romantic records of the great pianists.

-Greg

Tone

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I wanted to ask you a question specifically about tone and how it is produced. I noticed listening to you and other pianists of very high quality like agerich or gilels(of whom I feel you could be in a league with some day), they have a very Big quality to their sound, in addition to whatever other aspects of there tonal quality are produced such as percussive versus sensual tones, bright vs. warm, soft and rich. My question is, how exactly can one practice to achieve these kinds of sounds? Is it something innate and inborn or is there a particular method? I ask you because I noticed that your playing has a similar caliber of tonal quality i.e. really really Full sounding. Thanks
 - Michael Dawkins

Dear Michael,

Thank you! When it comes to the simple sound of the piano, I love the straightforward tone created by Gilels, Argerich, Rubinstein, and Weissenberg above all else! I'm flattered to be compared to anyone on that list.

First of all, I highly encourage you to purchase my mentor's book: Pianism, by Aiko Onishi. She articulates the techniques used to produce gorgeous tone better than anyone I know. In clear, simple language, she describes how to create a beautiful singing tone, harmonious tones, colorless tones, thick and chordal tones, and much more. The book is worth every penny -- "a must," if you will.

Aiko Onishi and Julian Martin (my teacher at Juilliard) significantly contributed to the development of my "tone," but much could be also considered a matter of my personal taste.

The simplest piece of advice for you: "hear" the sound you would like to produce from the piano first; then try to recreate the sound at the piano. If you are truly "listening" for the sounds you hope to create, you're body will know what to do.

The second piece of advice: don't let anyone tell you that physical size or strength play a large role in a pianist's tone. My primary teacher growing up, Kim Craig, is very petite, but she can create a massive sound when she wants to. A big, full sound comes from your back, and she knew how to work it!

Best wishes -- and get that book!

- Greg (March 6, 2009)

Lime Light / Electric vs. Acoustic Pianos

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I was wondering how the lime light and how fans affect your piano playing and your day to day life. Like does the press and or fans ever make a big deal out of small meaningless things or issues unrelated to music that cause you to loose fans or for people to become more interested in the hoopla than your piano playing. I was just curious because my little cousin absolutly adores piano. I just started last year and am self taught, but I encouraged him to begin piano and he is inlove with the instrument. I'm genuinly impressed with his ability he picks up on things fast being able to see patterns in music right from the start. The hardest thing he can play at the moment is a simplifide version of Bach's toccata and fugue in D minor which excludes certain parts but I still had some trouble playing it. Anyway I wanted to ask you if people give you alot of attention or shit for things you don't want attention for or would prefer it not distracting from your skill since my cousin has a sensitivity issue where all of his nerves are hypersensitive so he cant wear certain cloths, be around certain noises ect (which may explain his versatility at piano with his really sensitive ear) and hes kinda shy about talking about his sensitivity issue. One more question. I am going to college this year and obviously can not afford the space or money for a piano in my dorm should I invest in a nice keyboard or would playing a half hour in a practice room every few days be enough to prevent my skill from atrophying.
 - Raiko

Dear Raiko,

I'll answer your easy question first -- if you can afford to buy a nice, weighted keyboard, go ahead! I love my Yamaha P90 and use it often. (This is the only time you'll hear me endorsing a non-Steinway piano.) :-)

The other question is interesting, but my response is similarly simple. Classical musicians do not suffer from the same sorts of celebrity invasion as pop musicians. Only rarely does anybody recognize me on the street. I can't imagine that strangers will start gossiping about your cousin's sex life or something similar (unless he becomes the next Martha Argerich).

Upon reflection... I suppose there are some whispers shared about Liz and me -- people are still trying to figure out the nature of our relationship. (I'm gay; she's straight; we're just good friends!) But we don't care what others think. We'd rather be our honest, authentic selves than try to shape the opinions of others. We'd rather direct our attention to more important matters -- giving a great performance! If extraneous details turn people off -- or bring in a crowd -- who cares! We're having a great time at the piano.

- Greg (October 23, 2009)

Do you teach?

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Do you teach piano as well?
 - Rae

Dear Rae,

No, I do not. I often give masterclasses, and I really enjoy doing so, but I simply do not have the time to teach privately. With all the composing I do, the performing, the writing (my book), the video editing, the answering (of questions on this site!), I hope you'll forgive me for not adding another entree to my plate. :-)

- Greg (Oct. 24, 2009)

Career Advice

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I need an honest response. I'm 18 and I've been studying piano for a year and a half. My teacher studied at the Moscow Conservatory of music in Russia under Erina Smorodinova who was a student of Emil Gilels and he is incredibly talented. My first piece was a 3-movement sonatina by Clementi and I learned that in 2 months from scratch (No prior knowledge of piano or music at ALL) then I learned prelude No. 15 (Raindrop) by Chopin and mastered that within 3 months. I play both well and with much emotion. I am currently learning the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C sharp minor and I already can play two pages within a couple days. My question is what are the odds that I could make it as a concert pianist and under what circumstances. Keep in mind that my teacher continually drills exercises and other technical practices at the piano so that I am not simply attempting pieces that I have no hope of playing.
 - John

Dear John,

I started the piano when I was eight years old, and believe it or not, that was pretty old compared to my Juilliard classmates! Learning to play the piano is not unlike learning a foreign language - it's a lot easier when you are young. And similar to learning a language, its a skill that takes years upon years to master. By the time I was 18, I had spent 10 years practicing 2 - 6 hours every day, and I still had a lot to learn (and I still do!); when I went to college, I practiced even more.

The honest answer: it's very unlikely that you'll "make it" as a concert pianist, just as it is unlikely that Juilliard graduates will make it professionally as concert pianists. It's possible, but very, very unlikely. You have to love it enough to withstand setback after setback. That said, pianists have so many different roles in society other than that of a "concert pianist," roles that are important and deserve your consideration: music teacher, educational outreach performer, accompanist, composer, arranger, music series director, artistic director, researcher, choir conductor and organizer, music therapist, chamber musician, administrator, or my favorite: amateur. It's those pianists that are a part of society - pianists who aren't estranged on a stage - who really have the opportunity to make a profound difference in an individual's life in a personal way. If you really do love music, you will find a way to share it with people, regardless of your ability.

Best wishes!

- Greg