Filtering by Category: Pedagogic Advice

Stay Present

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I've been playing piano for about a year now and have advanced well. I can play Chopin and some of the more easy Liszt now, but I feel that there is something missing in my playing. I think maybe its my phrasing or rhythmic drive or dynamic stratification. I thought another one could be that my fingers were still not muscularly developed. Do you have any advice on how to rectify any of these problems? Should I do Hanon or something like that? It would really be appreciated, or better yet tell me how you got so phenomenal?
Mark A.C. Warner

Dear Mark,

Phrasing? Rhythmic drive? Dynamic stratification? I couldn't tell you what needed the most work from a simple message, but if you are aware that these may be problem areas for you, then you're likely right.

The most straightforward advice I could offer is the following: BE PRESENT. Be in the moment, be aware, be centered, be you. It's the only way to really listen and concentrate.

The second piece of advice is a bit more clever, but essentially the same thing: play as if it were the last time you were ever going to play the piano. It's similar to the concept of living every day as if it were your last. There's something to that notion of "no second chances" that leads people to do what I wrote above: value the moment.

Somehow, Hanon has never inspired me to "be present" in the same way Chopin has. I've never practiced scales or exercises and I don't regret it. Call me spoiled, but I'd rather enjoy myself at all times than work hard for no reason other than the the payoff later. That's how I stay motivated.

Happy practicing!

- Greg

Memorization Tips

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Mr. Anderson,
Sometimes it's hard for me to memorize pieces. Am I just stupid or is it hard for everyone? I feel like killing myself when I have a memory slip. Please help me soon.
Desperate in Denver

Dear Desperate,

Memory is something I've struggled with for as long as I can.....remember. Desperation and threats are certainly no way to solve the problem - in fact, the more you think about memory while you perform, the more slips are likely to happen. There are a couple tips I can offer:

  • Practice! The more you play a piece, the easier it will be to engrain the music in your memory.
  • Think harmonically. Remember the key scheme of the piece - For example, know that your piece is in d minor and that the middle is in F major.
  • When you memorize music, connect every musical phrase in the piece to images or feelings. The brain is better at retaining visual thoughts or emotions than it is at recalling numbers and words. It's this fact that allows us to "remember a face, but not a name!" Comical images help it stick even longer. For example, if there is a heavy, fast, and low passage in the music, try thinking about an elephant performing ballet while you are learning it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you think about the elephant during performance rather than every note name, you are more likely to recall the right notes. - Or if some of the music recalls the feeling of a really good hug, think about that while you learn it.

Good luck!

- Greg

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)


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)

Tango, Sight-Reading

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
When you sight read a piece or look at a piece, do you first break it down as to which key it is in and which modulation etc. etc...? How do you learn to do that fast? Do you know of any simple not-too-hard tango duo pieces? I would love to obtain a copy of your take on Piazzolla, but currently, it is not available, right?
 - Olga

Dear Olga,

The more you sight read, the easier it will be. As a child, I would loan piles of music from the library - whatever interested me really - and play through it all at home. At Juilliard, I often checked out the maximum number of items from the library (45 items) because I was curious to read through music unfamiliar to me. The piano repertoire is like a giant treasure trove - there is so much good stuff out there, and the only way to become familiar with it is by listening or sight reading.

I'd recommend you start with what feels comfortable and go from there! Buy an "easy" classics book, or read through the Mozart sonatas, move on to the Chopin waltzes, etc. Gradually the process will become easier. For me, it is not a matter of analysis (keys, modulation, etc.) but recognizing visual patterns in the music (arpeggio figurations, chords, stylistic tendencies, etc.).

As for your other questions: I'm not familiar with any tango pieces for piano/four-hands, although I'm sure there must be something out there. Keep searching! And you are correct, my arrangement of Piazzolla's is not available yet.

- Greg

Facial Expressions and Choreography

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
In a few months, I will be performing for at a very large event. I would like my fun piece to not only sound great, but be entertaining to watch as well. Do you have any advice on how to work with the audience when performing (regarding facial expressions, etc.)? Is there any special "choreography" that I should take note of when performing a piece (for example, lifting hands off the piano at a certain time when the piece is done)? Do you know any resources that I could use to aide me in the process? Your advice is greatly appreciated!
 - Caitee

Dear Caitee,

I would never endorse facial expressions or choreography unless the music demands it. There's nothing worse than watching a pianist artificially throw their limbs into the air because they think it may entertain the audience.

I suggest you start at the root of the issue vs. its surface. Instead of asking what sorts of gimmicks and tricks you can utilize to "entertain" the audience, ask yourself how you can heighten the impact of the music. Most of your energy should go straight back into the music itself; you should be performing every piece as if it's the last time anyone in the world will ever listen to it.

Only after you've uncovered exactly what makes the music tick will other facets of the performance become clear. If for some wild reason, you end up tossing a sexy glance to the audience, it will be because you had no choice but to toss a sexy glance to the audience. It will be something the music demands of you; not something you decided to do because you thought it would be cute. Likewise, your outfits should be dictated by your interpretation of the music and not by whichever outfit may generate the biggest gasp from your audience.

Sabre Dance or A New Account of the Blue Danube Fantasy are unusual because they demand some visual performance as well as musical, but in most pieces you'll find that contorting your face and flailing your limbs are unnecessary and artificial. In the end, if you do your job, if you do what the music demands of you, you will entertain your audience.

- Greg

Dealing with nerves

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I'm 14 years old and has been participating in small competitions for 3 years, performing roughly 4-5 times a year. Last year, I entered a big competition (which I've never experienced before) and managed to get into the final round. However, my nerves got the better of me during my performance of the sonata for the final round and I did not win. I am not obsessed with winning any competition (I don't really mind losing, as long as the experience has been of some benefit) but after the competition experience, I am afraid to attempt such large competitions or to play a sonata in front of an audience again. Can you please give me some honest suggestions in how to overcome such a fear or should I simply stop entering competitions anymore (maybe for the next few years)? Thanks, Greg and I love your playing! XD
 - Anonymous 

Dear Anonymous,

Nerves are definitely a part of the performing process. Most of the time, I consider nerves to be a wonderful thing; they keep my performances exciting by giving me just the bolt of adrenaline I need. On rare circumstances, however, they can be downright detrimental!

I've actually found that the less I think about my fears, the better! I used to have a pre-concert routine worked out (to simmer my fears), but I found that it was just a waste of time and it made me more nervous. (Besides, things never went as planned, and that just ruffled my feathers even more.) Instead, I acknowledge that I'm afraid, then I simply walk on stage and have a blast.

It really only takes a brief, concentrated moment and a couple deep breathes to center oneself. From there, sit down at the piano and fall in love with the music all over again.

- Greg

Practicing Four-Hands

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
Our four hands of fingers get tangled when playing the "Waltz of the Flowers" from the Nutcracker. Any suggestions??
Muddled in Mahtomedi :)

Dear Muddled,

That's the fun of four-hand playing - tangled fingers, limbs, feet, etc.! Liz and I routinely become weak from laughter during our rehearsals!

The element of physical navigation is unique to four hands at one piano, and it is helpful to isolate the issue and practice it separately. When you practice your parts individually, make sure you practice as if the other pianist is there. Drill things like "going over" or "under," "around" or "elbow in," so that you remember everything when you and your partner practice together.

That said, there are a couple tricks you may want to consider:

  • Try placing two benches in front of the keys at a slight angle to one another so that the pianist make a "V" (facing each other). It gives you more elbow room.
  • Instead of cramming your elbows into your sides (the top player's left elbow and the bottom player's right), try elevating or lowering your elbow so that it sits above or below your partner's elbow. Although it is awkward, I find it to be much less technically restricting than playing with my elbow stuck in my side!
  • In particularly nasty points, consider switching the left and right hand parts of the two pianists. Although it may not make musical sense (and "goodness!", you'll have to cross the invisible line many composers insist on drawing down the keyboard), it's frequently easier. When the two pianists cross hands, it forces them to utilize "Trick #2."

Four-hand playing it very similar to dancing - the hands and fingers are like a pair of dancers' feet - it can be just as beautiful to watch as it is to listen!