Category Archives: piano teaching

if i’m wrong i’m right where i belong

I’ve been teaching about diminished chords in the last couple of weeks – they appear in a Grade 1 RIAM piece called ‘Lame Duck’ and also in the third section of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Here’s a quote from Barry Harris:

People react to a lot of things. What I’ve found they really react to is diminished notes. See, ’cause, if you play diminished notes with something, it’ll sound like it’s wrong. And people…the ears of people react to wrong. The audience reacts to wrong. And what you have to do, you have to throw that little ‘wrong’ in, then you make it right, that messes them up. But you got their attention; it’s real weird, too, it’s really true. They’re real funny about that. People can react to a wrong note, “now I say, do you hear that, he’s playing a wrong chord in that song”. But you make it right then they don’t know what to think. So you have to fool people and people will gasp.

from a Frans Elsen film of a Barry Harris workshop at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague

Title from the beautiful Beatles song, ‘Fixing A Hole’. Paul’s adlib vocal line over the last chorus hits all kinds of jazzy notes, there’s a harpsichord, George’s guitar parts are tasty tasty, and it has the breezy mood that’s so wonderfully prevalent in a lot of Paul’s songwriting.

Play smarter, not harder

Yesterday I was digitally leafing through Tobias Matthay’s book, ‘The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’. I picked up on a key motivation behind his teaching: people were playing too hard. It’s easy to imagine a generation of amateur musicians attempting to recreate the “loudness” of, say, Rachmaninov by simply playing harder. Matthay would rather that pianists learned to play much much softer.

I’ve been practising a lot in these first months of 2021 – mostly the first 5 Goldberg variations – on my Yamaha Clavinova. I tend to have the volume kind of low so as not to disturb the neighbours (and Jen, trying to work from the next room). It struck me after reading Matthay that I’m definitely playing hard. With lots of wasted effort. What if I turned up the volume and tried to play softer? (There’s also a sensitivity setting on the Clavinova – low, medium, and hard – which allows the illusion of more resistance from the keyboard itself.)

It occurs to me that the vast majority of my students don’t have real pianos at home. Most of the beginners don’t even have weighted keys. I’m interested to see what it will mean for my own playing and for my teaching to focus on the development of wider-ranging dynamic levels. We’re back into school and real-life lessons on Thursday, so my students (and I, too!) will be back in front of a real piano again. First lesson…let’s take the front off and see how this thing works…

Tobias Matthay was an educational writer, composer, and professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music from 1884-1925.

Advent calendar: 13

(So I’ve missed a few – I’ll fill in the gaps next year!)

Today, I’ve made a tutorial video for a piece that you might recognise from Greg Lake’s moody Christmas hit, ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’. It’s called ‘Troika’ and was written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and is in his ballet ‘Lieutenant Kije’. This easy piano arrangement was done by the prolific composer and arranger Pauline Hall and is one of the 2016 Preliminary exam piano pieces set by the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Troika is the Russian word for three-of-a-kind and here depicts a team of three horses pulling a sleigh.

Enjoy!

Advent Calendar: 1

I’m going to post something every day of Advent!

First up is something special that I’ve been meaning to get done for aaaages. It’s a piano arrangement of the Christmas classic, Winter Wonderland, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (lyrics by Richard B. Smith). I wrote this at the request of one of my piano students at the time, Chloe. A big, big thank you to my friend Mark Summers and his father, Ian, for their advice on the musical typesetting.

So, please have a listen 🙂 The mp3 is downloadable, so feel free to add it to your Christmas playlists! Just click the little ‘down arrow’ at the top right of the SoundCloud player below.

If you’re a piano player, the sheet music is available in PDF format at my online music store – click here to go directly to the score. I’d really love you to share this with friends, too.

Someone Like You (Adele) — piano tutorial

I’m teaching piano two days a week at the moment at a primary school in Dalkey. It’s a maternity leave cover and the teacher I’m covering for left brilliant notes and guidance for me. Some of the students are doing work on Royal Irish Academy of Music grades, but most are beginners. With the beginners I’m mostly using John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course, with a few using Me and My Piano.

  
One of my students has been coming in to lessons and playing snippets of songs that she’s learned from YouTube videos, mostly Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and, last week, Damien Rice’s ‘9 Crimes’.

When I got home yesterday, I did a search for tutorial videos for the Adele song. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few, and the one I looked at had nearly 800,000 views! It was okay, but didn’t particularly demonstrate a good hand position, or in fact have the exact accompaniment part that’s on the recording. So I decided to make my own.

It’s actually a bit tricky to set up a camera to shoot down onto the keyboard while you’re playing. I’d tried once before, a few years ago out in Dunboyne, using a music stand with my iPad on it. This time, I dug out an old PC webcam we had bought in Australia and clipped that to a tripod. It still had to sit awkwardly between my legs, but it didn’t matter much for this piece, since there’s not a lot of movement in the hands.

Anyway, see what you think. Any feedback would be much appreciated. What could I improve on?

PS I’m offering a discount on lessons if you sign up before Christmas.

A new chapter begins

I’m just home from a lovely full day of being a professional musician. I had five students in the afternoon / evening, three in one household and two in another. In the second house I was given a hot bowl of leftover chilli, in the first I got all the coffee I could drink and some marvellous chocolate chip cookies. I worked on aspects of musical performance, theory, and aesthetics with keen students.

Pretty good, right?! And that wasn’t even the best part…

This morning I rehearsed for the first time as a member of James Vincent McMorrow’s band. I worked with James on his new, ridiculously good, expansive, melodic, beautiful record, ‘Post Tropical‘. The opportunity arose for me to go touring with him and — having thought about it a *lot* and with the crucial blessing of my amazing wife — I jumped at the chance. (Check out some of the places we’ll be going.)

We got five songs done today, four from the new album including the new single, ‘Cavalier’, that has just been released today. It’s a different sound to the material he’s released before now — it’s bigger, bolder, stronger. I cannot *wait* to play it live — take a listen and you’ll see what I mean 🙂

First week back…

This past week was my first back after the summer. I had a wisdom tooth out on Monday 2nd and took that whole week off to recover (although it wasn’t as stressful and traumatic as the extraction I had back in April…). It was good not to try and start back that very first week and let the kids get back into the school routine. My timetable didn’t need too much tweaking, thankfully. I’m teaching every afternoon and it all seems to work, travel-wise. Tuesday is a bit frantic and I reckon I’ll need to get a GoCar for those days, but the rest is doable on public transport.

I’m listening to the new album from Elvis Costello & The Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’, as I write this…

I’ve started some new things this term, too. I’ve started singing with Anúna — so far I’m getting to know the music and the group. It’s going to be a steep learning curve: the choir sing everything from memory and I’m just not used to that yet. I also have a good deal of work to do on voice production. Over the next weeks and months I’m going to seek out some voice lessons from a very experienced teacher who will be able to help me get a bigger sound.

Another new group I’ve joined is Dublin Symphony Orchestra, a long-established amateur orchestra in Dublin. I expressed my interest to their clarinettist literally years ago when we worked together on a theatre piece. Woodwind spots don’t come up very often, so I was delighted when he got in touch a few weeks ago and invited me along. We read through Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the bare mountain’ and Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’ at the rehearsal and it was so good to be back in an orchestra. Seems like a lovely group of people, too 🙂

Something had to give with all this novelty, of course, and I’ve bid farewell to my regular gigs at The Millstone. We had a good run — I’ve played there at least once a week for over a year — and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. Obviously my repertoire has hugely expanded, too, and I’m going to try and capture some of the breadth of the material I can do now on my YouTube channel over the next months.

Definitely try to give ‘Wise Up Ghost’ a listen — mellifluous grooves, fabulous lyrics delivered by a confident, experienced front man…

Two musical gems from the bargain bin

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Since I started teaching piano a couple of years ago, I’ve periodically trawled the ‘sale’ sections of the music shops in town for suitable material for beginners and intermediate players. This one — reduced to a measly €2 — has a wide range of styles in it, not all to my taste, by some very fine British composers. Now that teaching is winding down for the summer (the incredulity of some of my students when I tentatively suggested lessons in the holidays!), I’ve been going through some of the books, taking note of pieces which might appeal. Any that stand out, I mark with a tick, any that I particularly don’t like get an ‘x’. Life’s too short to teach music you don’t like! (Thankfully, the Royal Irish Academy of Music make brilliant selections for their grade exam books. I’m looking forward to the publication of the 2014 ones…)

Here are two of the pieces that stood out in ‘A Century of Piano Music’, both by C.S. Lang, a composer I know nothing about.

Wikipedia tells me he was born in New Zealand in 1891; studied with composer Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, London; chiefly composed for and taught organ; died in 1971.

Both pieces are from a collection of fifteen easy pieces published in 1955.

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Thinkin Bout You — Frank Ocean (mini tutorial)

Here are a few resources I prepared for my student, Ben, this week. This song has a lovely vocal by Frank Ocean underpinned by some juicy seventh chords in the verses. It was a good song to demonstrate chord inversions: in the chorus, the three-note chords (triads) that the right hand plays are all in 1st inversion (with the root note in the middle).

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