Friday, May 25, 2018

Play to your strengths

Planning to spend the bank holiday weekend catching up on a spot of practising?...well, if you're anything like me, you may be wondering where to start. I sit and stare at my books of Beethoven, Debussy and Schumann, feeling stumped before playing a note by the decision of which piece to pick and why. Brush up an old one or learn something new? Try something I know (well, think) I can still manage, or something that will force me to learn a new technical trick? Or what? Fortunately I've asked pianist, teacher and maker of anthologies Melanie Spanswick for a guest post and she says: play to your strengths. Here's the post explaining why. JD

Playing to your strengths
A guest post by Melanie Spanswick

Piano students working towards a graded piano exam, a diploma, a competition, a concert or any type of performance always want to know if the repertoire they have selected offers an eclectic programme. Is their choice of composers, piano pieces and range of styles and genres, suitably complimentary? The more discerning student also questions whether their selected repertoire actually suits their playing and, more importantly, showcases their technique and musicianship as it stands at present. 

This last point is arguably most crucial. As pianists, we may have a firm view of our ‘ideal’ programme. It probably consists of several favourite pieces, topped off with a couple that we always meant to learn. And then there’s that one piece which we know will really challenge our technique, but which we feel might be a good addition to the programme to help us ‘improve’ our playing. We hope this will provide the necessary incentive, guiding us through the inevitable sticky practice sessions and lengthy preparation time. Piano playing is a complex task and without the inclusion of interesting music, reaching that pianist goal might seem a tad unrealistic. 
When selecting a programme, there are numerous factors to consider, but the most vital is this: always play to your strengths. Programming is a very personal choice; it can be a lengthy process, and one totally dependent on a pupil’s ability right now. Any public performance (and I put an exam in this category, despite performing for one or two examiners) requires a certain level of mastery; preferably, complete mastery. A pupil must not only be confident with the technical demands of each work, but they must be able to deliver those pieces under pressure, succinctly and with panache, flair and a musical understanding. It’s not possible to do this if pieces are slightly beyond their capabilities or out of their comfort zone. This may seem obvious, but as an examiner, adjudicator, and teacher, I observe this issue on a regular basis. If your desire is to improve or work on technique, by all means do so via technical studies, exercises, scales, arpeggios or even within the confines of specific repertoire (and with the careful guidance of an expert teacher), but learn the necessary technique before actually attempting to perform the repertoire that requires it. And never expose your weaknesses in public – performance is a chance to show off!
Melanie Spanswick
Photo: Sally Olsen
When choosing repertoire, aim to discover a wide variety of music, and try to play or study works by a whole gamut of composers. This isn’t to say that you must doggedly learn everything by all the major composers, but you do need to have sampled a fair amount (or at least listened and examined the scores), so that you have formed opinions on styles and genres, and have discovered works which you feel will exhibit your pianistic talents. Observe how your favoured composers write for the instrument, and compare this with your particular skill set. 
You may be a whizz at contrapuntal textures, in which case you’ll want to focus on J S Bach and some of his Baroque contemporaries, perhaps building a programme around one of his extended works such as the Italian Concertoor an English Suite. You may like to pair such a piece with a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugueor other works featuring counterpoint by Hindemith (from Ludus Tonalis,for example). Equally, the preludes and fugues by Mendelssohn or a fugue by Saint-Saëns, might be interesting offerings too. By homing in on this style and a fairly narrow band of composers, you will unearth a programme which plays to your strengths whilst also offering a balanced selection. 
Similarly, those who excel at rapid, complicated passagework will want to build their programmes accordingly. They may choose to spotlight Scarlatti, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, or many other such composers. It’s possible to add a couple of Twentieth or Twenty-first century works into the mix, whose style also exemplifies these qualities. A useful tactic to apply before making a final decision on a programme, is to categorise composers according to their most prolific technical elements (this is also an absorbing exercise). You can then explore those composers and works which resonate with your skill set. 
I would hope a piano teacher would discuss programming in detail; this is one reason why it’s a good idea to be able to talk frankly with your tutor. If you don’t resonate with their suggestions, you must feel free to say so, and they should guide you to an acceptable solution, but all within your current standard of playing. 
When helping students select a programme, I try to encourage them to seek a comfortable, attainable selection; one which they will be happy to work on for a few months. Most pupils enjoy learning a Classical sonata, and as this is standard repertoire, I think it’s a prerequisite. Such a work can be juxtaposed with several modern or contemporary choices. I am keen to introduce new pieces to students, and they generally relish traversing lesser-known works. This happy marriage can result in accomplishing a higher level of technical and musical prowess.  
In my recent two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). I present works of many different musical styles. Whilst choosing these works, I was mindful to select a balance of pieces that would not only give pianists the opportunity to play to their strengths and show off their skills set, but also explore pieces that might technically challenge them. And, to this end, each piece is prefaced with technical and musical information on how to actually learn it. 
Whenever and wherever your next performance opportunity presents itself, take time to think about what you want to play and whether that piece is suitable for your current pianistic skill. When you adopt this mind set, your playing will almost certainly transform and you’ll become a much more confident pianist.