Scarlatti- A Forgotten Composer

The title of this post is a little misleading because some pianists play a lot of Scarlatti.  However, I would say the general public does not know a lot (or anything at all) about this great piano (keyboard) composer.  In this article I will try to describe why the composer is great and why you should try to learn some of this pieces if you are serious about becoming better at the piano.

Beautiful Music

Just like Bach’s music, Scarlatti’s music is incredible and beautiful.  Some of his sonatas are the most joyous pieces of music that you can find.  See k.119 or k.96 as examples.  Yet some of his other pieces are so incredibly tender that you wonder whether the same person really composed both types of pieces.  See k.380 for an example of that type of piece.  Some of his music was well ahead of its time and many consider a large number of his sonatas ‘romantic’ pieces.  I would say k.27 is a great example of a ‘romantic’ piece, even though it was written in the baroque era.  If you haven’t listened to any of his music, I would look into either Horowitz’s or Pletnev’s recordings.  They are top-notch and seem to bring out the best that the pieces have to offer.  Horowitz specifically was a really big fan of Scarlatti’s music and was known to play a few of his pieces at a large number of his concerts.  Even if you don’t want to learn his music, it is well worth the time investment to listen to his music.  Check it out soon if you haven’t already.

Technical Benefits Galore

Aside from the high musical quality of his pieces, the technical benefits you gain from learning his pieces are immense.  First, there are specific techniques, such as repeated notes and hand jumps, that are rampant throughout his music.  You will develop those techniques very quickly.  Furthermore, you will learn finger and hand dexterity pretty quickly and you will develop a really great scale and arpeggio technique from playing his pieces.

The best part about learning Scarlatti’s pieces is that you can use them to replace boring and redundant technical exercises.  In my opinion, you will be in the same position technically by playing his pieces versus practicing Hanon exercises, for example.  The benefit of playing his pieces is that you have amazing music to show for it.  Not only do you get to really develop technical piano skills, but you also get to expand your repertoire with really great music that everybody will love.

It’s hard to hype up a composer without having you listen to his music or try learning his pieces.  Give his pieces a listen and then consider buying some sheet music.  His music isn’t overly difficult, compared to the harder works of other great composers, but the pieces are always challenging and will provide you a great benefit.  Give this composer a chance and you will surely be rewarded.

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Why Bach?

A lot of pianists will disagree on a range of topics, but they almost always agree that learning Bach is a really great idea.  In this post, I will give my thoughts on why it is never a bad idea to learn as much Bach as possible.

It’s Beautiful Music

The most obvious reason to learn a piece of music is because it is beautiful.  Some people consider the baroque era more on the boring side, but I certainly don’t agree.  Furthermore, Bach produced a wide range of pieces that touch on every possible emotion and theme you could think of.  Some of his music is the most tender little pieces of music you’ve ever heard.  Other pieces are very grand and have a lot of bravado.  Either way, the quality of the music is really high.

Technical Benefits

Bach’s music is constructed to provide equal benefit to your left and right hand.  If you are playing a two-part invention, for example, you will play the melody in both hands several times.  This is opposed to a lot of romantic music where the left hand is usually just there for accompaniment.  If you are playing a fugue or a similar type of piece, you will develop extremely good finger independence as well.  This is because you oftentimes are playing a melody on one part of your hand and playing an accompanying voice in the other part of your hand.  Multi-voice music is a really great way to develop finger independence and piano technique in general.

Musical Benefits

Learning Bach is a really great way to understand music.  His music is truly the basis for a large portion of all Western music that came after him.  By going through his inventions, you will learn techniques of how to get the most out of melodic material.  You will get a lot of insight into counterpoint and into how to compose in general.  The benefits of learning his music goes way beyond just the technical benefits.  I highly suggest learning as much Bach as you possibly can.  You will certainly not regret it.  A lot of his pieces are short, so you can potentially learn a large number of pieces if you are ambitious at all.

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Typical Inefficient Piano Practice

How do most people practice?  Why is it so inefficient?  Let me try to explain by describing the average person practicing any given piece on the piano.  The advice you always hear is “oh, Billy, just play with both hands really slowly with a metronome.  Slowly, you can bring the piece up to speed with the metronome.”  While some of this advice might be good, like using a metronome for example, this is very bad advice in general.

First of all, the movements you need to play a piece at speed are quite often different from the movements you needs to play the piece really slowly.  Also, it is very inefficient to practice hands together and try to bring a piece slowly up to speed.  You will develop bad habits that way and it will take you a very long time (if ever) to be able to play the piece at a good performance level.

In order to prevent these bad habits from developing, you should do a little thinking on what movements you will need to play the piece at performance speed.  If you can figure those movements out, you can then slow down those movements (keeping the same general movements, however) and then practice them that way.  This is a lot better than just starting off practicing a piece really slowly.  It makes a lot of sense to have a teacher show you how this should be done for the pieces you are playing.

I also strongly advocate practicing pieces hands separately at first.  This is the best way to work on bringing a piece up to speed in the most efficient manner.  If you can’t play a piece at performance speed hands separately, then you will certainly not be able to play the piece hands together at anything close to performance speed.  For that reason alone, it makes no sense to start practicing by learning a piece slowly with the metronome.  Don’t fall into the trap that the majority of piano students fall into.  Find the most efficient ways to practice and then use the methods to your advantage to improve at a much faster pace than everyone else.

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How to Learn More

While I would like to think everything you need to know can be found in this website, I know that this is simply not the case.  There are a lot of really good resources out there that can help you develop as a musician and as a pianist specifically even further.  I’ve tried to limit the number of sites I mention so as not to inundate you with options.  Here are 3 really good sites that I have found that can help you even further.

http://learning-piano-chords.com

This is a blog that discusses a wide range of topics that relate to piano and music theory.  While the name of the site suggests it focuses solely on learning piano chords, there are a lot of very informative articles on other related subjects.  Having difficult memorizing your pieces?  There’s a great article on this site for that.  Want to know how to maintain proper posture when practicing?  There’s an article for that as well.  Want to know what the most basic chord progressions are on the piano?  There’s an article for that as well.  You will be able to find a lot of great information here that will help you become a much better pianist.  Give the site a read-through and refer back to it whenever applicable.

http://pianostreet.com

This might be the most authoritative site on the piano solely because of its very active forum.  You can ask any question related to the piano or music theory and you will get a really great response from an established teacher or pianist.  It is a really great community full of teachers, students, and pianists that are all very helpful to each other.  You don’t even need to really ask any questions, as you can simply read through the very large archive of forums threads and you can probably find the information you were looking for.  This is a really great site.

http://pianoworld.com

If Piano Street is the most authoritative site on the piano on the Internet, then Piano World might be the second most authoritative.  It differs from Piano Street in that it has a lot of information about pianos (how to buy, what to buy, etc.).  It also has a really active forum of students, teachers, and professional pianists that can be really useful too. Definitely give this site a look if you are looking to improve your abilities.  If you read through this site and the other two that I mentioned, you will be well on your way to getting better as a pianist (in addition to reading my site of course).

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How Much Music Theory Do You Need To Know?

A lot of piano students wonder how much music theory they need to know if they want to become advanced pianists.  You can actually get away with knowing very little music theory.  Where the real benefit of having and advanced background in music theory is in memorizing pieces and developing really great interpretations.  If you can intuitively understand why a composer makes a certain key change in a piece, then you will be able to memorize that piece much more easily than someone who doesn’t understand that concept.

At a minimum, you need to be able to read music very well to become a great pianist.  You should also have a basic understanding of the different key signatures and how they relate to one another.  If you can learn all the scales and chords within each key signature, you will put yourself at a great advantage over other people.  You basically want to become fluent in reading music, to the point where it becomes second nature and you can learn notes very quickly.  If you can’t do this, you will spend too much time trying to figure out what notes to play and you won’t ever advance very far.

If you don’t know music theory very well, it helps if you can at least recognize patterns.  If you can tell that a certain piece repeats a section from the beginning in a different key, that piece of knowledge will be very helpful to you when trying to memorize your pieces.  There are always tons of patterns in classical music, you just need to be on the lookout for them.  If you are trying to memorize a passage, try to think of ways you can think about the passage on a deeper level than just what the notes are.  See if you can tell how they relate to each other.  It might be difficult to do this at first, but after a while you should be able to do it rather easily.  This is the best way to get around learning music theory at an advanced level.

So how much music theory do you need to know to be a great pianist.  Well, the answer is “it depends.”  There are certainly ways around it, so if you are good at reading music and can find patterns in music, you can be a really great pianist without knowing music theory all that well.

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Should You Use a Metronome?

There is a lot of discussion out there on whether you should use a metronome when practicing the piano.  Some people think it makes you play robotically and it warps your sense of free musical expression.  While this might be true in part, I really believe the benefits of using a metronome far outweigh any downsides.  Here are a few reason why I feel this way.

Mental rhythm is usually off base

Some people think they don’t need a metronome and can just rely on their natural intuition to play pieces evenly.  This is rarely, if ever, actually true.  You would be surprised how uneven your playing can be without practicing with a metronome.  For this reason, it is very important to use a metronome at least at times when practicing to make sure you can keep a consistent beat when necessary during your pieces.

Great for bringing pieces up to speed and tracking progress

If you are trying to learn fast passages, the metronome is an amazing tool to track your progress.  Without it, you have to rely solely on your intuition to see how well you are progressing.  With a metronome, you can say that you are, for example, able to play a certain passage two clicks faster than you could a week ago.  The metronome is literally the best possible tool you could use to track your progress when learning difficult pieces.

Great for playing evenly

There are certain types of music that require very even playing.  Lots of baroque and classical era music, for example, require this.  The metronome is the best way to make sure that you are in fact playing evenly.  You don’t want to have to rely on your ear to be able to tell whether you are playing evenly.  Use a metronome for this purpose.

Changes in tempo isn’t appropriate for a lot of music

For slow music or romantic era music, it may be vary appropriate to periodically slow the pace of a piece down or speed it up.  Rubato is a commonly used form of musical expression in the romantic era and this technique can really bring out the beauty of a piece.  For baroque and classical music, however, this does not really apply.  If you are playing a Bach invention, for example, it is most appropriate to keep a consistent pace throughout the piece.  Playing certain Mozart piano pieces requires even playing and it isn’t really appropriate to slow down or speed up at the artist’s discretion.  Practicing these pieces with a metronome is therefore a great way to ensure you are playing these pieces as the composers intended.

 

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Should You Get a Teacher?

If you are thinking about learning the piano, I would highly suggest getting a teacher.  This article will go through the various reasons why getting a teacher is the best way to go, even if the lessons for a teacher are relatively costly.

Learn Music Theory in Context

You can learn music theory on your own quite effectively, but teachers can help you learn in the context of the pieces you are playing.  In many ways, there is no better training than this.

Much Better Interpretations

Teachers have extensive experience with so many piano pieces.  They have studied how certain composers should be performed and in general have the knowledge and experience to help you make the best interpretations when playing your pieces.  They can help you maximize the effect of performing your pieces.  If you ever wish to play in front of other people, getting a teacher is a really good idea.

Prevent Bad Habits

It is very easy to develop bad habits when playing the piano.  The natural posture you take when sitting at the instrument is probably wrong and the natural way you try to play scales, arpeggios, and chords is probably wrong as well.  Without a teacher, you will naturally develop very bad habits at the instrument unless you are lucky.  Put yourself on the right footing from the start and get a teacher who can help you avoid developing these bad habits.

Learn How to Practice Better

As most teachers are very accomplished pianists and have lots of experience teaching students of all abilities, they have really good insight into how to practice efficiently.  They can judge based on your abilities and learning style how you should approach certain pieces and you should practice in general.  This insight is extremely valuable and something that you just cannot receive without having a teacher.  You can learn to practice efficiently by doing lots of reading, but having the personal attention of a teacher can make you much more efficient and effective when practicing.

Prevent Injuries

If you ever try to learn a piece that is relatively difficult and perhaps has some fast passages, you may be at risk for injury if you aren’t using the right techniques and practice methods.  You will never know if you are using the right methods if you are just learning by yourself.  It is dangerous to learn difficult pieces if you don’t have the proper training and you aren’t using a teacher.  You can really hurt your wrists, shoulders, and/or back if you don’t have a good teacher watching your technique.

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