Monday, June 24, 2013


      Interpretation is very important in music. It's not enough to learn the notes only to sound good, you need to interpret the piece. Often great pianists have such unique interpretations that the same piece will sound different in each one's hands. Sensible interpretation, combined with a mastery of technique, is a goal that many pianists strive for, with very few ever reaching it at some point during their careers.

     Fortunately, interpretative playing is a skill that is acquired with practice. It's certainly a good start if you have a natural talent for music, but it's not necessary. As you play pieces from different eras (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century), you'll acquire the taste of each of them. Pieces composed in the same period usually have so much in common in regard to structure and form. When interpreting, it's very important to remain within the boundaries of theses features, so as not to damage the quality of the music you're playing. For example, in Classical pieces, it is not wise to use rubato (the style of slowing down and speeding up tempo freely) when playing them. Of course there are always the exceptions, but usually Classical composers composed in strict tempos, i.e. one tempo throughout the whole piece or movement. However when playing from the Romantic repertoire, one must extensively use rubato in order to make sense of the pieces, and not sound like a robot. It's called "The Romantic Era" because much of the music composed at that time from different composers invokes emotion into the player/listener, not just plain musical lines like in previous eras.

     When working on a famous piece, it's best to do a little research about it because it's highly likely that it was composed for a reason. Beethoven's Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata were composed out of love, but love has two sides, a bright cheerful one when you're with the one you love, and a dark sinister one when you simply cannot be with them. In Fur Elise he was apparently wooing his loved one (a student of his), but in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, it seems he was heartbroken and devastated. If you had similar experiences in your life, you can channel them into the music. Try to bring those painful/cheerful memories to life when playing a piece of corresponding emotion. Utilize your life experiences in music. Usually the great musicians didn't have a steady and easy life. In fact, most of the successful musicians lead bumpy lives with lots of ups and downs. They channel their personal lives into the music to create magical masterpieces. Great music comes from great lives, and great lives come from great experiences and lessons.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Improving Technique and Reading!

     This post is targeted at the late beginners and intermediate players who have been playing for a while and want to improve their technique and reading abilities. Expect yourself to go shopping for some sheet music or printing them off the internet along the way!


     Think of technique as a workout, where you build strength and endurance. On the piano, we strive to play with as much relaxation as possible so that we do not have to deal with unnecessary tension in the arms. This will come from finger independence training.

      What you're going to do is train every finger to move as independently as possible, without causing other fingers to move but at the same time not feeling tension in your arm while doing so. This process will take a decent amount of time until your muscle fibers are so finely intricate that they get used to such movements and co-ordinations.

       Get "Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist" book, which consists of 60 purely technical unmusical graded exercises. Practice 2 exercises for about 10 minutes a day starting with a slow tempo and moving your fingers in a way such that the whole hand doesn't move. This will train your fingers to play efficiently, without much effort, yet achieve much. You will find that the process of speeding up will come along the way naturally, never force speed!

      The next step would be Carl Czerny's amazing book "Op.299: The School Of Velocity" in which he wrote 40 exercises that are like Hanon's, technically useful, however very musical. You don't have to finish the whole Hanon Book to go to this one, but better start off this one after acquiring basic finger independence technique. This will work out your co-ordination, where you get to play simple yet tricky passages fast. You will learn it by playing it very slowly first then speeding up until the required tempo, and your technique will benefit greatly from these exercises. I suggest you go through all of the exercises in this book since each one addresses a different technical problem and deals with it in a very effective manner.

      Sight Reading:

      Sight reading is the process by which a musician plays music from sheet for the first time, with negligible mistakes in pitch or tempo. Sight reading is much like reading words, you don't read every single letter, but entire words and even sentences. Thus we read and think in terms of patterns. If you want your music reading to be as fluent as your ability to read this post right now, I believe you should tackle it with the same approach.

       So what are the patterns in music? Scales, arpeggios, and chords! If you already play scales and arpeggios as part of technical exercises (which you should!) then you will have no problem whatsoever playing music in such familiar keys. After all, what good is a reader if he can't play what he reads in a satisfying manner?

       Get the "Beyer: Elementary Instruction Op.101" book, it will help you from the very basics of learning note reading to a pretty advanced intermediate level towards the end of the book. Start each exercise with a metronome beside you, and set it at a comfortable tempo so you can read without mistakes in pitch and always keeping the tempo steady. Eventually your reading speed will increase with a lot of practice, so just be patient. It will suffice to sight read one or two new exercises daily, and by 2 weeks' time you'll already see considerable progress! The more you get the hang of it, the more time you'll spend practicing, because you'll enjoy it! Imagine the day when you're getting the sheet music for a good song or piece you just heard, and playing through it from start to finish for your personal enjoyment. If this doesn't motivate you I don't know what will!


Friday, June 14, 2013

Reflections on Some Famous Pieces

    In this post I'll be giving my opinion about some pieces I studied lately, based on my own experience in learning them.


    Revolutionary Etude: This is an outstanding piece, the first time I heard it I thought I was hearing the best music in the world. I was way more musically inexperienced back then so I guess I exaggerated a little bit. But nonetheless it sounds very impressive for the musical and unmusical ears alike! You'll have to be a very highly experienced pianist to tackle it, and it's no cakewalk for even the most talented of pianists, and most just can't pull it off without a load of preparation and hard work! The left hand continuously plays scales and awkward arpeggios, with the right hand playing big brutal chords which have to be timed exactly at the right beat. So as much as it sounds tempting, I recommend you leave the whole set of Chopin Etudes for later, them being among the most difficult the piano repertoire has to offer.

       Preludes op.28 nos.4 and 20: These are probably the easiest of the preludes in this set of 24 preludes. They have beautiful sad melodies, no.4 expresses grief and no.20 is more melancholic. If you are a good sight reader you should learn them in no time. As for technical obstacles, there is nothing to work on except the stretto measures in no 4 and the pianissimo large chords in no 20, which are prone to breaking.

      Moonlight Sonata: The title clearly has no relation to the music what so ever. Beethoven himself was furious when that title was given out on his masterpiece that he almost withdrew it from publication! When I first heard the first movement I thought it sounded like a funeral march, but when I played it and realized the constant triplet rhythm across the whole movement, I felt like it was a clock ticking, with the third movement in Presto tempo being like a race with time, where one is running out of it. The second movement is basically a tension reliever between the other two emotionally consuming movements. The first movement is technically easy but will not sound impressive without high musicality. And by impressive I mean touching the very bottom of one's soul. The second movement can be sight read by an intermediate/advanced player. The third movement, however, needs a decent amount of dexterity before attempting to play it. Its fast arpeggios on mostly black keys and subtle dynamic changes challenge even the most capable pianists.


       Piano Sonata K 545: This has been labelled by many as "The easiest piano sonata" although I totally disagree. The sonata is easy but it's not the easiest out there! Also, difficulty is a relative matter, it might seem easy for some pianists, but it is also considered a troublemaker for many. The problem with Mozart in general is that his music is scandalous: If you miss a note or hit a wrong little one, the audience goes frowning at you. So you will need good clarity production from those fingers, well calibrated dynamics and a lot of practice to play it without displeasing the ears. Also mind the rhythm, as it may get tricky in parts of the first movement. The second movement is easy to play, the third being fast and energetic, needing agile and seamless movements of the hand and fingers.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Learning a New Piece..

      All right so you heard this awesome piano music over YouTube and you want to play it yourself. You download and print the sheet music and you're about to start when suddenly..

      I was learning the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata which goes at an incredible speed until this passage came up, requiring me to hold an octave with my right hand and trill the 4th and 5th fingers (4th being on the upper note of the octave, 5th a half step above it). The amount of tension I felt due to the wide stretch was unbearable, and for a moment I thought my fingers would snap off my hand.

      I had this piece on hold for 10 months before I could execute this passage fairly enough that it doesn't make my ears bleed. All because of a stupid single mistake: I didn't go through the whole score before tackling it, and that experience has taught me. Even the most simplest of pieces may contain one devilishly tricky passage which will need special attention.. so I check that I could play that part alone, and if I was successful to the degree that I can at least hit the right notes at the tempo, I learn the piece. If not, I do some finger exercises to help me execute such passages better, and come across the same piece 3 months later to check for progress.

      So, before learning any new piece you must scan the whole score for technical obstacles. You shouldn't worry about unfamiliar marks, though, a pocket music dictionary or the internet will tell you how to play notes with these marks on them. But most importantly learn what is possibly within your grasp but also with a little technical challenge, to guarantee improvement in overall piano playing.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The 10,000 Hour Rule

      There is this well known rule that states that if you practice anything for about 10,000 hours you become a master of that thing! Sounds cool no? This was a research carried around 100 years ago with a group of musicians in a music college. The elite musicians were found to have practiced for about 10,000 hours, the good ones 8000, and the average about 4000. So if we divide 10,000 hours by a time period of ten years, it means 1000 hours per year of practice. That will be about 3 hours a day. So if you practice 3 hours a day for 10 years straight, you'll definitely become a master of what you practiced this long.

       The most important thing is proper practice, as mentioned before in my other post. Of course you won't be playing properly right away, it's just that you have to check on your playing every now and then to realize the problems you're facing and eventually work a solution for them.

       When I first heard about this rule it got me pumped up to practice harder and more diligently, because it says that it's only a matter of time before you become great at what you do consistently. I think you'll feel that way about it too!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The 3 Habits

       A common error among learning pianists is their belief that finger strength is the key to flawless piano playing. The piano keys obviously don't need that much strength to be depressed, as a child can play it. However you need to develop good habits from the start that will ease your maneuvers around those keys.

       First of all, practicing scales is by far the best way to develop finger efficiency. Start off with B major before C major, because B is much easier to play in the right hand than C, which isn't as easy as its seems (you know all white keys no black). Looks can be deceiving, though, and while B major has five sharps in its key signature, it is much easier to play properly because the distance the thumb moves under the hand after the 3rd note and to the 4th (in this case D# to E, a black to white key) is smaller than that moved by the thumb in C where you pass it under your hand from E to F (white to white). This maneuver is slightly difficult for beginners but with time their fingers will become much more flexible to play these scales properly.

       Habit 1: Play Properly!

     Playing a scale is no big deal, the problem is in playing it PROPERLY. If you play it in that manner, and play it really fast, you should have no problem. Unfortunately many find it difficult and miss some notes on their way, and are left with exhausted fingers after such trials. The solution (and this one will need a huge amount of patience) to this is to play the scale very slowly every day until it feels natural for you to do so, then gradually speed up the tempo. You will have to make sure that only your fingers are moving, and that the thumb passes under your hand with minimum hand and wrist movement (preferably the hand should stay still while doing it). This can be very hard at first but with constant and regular practice it will feel very natural.

      When it comes to arpeggios, they are chords just broken to be played note by note. For example, In C major triad (C-E-G-C), you will play the notes one at a time with three fingers then pass the thumb under the G and onto the next octave C if you're completing another cycle up there, or just stop at it with the fifth finger and go back. This looks hideously difficult but the trick here is to focus the weight of your entire hand on the finger-pad of the striking finger. Make sure to curl those fingers like you're holding a tennis ball or those knuckles might collapse and your fingers fall flat on the keyboard! Then comes the seventh chords, where they are basically triads with an added seventh interval, in the case of C it will be as follows: C-E-G-Bflat-C. A diminished seventh chord will look like this: C-Eflat-Gflat-A-C. Playing both types of chords as arpeggios on all keys along with basic triads will guarantee hassle free playing when it comes to difficult repertoire.

       Habit 2: Practice Sight Reading!

        Ever wondered how people seem to get sheet music they never saw before and play it right away with not a single wrong note? That's because they are very good sight readers! Sight reading can be improved by looking through new material on a daily regular basis. 10 minutes a day is just fine for beginners. Intermediates should sight read whatever material they find at their level and Advanced players should be able to sight read a movement of a Mozart sonata without problems.

     It is better to get books that have easy sight reading exercises in the first stages, such as Beyer or Czerny, they certainly sharpen your sight reading skills to phenomenal levels if you practice from their exercises regularly and diligently.

       Habit 3: Train Them Ears!

     A famous musical proverb states that " The most valuable asset for a musician is his/her ears". And that doesn't refer to having good taste in music, you should be able to know the distances (known as intervals) between notes by your ear, and that's definitely no cakewalk. A pianist with very good aural skills can easily play a tune he just heard without the need to look at the sheet music.

     What you are going to do is learn relative pitch through listening to and identifying the interval of two notes played after each other, identifying the scales played (whether major/natural minor/harmonic minor/melodic minor), and identifying chord types (Major/Minor/Diminished/Augmented to name a few). You will need to have a solid background in music theory before attempting to do this, so you don't have to focus on it now if you're just getting started. To get started, you can find free music theory lessons here

    "Practice makes Perfect"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is Music to You?

       How much are you into music and piano? Was it forced on you when you were a child by your parents and you simply got used to the idea? Was it out of eagerness to learn a new hobby? Or was it because you felt the music was simply beautiful that you totally fell in love with it? If you're in the third category then there's a good chance you'll make it to a pretty advanced stage in piano playing sometime in your life.

        Believe it or not, I've heard many pianists my age and older who were formally trained since they were little kids and their level is just a disappointment for all the years they spent on the instrument (10+). However this is what I learned: They were encouraged by their parents to play piano while they didn't really feel it, and because they didn't have that much interest they didn't practice a lot in the past 10 years, in fact they would tell me that they practiced 30-45 minutes every other day!

      I never really remember why I took the decision to play piano, I just went straight up to my father when I was 12 asking for piano lessons, I felt a deep urge to hit those black and white keys. We didn't have a piano at home and we didn't really understand the difference between a $100 electronic Casio keyboard and a $3000 upright piano, of course I got to play the Casio for the first three years, and because we could never find a good teacher and I couldn't learn anything more serious than playing songs by ear I had to do something to satisfy my musical desires.. And so was it, I composed my first pieces before hearing any classical piece in my life. I live in Egypt so Western classical music is rarely played anywhere. In fact, I was never fully aware of its existence -I would hear stories of Beethoven's deafness though- before I turned 15. It was about that time that a professional musician heard me play a composition of mine and insisted I start taking formal piano lessons. Before I knew it, I fell in love with classical music, and the love hate relationship started.

           Piano giants who entered history have much interesting stories. Franz Liszt, the famous Hungarian virtuoso who was accompanied by the term "Lisztomania" for his dazzling pianism. He was very well known for his stunning sight reading abilities. He could go through a whole symphony playing most if not all its parts/instruments on piano. He once sight read Chopin Etudes Op.25 that Chopin himself wished he could play it as beautifully. When asked how he does it, he replied that it comes with daily practice, 8 hours per day dedicated to nothing but sight reading. I think it's that amount of dedication that engraved his name in the history of music for centuries..

        Another great pianist was the Russian-born Sergei Rachmaninoff. His technique was outstanding that a wrong note was an extremely rare event in his recitals. He was also a great composer of the Romantic period. It was once reported that he practiced 15 hours per day to sharpen his skills and even surpass his own limits, in an attempt to gain the tonal clarity of his contemporary J.Hofmann.

         It's obvious that talent alone isn't what brought these guys such fame and legendary status. It was their dedication, tireless practice and most importantly their incredible love for music. If you love music that much, you will fight for it, and if you do, it will reward you greatly.




         Welcome to my blog. I'm an Egyptian college student and amateur pianist and composer. In my three years of formal piano studies I have come across a lot of problems that most if not all pianists experience in their early years. The purpose of this blog is to help wannabe pianists all around the world to identify errors in their playing and correct it. Believe me, nothing is worse than practicing a bad habit over and over again.
        The true purpose of a formal piano training is to explore the maximum musical potentials of the pianist. Through a series of finger exercises (scales and arpeggios) to experience in musical expression in the form of dynamics and so on, a capable pianist will be able to bring out exactly how they hear the music out into the world. Piano playing that is technically brilliant but lacking musicality and originality of thought isn't better than getting your computer or MIDI keyboard to play a musical piece. In fact you will be stunned at how many artists have so different interpretations of the same piece that they often sound like totally different pieces! Their technical efficiency is only a tool they use to get the music out of their mind and into the world.

        Therefore I conclude that it is most important to train the mind before the fingers. The painter must have a clear vision of how the picture will look like, then use the specific brush strokes that will bring this picture into real life. Same goes with music, a pianist should have a clear thought of what they want to hear, before attempting to tickle the ivories.