– from Ashley Fripp
Whether you’ve just taken delivery of your first piano or already have some key achievements under your belt, these tips on learning the piano from a highly accomplished international concert pianist will help you develop your skills and refine your technique.
Ashley Fripp has answered some of the most common questions from students and shared these with us to help you with your piano learning journey.
- How should I sit at the piano?
Sitting at the piano with a good posture is extremely important for many reasons: it ensures that we do not develop any tension in the body meaning we can play without injury or strain; it also means we have better control over the sound we produce on the instrument. It’s important to sit with a straight, but relaxed, spine; your shoulders should sit comfortably and not be held up. The height of the stool is also important, but very personal to every player. Generally, I would recommend sitting so that at the very least, your knees are lower than your hips so as not to put any strain or discomfort on your hips. An Alexander technique teacher once said to me to imagine that my head was a coat-hanger, and my body should just hang freely. Whilst I don’t consciously think in those terms any more, I remember it really helped me at the time.
- What is the correct hand position?
Ideally, your hand should feel relaxed when you play. In order to achieve this without the hand being ‘floppy’, keep the bridge of the hand (the row of knuckles) higher than the other joints. In other words, don’t let the bridge collapse! The thumb plays a vital role in your hand position and the fluidity of your fingerwork, so be sure to keep it curved inwards. This will help it pass under the other fingers when you are playing scales and arpeggios. The wrist should also feel fluid and free.
- Should I set a practise routine?
Being disciplined with your practise is very important for pianists of all abilities, whether you are just beginning or already very advanced. Set yourself goals every time you sit down at the piano and do your best to achieve them. Warming up routines are very personal: many people will prefer to warm up with scales or exercises, some simply prefer to start their session with music which is less dextrous. Do whatever suits your needs best, paying attention to how your fingers feel when you start practising. Don’t forget to enjoy your practise, either! Remember that we play the piano!
- How long, and often, should I practise?
This depends on many factors. Many young beginners will find they make good progress with a focussed 20 to 30 minutes every day (or most days), whereas adult beginners may enjoy spending even more time if they can. Professional concert pianists often practise for many hours every day – the Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt said that he used to practise up to 12 hours a day during his youth! Essentially, practise for as long as you like, providing you keep your concentration, your body does not feel tired from doing so, and that you are taking pleasure from it and the time is productive. If you feel your concentration is waning, take a short break and return feeling refreshed.
- What type of piano is best to learn on?
Ideally, a piano with a full size, weighted keyboard – 88 notes. Properly weighted keys help develop correct technique, and the tone and responsiveness of a proper instrument, as opposed to a non-weighted keyboard, helps you enjoy playing more. A lot of the time, many young pianists unfortunately interpret the shortcomings of a non-weighted keyboard to be shortcomings of their own playing and are much more likely to give up.
- Should I have lessons in person or can I learn online?
Whilst online learning has obviously taken place during the pandemic, it is so much better to have lessons in person. Playing over video-call platforms means that the sound gets compressed, is generally of a poor quality, and is rarely absolutely in synchronisation with the picture. In person, your teacher will be able to hear all the finer nuances in your playing and will be better able to address technical issues by seeing you play close up. Having said that, it is still preferable to have an online lesson than no lesson at all.
- Do I need to read music?
Learning to read music can be a daunting task. There are a number of famous musicians who cannot read music, but if you are learning to play the piano and interpret other composers’ works, it will be best for you in the long-run to learn. Playing by ear is a useful skill, but ultimately you will be imitating other pianists’ playing, whereas the real joy in music-making is forming your own interpretations. Reading music is also an excellent intellectual exercise: you are processing two, sometimes even three staves of music at once, you are challenging your coordination skills by interpreting that into what you do with your fingers (and feet, with the pedals!) and connecting that with your ears, whilst responding in real time to what you hear.
- How do I learn the correct rhythms?
Once you learn to read music, you will find that the notation of rhythm is rather straightforward. Time signatures will tell you how many beats in the bar (the top number signifies the number of beats, and the bottom number tells you the division of the semibreve, or ‘whole note’: So a 3/4 time signature tells you that there are three beats which are a quarter of a semibreve each – or three crotchets). Within that, almost everything is just divided by twos, fours, eights and so on. It is important to check your time signature before you start to play/study a piece and, when you practise, make sure that all the beats add up. Practising with a metronome can also help you to keep strict time.
- Should I learn to play without the sheet music?
Performing without the music can be a very liberating experience, and most professional concert pianists will perform from memory. It’s a bit like an actor memorising their lines for a play or a film. However, you should not feel any pressure to play from memory if you do not feel comfortable doing so – feeling in command is the most important thing, and if having the music there as a prompt when you play for people helps you, then you should feel free to have it there.
- Where can I learn music theory?
Your piano teacher may be able to provide you with music theory lessons or advise you where would be best for you. There are a number of structured programmes, including that by the ABRSM, which offer thorough and manageable courses for learning theory.
- What are the benefits to learning the piano?
Learning the piano is an excellent exercise for almost all aspects of the mind and body. Firstly, we essentially learn to read another language; it is excellent for coordination skills, between the hands, the feet, the eyes, and the ears; through learning the piano we also learn the art of self-criticism and problem-solving – when we practise, we listen, hear/feel difficulties, and then we consider what is the cause and how we can improve it, before working more to solve it; it is also an opportunity to spend time working on music by composers who were great philosophical minds – when we practise Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Brahms, Schumann etc., we are connecting with great minds from the past; we learn emotional sensitivity, by sympathising with the music we play – this is such an important skill in life when we must learn to listen and sympathise with the people around us; learning to play the piano is also a communicative art form – it is something we can share with other people, we can inspire and move people through the music we play. Ultimately, learning to play the piano challenges us to become emotionally more mature and sensitive, whilst keeping the scientific/practical side of our brain well-stimulated, and our physical faculties in good form. It is no surprise that there are many pianists, amateur and professional, who go on playing in their 80s, 90s, and even past 100 years of age!
- How should I care for my piano?
A piano, like a person, needs to be well cared for. It should be regularly tuned, but also you should try to keep the humidity and temperature of the room as consistent as possible (ideally between 40-50% relative humidity. A piano has hundreds and hundreds of moving parts, many of which are made from fine materials including wood, felt, and metals. These are susceptible to fluctuations in ambient temperature and humidity. Depending on how much you practise, you should have your piano regulated at regular intervals. This involves taking the action of the piano apart and checking that everything is nicely even, the springs are all tightened and hammers working nicely so that they speak evenly.
- How do the pedals work?
There are three pedals on a grand piano. The right pedal is the most used and it works by raising all the dampers from the strings so that, even after you release the key and it goes back to its resting position, the sound still resonates and rings on. Using the pedal creates a more sonorous sound. The middle pedal is the least used, and it works similarly to the right pedal in that is raises the dampers, but only of the notes you are holding when you depress it. It helps us to hold a note or chord in one register and then play something else clearly in another without blurring everything. The left pedal works by moving the entire action a little bit to the right on a grand. This means that the hammers only strike one or two strings instead of all three in the treble register, and uses a softer part of the hammer. The result is a slightly softer sound with a uniquely different colour and is therefore another expressive tool in our armoury. On an upright piano, the left pedal achieves a similar effect my moving the hammers closer to the strings.
Intermediate and advanced
- How to I develop and improve my technique?
Technique is as much a psychological process as a physical one. The most important thing is to make sure that you are conscious of your body’s movements when you are playing, and to respond to any tension. Slow practise is very important, but not always the solution; identifying what is causing possible hindrances in the first place is key. For example, it may be that your scales are not fluid or fast enough and this could be down to the thumb not working well enough. Two possible ways to practise this might be to hold down the two or three notes of the scale the thumb does not play (i.e. D and E in C major) and play the thumb notes (i.e. C then F in C major). Another method would be to play the scale as fluidly as possible without the thumb (i.e. D, E, G, A, B with fingering 2, 3, 2, 3, 4 etc.). After just doing this a few times, you will notice a quick improvement. If you have difficulty in changing chords quickly, it may be worth practising just the inner notes of the chords, leaving out the thumb and/or the top fingers. These are the types of devices that can help make your playing more secure and ground your technique better, by directly addressing the problems rather than simply by practising slowly.
- What pieces will help me develop my ability?
In truth, any piece can develop your ability providing you study it well and enjoy playing it, thus keeping you active at your piano. Every piece has its demands and one can always work towards greater finesse and refinement, whether it be a piece designed for young beginners or the most virtuosic works by Liszt! The most important thing is to make sure that you build a repertoire across a range of styles and music with varying characters – that might be pieces from the Baroque era such as Bach or Handel, through the Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and even contemporary.
- Should I upgrade my piano as I develop?
If you are able – absolutely. As you advance you will demand more from your instrument in terms of the tonal palette it has to offer and its responsiveness to your touch. Having said that, whatever instrument you have at home, it is important to care well for it, have it regularly tuned, serviced, and regulated to keep it functioning at its best for you.
- How should I develop my practise routine as I tackle more difficult works?
Patience is key as the repertoire you approach becomes increasingly demanding. Allow yourself some extra time to go over everything slowly, and keep the good habits you have formed hitherto: slow practise, hands separately etc. Difficult music can often be hugely exciting and so it is very easy to want to be able to play it straight away, or to skimp on detail simply for the pleasure of playing it. Give yourself the time you need to work methodically and thoroughly, and the long-term results will be considerably more satisfying and will continue to build on the foundations of your technique, musicianship and a positive work ethic.
- Will performing improve my playing, and what opportunities are there to do this?
Performing is an integral part of piano playing for many people. The British pianist, Murray Perahia, once said that you can only really start to learn a piece once you have played it in public. Of course he did not mean that you sightread it before an audience, but that when you perform something for an audience you are more likely to access your subconscious thoughts and feelings about a piece. It is the same for an actor: they can learn their lines, but until they start reciting them and interacting with the other character/s on stage, they do not mean anything (or at least, subtle inflections change in response to other characters). You will probably find that, once you have performed something, it feels so much easier the next day! However, it is crucial to bear in mind that we play and communicate music for pleasure. If you get nervous before performing, try working your way up, from playing for a friend or family member before to larger audiences. In the UK there are many small music festivals that offer performance opportunities with environments ranging from relaxed to competitive. Try searching online for any music clubs or groups in your area and see what comes up! Your local music retailer may even be able to point you in the right direction.
- What advice would you offer to those looking to develop a career as a pianist?
The music world is hugely demanding and competitive, so the most important thing is probably versatility. Be strong across a range of repertoire, make sure that you are a committed solo player, but also that you are a good collaborative partner who can work with instrumentalists and singers, too. Social media and networking also play a large part in the business so be prepared to spend time away from the piano to focus on your profile/branding; One has to work hard to get concerts to build your reputation and performing portfolio to be heard by as many people as possible. Good luck!
About the author
British pianist Ashley Fripp has performed extensively as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist throughout Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and Australia in many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. A frequent guest on broadcasting networks, Ashley has appeared on BBC television and radio, Euroclassical, Eurovision TV and the national radio stations of Hungary, Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium and Portugal. He has won prizes at more than a dozen national and international competitions, including at the Hamamatsu (Japan), Birmingham and Leeds International Piano Competitions, the Royal Over-Seas League Competition, the Concours Européen de Piano (France) and the coveted Gold Medal from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
BBC Music Magazine
“The young pianist’s Bach sparkles with finely-wrought phrasing and articulation while the Adès paraphrase in an exciting revelation. His Chopin breathes and dances”
Thomas Adès, composer, pianist and conductor
“Ashley Fripp is a genuine virtuoso, an astoundingly brilliant and masterly pianist, and his total grasp of the music is a joy to hear”
For more about Ashley, visit www.ashleyfripp.co.uk