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Pianists and their teachers tend either to advocate practising in rhythms with an evangelical fervour, or to maintain that it's

a total waste of time. All I can say is that, done correctly, I have found it useful throughout my life for certain passages. Very rarely do I use dotted rhythms, but rather stopping on the first, second, third, and four notes of a group (A-D in the photo above). What is essential is absolutely rhythmic stability. If these rhythms are done sloppily they will merely make you play more unevenly. A metronome is a good idea to keep the spacing between the notes of military precision. Also, instead of stopping on different notes in the group, play one group one tempo and the next group exactly double or half the tempo (E-H in the photo). These 'groups' can be two, four, or eight notes or one bar, or even two bars. Again, this is useless if it's kind of a bit slower, then kind of a bit faster; we must keep the same pulse but vary the note values. This can be really useful in a tricky, fast passage like the unison semiquavers of Tchaikovsky 1st concerto 3rd movement before the Coda. Try practising one bar (or group) at tempo and then the next bar (or group) half the speed. You'll find that it really helps velocity and can aid memory too.

Artur Schnabel pointed out, we should not just look for the easiest fingering but for the most musical fingering one which matches the phrasing, which brings out the accents or inflections, or which allows a singing line to float along seamlessly.

With such unison passages, where both hands are playing the same fast notes an octave apart, try practising them two octaves apart. It will wrong-foot you at first, but it will make the patterns more secure and will enable you to hear both voices more clearly.

I wrote a year ago on this blog about some ways I warm up when there's no piano around selfmassage techniques; but the photo above shows a really good exercise for stretching the fingers when at the keyboard. I have adapted it from an exercise Adele Marcus was given by Josef Lhevinne. In her version the second group of five notes is a pure F major arpeggio but I prefer both groups having equal stretches for each finger first a semitone, then a major third. It should be done with the same fingering in all keys, slowly, with fingers close to the keys. Its alternating expansion and contraction stops the hands getting strained and I even like the way it sounds.

People very often ask me, "What is the hardest piece you've played?" or "Is Scriabin 5th sonata more difficult than his 4th?" and so on. It's certainly common for audience members to marvel at notes flying over the keys in every direction ("Your hands were a blur"), but less common for someone to comment about the voicing of a soft chord, or the spinning of a singing line over a delicate counterpoint. What is difficult or easy in execution is not always what it seems to the listening eye a torrential glissando is just about the simplest thing to do on the piano, yet it can still produce a gasp of wonder. Great performances of the Chopin Etudes are not those when the busy right hand is busy with speed and accuracy, but

those when the left hand shapes and colours the harmony and counterpoint with infinite finesse.

It's basically a frivolity to discuss whether this piece is more difficult than that piece, but it is of crucial importance to analyze what makes something difficult in a passage so that we can solve the problems. It is safe to say that few pieces (except certain etudes) are 'difficult' they merely have difficult passages in them. And even these tricky passages are not tricky in themselves rather they contain tricky parts. One example of this is the famous Coda of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Fantasie op. 17, pictured above. The greatest pianists have come unstuck here (most famously Horowitz at his famous 1968 Carnegie Hall recital when more notes were wrong than right). If we arrive at this passage like a rabbit facing the headlights of an oncoming car we will always risk disaster. (I love the words which Peter Vinograde, pianist and teacher at the Manhattan School, told me could be sung to its melodic outline: "This is too hard, this is too hard, I should have gone to Juilliard".) In fact, to unpick the difficulties is to begin to solve them: A is moderately hard for the right hand, easy for the left; B is a tricky leap for both; C is a little easier, as both hands land on harder-to-miss black notes; D is simple for both hands. So about half of this passage is actually quite easy to play. Sorting out the 'geography of the keyboard', as my teacher Derrick Wyndham used to say, is an important way to making the path of performance safe and secure.