Category Archives: Piano

J. Macmillan: A comparison of Suzuki piano recordings

New recordings of the Suzuki piano repertoire have been made by Seizo Azuma, co-chair of the ISA piano committee and a professor of piano at Tokyo University. When his recordings of Books 1, 2 and 3 came out in 2008, I was filled with enthusiasm.
At last, we had recordings that teachers and pupils need and deserve. They addressed virtually all the reservations I expressed about available recordings in my article of 1999: Three recordings of Suzuki piano repertoire books 1 and 2: a comparison. The final sentence in that article was: ‘There seems to me clear scope for a new recording which would need to be technically accurate and musically sensitive to inspire Suzuki pupils’. I feel this has now been achieved. I hope that those who are used to the recordings by Haruko Kataoka (which I find aggressive at times), Valerie Lloyd-Watts (which I find insipid), or William Aide (in which some pieces are a little fast) will enjoy this new recording.

Professor Azuma’s musicianship in his performances of Books 1, 2 and 3 is superb, his playing lively, rhythmical and characterful. The sound quality is excellent, as is the recording quality. But, as we progress through the revised Books 4 to 7, which were brought out in 2010, I become less enamoured with Azuma’s recordings. Although the tone remains good, performances become a little pedantic, heavy, sometimes noisy and too fast. To me, they lack variety, flexibility, intensity, delicacy and magic.

Azuma’s baroque playing is rather solid – pieces such as Bach’s Inventions and the Prelude and Fugue need more variety in the quality of sound. His romantic music could do with more flexibility, shaping of phrases and sense of direction. It lacks subtlety, missing the Spanish spirit of Granados or the French atmosphere of Debussy. However, I did enjoy Azuma’s performances of the classical repertoire. The fast movements are lively and energetic, if sometimes a little on the quick side. His slow movements, particularly that of Mozart K545, demonstrate very sensitive playing – serene and expressive.
Of course, I am setting the bar very high. I listen to recordings of the Suzuki piano repertoire by Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and other luminaries. Who could possibly hope to perform like these international recitalists?! In any case, at the Book 6 and 7 level, students should be listening to many different performances of each of their pieces, not relying on one performer.

Azuma’s Book 5 recordings are useful adjuncts to further listening to top performers. It is in the early stages of learning that families need superb recordings instantly available, and Azuma’s recordings of Books 1, 2, 3 and 4 certainly provide that – they are exemplary.

Having been dissatisfied with the recordings available prior to Azuma’s, for my pupils I made a number of my own recordings, including elementary pieces played slowly and hands separately (introducing each piece with ‘ready and’) to help pupils in the early stages of learning and so they can listen and play along with them. These are on my website: www.jennymacmillan.co.uk

  Kataoka Aide Lloyd-Watts Azuma
Tone quality Harsh,
forced RH.
Pleasant tone. Shallow tone,
especially in bk 2.
Excellent tone.
Dynamics Good; nice echoes, even when not written in the score. No echoes or
dynamic contrasts until near end of book 2.
Almost no echoes
or dynamic
contrasts.
Narrow dynamic
range, contrasts not clear; no unwritten echoes.
Phrasing Phrases weakly shaped. Monotonous repeated notes in Allegretto 2. Gently shaped phrases. Sensitive
ends of phrases in book 2. Repeated notes lack variety in Allegretto 2.
Good phrasing. No variety in tone of repeated notes in
Allegretto 2.
Gently shaped
phrases. Bridge
passages in Beethoven 1st and 2nd movements
lack flexibility.
Balance
between
hands
Mostly good. Well-
blended LH broken
chords.
Happy Farmer: RH
accompaniment too
strong.
Accompaniment
clearly audible –
useful for studying
LH. Sometimes a
little too strong, eg
Short Story, Happy
Farmer.
 Good.  Excellent.
Legato
between
repeated
notes
Ranging from fairly
good to very good.
Good but not
excellent.
Very poor in book
1, poor in book 2.
 Excellent.
Speeds Mostly good, but
Ecossaise too
slow and Twinkle
Variations and
Minuet 2 rather
fast.
Mostly good if on
the fast side, but
some, especially
early book 2, too
fast, including
Twinkle Variations,
Christmas Day
Secrets, Short Story
and Minuet 2.
 Mostly good if on
the slow side, but
some too slow, eg
Twinkle Variations,
Allegretto 1,
Allegro and
Ecossaise.
 Lively, energetic.
Speeds mostly
excellent, but
Clair de Lune and
Minuet 2 too fast.
Musical
endings
to pieces
Slight slowing
down at ends of
pieces.
Slight slowing
down at ends of
pieces in bk 1.
Good variety of
ritardandi
in bk 2.
Abrupt endings
to pieces in book 1. Only slight
ritardandi
in bk 2.
 Excellent musical
endings.
  Kataoka  Aide  Lloyd-Watts  Azuma
 Rhythm Tendency to play almost 16th-dotted 8th instead of two equal 8th notes in Allegro, all Bach Minuets and Arietta.Happy Farmer: LH first quaver too long. Beethoven 1st movement: grace notes too loud. Accurate. Beethoven 1st movement: acciaccatura played before beat instead of on beat.

 

Accurate. Beethoven 1st movement: acciaccatura played before beat instead of on beat. Very accurate, rhythmical playing.
Articulation Christmas Day Secrets: RH first quaver played staccato instead of given its full length. Beethoven 1st movement: slurs not articulated. Christmas Day Secrets: RH bar 4 last note not played staccato. Inventive articulation in Bach and Mozart Minuets – inappropriate here? Short Story: RH 3rds not played staccato. Short Story: RH 3rds not played staccato.
Beethoven 1st movement slurs not articulated.
 
Rests
Rests omitted in Honeybee, Clair de Lune, Cradle Song and Melody. Previous note held too long in Long, Long Ago, Minuet 1 and Beethoven 2nd movement. Incorrect final bar in Happy Farmer.  Most rests accurate but previous note held slightly too long in Honeybee, G minor Minuet 1 and Cradle Song. Rests reasonably accurate but previous note held too long in Clair de Lune, Minuet 1 and G minor Minuet 1. Inaccurate rests in final bar of Long, Long Ago, Happy Farmer and Melody. Rests excellent except in Minuet 1 in which LH crotchets before rests are held too long.
Twinkle
Variations
RH fast and light with LH accompaniment. Variations 1–3: all about the same speed but too fast at MM82; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast; Twinkle theme: even faster at MM86 but good legato between repeated notes.

RH only. Generally too fast, but speed varies for each variation – Variation 1: MM80; Variation 2: MM72, some dynamic contrast; Variation 3: MM76; Twinkle theme: much too fast at MM92, fairly good legato between repeated notes.

RH and LH two octaves apart. Variations 1–3: slow and ponderous at MM66; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast; Twinkle theme: too fast at MM88, no legato between repeated notes. All variations in RH, then all in LH. Each variation is too fast and at a different speed (c84, 80, 88) but Theme is beautifully legato at an excellent speed of 72; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast p-f-p.
  Kataoka  Aide  Lloyd-Watts  Azuma
Note
accuracy
 Good.  Good.  Clair de Lune: two incorrect LH notes.  Good.
Recording quality  Good. Good. Very clear – every note audible.  Good. Good, though piano action is just audible.
Summary of good points Good dynamics; good balance between hands; good legato between repeated notes; mostly good speeds. Good tone quality; sensitive phrasing; musical endings; mostly good speeds if on the fast side; clear recording quality. Good phrasing; good balance between hands; mostly good speeds if on the slow side.  Excellent tone; excellent balance between hands, excellent legato between repeated notes; excellent musical endings; accurate, rhythmical, lively, energetic playing.
Summary of bad points
Harsh, forced tone; weakly shaped phrases; disturbing uneven quaver rhythm in places; many rests omitted or inaccurate. No dynamic contrasts within pieces; some accompaniments quite strong; some pieces too fast, especially at beginning of book 2; inappropriate articulation in Bach and Mozart.  Shallow tone, especially in book 2; little dynamic contrast; very poor legato between repeated notes; some pieces too slow; abrupt endings; rests not
always accurate; incorrect LH notes in Clair de Lune.
 Dynamic range could be wider and dynamic contrasts clearer; a few pieces too fast; gaps between pieces too long, especially between Beethoven 1st and 2nd movements.

 

************************************************************
MacmillanJenny Macmillan has a thriving teaching practice in Cambridge and is an ESA piano teacher trainer. Her own three children all learned piano by the Suzuki approach.

Jenny has written extensively about the Suzuki approach and her articles feature on her website:
http://www.jennymacmillan.co.uk/

Jenny Macmillan

She has published a book:
Successful Practising A handbook for pupils, parents and music teachers

Click on image for more information

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J. Macmillan: Piano Teaching Ideas


Ideas drawn from my experiences as a Suzuki teacher

Enjoy your teaching more and help your pupils play better
by Jenny Macmillan

  • Lessons – motivation and encouragement
  • Practising – making repetition interesting
  • Performing – opportunities and rewards
  • Group work – fun with games
  • Ensemble work – doubling up in duets and trios
  • Listening – to recordings and live performances
  • Observing – other pupils’ lessons
  • Young pupils – singing and rhythm games
  • Involving parents – in lessons and practising
  • Developing memory – playing by ear
  • Building repertoire – favourite pieces
  • Theory and aural – the early stages
  • Sight-reading – duets with teacher
  • Scales and arpeggios – introducing variety



LESSONS – motivation and encouragement

  • Give honest praise followed by positive ideas for improvement
  • Emphasise pupil’s strong points – build self-esteem
  • Teach one thing at a time – thoroughly
  • Achievement of small manageable targets motivates pupils
  • Pleasure/satisfaction of knowing a piece is played well in lesson or concert
  • Boredom sets in when too much playing straight through pieces and not enough working on details
  • Football teams game – favourite and least favourite – favourite team scores if assignment played correctly, and vice versa
  • Group lessons
  • Ensemble work
  • Observing lessons



PRACTISING – making repetition interesting

  • Set short sections, making it clear in what way the music/technique is to be improved, and doing it together several times in lesson
  • Let child choose number of repetitions, or roll dice, or age number – if mistake, start again
  • Count down towards zero – heightens concentration
  • Tally/chart
  • Smartie for every 10 correct repetitions
  • Make jigsaw, colour square, colour in picture, do dot-to-dot for every (10) repetitions
  • Lucky dip with practice points or complete pieces
  • Practise last bar of phrase 4x, last 2 bars 4x, last 3 bars, etc
  • Vary repetitions, eg staccato/legato, different rhythms, different 8ves, increase difficulty eg practise leaping 2 8ves instead of 1 8ve
  • Explain what is to be practised, and why, and how



PERFORMING – opportunities and rewards

Regular performance opportunities at different levels

  • Individual lessons – observers
  • Group lessons – perform pieces prepared/unprepared/sight-read/ensemble
  • Informal concerts in teacher’s music studio
  • Formal concerts in hired halls
  • Combined concerts with other teachers, other instuments
  • National performing opportunities
  • Home concerts – 2 or 3 families get together, all bringing something for tea afterwards
  • Children perform weekly to family; or teddy bear concert – issue tickets
  • Follow concerts with tea parties and social events
  • Reward with an outing, especially musical



GROUP WORK – fun with games

  • Finger games
  • Rhythm games – clapping/tapping
  • Singing games
  • Flash cards – note naming games, rhythm games
  • Dynamics game – all crouch down and whisper “pianissimo”, start to stand up and say “piano”, etc, until standing up straight with arms stretched up and shout “fortissimo”
  • Spot the mistake – teacher plays pieces with mistakes for pupils to hear and/or see, eg playing too near edge of keyboard, heavy thumb, wrong key, wrong LH, inaccurate rhythm
  • Wrong note game – children sit in pairs with hands outstretched, one child’s hands over partner’s hands; teacher plays a piece; if child hears a mistake, tries to slap hands of partner, who tries to pull hands away
  • Major/minor – pupils play a major piece in a minor key or a minor piece in a major key
  • Sock improvisations – 2 pupils at 2 keyboards – put socks on hands and play glissandi and clusters, etc, varying speed, dynamics, register, etc
  • Pentatonic improvisations – 2 pupils improvise question and answer on black notes
  • Lucky dip – each pupil has box with pieces of paper with names of pieces s/he can play – draws one out and performs it
  • Matching pieces – several pupils play same piece one after another, encouraged to make positive comments about each others’ performances
  • Football – at 2 keyboards – one child starts playing piece; when teacher indicates, other child takes over – ‘passes the ball’; or one child plays RH while other plays LH
  • Playing questions – one child plays familiar piece, meanwhile answering questions posed by other children, eg what is your name, telephone number, etc
  • Cross hands – play piece with hands crossed
  • Continuous scales – take turns to play a scale round circle of 5ths at 2 keyboards
  • Dynamic scales – pupil takes card indicating dynamic and/or speed and plays scale accordingly; others guess dynamic/speed
  • Sight-read double duets/trios – 4 or 6 pupils at 2 keyboards
  • Follow the score – give each pupil a copy of some music; discuss all the signs, notes, rhythms, as appropriate to the stage of the children; then teacher plays some of the piece and pupils point to place in score where teacher stops



ENSEMBLE WORK – doubling up in duets and trios

  • Duets for pupils of similar age, or older with younger pupils
  • Family duets/trios with siblings or parents
  • Sight-read/prepared ensembles
  • One pupil accompany another
  • Pentatonic improvisations – 2 pupils improvise question and answer on black notes
  • Sock improvisations – 2 pupils at 2 keyboards – put socks on hands and play glissandi and clusters, etc, varying speed, dynamics, register, etc



LISTENING – to recordings and live performances

  • To fine performances
  • To pieces being learnt – about to be learnt – current repertoire
  • To other pieces by same composers
  • To other music for own instrument
  • To classical music, especially choral (singing sounds) and orchestral (sounds of different instruments)
  • To CDs, radio, and especially to live performances – excitement of an outing



OBSERVING – other pupils’ lessons

  • Observe another pupil ideally a little older and more advanced after pupils’ own lesson
  • Can be more receptive if something explained to another pupil – when not in hot-seat
  • Motivating for pupil and parent
  • Social benefit – helps prevent feeling of isolation (especially for pianists)
  • Pupils become accustomed to having an audience while playing; also to sitting quietly, colouring and listening, while observing other pupils


YOUNG PUPILS – singing and rhythm games

Change activity frequently – pool of ideas

  • Right and left – play Simon Says, eg “Simon says put RH on nose” – pupils must do it; but “Put RH on nose” – don’t do it! When teaching any pair concept, teach only one of a pair for a long time, then there is no confusion.
  • Finger games – name and wiggle Mr Men fingers (Mr 1, Mr 2, etc); speed games – “Put your hands behind your back and take out Mr 1” or “Put Mr 2 on your nose”; cummulative fingers – say and move fingers, eg 1, 1-2, 1-2-5 – add a finger each time
  • Hold bubble and 10 finger dome – drop hands by side, then lift them up and pretend to hold bubble in each hand; gently place together thumbs, Mr 2s, Mr 3s, etc; tap fingers as requested by teacher; hold finger dome over head so cannot see
  • Strong finger Os – make O-shape between Mr 1 and Mr 2, or Mr 1 and Mr 3, etc, squeezing tightly – no collapsing joints
  • Finger wrestling – link finger Os with another pupil and pull – who has the strongest fingers?
  • Pick up pencil – using thumb and specified finger – plenty of thumb and fingertip movement
  • Copy me game – pupils copy teacher’s actions, keeping steady beat, eg clapping hands, tapping knees, etc, adding an extra action on each repetition
  • Pass the ball – one child or teacher plays a piece while others pass squashy ball round circle, passing to the next person on the beat, using specified fingers, eg RH Mr 1 and Mr 2, or Mr 1 and Mr 5
  • Action songs
  • Copycat rhythms
  • What piece is this – clap rhythm or play melody
  • Miming game – teacher mimes piece at piano for pupils to identify
  • Spot the mistake – teacher plays pieces with mistakes for pupils to hear and/or see, eg playing too near edge of keyboard, heavy thumb, wrong key, wrong LH, inaccurate rhythm
  • Wrong note game – children sit in pairs with hands outstretched, one child’s hands over partner’s hands; teacher plays a piece; if child hears a mistake, tries to slap hands of partner, who tries to pull hands away
  • Sing nursery rhymes – loud then soft, or fast then slow



INVOLVING PARENTS – in lessons and practising

  • Parents attend lessons and take notes (perhaps have lessons themselves)
  • Parents supervise practice – discuss with pupil what is to be done and how, and guide practice accordingly
  • Make practice chart for child to follow
  • Make lucky dip for practice points
  • Offer plenty of encouragement and moral support in gentle enthusiastic manner
  • Stimulate child’s natural desire to learn – make practice interesting rather than fun



DEVELOPING MEMORY – playing by ear

  • Playing from memory never an issue if children always used to listening to sounds and working out notes for themselves and playing from memory
  • Start by setting easy pieces from memory
  • Each lesson ask for more from memory



BUILDING REPERTOIRE – favourite pieces

  • Sense of satisfaction and achievement from being able to sit down anytime anywhere and play favourite repertoire pieces from memory
  • Pupil add a piece each month (or week, or term) to repertoire
  • Work regularly on old repertoire pieces so pupil learns to play them more and more musically



THEORY AND AURAL – the early stages

Studied in group lessons
Theory

  • Flash cards – note naming and rhythm games
  • Telephone game – place in front of each child a card with a rhythm on it; teacher claps one of the rhythms; child whose rhythm it is answers the call by clapping the rhythm back and turning the card face down
  • Right or wrong rhythm – lay out row of rhythm flash cards; teacher clap rhythm; pupils say whether or not clapped correctly
  • Rhythmic counterpoint – lay out rhythm flash cards in two rows; teacher or pupil clap one row and others say which was clapped; half group clap one row, other half clap other row; clap one row with RH, other with LH; add dynamics
  • Follow the score – give each pupil a copy of some music; discuss all the signs, notes, rhythms, as appropriate to the stage of the children; then teacher plays some of the piece and pupils point to place in score where teacher stops
  • Dynamics game – all crouch down and whisper “pianissimo”, start to stand up and say “piano”, etc, until standing up straight with arms stretched up and shout “fortissimo”
  • Tempo game – all walk very slowly round room saying “adagio” four times, a little faster saying “andante”, faster saying “moderato”, much faster saying “allegro” and very fast saying “presto”

Aural

  • Listening game – all sit very quietly; teacher plays one note at piano; pupils listen carefully and raise hands when sound has completely gone; use different ranges of piano; identify high/low, short/long, soft/strong sounds
  • Listen in silence – all sit comfortably with eyes closed and listen to the silence for two minutes; then pupils say what they heard; after 30 seconds teacher can add own noise, eg tapping; CF Kim’s Game – remembering objects on tray
  • Wrong note game – children sit in pairs with hands outstretched, one child’s hands over partner’s hands; teacher plays a piece; if child hears a mistake, tries to slap hands of partner, who tries to pull hands away
  • Copycat rhythms; question and answer rhythms; question and answer melodies



SIGHT-READING – duets with teacher

  • Or 2 pupils sight-read duets in adjacent or overlapping lessons
  • Double duets or trios in group lessons – 4 or 6 pupils at 2 keyboards
  • Pupil study piece for a few moments, then from memory answer questions on piece
  • Name notes and clap rhythm
  • Mime notes
  • Play correct rhythm but improvise notes (for perfectionists who will insist on going back to correct mistakes)
  • Teacher/pupil alternate playing a bar each; or one play naturals (white notes) and other play sharps and flats (black notes)
  • Regular ‘prepared’ reading as well as reading ‘at sight’



SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS – introducing variety

  • 1-2-3-4 scale for speed and dynamic variety – set MM eg crotchet 60 and play 1 8ve slowly in crotchets forte, 2 8ves in quavers mf, 3 8ves in triplets mp, 4 8ves in semiquavers p
  • Different rhythms
  • Down then up
  • One hand forte, the other piano
  • One hand staccato, the other legato
  • Double staccato – each note 2x
  • 2 8ves apart
  • Crossed hands
  • Russian style – play 2 8ves ascending in similar motion, 2 8ves contrary motion, 2 8ves up and down in similar motion, 2 8ves in contrary motion, 2 8ves down in similar motion
  • Top 8ve 4x
  • Very fast, but stopping on each tonic
  • 1 8ve up and down until perfect 2x, then 2 8ves until perfect 2x, etc
  • MM – increasing speed when perfect 2x consecutively
  • Eyes closed

Arpeggios

  • Play chord up and down piano alternating RH and LH
  • Repeat 1 8ve up and down arpeggio – circling hand round
  • Double staccato on each note
  • Slow with good tone

     

    ************************************************************
    MacmillanJenny Macmillan has a thriving teaching practice in Cambridge and is an ESA piano teacher trainer. Her own three children all learned piano by the Suzuki approach.

    Jenny has written extensively about the Suzuki approach and her articles feature on her website:
    http://www.jennymacmillan.co.uk/

    Jenny Macmillan

 

 

She has published a book:
Successful Practising A handbook for pupils, parents and music teachers

Click on image for more information

Print Friendly