Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy 2014

There are a plethora of piano courses taking place every year here in the UK. The majority are held during the Summer months, coinciding with holiday periods, usually offering a mixture of one to one lessons and group classes. Courses can be a very helpful addition to a pianist’s regular musical activities, providing much-needed extra ‘ears’ and piano tips.

Two years ago, I was invited to coach group classes on the Overseas Malaysian Winter Piano Academy (as it was then known), which is held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, UK. The structure of this course is fairly unique, in that it provides high quality lessons, classes, concert opportunities and a UK ‘experience’ to a group of talented young musicians from the Far East. Most of the participants are from Malaysia, although this year there were some students from Singapore too (25 pupils in all). Each participant has been auditioned and selected, and most are at least Grade 8 standard (many were far beyond this, several students in my classes had already achieved the FTCL or FRSM). Once chosen, pupils fly to London for twelve days, returning home on Christmas Eve, after a fantastic musical adventure.

This course was established in 2010 by  Malaysian pianist Bobby Chen, who masterfully arranges all the activities and events. Bobby is a busy concert pianist who studied at the world-renowned Yehudi Menuhin School, and it does indeed provide a marvellous backdrop. The facilities are superb, with plenty of large music rooms all resplendent with one or two excellent pianos, as well as two concert halls, and beautiful surrounding grounds.

Each pupil receives several individual piano lessons, many groups classes (in Composition, Improvisation, Conducting, Chamber Music etc.), lectures, evening recitals given by some of the tutors, the opportunity to hear their fellow student’s lessons (most lessons are open classes), the chance to play in the final Gala concert, and a visit to London, taking in cultural sites and concert performances too. Most participants are pianists, but there were a few string players for the first time this year.

The faculty is impressive, showcasing some of the finest musicians and teachers: Anthony Hewitt, Dominic Alldis, Mikhail Kazakevich, Thomas Carroll, Julian Jacobson, Carole Cerasi, Andrew Ball, Douglas Finch, Leslie Howard, Murray McLachlan, Ruth Nye, Terrence Lewis, Stephen Goss, Graham Caskie, Boris Kucharsky, Mihai Ritivoiu, Tomasz Ziemski, Aleksander Szram……and me!

I gave three hours of classes to four groups. One hour each on Technique, Sight-reading and Memorisation Techniques. I enjoy group lessons and so, it seems, do students, as they eagerly learn from each other; lots of interaction can be both fun and instructive. My classes contain plenty of participation at and around the piano, and there’s always a Question and Answer session and discussion time too.

One great advantage of staying on campus for a couple of nights, is the chance to meet some of the faculty and enjoy their lectures and recitals. I was fortunate to have free evenings, and was able to hear three lectures. Pianist and Professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, Julian Jacobson, presented a fascinating talk about the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57. Julian (rather bravely) played all 32 Sonatas in one day for charity last year, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, so he has a wealth of knowledge on this subject. He played excerpts from the piece and shed much new light.

There were two lectures on the second evening. Pianist, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and Professor of piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, Murray McLachlan, talked about his new publication, The Foundations of Technique, published by Faber Music. Murray explained the reasons behind writing the book (formed from articles he had written for the International Piano Magazine, over many years), and the importance of honing piano technique. Covering wide-ranging crucial topics, Murray demonstrated at the piano and spoke eloquently.

The second lecture was given by Pianist and Professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, Andrew Ball. Andrew lectured, demonstrated at the piano and also played recorded excerpts about his love of Twentieth Century music. It was an interesting journey of personal discovery and reflection.

On my third and final evening at the school, we all enjoyed a piano recital given by Murray McLachlan. The programme consisted of Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, and John McLeod’s Fifth Piano Sonata, which was written especially for Murray. The recital was certainly a highlight and I will write in more detail about it and the wonderful McLeod Sonata in a future post.

Students were clearly lapping up the musical riches on offer at the course; many claiming they had never experienced such a rich tapestry of stimulating events and performances. I was only sorry I couldn’t hear my colleague’s open classes during the daytime.

Bobby must be congratulated for his meticulous attention to detail, and ingenuity in creating a course which juxtaposes his homeland and heritage with that of his education and present life. He has changed the lives of many Malaysian piano students, opening up a whole new world of possibilities. I look forward to the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Course 2016.


Menuhin 2014

With one of my classes (photo: Jiacy Chuah).

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15 Top Tips for Successful Sight-reading

Last weekend’s blog post featured the first article I wrote for the European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA), which appeared in the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition). Continuing with this theme, the following article was published in the Autumn 2014 Piano Professional (pages 20-22). It focuses on Sight-reading. We all know how important it is to be able to sight-read fluently, yet it can often be a forgotten element. Hopefully, this article may prove useful and there is a downloadable PDF at the end (based on the article), for students. teachers or anyone wanting to work at their reading skills.

Sight-reading: the most useful tool in the box

Sight-reading is a skill of immense importance, for both pianists and piano teachers. It is often under-valued by teachers and students alike, but if worked at consistently, it’s arguably the most useful tool in a pianist’s tool box. If a pianist can read well, the whole learning process is made that much easier and quicker, and the possibilities and capacity for ensemble playing of all kinds are enormous.

Sadly for many students, sight-reading becomes the dreaded part of a piano exam; it’s often an ‘after-thought’ which is addressed a few weeks before the actual test. To really make progress with sight-reading however, it must be worked at regularly and should certainly be on the priority list ahead of exam preparations. In fact, it’s a good idea to take sight-reading out of the exam equation altogether and study this crucial pianistic proficiency as a bona-fide subject all on its own, devoting some time to it at each and every lesson (and every practice session too). Sight-reading can be a studied craft; it’s entirely possible to substantially improve reading with practice, you don’t need to be naturally gifted.

Reading at sight is, in many ways, similar to reading a book. Language is primarily constructed of words and sentences. When speech is first learnt, some words are much more difficult to assimilate and grasp than others, but after a while they become anticipated. Context becomes paramount when deciphering words and sentences. Eventually, even though some words are much more complicated than others, they are eventually expected because they’ve appeared countless times before. Any potential knowledge gaps are quickly filled in intuitively. The same pragmatic, innate approach should be implemented when learning to sight-read.

A crucial factor in good sight-reading is perspective. Pupils often survey a page of music and in an attempt to read every single note and musical sign, they forget to view the page as a whole and understand the basic context in which all the notes appear. Attaining secure sight-reading skills involves total musical understanding; it’s about decoding copious different, oscillating shapes and patterns appearing on the page and comprehending this information before playing begins. It therefore becomes crucial to know and establish which signs, notes or patterns are of importance and which are not, prior to perusing any sight-reading exercise. So with this in mind, knowledge of music theory is a must and it’s preferable to begin studying this aspect as soon as possible.

Also beneficial can be learning to sight-sing. Whilst not essential, being able to hear a melody before it is played, or knowing how a passage ought to sound can be really helpful and can act as a signpost too. Therefore some knowledge of solfège or possibly looking at the Kodály Method may be a good place to begin when embarking on a sight-reading journey. It takes time to learn to sight-sing, but rather like the sight-reading process, gradual, regular practice will proffer the best results.

Another facet which can cause unnecessary worry when learning to sight-read is the ever-present problem of wrong notes and errors. To attain a high level of accuracy and speed when reading, mistakes are essential! It’s really just part of development and growth, so playing inaccurately should not be viewed negatively; quite the contrary, because much experimentation is required when learning to read. If sight-reading can be viewed as an enjoyable (and even fun) part of a practicing regime, improvement will be that much quicker.

To cultivate secure reading, plenty of motivation and determination is necessary, so it helps if you select music you really like and enjoy. This might appear obvious, but many reading tests are somewhat dull and lacking in imagination. A never-ending supply of good quality materials is imperative and all genres must be explored; from classical right through to pop and rock. It can be in the discovery of a ‘favourite’ composer or style that reading skills really begin to flourish.

Concentration is a key component in successful reading and again, this may appear trivial and self-evident, but getting rid of unwanted or distracting thoughts is the first step to really ‘seeing’ clearly what is written on the page. Getting in the sight-reading ‘mood’ will pay dividends. A totally focused mindset is difficult to maintain, so start by looking at small sections or passages making note of any mental wandering. Learning to control and refocus attention does take discipline, but it will make sight-reading so much better and easier over time.

Another useful tip is to have a regular practice session or time assigned specifically for sight-reading. Expect to read daily (or whenever practice is done) and it will ultimately become a good habit. Keeping a practice journal can be a handy way of recording what has been played at every session, and it can be brought along to lessons demonstrating what has been achieved each week.

Remember to maintain good posture and hand positions. Uncomfortable, tense piano playing will only hinder sight-reading, and it’s all too easy to forget about posture when concentration and focus is being directed towards the music, but feeling relaxed and flexible will aid swift movement around the keyboard. So breathe deeply and calmly before playing commences and try to ensure that shoulders remain totally relaxed rather than perpetually rising rigidly.

So what are the most fruitful ways of practising sight-reading? Here are a few ideas which may prove useful:

When faced with a new piece of music, slowly observe everything on the page. The key signature is a good place to start. Decide which major or minor key can be associated with that written in the piece being surveyed (it’s always good to decipher the relative majors and minors as well), mentally imagine the sharps or flats needed to play the extract and then memorise the key and keep it firmly in mind at all times. Fingers will know where to go once the key has been firmly established. It can help to play the associated scale beforehand (or at least picture it mentally).

Quick recognition of certain note patterns, shapes, and repetitions can be a deciding factor in the success of any test. Noticing features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and ledger line passage work, will prove extremely important. Chords can be challenging to read at first glance, therefore, remembering their patterns and shape is vital because there simply isn’t time to read every note. Being able to pin point the tonic, dominant, subdominant chords in any given key can be a huge boost to the reading process. Other features such as phrase markings, articulation and dynamics will also be relevant when skimming a score for the first time. Examining the bass clef thoroughly can be beneficial, as often the left hand drives a work. Some memory work is required in order to learn various chord patterns and note progressions, but as with many elements in music making, these will become habitual if practised consistently.

Pay special attention to any suggested fingering, as it’s best to have this element visualised before you start particularly when negotiating scales, arpeggios or any contrapuntal sections. If fingering hasn’t been determined beforehand, it will hamper the ability to move at speed.

The tempo or speed of a test must be noted, by looking at the metronome marking or speed indication, and, of course, the time signature too. This can help to gain an understanding of the character and style of the work. However, I always suggest playing well under tempo to begin with. For those with reading difficulties, employing extremely slow speeds is the key to eventually unlocking reading skills and becoming fluent.

The rhythmic structure is possibly the most important element in sight-reading. Both rhythmic patterns and the necessity of attaining a regular pulse can be problematic when reading. In order to keep time, it’s imperative to assimilate all aspects of tempo. With this in mind, it can be a good idea to separate the rhythm from the notes completely. Firstly, tap the intended pulse. Then tap the rhythm of the sight-reading test on the piano lid with both hands; the right hand tapping the notes in the treble clef and the left hand, tapping those in the bass clef. This should not prove too taxing, enabling comprehension of the speed as well as any complex note values and rhythms.

Once the rhythmic pattern has been worked out, and rhythmic co-ordination between the hands is fully understood, a steady pulse must be kept. Counting aloud can be helpful, if the beat is subdivided, but playing along to a metronome may be an even better, more reliable option; learning to ‘sit’ on the beat and not rush ahead or linger behind is also crucial. The determining factor in success here is to make sure the pulse is extremely slow. Learning to read with both hands together can be overwhelming. There is so much information to process at once; the key to perpetual motion is a very slow pulse (probably a third of the intended speed). If a pulse is always constant and steady, after a while combining and coordinating the two hands should be a relatively simple affair providing eyes are always reading ahead (usually at least half a bar). It may be necessary to start the reading process using separate hands, only combining them when each clef has been thoroughly assimilated.

Slow speeds encourage reading ahead because there is ample time to find all the notes and detail in the score. Plenty of time is of the essence (even if fast speeds are indicated). It can be helpful to count a complete bar before starting to play in order to establish the pulse (I often clap a bars rest!) and any deviation from the tempo should be discouraged. Once this has been fully understood, speed can be gradually built up over time, as reading becomes more proficient (this process can take a few months).

A slow tempo will help with the all-consuming problem of hesitations followed by total collapse. These moments cause frustration, upset and discourage sight-reading, so playing slowly bestows the confidence to build momentum and get to the end of an extract without too much grief. This latter point is arguably the most critical in good sight-reading; once a pupil has started a sight-reading test, they must never, ever stop. If hesitations are still occurring then an even slower tempo is probably required. Learning to cope with mistakes is all part of the reading experience. Continuation is so important in sight-reading and sooner or later errors will be ignored and will not distract from the overriding rhythmic and structural outline of a performance.

Musical examples or sight-reading tests must feel easy to start with, so begin with straightforward diatonic exercises. It may be necessary to start at Grade 1 or 2 even if Grade 7 is being studied. If sight-reading is all fairly simple, it’s a pleasurable painless experience. One of the many benefits of reading a whole variety of musical styles is that different genres are quickly recognised; from Classical (Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc.) through to Musical Theatre and Pop. This will prove invaluable for Aural Tests too.

When the basics have been grasped, larger chunks of music can be negotiated and there will be a familarisation with the typical patterns which occur time and again in piano music. The bigger picture will eventually be noted, focusing concentration on the main structure of a piece, whilst including more and more detail (pedalling, phrasing, dynamics etc.).

For those of a slightly more advanced level, reading hymns can be extremely rewarding and useful. Slow moving chord progressions act as the perfect foil because they assist with reading four parts (or notes) at once, as well as fostering knowledge and understanding of four-part harmony, and they also afford the chance to get to grips with a plethora of key signatures. As all church organists know, accompanying hymns is one of the best ways to learn to read because stopping isn’t an option! As with all reading, begin calmly, moving carefully from chord to chord, making note of the various chordal shapes and patterns.

Reading at sight is fundamentally giving an impression of a work, so it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out notes and other details. Bear this in mind at the beginning of each practice session. Endeavor to scan ahead fluently, playing with relatively few stumbles or hesitations using a steady, regular pulse to achieve excellent sight-reading results.

15 Top Tips To Improve Sight-Reading Skills

Music flute piano

© Melanie Spanswick

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Review in Faber Music’s Pianofforte Magazine

Pianofforte 2014 cover

I’m very excited to be included in Faber Music’s Pianofforte Magazine. This magazine is designed for piano teachers, students and all those who are interested in music education. It is a yearly publication and offers plenty of information about various books, scores and everything related to piano study. In the magazine, I review Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang’s new series of piano books, mastering the piano, which are graded from 1-5 (on pages 8 & 9 of Pianofforte), I also briefly review Simultaneous Learning: The Definitive Guide (page 3) written by master educator, Paul Harris .

You can read the mastering the piano review by clicking on the PDF link below and you can read the whole magazine online  here. You can also request a free copy of Pianofforte by e mailing marketing@fabermusic.com.

Pianofforte Magazine Review

For more information on Faber Music click here.

I am a regular contributor to many publications and online magazines;  you can read more articles here.

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Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation: The Memory Game

Next week I’m coaching at the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey (UK). My classes will focus on sight-reading, studies and exercises, and memorisation. To prepare, I’ve been re-visiting notes and articles on these topics and found the following on memorisation techniques; it’s the first article I wrote for the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition, Pg. 22-24), which is published by EPTA (the European Piano Teaching Association). If you teach the piano or wish to start teaching, you might consider joining this excellent organisation.

I hope these suggestions and ideas might be useful to those studying for their diplomas or teaching memorisation to students. There is a helpful PDF download at the end, with ten tips largely built on the ideas in the article.

The Memory Game

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) developed the concept of the solo piano recital and, as a result, the Romantic era became the golden age for the piano.

Liszt not only masterminded the solo recital but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too; with the instrument side-on so that a pianist’s profile could be admired with the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume. Crucially, he was also the first pianist to play from memory in public.

This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals. Liszt apparently often commented on the importance of playing without the score:

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’

(Living With Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, ed. by Alan Walker)

He benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed a charismatic romantic image; one which he had worked hard to cultivate. However, for subsequent generations of pianists, who have since made the concert platform their home, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. There are, of course, pianists who find memorisation a fairly straight forward process and would indeed never want to play with the score, but for most, playing from memory can cause grief and terror.

Today’s concert pianist is expected to play their entire repertoire from memory (with the exception of complex Twentieth Century works and chamber music). Successful memorisation often eludes students and they rely on learning a work digitally, praying their hands and fingers will remember where to go during performances. This approach doesn’t bode well because stress will often intervene and cause the dreaded memory lapse.

Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it shows you really ‘know’ your piece. There are many unexpected advantages to memorisation and perhaps one of the most important is a regular brain ‘workout’. There is no doubt that once the human brain learns to retain and process information then this generally becomes a habit and one which can be very useful in many different life situations.

Memorisation does put extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind-set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score accurately. If you know you are going play a piece from memory before learning begins, the best approach is to learn in a very focused way from the outset, making a conscious effort to memorise every bar, nuance and phrase as you are going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with a work, therefore it saves much time and energy if you are able to capitalize on this, rather than to study a piece by repeated reading and focus on memorising it at a later date.

Memorisation can be a daunting prospect particularly if you have never done it before. However, this should not deter you because it is entirely possible to develop this skill at any point in your piano playing career, and your confidence will soar when you become accustomed to playing without the score. Many find memorisation ultimately affords greater freedom.

There are so many ways to enhance your memorisation technique and if you implement many of the following suggestions, you will be well on the way to developing a reliable memory.

Here are four popular methods;

Visual memory

Try to remember what the music looks like on the page. At first you might recall certain patterns of notes, key signatures or where particular passages occur in the score. This is photographic memory. It helps to keep going through the work in your mind, first of all with the score in front of you and then without the music away from the piano. The latter is a skill that is really worth developing as it allows for mental practice which can be a very useful tool.

It’s best not to rely too much on looking at your hands as this type of memory can cause problems or memory slips during a performance if not backed up with other types of memorisation.

It might be a good idea to remember or recall the physical gestures involved in playing a piece; certain movements and finger patterns can act as a guide for example. Perhaps memorise difficult passages first then practise them as a technical exercise every day.

Auditory or Aural Memory

Listen to everything you play meticulously. This might seem an obvious instruction but many do not consciously ‘hear’ what they are playing or learning.

Most humans have the ability to remember a tune and this is really about nurturing that skill to a highly sophisticated level. As with many skills, it takes a while for the mind to assimilate all the nuances that occur in a piano piece but eventually you will learn to ‘hear’ everything you play from start to finish.

Kinesthetic or Muscular Memory

The ability to remember or recall all the actual physical sensations and movements; remembering the finger patterns and shapes as well as arm, hand or wrist motions, pedalling, note repetitions and repetitive patterns. Fingerings also really help memorisation which is one of the many reasons why fingering is such an important element in piano playing.

Play through the piece each hand separately without the score; this is especially helpful for the bass or left hand. Practising and concentrating on the left hand really is a crucial part of developing piano technique so it may be beneficial to always practice the left hand first and commit it to memory securely at the same time.

You could trust your instincts and try to play a work through in the dark; can you feel your way around the instrument and play everything precisely? This is a challenge but good fun too; it’s quite difficult just to find the correct place to start your piece.

Intellectual Memory

Undoubtedly the most important element in your memory armour; it involves total ‘immersion’ in the score. You must know your piece backwards.

Look out for typical signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chord progressions, scale passages, large leaps, dynamics etc. All these elements will support successful memorisation.

Thoroughly study the structure of a work and assess the style. The way it has been constructed, particularly harmonic structure as this helps with the sound as well. To do this you need to have studied music theory so that you are familiar with four-part harmony, chord progressions, cadences, key changes and counterpoint etc. It can help to break down complex florid or rapid passagework into chords or make a skeleton of the harmonic pattern in a movement or work, so that harmonic progressions are realised and assimilated.

My tips and suggestions:

Visualisation can be a useful tool or method. This is the ability to form mental pictures of events, images or situations. Aural visualisation is sometimes known as the ‘inner ear’ which allows a pianist to hear how the melody, harmony, dynamics and all details found in the music, will sound, in other words, ‘predicting’ the sound before it actually happens. If the ‘inner ear’ is working well, then the pianist’s fingers know what they must do in order to produce the sound. This technique can be especially effective and has been used by many artists, not only musicians. Sit quietly and imagine playing the whole piece through from beginning to end; see every hand position or movement, in effect ‘watch’ yourself play the piece. You might be surprised at just how much concentration this involves. Some find it helpful to see themselves actually sitting on the stage or wherever the performance will take place.

The trick to successful memorisation is thorough structural knowledge of a piece combined with a strong awareness of the musical or expressive qualities. Emotional connections seem to really aid memory (I have found this to be the case not only with my own playing but also with that of colleagues and students too).

Hearing the music in your mind really helps, especially focusing on the way it affects you emotionally. By learning and thinking in this way you will never forget any detail in your piano piece. Learn to play from the heart; the music needs to be part of your soul. Musicianship and interpretation play a vital role in memory but they are frequently over looked. Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that you will be so focused on the expressive and interpretive qualities that your mind won’t be overly concerned with memory or the detrimental thoughts of a possible lapse. This last point can be imperative as it’s connected to many aspects of performing; a positive mind-set really does help when memorising. An ‘I can’ attitude goes a long way, so try to quell the negative mental chatter or the ‘inner voice’ that can frequently undermine a performance.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it’s still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves can sabotage practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing. Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until they are able to ‘find themselves’.

The majority of classical pianists don’t improvise, so an effective strategy is to make sure that you know your piece in sections and are able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly from one passage or ‘section’ to another. Try to memorise in small sections, passages or ‘chunks’ (the more sections you break the piece into the better and you are completely free to break the work down as you wish); learn the piece so you know each section thoroughly. If a memory slip does occur then you won’t be too flummoxed and will be able to keep playing to the end of the work. It’s not advisable to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encourages another slip and may make you even more frustrated. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t usually miraculously reappear a few minutes later, so it’s best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. Also, be able to pick up the piece from anywhere, so that if you do have a memory lapse you will always be able to keep going. It might be an idea to try to completely eradicate the slip from your mind too otherwise you will be constantly thinking about it for the rest of the performance.

I use the following strategy in my memorisation classes and students have found this helpful:

  1. Listen to the work before you start learning it and observe the score carefully. Be aware of how the work makes you feel and spend time focusing particularly on interpretation.
  2. Take a short passage (perhaps a four bar phrase or a line or two of a piece) and start by memorising the left hand on its own, and then the right hand. Be able to play them through accurately without the music, noting all the unusual features (i.e. large leaps, scale passages etc.). Also pay special attention to fingerings as they can be very useful as a memorisation aid. When you have done this you may find it beneficial to reverse the roles and play the left hand line with the right hand and vice versa. This allows your mind to really know the shape of the musical lines rather than only relying on digital learning which can be dangerous. Practising a line of music with one finger at a time can be advantageous too.
  3. Then play the passage hands together using the score at first then taking it away as soon as possible. Observe which passages you find difficult to recall. Work thoroughly on those areas (by repeating as well as mentally finding patterns to remember). Most passagework has some unusual feature which will help act as a ‘signpost’. The more ‘signposts’ you can find the better.
  4. Sing the melodies in your piece and then play them with and without the accompaniment so that you become even more aware of the musical structure. Another valuable exercise at this point may include playing the accompanying material in a piece from memory or playing the accompaniment with the bass line first (if there is one) and then with the melody line. It can be helpful to do all this at slow speeds allowing your mind to digest the musical lines and phrases.
  5. Work the passage up to tempo with a metronome but without using the score. It’s really important to emphasize how repetition really does assist memory. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to play the piece or the sections within your piece without the score as soon as possible so that your fingers and brain accustom themselves to this swiftly.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 on other sections of the piece.
  7. Practice other pieces before coming back to test your memory during practice sessions. You will probably find that you can’t remember every detail at this stage. Memory takes time and persistence so just keep working on it.
  8. Test your memory on the same passages the next day (and on consecutive days) before resuming working on other sections in the piece.

Once you have committed your piece to memory, work at it backwards, i.e. playing and analysing the last phrase first. Learning backwards can really work well and professionals sometimes employ this method.

Young children will generally memorise far more easily than adults, and we all have highly individual ways of remembering music. The success of memorisation is normally just persistent practice and sometimes it’s necessary to have a memory lapse or a stumble under pressure whilst playing in public, because only then do we realise what we must do to safeguard our memory for the next performance. Don’t expect to memorise in one practice session either, memory takes time and work, so divide your piece into small sections or passages and you will make progress every day. Good luck!

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation

So you want to play the piano photo 5

© Melanie Spanswick

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The Piano Bench Mag Feature

The Piano Bench Mag Interview

I was recently interviewed for an article in the December edition of The Piano Bench Mag. I’ve written about this fairly new publication before here on my blog (you can read about it here). The Magazine was founded and is edited by piano teacher, Karen Gibson, who wanted to create an online ‘well’ of useful information for piano teachers. Karen is based in the US, but the Magazine (which is published monthly) is available on Apple Newsstand and Google Play (for Android).

Karen has been kind enough to write a review of my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (which can be read in the December edition), and, as you can see from the image above, I’ve been featured as cover girl too!

You can read my interview here:

The Piano Bench Mag Interview

Download The Piano Bench Mag:

Apple Newsstand and Google Play. You can also find The Piano Bench Mag on Facebook.

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Barry Douglas in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-ninth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Irish concert pianist Barry Douglas. We met for a chat in London recently, where he talked about his life and career.

Barry Douglas has established a major international career since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Moscow. As Artistic Director of Camerata Ireland and the Clandeboye Festival, he continues to celebrate his Irish heritage whilst also maintaining a busy international touring schedule.

Barry has recently embarked on a monumental recording project with Chandos Records – to record the complete works for solo piano of Brahms within five years. Having developed a wealth of musical experience in his 35-year career, Barry now feels the time is right to undertake this colossal project. The first disc of works by Brahms was released to critical acclaim in March 2012. The interesting programming of each disc, which has already garnered much critical praise, presents each album as a stand-alone recital, providing a varied and engaging listening experience. March 2014 will also see the release of his first recording of Schubert solo piano works.

Barry founded Camerata Ireland in 1999 to celebrate and nurture the cream of young Irish talent. The ensemble is made up of musicians from both Northern and the Republic of Ireland and has acquired a reputation for excellence. Camerata Ireland tours regularly throughout Europe, North and South America, and China. In addition to its busy schedule of concerts, the orchestra will perform a new cantata commissioned by The Honourable The Irish Society, “At Sixes and Sevens”, alongside the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Derry-Londonderry becoming City of Culture 2013. Barry Douglas is joint Artistic Director of this project.

Highlights of this season include returns to the London Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Tonkünstler Orchestra both in Vienna and on tour in the UK, and the Macau Orchestra.  He has previously given concerts with the London Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Russian National, Cincinnati Symphony, Singapore Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Hallé, Berlin Radio Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Czech National Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Brussels Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, and Helsinki Philharmonic orchestras, among others. Barry regularly plays in recital throughout the world, with upcoming performances in Switzerland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, the USA, and the UK, including a series of lunchtime recitals at LSO St Luke’s. He also performed the Penderecki Sextet at the 2013 Krzysztof Penderecki Festival in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Barry’s reputation as a play/conductor has grown since forming Camerata Ireland, this season seeing him return to direct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In recent seasons, he has made successful debuts with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Indianapolis Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of the Romanian National Radio Orchestra at the Enescu Festival, Bangkok Symphony, I Pommerigi di Milano and Moscow Philharmonic orchestras.

Barry Douglas received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2002 New Year’s Honours List for services to music.

Barry in action…..

The transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie: Irish concert pianist, Barry Douglas, won the gold medal at the 1986 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and he’s won many awards and accolades throughout his fantastic career. I’m thrilled he’s taken the time ahead of a very busy schedule to join me here in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Barry: Thank you Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today.

Barry: Good to chat to you, too.

Melanie: I’d like to start by asking all about your musical education, how you started, why you started, and whether you come from a musical family.

Barry: I don’t come from a musical family although my parents appreciated music. We went to concerts. I was very lucky, because growing up in Belfast it was very tough with the conflict at the time in the 60s and 70s. There was a lot of scope for learning different instruments. In my school and the school of music in Belfast, you were able to do whatever you wanted in fact and it was very reasonable for people who didn’t have a lot of money. It was a very democratic kind of situation. And I was able to learn. I studied the piano, of course. I did clarinet, cello, played the organ, timpani, conducted, and did all sorts of things. So all of that was kind of contributed to a very rich background and it really did fit into all of my musical activities later on. That took me right up to my mid-teens. That was roughly when I decided to be a pianist.

Melanie: Quite late, isn’t it?

Barry: I had to finally choose. It’s very late, very late.

Melanie: Yes. It’s very late. It’s amazing.

Barry: Because normally everybody was playing Transcendental Studies at the age of 2.

Melanie: So which teacher, then, do you think kind of was most important, would you say, in your development? Or you’ve got several teachers that have really helped you along the way?

Barry: All of my teachers, I’ve been very fortunate, gave me something, and that’s what teachers should do. They all give something different. But, why I decided to be a pianist. Because I was rather hoping to be a clarinetist at the time, was that I met through a chance meeting with my father meeting with a friend of his, I met this woman who was coming to visit her folks in Ireland, North and South, and she had been a pupil of Emil von Sauer, who was a pupil of Liszt. And so Felicitas LeWinter was her name and she was a Jewish refugee from Vienna at the time, in that terrible time just before the Second World War, and she was an amazing pianist and an amazing teacher. She gave me a whole series of lessons. First of all, she told me that I couldn’t play the piano, and then she gave me a whole series of lessons saying, “Well, this is how you do play the piano.” And she had an amazing sound at the piano and in fact her hero, apart from Sauer, her teacher, and of course Liszt, was a guy called Arthur Friedheim who had the most beautiful sound on the piano. And she said, “If you can achieve this one day then you’ll truly be a pianist.” And then many years later she came to hear me on the South Bank when I was in my late-twenties, mid-twenties and she said, “Finally, Barry, I think you have the Arthur Friedheim sound.” So, I thought, “Well, finally I’ve arrived!” [Laughter] But she was marvelous and she inspired me to be a pianist. I’ll be forever grateful to her. I also had a wonderful teacher at the Royal College of Music, John Barstow. And then had lessons, a lot of lessons with Maria Curcio privately in London. And she was a huge inspiration as well. She’d been a pupil of Schnabel, and so a whole mileage of tradition and an integrity and a sincerity about music making, about technique, about literature.

Melanie: I was going to ask, how did you develop your technique? Were you one of those pianists that practiced a lot of scales and studies or were you on learning the techniques within each work, do you think?

Barry: I did a bit of both because sometimes when I was very young, I tackled pieces that were really beyond me, but then that was good because Horowitz once said that he learned all his technique from playing music. So, I thought, I think the important thing is that you have to see the reason for a particular technical thing is it has a musical foundation and it’s not something in isolation. Yes, of course scales and arpeggios and exercises are very important, but they should be played in a musical way. Otherwise, if you divorce the technique from the musical expression, then somehow it’s very difficult to pair it up again. So, you should always make music even with an exercise, even with a scale. I remember when I was trying to make money when I was an 18-year-old in London, and I taught these kids the piano, and there was this one little girl who played the most beautiful C major scales. Her hand was incredible and it was just perfect. It was making music, and I used to get her to play it over and over again [Laughter] C major scale.

Melanie: Interesting. So, you won the Tchaikovsky. It must have had a tremendous impact on your career. How did it change?

Barry: Well, overnight, of course, it was a huge thing for me. Everything opened, you know, record contracts, agencies, concerts, festivals, orchestras, conductors, because in those days it was – I mean, Valery Gergiev has transformed the competition. The last edition was 2011. So it is really very interesting, but in those days just before the fall of the Soviet Union, it had a kind of mystery to it. I think everybody is kind of fascinated by what the Russians were doing behind the iron curtain. And of course it was a hugely important Piano School in the Moscow Conservatory, with great teachers and of course we knew these wonderful, and we love these Russian pianists. And so, for me, it was actually incredible to manage to win this, and I’m eternally grateful to my friends in Russia.

Melanie: Do you believe competition is still the best way of establishing a career for young pianists today or do you think we’ve got so many of them that they’ve become less important?

Barry: I think there are too many and they are less important. But that doesn’t mean that a young musician can’t come to a competition with the right frame of mind, with the right motivation. It’s not about running around the world and entering different competitions just for the sake of it. It’s about playing well, making music, and if some day you win, that’s great. If you don’t, it doesn’t really mean too much. It means, you know, you didn’t win on that particular day, but another day you might win. So, it’s not about the winning, Yes, it is about the winning. Well, I mean, you have to enter competitions and I really do want to win, because it is a competition. But, at the same time, I think you must have prepared yourself over the years so that music is the most important thing. I used to hear people talk about how they would change the technique or how they play the piece to suit the jury. I don’t know how they knew what the jury was going to like or not like, but that’s really the wrong way to do it. You have to love the music. You have to love the piano, and that should come first.

Melanie: Which composers do you love to play?

Barry: I don’t have any favourites, though I’ve been playing a lot of Brahms and Schubert at the moment.

Melanie: [Laughter] That was my next question, yes, because you’ve embarked on this 5 year project to record all of Brahms solo piano music. That’s incredible. What was the inspiration behind that? What’s so special about his music for you?

Barry: Well, I’ve always played Brahms. I’ve known most of his music for a very long time. Schubert a little bit less, but I’m playing more and more Schubert now. Brahms seemed the logical choice when Chandos asked me to do a series of a complete thing. I said, “Well, Brahms I think is-” and Beethoven, of course, would be also, but maybe that’s not for now for me, but Brahms has been a great voyage of discovery because I’ve learned pieces that I haven’t played before, and that’s interesting, but we’ve got another year and a half to go and then Brahms will be done and after that the Schubert. We’ve released one Schubert record. We’re going to do a second the next year and then we’ll get into a series.

Melanie: I was going to say, are you going to do a complete Schubert Cycle? What is the music-?

Barry: Yes, yes. I don’t know if it’s going to be complete, complete, complete. But it’s going to be certainly all the main, important works and some of the small pieces as well. But I’m not sure if I’m going to get every last thing wiped up.

Melanie: Yes. Quite a difference between Brahms and Schubert. Different completely styles.

Barry: Absolutely. And in fact with the Brahms, I wanted to make each disc a kind of piano recital. So, you know, you would come home from work tired, have a glass of wine or coffee, and listen to a recital. So, you don’t have to buy the whole thing. You can buy the whole thing if you want. I’m sure the guys at Chandos would be very happy and so would I. But I want each disc to be kind of self-contained, too, and have a little bit from the beginning, middle, and end of his life. So you can see the contrast and the different techniques and how he developed just in one disc. But the Schubert I’m going to do quite seriously with the sonatas, and then I’m also going to include in most of the discs the Liszt transcriptions of his songs just to have a little kind of different flavour and how another great composer commented and admired Schubert’s work.

Melanie: You set up Camerata Ireland in 1999 and you direct and conduct this orchestra. What made you go into that, into conducting? Because that’s quite a departure.

Barry: Well I was conducting choirs and orchestras in my teens so it was always kind of there. The whole thing with Camerata was not really to start conducting. It was a moment in history of the island, which was transformative. We had peace. We had parliament and there were a lot of things about to happen. I think we artists should make a contribution to that, too. Excuse me. [Coughs] So, I wanted – I guess the mission of the orchestra is really a free flow, one is to show the international audience that Ireland can do some beautiful orchestra and play beautifully and Camerata has being touring ever since 1999, all over the world. Another one was to build in the peace process and make those connections North and South and say, well, actually – we get on with people and here’s the positive side of Ireland, what it has to offer. And also then to create a kind of a nurturing place for young musicians in the first few steps of their careers. It’s not a youth orchestra, but it has a strong element of young people in it. Maybe from the ages of 23 to 35, something like that, which is about maybe 50-60% of the orchestra. But I think it’s very important that they should play with their older colleagues and their established colleagues should be able to play with the younger people. I think it’s a very nice mix. And so, I’ve directed most of the concerts, but we do have guest artists. We’ve had Sarah Chang to come and direct. The orchestra is 15 years old and is doing very well, and we’ve made records and we have our own festival. So, it’s very exciting.

Melanie: You’re Artistic Director of a couple of festivals in Ireland. Tell us of your involvement in most festivals and how they’ve progressed over the years.

Barry: Being an all-island orchestra, all-Ireland orchestra, we have kind of two of everything. We have two offices. We have two companies. We have two concert series. We have two education hubs, one in Derry, one in Cork. We had two festivals. We had Clandeboye in the North near Belfast and we had Castletown in Kildare near Dublin in the South. The Castletown thing was sort of magnificent Stately Home, but we decided that after maybe five or six festivals, that we would move on. I think we’re going to find another festival somewhere else. The building is not, it is difficult for chamber orchestras because a lot of it is very well protected because anything could happen to it. For instance, bringing the piano in, you can’t bring the piano up the stairs, because these are steps which are – there’s no support. And so you can see a standard concert grand going up the stairs, and you’d think, “My goodness! What’s going to happen to the stairs?” And so we have to bring them by crane. So, it turned out to be quite costly, but certainly it’s a venue for any concert. And they have their own series of concerts, which they do on the ground floor, because the big concerts are on the first floor. Anyway, so to cut a long story short, we’ll be finding another festival in the South of Ireland. But we have Clandeboye, and Clandeboye is 12 years old this year. We’ve had 160 young musicians go through. We invite international guest artists and they work with the young ones. They play chamber music, give masterclasses, and the Camerata plays. We have theatre. We have cooking master classes. We have a fashion show. So, it’s all of our young people, young designers, young chefs, young actors, young poets. And so it’s all about creating a forum for people to be able to try things like that.

Melanie: So, what are your plans for the future? Concerts? Recordings?

Barry: The recordings are set obviously with the Brahms and Schubert. I might do the two Brahms concertos also. As regards to concerts and continuing my travels around the world, this year I’m going to some new places or places I haven’t been for a while, like Israel. It was my first time in Mexico a couple of years ago and we went with Camerata last year. I went again this year. So, there’s some countries where I’ve been playing a lot in recently. Of course around Europe, I was at the Proms this year. There are new pieces being written for me. Kevin Volans who wrote a concerto for me at the Proms a couple of years ago, is writing another piece for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group that has piano, a piano solo. So, working with composers is very important, too. What else? The festival, I went to grow the festival because I think it’s very important to reach as many young people as possible. It’s the same as the other festival and I really want to get education in Ireland up and running where kids and schools can really experience the greatest of music and understand and be, in a sense, energized and inspired to probe further and learn more.

Melanie: That’s so important.

Barry: It’s a tough time for education in Ireland and in many countries. With cutbacks and everything, music always seems to be the first one to suffer. So I’m determined to say, “Well we have to really concentrate. This is a priority.”

Melanie: Absolutely. So, what does playing the piano mean to you?

Barry: Well, it’s, you know, it’s all enveloping. I bought a new Steinway grand or concert grand recently and I’m so – I’m finding new sounds. I find most artists who are serious will say ‘I’m learning all the time’. It is really like that! You do learn all the time, and you learn different ways of playing. You discover things about pieces that you’ve known all your life. I think that’s fascinating. It’s exciting. So, it is my life, but it’s part of my life, too. Because I have my own life. My life away from the piano, but the piano – I feel very fortunate. It’s a great instrument, great music.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Barry: Thank you.



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Carnival of the Animals for Two Pianos

French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote Le Carnaval des Animaux in 1886. It was originally scored for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute (and piccolo), clarinet (C and B flat), glass harmonica and xylophone, but there are several arrangements, including one for two pianos by Ralph Berkowitz. Designed as a ‘fun’ piece, intended for Saint-Saëns’ students,  the work consists of fourteen short movements depicting various animals. Whilst it was performed privately on a few occasions (including a performance at the home of Pauline Viardot, with Franz Liszt in the audience), Saint-Saëns’ forbid Le Carnaval des Animaux to be published or played during his lifetime, believing it detracted from his status as a serious composer. Eventually Saint-Saëns relented, and the The Swan (the penultimate work with the famous cello solo), was published in an arrangement for cello and piano.

Le Carnaval des Animaux  has since become Saint-Saëns’ most famous and well-loved piece, and is especially popular with children.  The composer’s characterisation of each animal is illuminating and often humorous, with plenty of comical musical ideas and motifs. The Personnages à longues oreilles (movement 8) is thought to be directed at music critics, who are also supposedly the last animals heard during the finale, braying. Movement 10, Pianistes, depicts pianists diligently working at their scales, and movement 4, Tortues employs the well-known Galop infernal from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, playing the usually brisk melody at a very slow, whimsical pace.

The following performance was recorded in 1996 (on a home video) at a recital given by Russian pianist Olga Balakleets and myself, as part of the Primavera Musicale Italiana Festival held at St. James’s Church, in Piccadilly, London.

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