Piano Showcase presented by Pianist Magazine and Schott Music

Pianist - 80-Oct14

I’ve written on many occasions about the positive practical and psychological benefits from regular performance practice. Nothing can prepare a pianist for the feeling of stepping out in public, having to think under pressure and play a piece from beginning to end with few errors, stumbles or hesitations. Feeling terrified is totally normal, but the elation of sweeping aside those pesky nerves and doing it well is stupendous – and addictive! Once experienced, never forgotten. The chance to play in public will seriously improve piano playing too, bestowing a confidence in all who participate.

With this in mind, it’s great to be able to highlight a new performance opportunity created by Pianist Magazine and Schott Music. They are presenting a showcase for pianists of all standards and abilities to be held from 6.00 to 9.30pm on January 23rd 2015 at Schott Music’s store in London. Performers will get to play on a beautifully maintained Steinway Model M baby grand housed in Schott Music’s Recital Hall. The event is also free for all players and attendees.

Pianist Magazine’s Editor Erica Worth says ‘For my part, I will be proud to see some of my loyal readers play. Remember, this is not a competition. You can play the simplest 12-bar prelude, or the hardest 10-page etude. Don’t be shy. I’ll be there to spur you on. And we can all have a catch-up over a glass of wine afterwards!

To participate, you can play to any level, though you must be over the age of 18. You will need to select a piece from a wide-ranging repertoire list, which, again, covers all levels. You don’t have to memorise your piece; playing from the score is fine. Space is limited, Schott Music expects to be able to accommodate anywhere from 20 to 30 people on the night, so reserving a place now is a good plan; the link for the easy-to-use website is listed below. You can bring along a friend, family member, anyone you like. You can attend purely as an audience member too, though numbers are limited.

Schott Music has devised an eclectic and interesting repertoire list, which is completely diverse. Erica comments, ‘You can study the repertoire list for yourself at the showcase website, but make your choice soon and get your name on the list soon. Remember, this event is on a first-come, first-served basis, and the end of January is not so far away – that means you’ll want to get practising soon!’ 

So what are you waiting for? Whether preparing for an exam, concert or just wanting to gain valuable performance practice and meet new friends, come along to this exciting event!

You can find out much more information at Pianist Magazine’s website and you can browse the repertoire lists and apply here. Enjoy!

Schott inside

Schott Music’s Recital Hall and the shop (below) which is situated on Great Marlborough Street in central London.

Schott outside


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A few thoughts on Ornaments

The subject of Ornaments (embellishments or musical flourishes) has cropped up several times over the past few weeks, both in my student’s lessons and whilst writing the Piano Notes for the ABRSM 2015/6 piano syllabus published by Rhinegold. I’ve been contributing to the Piano Notes Series for many of the Grade 1 – 3 pieces, and several A list works contain ornaments of some kind. They decorate a melodic line, colouring it, usually by the addition of quick notes around a ‘central’ note, adding beauty and variation.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret these ornaments, (trills, mordents, turns and the like) depending on the period of the work, the composer and character of the piece. The actual interpretation doesn’t normally pose many issues, as pupils will generally be advised how to play them by a teacher, if not, the internet provides an excellent source of information and there are plenty of publications dealing with this subject too. It’s the physical aspect of incorporating them which seems to cause the grief, and for some students, Ornaments can become a real nemesis, instigating stumbles and hesitations. A good plan is to learn to assimilate and feel comfortable playing ornaments as soon as possible, because they appear from the very beginning of a pianist’s journey.

So how to practice embellishments with secure, reliable results? Here are a few ideas which have recently helped my students to overcome potential issues.

  1. Many don’t like excluding ornaments when first learning a piece, but this can be helpful in order to get a sense of the outline, structure and more importantly, grasp the pulse firmly. The last point is a crucial one because adding ‘extra’ notes really can destabilise the rhythm for many pupils, particularly inexperienced players.
  2. Once the pulse has been grasped, write the ornament clearly into the music. This shows exactly how it must be played, and will help to eradicate any uncertainties, illustrating just how the extra notes will easily ‘fit in’. Many aspects of piano playing are physiological, and it seems once the notes are in the score, they become part of it rather than a scary added ‘extra’.

A small section of a Baroque work with a trill such as this:

Baroque trill 1

Might be written out and interpreted like this, which is definitely easier and clearer to play and comprehend:

Baroque trill 2

3.  Some find it useful to sing the melody with the ornament/s – this facilitates good rhythm and an awareness of the musical line. Try doing this away from the piano too, but be sure to set a strict pulse and adhere to it. ‘Speaking’ the ornament out loud seems to clarify rhythmically ‘even’ playing.

4.  When it comes to practising, fingering will be paramount. Most teachers will have good suggestions, however, one facet which can become problematic is evenness, not just rhythmically, but tonal clarity too. To help with this, start by isolating the ornament. Mentally embed the fingering by using active, strong fingers, repeating the pattern a few times. I’ve written about employing physical flexibility, particularly in faster passage work, copiously on this blog! In ornaments, however, it is essential. Allowing the wrist to move rotationally between every note, each finger thus sinking into the key producing a heavy, rich (and necessarily loud tone), can be a fruitful way to work (practice the ornament this way both slowly and up to speed). Make sure your upper body feels relaxed between every note. No tension at all! Now lighten the trill (or whatever ornament is being worked on), using less movement and sound, to reveal a clear, even, rhythmical and hopefully, expressive ornament.

5.  Other viable practice methods include working in dotted rhythms and reverse dotted rhythms (just on the ornament). Using staccato or detached touches seems to work effectively too. This also builds on the idea of using a ‘heavy’ touch, but the fact that the notes are shorter, emphasises articulation and a crisp rhythm.

6.  Once the trill in question has been learnt thoroughly, try to visualize playing it in one motion or movement, this shouldn’t be too challenging once point number 4 has been fully digested.

7.  Now incorporate the ornament into the phrase; watch out for dynamic markings, the embellishment should add to the melody, so expressive colour and musical shape will be important.

8.  Finally, add the left or right hand (depending on which contains the trill), balancing the sound and listening carefully because the ornament must be part of the texture rather than a feature.

There are many other ways of practising these sumptuous  decorations, and with a little thought and work, they will become a beautiful part of the melodic line, and a positive addition to any performance.


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Cristina Ortiz in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My thirty-eighth interview guest is Brazilian concert pianist Cristina Ortiz. We met at her home in West London a couple of weeks ago to discuss her life and career.

Even though Cristina has been resident in Europe for many years, it is the passion, spontaneity and allure so characteristic to her Brazilian cultural heritage, which is central to her music making. Dominating a broad range of solo and concerto repertoire, she now adds the role of chamber musician ever more important in her make-up as a truly complete artist.
She has performed with Antonio Meneses, Boris Belkin, Kurt Nikkanen, Uto Ughi, Dimitri Ashkenazy as well as the Prague Wind Quintet; and besides collaborating with string quartets such as the Chilingirian, the Grainger or the Endellion, Cristina has just recorded the piano quintets of Fauré and Franck with the Fine Arts Quartet for Naxos.
There is no doubting her dedication to divulging Brazilian music, well evidenced in the American premiere of Guarnieri’s “Choro” at Carnegie Hall under Dennis Russell-Davies, or Decca recording of Villa-Lobos’ five Piano Concertos, recording which definitely confirmed her as the main interpreter of his music.
Cristina’s interpretation of a wealth of the most significant piano literature from Beethoven to Bernstein and beyond, has sustained critical acclaim as well as bringing to her public’s attention a number of lesser known works:
1. as in her CDs of pieces by Clara Schumann for Carlton Classics or that of Stenhammar’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the Göthenburg Orchestra under Neeme Järvi for BIS; or
2. as in the world premiere of Lalo Schifrin’s “Concerto of the Americas” in Washington DC and Kyoto; or performances of Erwin Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic or the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
Cristina Ortiz believes teaching is an invaluable source for self-analysis. Using her experience, she inspires young pianists to develop a feeling for colours and to broaden their range of emotions. In giving private tuition or conducting master-classes while on concert-trips throughout the world whenever possible, she dedicates special attention to the use of Pedal: that all-important yet nearly untaught art.
Since the days when invited by her mentor, Rudolf Serkin, she participated in his famous “Music from Marlboro” or when appearing at the “Festival of the Two Worlds” in Spoletto Italy, Cristina knows that an artist can but grow from sharing music with peers. She has recently organized chamber music concerts as well as several workshops for young pianists, with the intention of bringing music to her local friends in the south of France. In 2006, her first “C* O* & Friends Festival’’ there was music for wind instruments and piano, whereas in 2008, her second, that for strings and piano. To the delight of her audiences, an informal jazz-session ended both programs, in lighter fashion.
Ms Ortiz has worked with conductors such as André Previn, Kyril Kondrashin, Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maris Jansons, David Zinman and Dennis Russell-Davies among many more and played with orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland or Philadelphia Orchestras, Chicago Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, RPO and Philharmonia to cite but a few.
On the other hand, she especially enjoys directing from the keyboard, be it as in concert with the Prague Chamber Orchestra (at the Rudolfinum or the Musikverein, Vienna); with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, in Ørebro, Sweden; or in the recording studios with the Consort of London, for Collins Classics. Recently the 1st time in Brazil, she delighted the São Paulo public and orchestral partners alike with her relaxed yet visceral approach to music, directing and performing Beethoven’s Concerto # 3 from the keyboard. In her opinion this format of music making is the most complete and satisfying for a soloist, due to total commitment by all musicians on stage.
Cristina Ortiz as a true Ambassador, has started to perform classical music in the various Embassies of Brazil around the world, closely relating to the exclusive audiences by informally announcing what she chooses to play: be it Chopin or Lorenzo Fernandez; Schubert or Fructuoso Vianna; Brahms or Nepomuceno; Debussy or Villa-Lobos: all chosen composers, equally treasured by her.

Cristina in action….

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews……..

Melanie: Brazilian concert pianist, Cristina Ortiz, won first prize in the 1969 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she’s played to great claim ever since. I’m so thrilled that she’s joining me for one of my classical conversations here at her home in London. Welcome.

Cristina: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today. I want to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, why did you start to play?

Cristina: I think what happened was the moment I could climb up to the piano stool, I got close to the piano and I started experimenting with everything I heard came out, and the sounds. At about 4 years of age, my mother just decided to start me with some teacher because I might have some talent, and that was the beginning of it. I started with a wonderful concert pianist in Rio, and after that I went to the conservatoire kind of thing, and I won many competitions including a scholarship to go to France, in Paris. And there I went to study with Magda Tagliaferro, who was Brazilian born and had her academy in Paris. After that, I won the Cliburn. After winning the Cliburn in ’69, I decided to study with Rudolf Serkin, because I needed a diversification of styles and a little away from the perfume and flair and rhythm of the Tagliaferro school, quite different, the Cliburn in Philadelphia and did two and a half, three years with Serkin, and everything together with chamber music, which is the most important part of music, but then since 40 years now I’ve been living in London. My career was mainly in Europe anyway. I wasn’t very keen on American music. I mean the way that people relate to music, I wasn’t so comfortable. So, I did my studies and then when I could I just came back to Europe. I was in Paris between ’65-69, so I came back. That’s where I am.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Which teacher do you think developed it or who was the most important?

Cristina: I wasn’t technically – For me, technique is just a vehicle. So, it has never been very important. Unlike the Russian school where you have to acquire, and be really and athlete, and develop a power and everything. I was, I suppose rather natural. My hands just whatever, felt right, my fingers or whatever. I never really did technique. I just prepared whatever I was practicing on and the technique would develop. Whichever exercise I needed or technical problems, I had to conquer them by studying the passage and so on. So, I never think of technique as an important side of music.

Of course, you have to have it to get through the repertoire, but for me, the most important side of music is the sound. That’s a technique of the ear, isn’t it? And the projection of sound and so on. The preparation of getting something ready is just the background of making music. So, it’s not that important to me.

Melanie: The Van Cliburn Competition, it must have had a huge impact on your career? How did it change it, or did it not?

Cristina: No, it didn’t really. At that time it wasn’t as important as it is now, with the media and the coverage and everything. Everything is filmed from the word go. I followed Radu Lupu’s prize, and Radu at that time had just come out of Russia and was very. I mean he never changed so much. But he had cancelled, for instance, the European tour. And as a consequence, when it came to me, I had no European tour, because the Cliburn winner had not honored the prize and that kind of thing. So, mine had not such a very important coverage in the world and I suppose that’s why in the end I went to study with Rudolf Serkin to try to get through this German school. I wanted to come back to Europe, and I’ve never really been in the eye of the public.

Melanie: No.

Cristina: Like anybody these days winning a major competition, they immediately-

Melanie: goes mad

Cristina: goes mad for about 5 minutes these days, because there’s so many of us.

Melanie: I was about to say, do you think that’s still an important way to establish a career or do you think it’s not?

Cristina: I think it’s past it. And also, I don’t know if you see the corruption. The way things are just like politics, and the way that you get up there somehow. Not blaming the candidate, but it’s very difficult to judge music. It’s such an incredibly subjective art. And your opinion and mine, if we don’t discuss, there is no middle ground. And people do not like to discuss. People think it leads to a lot of abrasion and all of it. So, the winners coming out of a competition, they never – These days, they come and they go. There’s so many competitions. And then you hear what’s going on behind the scenes, people complaining on the way they were judged or marked and you say yes or no, and you take the higher mark out. It’s gone bonkers. It’s not something that you can say, “This guy is better than that lady.” You know? You can’t say that. It’s just how – If it’s obviously bad, then somebody can’t play the piano. That’s not the case anymore. But, it’s so subjective. It depends on your background. It depends on your makeup and emotional message. I mean, they’re too young when they come to competitions, so they try to show off this technique and pyrotechnics and things like that. My God! It’s scary. And the other side, when you’re trying to really be a kind of turned in to dig deep and try to show what you’re really made of, what is really important to you. It’s not obvious when it comes out. So it’s very difficult to pinpoint and say, “This is very stunning.” Also, the way that I think competitions are judged. There’s no more of this unanimous vote. And that, in the old days, that’s when you made the most important winners. Like Lupu, the people who were voted the best were incredibly talented, special, and with a lot to offer. Of course, you have to grow and experience life before you can really touch people, unless you’re born with this incredible way of touching people. And that for me is the most important technique. You started with it wrong. [Laughter] For me, technique is not necessary. It’s not something that I want to think, “Oh! What a technique!” I mean, everybody should have technique when you play Brahms’ 2nd. Not many people play Brahms’ 2nd. It’s not just having technique. It’s just having the courage to go and play some of the passages that other people just go, “Oh! This is impossible to play. I won’t play this piece.” So, you know. It’s all very subjective, very relative and difficult to decide and talk about what it is that makes a pianist.

Melanie: You’re synonymous with Brazilian, Spanish and Latin American music. Obviously because this is where you come from, but what is it that draws you to this music?

Cristina: Well, funnily enough, it’s just now I’m finding in my old age that I decided to try to pass it on to people. It’s just obviously my makeup, the way I was born. You’re born with a metronome very strong rhythmical diversity and things. So, you have a one-up on other people. I remember playing and having a lesson with an Oriental pianist and he just asked me, “Do you think I’ll ever be able to play these rhythms?” I said, “Well, of course you can play! But you have to go and live first in Brazil for a little bit and try to absorb how people move to beats and the different beats coping with 3 against 4, 5, and 7s. You have to live to be able to, if it doesn’t come naturally. But the flair of it, I mean, with a name like name people think I’m Spanish. There’s no recollection of Spanish blood at all, but Ortiz must have started somewhere in Spain via Portugal, etc. So, that just speaks very much to me, the way I am and also the luminosity and the French music, because I was living in France and Tagliaferro was very, very special at living French music differently from the way that French pianist consider it. I call it the paste. You put the pedal down and you create something that you – It’s just impressionist. No, it’s nothing to do with this, there’s rhythm. There’s light. So this background of course I like to think that Brazilian, Spanish and French music are my forte. But when I was younger, I was always trying to stay away from it. Otherwise I would be labelled. So when I came here I tried to get a larger repertoire, going through, Bach. I’ve never been comfortable performing Bach because I’m too much of a lively person and Bach is just intellect and, of course, beautiful sound, but I was never prepared to just do that. And concentrate on, you know, the shape of music. Now I am, but it’s too late to go to Bach. So from, you know, Mozart onwards and Haydn and so on. I just try to get all of the different styles and be musician, a complete musician, by Beethoven sonatas and all this. Then after Tagliaferro, of course talking about great teachers that I only had Tagliaferro, after Tagliaferro. I went to Philadelphia to study with Rudolf Serkin, a great fantastic musician, at the Curtis Institute. And that’s where I got down to the German side of- You know, do not add one bit of octave. Nothing. I mean, respect the score and the architecture of the work and how to organically get to new tempi and respect the meter, the pace, and the structure of the work. So, you know, I tried to. I’m an Aries and then I tried to balance it with apparently my ascendance is balance. So this is the way I am. I’m all emotion and intuition and whatever the word may be, but, you know, just coming out with naturalness. And then I tried to be rigid and tried to contain some of that so that you go through the channels of classical music and then you relax with French music. With Brazilian music, when you go to play Brazilian music, many, many young people in Brazil – but no, you have to respect. You have to go deeper and find what it is from your roots. I find things that, it’s always there, you know? You bring it forth, bring it out and make sure that it’s out there. Not just be ashamed that it’s rhythmic, it’s a little bit funny, and you have to swing a bit when you play. It’s not theatre, but it’s necessary to add another layer of interest. That’s why now that I want to show that I can play better than many other people, it’s very interesting. It’s sort of a different side of me. And it’s always been there. So people say, “Oh, please play some Brazilian music and some Spanish music,” and so on.

Melanie: Yes!

Cristina: It’s always been very difficult to programme it, because it takes an awful long time. So, usually I would take a second half of that and now I’m coming back to this because people ask for it. I like cycles. I like large structures and I like to play all the Scherzos and Ballades and intertwine them. And I like to play sonatas and I like to play big stuff, you know, cycles. I like to play Brahms 1 and 2 in the same night, if possible. 5 Beethoven concertos. I like cycles, and it’s not so easy to programme it.

Melanie: No, but you also play a lot of less familiar work, contemporary music. How do-

Cristina: Yes. Not contemporary, not really. Not so much. Really, I just like to bring forth, things that needed reviving or deserved to be heard. That’s something I like to do things different like the Stenhammer concertos, which I’d never heard of. I have one friend of mine that finds music and says, “Cristina that’s got your face. You must listen. You must play.” And then I discovered Schulhoff and I played Schulhoff’s Concerto. I was writing yesterday about it. With Larry Foster I will play almost the premiere of the concerto in Prague and that’s where Schulhoff was born, but because of the Germans, you know, he died in a camp. In a concentration camp, his music was forbidden and so now there’s a revival of that. So you hear things and you want to play them, not to be different, but because you really believe in something like that. The last thing I did was, again the same friend said, “You’ve got to hear this,” and it was the Bowen. I just recorded that for Naxos.

So, Bowen, British born, taught at the Royal Academy for 50 years or whatever and not many people – I mean of course now it’s coming out. It’s fantastic music which deserved to be heard. I don’t play anything I don’t like, because I really have to enjoy it. It’s very difficult for me to sit and do something just because – no. Now, for instance, I would love to do his concerto number 4. Nobody does it. I would like to play Bowen’s Concerto No. 4. It’s a fantastic piece of music. You know, what’s the point of always doing the same? Of course, it’s wonderful to go through the 5 Beethoven concertos, but if you can add something and with experience you can add something. You go through different times in your life and cycles and you change. You have happiness. You have sadness. You have everything you cope with. You have all of this, and everything is reflected in the way you make music.

So, experience and life is very necessary for going through emotions and projecting emotions. For me, music is sound and touching people and projecting. None of this: to impress 3000 people. I’m not there to impress. I’m there to touch people. Applauses – It’s very nice to be applauded and play encores but hearing warmth and joy and showing more of your facets of your makeup, and then it’s, “Ok, let’s see. What do you want to hear?” I haven’t played a little Schubert, a little Rachmaninoff, a little Brahms, a little Chopin, and after having given your message. I’m like that. That’s the way I’ve been, and it’s not so easy to keep it up.

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Cristina: Gosh!

Melanie: Too many?

Cristina: No, I don’t know.

I don’t know. I just live through everything I do so intensely. I plan things, and when you expect too much of something, it doesn’t-

Melanie: Yes, yes.

Cristina: I’m not very good at planning, and when it happens I’m just very, very glad when it goes well. And it depends on the feedback, if something is most important, but it’s not so easy. Critics, they hardly exist these days, you know? And sometimes you couldn’t really pay attention to many critics, because they might have a problem at home [Laughter] they go to concerts, they sit there. Everything is negative or they would give you a great review. And so what? And then the managers will say, “Well, we can’t just sell-” And it’s all so difficult, the career for young people. I’m amazed at so many of them. Especially with the opening in China, my God!

Melanie: quite a different perspective-

Cristina: Terrifying how many pianists, mostly athletes, which is more than I look for, but anyway. How they keep it up and they come. I love teaching, and I see them all striving and, “How do I do this?” And they have no idea anymore, many people. The tradition of wonderful teachers to go through the styles, it’s hard. You know, when you have people almost teaching with their phone and…..

Melanie: Yes, I agree. [Laughter]

Cristina: With their internet, the Google, and the Youtube, people copy things. Young people don’t know how to play. They say, “Oh, I just like the way he plays this. Oh, he plays-” They play the way that they hear. They will not sit and open a score from zero and read without going and listening. It’s frightening what’s going on in the world.

I’m a little bit negative about this but it’s difficult. It’s difficult sort of changing times, and it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But it’s frightening how the young people, they know it all. They copy it all. They do not digest. They do not think for themselves. It’s really difficult to sit and talk about sound and, “You cannot do that in Beethoven.” “Why not? I like to.” You can’t do that! You can’t take time here. Or “Oh, I feel like doing it.” This kind of thing because there’s no traditions anymore. So, it’s really difficult! But, I love coaching. I don’t teach, but I love trying to make them aware of sound and trying not to worry too much about the technical side. You have to know your hands, know your potential, to know the keyboard, you know, not seeing the keyboard. Because you have to be able to know where to go and not to miss, and people don’t know how to do things. They don’t know how to use a pedal. Nobody teaches pedal. I’m a crazy person about pedal effects and so on. It’s very difficult to teach it. I don’t know. I’ve always been like that. So, it’s something that I would like to pass on, and I do. “How do you do this?” “they don’t know! But are you reading music? The pedal goes down until magically – take the pedal off.” “Oh!” You have to be able to play without the pedal. You know? I mean I never had a teacher teaching me pedal, but this is very important for me. Pedal is a luxury and only when you take it off will you know what it can add. It’s fascinating. I mean, the middle pedal is my specialty. When I was in Paris I discovered the middle pedal. I said, “What is this?” And then I discovered how to use it and since then I bought my first Steinway, which is a little Steinway, which is now in Paris.

But it didn’t come with a middle pedal at the time, because it wasn’t standard. People didn’t use it, people who don’t know what it is for. So I had it added and started going after it. Because there’s so many effects that you can get from it. It’s something that you can get a different dimension to the sound it creates. Like picking out different – and holding a chord that’s important for the harmony. I mean, you know, it’s just – These guys come and immediately they can’t start doing that because they are going to forget that they have no idea how to play Beethoven and they want to focus on the middle pedal, you know, the use of the middle pedal. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to suffer. You’ve got to get knocked on your head. You’ve got to get bad reviews and have something that makes you say, “I know I can do it.” And competitions, too many of them are not judged fair.

Melanie: No. No.

Cristina: So, and also that wave of going to competitions, people are protected. Now there’s a competition somewhere in my country. You know, because people are scholarship paid. In France, they immediately, they go through the backdoor into the competition, an international competition. They have no level for that, but they take the place of other people who might really deserve it. It’s corruption. Well, I won’t say it’s corruption, but it’s wrong, and there’s all sorts of middle ways of doing things, and poor guys. They just have to survive somehow. They will survive! [Laughter] If they will get what’s important to them. If they find the right way to go about it. Which is difficult.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Cristina: Everything. It’s my breath. I can’t live without playing the piano. ´

Although I never force it. If I’m tired, I cannot accomplish anything if I’m tired. So, I immediately stop if I’m tired. I’m never tired. Never. I have plenty of energy. Funny enough I just did workshops in my house and so on and I had a concert that I put together. Just to tell you a very funny story, just talking about energy. At the end of one week of playing together, I tried to put together a chamber music concert in 4 days, 3 days and 4 hands and singing and violin playing and – Anyway, at the end- I’m never tired. I don’t sleep. I sleep very badly and so on, but I’m never tired. And I’ve never thought, “Oh, I didn’t sleep 3 hours!” Hours and hours and hours. If I don’t sleep, 3 hours later I’m up if there’s a concert I have to play. Maybe I’m not moving in the right important circle anymore, but this is the way I am. So, at the end of this week, three people who were leaving in the last day, they got together a little card and it said, “And here is for you to get rid of your amazing energy when we’re gone.” And they had bought me a little skipping rope [Laughter] all beautifully shined and so on. Very sweet. So, the energy is very important makeup for the athletes that we are. To have energy, never complain. You’re not jetlagged when you get to the other end of the world and you’re playing in Japan, eight hours or whatever later in the middle of the night and you have to play Prokofiev 3 on the third night, which is the worst for jetlag for me. You have to get out and you have to open the tap and the water must flow. So, it’s really a tough, tough, tough life and how to start, nobody has the right way. So without piano playing, I would be nowhere. Nowhere.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Cristina: Thank you very much.

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Second Anniversary of the Classical Conversations Series


My interview series, Classical Conversations, celebrates its second Anniversary today. I have interviewed thirty-nine eminent pianists and pedagogues on camera to date (number thirty-eight will be published later this week), and it has been such an interesting project. To mark the occasion The Music Teacher Magazine (published by Rhinegold) have very kindly featured my Series in their November edition, which is a celebration of the piano (see the photo above). The article focuses on just three pianists from the series (all Leeds Piano Competition prize winners; Noriko Ogawa, Artur Pizarro and Federico Colli), by publishing sections of their interview transcripts, where they mention their musical training, teachers and education.

I always ask fairly similar questions throughout the series, but the answers have been fascinating; completely diverse and eclectic. I’m eternally grateful to my first guest, Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who on a cold, rainy day in Cardiff freely gave her time to chat, just prior to going on stage for a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto in C minor Op. 18 at the Millennium Centre. You can watch this interview by clicking on the  link below; it has already accumulated nearly 43,000 views on YouTube. Since then, the Series has become increasingly popular and I’ve had the good fortune to interview many of the world’s greatest concert pianists and teachers.

I hope my interviews establish the connection between the sometimes rather isolated figure on stage and the human being behind the musical mask. This is why speaking to each pianist in person on film is crucial, as it’s the best way of capturing their individual personalities and immediate responses to the questions (although I always send my proposed questions before the interview!). This series also appears to be a fairly unique concept, as there are few other collections of filmed interviews focusing purely on concert pianists. I’ve learnt so much from speaking to every pianist, and it has been a great privilege and pleasure to meet them all.

Most of the interviews have been filmed at establishments: Steinway Hall and Jaques Samuel Pianos have been popular, and I thank them for always granting permission to film. I also travel to artist’s homes, the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Wigmore Hall too. Constantly changing the venue provides much-needed variety.

You can read the article in The Music Teacher Magazine by obtaining a copy here, and visit the whole collection of interviews here. Alternatively, visit my YouTube channel. My next interview features Brazilian concert pianist Cristina Ortiz, which will be published on Sunday.

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Master classes in Germany


Earlier this year I visited Gelsenkirchen (near Düsseldorf), in Germany, to give master classes and workshops, and last weekend I enjoyed a second visit. The classes form part of a community piano project, established and organised by Kery Felske and the wonderful organisation, IkM-Ge e. V (The Interest group of Cultural working Musicians). Kery (who is a singer), works tirelessly, arranging many cultural events in the region, promoting a whole variety of artistic projects. During the weekend, I asked Kery to write a little about this organisation, explaining its objectives and ideas:

‘Since 1997 the Interest group of Cultural working Musicians (IkM-Ge e. V.) in the Ruhr Area in Germany, regularly organises and manages practice rooms, venues, events and workshops for the free artistic and musical scene. The association has the aim to realise conceptions supporting cultural life and its growth with a special view to newcomers, transregional networking and keeping musical events and qualification achievable for everyone while engaging for fair payment of professional performance in the cultural field. Those aims already appear in the non-commercial background of this community whose members do most of their work as volunteers in their leisure time. The wide range of their projects runs from monthly local rock concerts in our own venue, crossover workshops and events of art and music of different styles and genres, a yearly three-days open air event with two stages and thirty bands up to international co-operations with the classical scene and all in between. Diversity is an important aspect of the work of the IkM-Ge. A lot of idealism and enthusiasm is needed to do this job successfully. Since 2005 they run a practice centre (Consol4) with 39 rooms; since 2013 they have their own venue in the same old mine building equipped with PA, stage lighting and an over 100-year-old Bechstein grand piano. But the IkM-Ge uses a lot of other venues around depending on the character of the event and cooperation. Since 2013 as organization structures of the practice rooms, the venue and external events are established, the association started to create more supportive projects around qualification for musicians. In 2014 international workshops especially the classical piano masterclasses with Melanie Spanswick enriched our programme.’

Consol4, the practice centre in Gelsenkirchen (image link)

I’m delighted to be a part of this programme, and will be visiting Gelsenkirchen more frequently in 2015. My classes are generally held at the Grillo Gymnasium in the city centre, and are intended to help those who may not be able to attend regular piano lessons. We work for a period of two days and all workshops are public. Each student receives one to one coaching (in English)  and also has the opportunity to use the practise facilities at the school. The lessons are followed by a concert at the end of the weekend, where we all perform (including me!) and introduce our pieces.

A variety of ages and abilities were invited to participate, and the improvement after a couple of days of intensive lessons was considerable. Students presented a wide range of works from Bach and Chopin, through to Denes Agay and Housman. An open class affords the opportunity to learn from others; whether a relative beginner or advanced player, there is always more to assimilate. It’s a pleasure to work with such attentive and dedicated pupils, and I look forward to many more German weekends.



With Kery Felske (in the middle) and some of the students.

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Nicholas McCarthy in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series continues today and features British left-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy, who is my thirty-seventh guest. He met with me earlier this month at Steinway Hall in London.

Nicholas was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after seeing a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Studying at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines world-wide, being the only left-hand alone pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the UK in major venues including The Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Wales Millennium Centre among others. Internationally Nicholas has performed at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, The Capetown Convention Centre & The Linder Auditorium in South Africa, The Vilhena Palace and the Offices of the Prime Minister in Malta and the Abay Opera House Kazakhstan.

Nicholas is widely featured throughout national and international press and regularly gives live performances and interviews on television and radio including shows for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC television Channel 4 and ITV. Nicholas has been the subject of both a BBC documentary and featured in one by Channel 4. Nicholas ‘s television appearances have been responsible for drawing a cross-section of new audiences to his imaginative recitals, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.

Nicholas’ specialist repertoire is rich and varied encompassing numerous great pieces for left hand alone including original exciting pieces by Scriabin, Liszt and Brahms with striking arrangements of Schubert and Bach (Wittgenstein’s arrangements) Gershwin and some Chopin/Godowsky studies amongst others including Nicholas’ own transcriptions for left hand of more familiar ‘well known’ two handed piano works such as Chopin’s G Minor Ballade and Roses of Picardy by Haydn Wood. Nicholas’s programming caters for a broad range of classical and mainstream tastes. Besides this solo repertoire Nicholas also has numerous concertos in his repertoire. Famed not only for his virtuosic displays at the piano but also for his sensitive and warm interpretations.

One of Nicholas’s proudest moments was performing with the British Paraorchestra at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games where they played alongside Coldplay and gave a rendition of the Paralympic anthem in front of an audience of 86,000 people and half a billion worldwide viewers.

Nicholas recently performed at the International Cheltenham Festival and gave an extensive range of Schools workshops in conjunction with this. July/August will see Nicholas present two of the world-famous BBC Proms, to be televised on BBC4.

Nicholas is Patron of Carers Gloucestershire, The Towersey Foundation and has recently been appointed ambassador of The One Handed Musicians Trust (OHMI) and works alongside a number of other charities including The Tadworth Children’s Trust all of which are very close to Nicholas’s heart.

Speaking engagements have seen Nicholas speak across the country in a range of Schools and businesses including the annual ITV ‘Big Think’ Conference and most notably his TED Talk at The Royal Albert Hall.

And Nicholas in action…..

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews…..

Melanie: British concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, made history when he was the first left-handed pianist ever to graduate from the Royal College of Music here in London. Born without his right arm, he has a very varied and unusual repertoire. So, I’m so pleased he’s joined me here today at Steinway Hall for a classical conversation. Welcome!

Nicholas: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Melanie: It’s lovely to get to chat to you finally.

Nicholas: I know. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen each other actually and a lot has happened.

Melanie: Absolutely. You’re doing so fantastically, but I’m going to start by taking you back and asking you how you began, because you started quite late. You were 14 or so?

Nicholas: 14, that’s right, and that’s quite late for someone who wants to carve a career in the classical industry.

Melanie: What was the catalyst then? What was behind it?

Nicholas: I actually wanted to be a chef. I had no interest in piano whatsoever.

Melanie: That’s quite a different career.

Nicholas: I quite liked classical music, but, you know, only things I’d heard my mum and dad play like Nigel Kennedy and things like that in the background. And at the age of 14 I saw a friend of mine playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, which I adore. It’s one of my favourite, favourite pieces. And it was at that moment really for me that I kind of sat up and had one of those moments. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing! That’s what I want to do.” Quite naïvely probably at 14, on the one hand it’s not obviously the first choice of career. And I do remember when I went home and told Mum and Dad, “Mum, Dad, I want to be a concert pianist!

And they go, “Really?”

Melanie: [Laughter] So, you must have got going quite quickly? Which teachers do you think were most influential for your development?

Nicholas: Well, I self-taught for the first couple of years.

Melanie: Oh, right!

Nicholas: Yea, and then my parents enlisted a local private teacher, because I think my mum and dad just thought it was going to be a bit of a fad, you know?

Melanie: [Laughter]

Nicholas: But they were encouraging as well. And I think for me probably the turning point was when I auditioned for the Junior Guildhall. That was when I used to play with my little arm, what I call affectionately my little arm, and my left hand. So, I actually auditioned with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor and things like that, where I would play with little arm and my left hand. And I was accepted. The only condition were I was encouraged to specialize in left hand alone repertoire, which at the time actually I didn’t like. You know, I’d worked really hard, because I love Mozart. I love Beethoven. I’d worked really hard to get to this stage, and to be accepted into this music school.

But then all of a sudden it was like, “Great! But, you can’t play Mozart anymore. You can’t play Beethoven anymore. No Mendelssohn for you anymore.” You know, all of these composers which I’d grown to love for the past years when I’d got to that stage, I had to wave goodbye to, which was tricky. Being a quite headstrong teen, I was a bit, you know – I had Lucy Parham, who taught me at the Junior Guildhall. So, she had a bit of a difficult time with me I think. So, when I see her, I should probably apologize for that back then. It was just because I think that’s a difficult time as an artist anyway at that time, plus teenage years. But she was very, she learned to live with me as well, and I think she could understand the kind of artistic dilemma that I was probably in at that point.

Melanie: So, she was your first teacher? What other teachers did you have?

Nicholas: She was my first proper teacher if you like, where I really, really focused on the piano in a different way, because I had to. When you’re at any of these Junior colleges, like Junior Royal College or Junior Guildhall, you have to work really hard. So Lucy was probably my first proper teacher. I then went on and auditioned for the Royal College of Music and was offered a place there and I studied – I went through a lot of teachers actually at the Royal College, but to no fault of theirs or my own. I think with me and obviously left-hand repertoire, not everyone knows everything about it. So, it was quite nice for me to take a snapshot of everyone’s knowledge, if you like. So, I studied for a while with Andrew Ball, and then went on to Ian Jones, and then I studied with Nigel Clayton. Probably for me, Nigel Clayton was the one I felt most influenced by through my career. And even now I have his voice in my head telling me things like, “No!” and things like that. And I often see his markings. I think he got me completely. He understood everything about my playing.

The other side of my career. You see, with me, it’s not all about piano playing all the time. I’m not one of these people that do 90 recitals a year and things. I’ve got a lot of other media stuff that I do, and he really understood that. He knew the time restraints that I had to deal with and offered advice for those things. I think for me, at that time, it was so beneficial to be learning from him.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Because it’s quite a different type of development, I would imagine.

Nicholas: Yea. Again, when I first started with Lucy, she did a lot of groundwork with me, because I had a lot of holes in my technique at that time because I’d started at the age of 14. I hadn’t been doing Hanon and Czerny from the age of 3 or things like that. So, I really, really had to try and hone that technique as best as I can and to sew those holes together. I think a lot of that foundation work Lucy accomplished with me. And then obviously once I was at the Royal College and having to do technical exams and things like that, things come to take a turn.

And in that sense, in a technical sense, you really see your technique skyrocket. I think for me what really developed my technique was probably my second year. I saw a real rise in my second year of the Royal College, when I was learning the Chopin/Godowsky Studies, which were probably too difficult for me at the time. I mean, I’m playing them now, but at the time they were too tricky. But they really raised the bar in my technique. And it was almost when I then performed something which probably was then in my range, I found that it was much easier. I could do things and double thirds and things like that, weren’t as difficult as they were before. I really think they helped me a great deal, a great deal. And now, you know I perform them a lot. I perform them as encores sometimes. I don’t find them tricky like I used to. The writing of them is so masterful, but I think they’re actually very, very well suited for me in that sense.

Melanie: So, what are the challenges then of being a one-armed pianist do you think, what do you find?

Nicholas: I think the challenge is probably stamina, for one. And I think people often forget that you’ve got one hand trying to create that two-handed sound. You know, often if you were to count the notes, it’d probably be still as many notes sometimes as there would be in a two-handed piece. I think that’s difficult and obviously still being expected to deliver a 90-minute recital, the same as someone with two hands. So, you know, I think probably stamina is a tricky thing. Especially if I’ve got lots of concerts all at once or on a tour, rest periods are imperative.

Melanie: Absolutely [Laughter]

Nicholas: Of course. I think piano is quite an exhausting instrument for anybody. But I do think probably me, as a left hand pianist, I do probably feel it a bit more. After the concert it does feel like I’ve been to the gym for about four hours.

Melanie: [Laughter] How much of your repertoire is original and how much is arrangements? And how do you decide? In concerts, do you have a certain amount of arrangements, a certain amount of original? What would you say you do?

Nicholas: That’s quite an interesting question actually. I wouldn’t be able to probably give a percentage, because there’s so much repertoire for left hand. There really is. There’s so much. And a lot of the works that I play are original or have been transcribed by Paul Wittgenstein or another left-handed pianist of the day. So they are original in that sense of being written, you know, not in present day. But I think choosing programmes, I’ve always been very careful with. Again, left hand repertoire is quite esoteric, a lot of people don’t know about it. They’ve never heard of it, or they’ve heard of me and they haven’t really – They only know Ravel left-hand concerto or something. So, whenever I programme I always want to try and give as big a snapshot as I can of what’s available. So, I have those quite nice familiar pieces that people know and love, and even if you don’t like classical music you would recognize. As well as some complete unknown composers who probably only I’ve heard of in the world, because I’ve done research for this left-hand repertoire. So, I try to combine that as best I can.

Recently, I’ve started transcribing my own-

Melanie: I was about to say, “Do you do lots of the arrangements yourself?” It must be a tendency to want to re-write things yourself.

Nicholas: I’ve only just started doing it actually.

Melanie: Ahhh

Nicholas: And this is a question I used to get asked all the time. “Do you compose?” And I said, “I’m a really bad composer. I don’t compose.” But transcribing, obviously the work has been done for you, taking that and making it for left-handed, that’s something I really, really enjoy doing and especially for my upcoming tour in November. I’ve transcribed, I’ve taken a few of the famous wartime songs and Roses of Picardy and Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning and things like that, which people know and love. They actually work so well for left-handed. Sometimes when I finish I think, “Oh, that’s even as good as the original.” It’s really nice when that happens. Whereas, obviously sometimes with left-handed repertoire you do lose something. Whereas, other times you don’t. You kind of keep that sound. You keep that, and I think that just varies with each transcription.

Melanie: So, which composers do you love to play? Which would you say are your favorites?

Nicholas: That’s really difficult. I always play Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne. Probably everyone’s sick to death of me playing it. I mean, it’s a great piece and it was actually my first piece of left-hand repertoire. So, it’s very special to me. It was the first piece which made me sit up and think, “My God, I love this repertoire!” It was almost a catalyst for me to wave goodbye to my composers that I loved, as I said earlier, and say hello to my new repertoire. And I think that’s why it’s so special to me, and I think I have actually played it in every single performance that I’ve given.

Melanie: Oh, really?

Nicholas: Every single recital. I just love it. I love Liszt, but Liszt unfortunately only wrote one quite mediocre left-hand original arrangement. But there’s lots that Wittgenstein transcribed lots of pieces of Liszt and I play a lot and I like them. I always think if I had two hands, Liszt would be probably a composer which I’d be quite, have a good relationship with I should say. I really like the transcriptions of Liszt that I play. I play the Schubert The Earl King transcription for left hand of that and things like that. And the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod which Wittgenstein transcribed, I think those kind of pieces I have quite an affinity with.

Melanie: Is there a lot more left hand repertoire to learn or have you learned most of it, would you say?

Nicholas: I said in an interview about two weeks ago, I said that I estimate that I’ve covered about a third of the repertoire. And to think I’ve been working solidly since I was 17, I’m 25 now. So, I think that gives you a scope to what’s available. I mean, the amount of solo works, concertos – what is the number? I think there’s about 27 concertos for left-hand, which a lot of people don’t know. But the solo repertoire as well is just absolutely vast. And obviously then there’s the solo transcriptions so.

Melanie: Get practicing.

Nicholas: Yes, get practicing. There’s a lot of work, and you should see my piano at the moment. It’s just covered.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Nicholas: I’m really quite bad actually. I always have been and Lucy – If you spoke to Lucy or Nigel or Ian, they would always say. And I think again, I probably blame this a lot actually on the fact that I only started at 14. I think because I never had that idea of practice from a child. You know, if you started at 4, you have that notion of what is practice. But for me, I never had that. I was playing out with my friends and things like that. So at 14, to kind of get that discipline – It’s always been difficult for me and even now I have to force myself. It’s never a kind of routine. And also with the other things I do in life, I often aren’t by a piano. Also there’s the interview side of things that every pianist has to do. But then that’s time away from the piano. I’m probably not the best instructor in my practice and never have been, but I get it done. I get it done eventually.

Melanie: You’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up including a tour, Music in Remembrance. That’s quite soon, isn’t it? So, tell us a little bit about that.

Nicholas: That kicks off 7th of November in Liverpool and again that’s quite nice. I’ve never performed in Liverpool before. It’s a nice little exciting place to perform in. The Music in Remembrance tour came about because I was – funnily enough, I was doing a bit of research in my family tree. I got quite interested with my aunt and she had done a little bit. And I discovered that my great Nan, Annie Taylor – She just absolutely fascinated me, what she did in the war. Basically, she worked in a canteen and she kind of served the injured servicemen that came through. But what really fascinated me was I found a picture of her all dressed up, and it was on Armistice Day. It had the date on the back. And I just felt for her- It was just so interesting, her life. She then went on. She lost her son in the Blitz.

She was injured in the Blitz as well and things like that, and you just imagine- I didn’t imagine that I had a great Nan who did that. But in one of her diaries, she was talking about music that she loved, and she mentioned Ivor Novello, and she mentioned Roses of Picardy, and I’d literally just transcribed these two pieces anyway for when I was playing and the Cheltenham Festival. It all kind of married together, and I thought, “This would be great. This would be great to do in a tour.” And so, I spoke to my manager and it all kind of came together. I’m excited about it because, for people who come to my recitals, they know my playing. They know I always kind of give them a little surprised of a new piece of repertoire which they obviously wouldn’t have heard. But I think they’ll be particularly surprised by this one, because I’ve obviously got to Keep the home fires burning. I’ve even transcribed Elgar’s Nimrod and it’s almost even more poignant to a certain extent, because you’re transported back to the repertoire that I have, so much that has come from injured servicemen, Paul Wittgenstein etc..

All of these concert pianists who lost limbs in the First World War, and I think it makes people remember that. Remember that this music has often come from the atrocities that happen. I’m very excited about it.

Melanie: So, you’ve got – Is it 4 concerts or is it more?

Nicholas: It’s 4 concerts, yes, quite a small tour. I start off in Liverpool on the 7th. I’m then at the Royal Albert Hall in Elgar Room on Remembrance Sunday, which I’m thrilled about. It’s going to be a nice poignant date to do the concert on. I’m then in Cheltenham on Armistice Day, so, another poignant date, November 11th. And then I’m at my hometown Colchester to play there at the end of November. So, it’ll be nice. It’ll be nice to be able to intertwine this new repertoire, which obviously it’s not classical repertoire but it’s got a classical twist to it, but to intertwine that with my old classical repertoire. So, I’ll also be playing the Wittgenstein arrangement of Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and the Scriabin Nocturne will be in there. You know, pieces which people are familiar with me playing, but as well as this new repertoire.

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

Nicholas: What does playing the piano mean to me? That’s a really difficult question. Has everyone you’ve interviewed always said it’s a difficult question?

Melanie: They do. They do say it’s a difficult question, but it’s interesting.

Nicholas: I think for me, I’ve always been drawn to it since that time I saw my friend performing the Beethoven sonata. For me, it kind of gives me that comfort. Even when I see it in my house, I see it here, sat next to a piano, it’s a comfort feeling for me. So that’s why when I go on stage, I don’t get nervous. Because for me, walking on stage toward a piano, it’s like going to a comfort blanket when you’re a kid or something like that. So, I think for me, it’s certainly and obviously an integral part of my life, but it’s always a comforting part of my life as well. It’s always there, you know, even if I’m not practicing like I should. It’s always there. And yeah, that’s what I’d probably say, for me.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nicholas: Thank you. Thank you.

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The Piano Bench Mag: The winner is….?

The Piano Bench Mag is the magazine for piano teachers everywhere, and over the last few days we have been holding a little competition here on my blog. Many thanks to all those who took part by leaving a comment at the end of the previous blog post. There could only be one winner and the Magazine’s Editor and Publisher, Karen Gibson, selected (drum roll!)……Charley.

Many congratulations Charley! Perhaps you can contact me via the contact page here on the blog and I will put you in touch with Karen. Enjoy your 6 month FREE subscription.

The Piano Bench Mag offers plenty of interesting and useful information for teachers. It focuses on a specific topic every month. Past subjects have included Practice, Games, Students, and Technique. There are many articles, as well as resources, hopefully providing lots of teaching inspiration. Each monthly issue seems to be fairly substantial, too, so there’s bound to be a topic to interest everyone.

If you’d like to purchase an issue or subscribe to The Piano Bench Mag, it’s available for mobile devices through Apple Newsstand and Google Play (for Android). You can also find The Piano Bench Mag on Facebook.

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