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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The Piano Bench Mag: celebrating its first Anniversary with a competition!

Piano Bench Magazine

One of the great aspects of blogging is to be able to highlight many interesting piano related publications. I met Karen Gibson a few months ago on Facebook. She is a busy piano teacher based in Nashville, Tennessee (US), who also publishes an online Magazine called The Piano Bench Mag, which is specifically for piano teachers.  I asked Karen to tell us a little more about her publication and here’s what she had to say:

A little over a year ago I received several emails about publishing magazines on iTunes. While it sounded like a lot of work, I was also extremely intrigued.

I was going to set the idea aside as unrealistic. And I would have, except for that nagging voice that said to start a magazine for piano teachers. That voice wouldn’t go away and so by the end of the week I was embarking on a new adventure – publishing an online magazine for piano teachers.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted the magazine to be for teachers and by teachers. Over time, more and more teachers have begun participating, just as I had hoped!  I wanted it to be an easy to use resource, one that teachers would return to again and again. To that end, each issue has a theme. The theme of the first issue was Holidays (that is the theme again this month, the first anniversary issue). I look for ideas that are working for teachers. I look for resources – books, music, apps, etc. – that have been created by teachers.  While many of the teachers are well-known, others are not as well-known. I put each issue together thinking about what I would find valuable as a teacher.

I’ve studied online businesses and marketing for years and I know how difficult it can be to get noticed online. I hope to help teachers who are trying to get the word out about their creations. In addition to the monthly magazine articles, last July I published the first edition of the Resource Catalog. I have seen many posts on Facebook piano teacher groups of teachers looking for a particular sort of resource. It can be difficult to search the threads and it is impossible to read everything. My hope is that over time the Resource Catalog will grow to the point where it becomes the place teachers go first when they are looking for music, apps, games, etc.

Future plans include a cruise next April, the inaugural Creatives on the Sea Cruise. Jennifer Eklund, Kristin Yost, Debbie Center and Sara Campbell are going to be presenting some fabulous workshops all while we cruise the western Caribbean. There are still some cabins available.

The Magazine is one year old this month, so we thought it might be fun to run a competition celebrating its first Anniversary.  The prize is a free sixth-month subscription to The Piano Bench Mag. If you fancy taking part, just leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this post and Karen will pick the winner next Saturday October 18th 2014.

The Piano Bench Mag is available on Apple’s Newsstand (iTunes) and Google Play

Single issues are $2.99; monthly subscription price is $1.99; a 6 month subscription is $7.99 and a 12 month subscription is $11.99.  To celebrate the 1 year anniversary of The Piano Bench Mag issues 1 – 12 are available on Apple’s Newsstand for 99 cents each through the month of October.

The Piano Bench Mag’s Facebook Page.

About Karen:

After receiving her first 6 chord Magnus organ for Christmas at the age of 8, Karen Gibson started taking organ lessons at the age of 9. Over the years she has spent time raising Arabian horses, teaching adults in various settings and working as a paralegal. But teaching has always been her passion. Early childhood music and piano have been the main focus in her life for the last 14 years or so. Although she has had as many at 70 piano students, she currently is comfortable teaching about 55 students each week in addition to 8 preschool music classes. In her free time she writes for and publishes The Piano Bench Mag, creates and publishes courses on, dabbles in writing music for her students and has recently taken up photography.

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Hampshire Piano Meetup: A new performance practice piano group

Amateur and semi-professional piano groups are becoming increasingly popular and it’s easy to see why; good amateur pianists practice assiduously and are keen to perform, sharing their music with friends, students and fellow pianists. Whether preparing for an exam, festival or any type of concert, all pianists (and all musicians!) require performance practice and a piano Meetup event provides the perfect opportunity, so it’s always a pleasure highlighting such groups.

Hampshire based piano teacher Karen Housby has formed this latest piano Meetup. Karen is an enthusiastic teacher who has been playing the piano for many years and wants to keep active as a pianist. She says of her new group:

“Hampshire Piano Meetup (based in Allbrook between Winchester and Chandlers Ford) is a new, informal group for amateur pianists. We aim to meet once a month and spend a couple of hours chatting over tea/coffee and nibbles, whilst members play solos or duets in the adjoining room. The group is open to anyone, regardless of age or standard and is a great opportunity to share in each others’ enjoyment of the piano, whilst providing a valuable opportunity to play in front of a small, friendly audience. For pianists preparing for an examination or festival, it’s the ideal way to painlessly conquer those performance nerves! So why not come along to our first get-together in October and meet the group.

The group will also provide the opportunity to attend concerts with like-minded people. For example, we are lucky enough to have one of the best concert venues in the country, Turner Sims in Southampton, where this year, we can be inspired by such greats as Paul Lewis, John Lill and Radu Lupu. What could be better than that!”

You can find out more about the Hampshire Piano Meetup by visiting the website or alternatively contacting Karen (pictured below) via her e-mail:

Karen Housby 1

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A Trip to the Schimmel Piano Factory in Germany

Selection room

Peregrine’s Pianos have been in business for a relatively short period of time (four years), yet they have already established themselves as one of the leading piano dealers in the UK. Their premises in Grays Inn Road (in central London) offers superb practice facilities, piano hire and servicing, as well as housing a large showroom of fine pianos. They are the exclusive dealer in London for Schimmel pianos; a company who are the largest volume piano manufacturer in Germany, building quality instruments for discerning musicians.

Germany is a long way to travel for a mere few hours, but when I was invited by the owner of Peregrine’s Pianos, Dawn Elizabeth Howells, to spend some time at the Schimmel Piano Factory near Hanover, I couldn’t resist a peek behind the scenes at this major European piano makers. Our tour began at the headquarters in Brunswick (Braunschweig), where we were able to explore a whole collection of instruments on display in the large yet informal concert room (pictured below), positioned at the front of the sprawling factory. Gleaming uprights merged with two beautiful concert grands, bestowing a golden opportunity for our party (an assortment of pianists, piano tuners and technicians), many of whom immediately began sampling the instruments! After admiring the selection room (pictured above), we were treated to an enlightening lecture given by Lothar Kiesche, the company’s Chief Marketing and Sales Officer, who afforded a potted history laced with copious technical details and interesting anecdotes.

Concert hall

Schimmel Pianos was founded in 1885 by Wilhelm Schimmel in Leipzig, moving to Brunswick in the 1930’s. Wilhelm Schimmel (originally both a furniture and instrument maker), constructed his instruments from scratch, starting with upright pianos, moving later onto the concert grand. By the 1950s, Schimmel had become the biggest German piano manufacturer. Always concerned with quality as opposed to volume, the company has focussed on innovation and evolution. In 1952 they produced the first glass piano (a model of which is resplendent in the entrance hall at the headquarters) built for the world’s largest music fair in Hanover (now based in Frankfurt), and in 1985, they began work on a hand-built piano. This series of highly refined instruments, which appeared from 2000 onwards, are collectively known as the Schimmel Konzert Grand range, and they utilise the latest technology, or ‘computer aided piano engineering’, setting them apart from those made by other European piano makers.

There are four Schimmel designs or ranges; Wilhelm Schimmel, Schimmel International, Schimmel Classic and the Schimmel Konzert Grand (see photo below for a glimpse at the workmanship inside a piano from the Konzert Grand range). Within this framework exist many permutations and variations on both the grand and upright models. The largest instrument in the Konzert series is 2.8 metres in length (the K280), and every piano in this series has a patented design, such is the advanced innovation and expertise that has gone into the production, making this a unique product family.

Inside the piano

After the lecture, we toured the factory inspecting every stage of the construction, which demonstrated just how Schimmel Pianos, the Konzert grands particularly, differ from other instruments.  The soundboard and bridges are constructed from very high quality materials, which boosts the timbre and resonance considerably. On average, the Schimmel Konzert Grand’s soundboard is 15% larger than a standard piano, producing greater volume of sound. The soundboard is also equipped with a resilient ‘bar’, an extra, shaped length of wood positioned in a certain manner across the soundboard, which apparently affects the clarity and brightness, and is particularly effective for playing pianissimo (very soft) dynamics. We were also shown a variety of timbers (including Spruce and Oak), and it was fascinating observing the curve of the soundboard, although the exact information regarding how much and by what means it was curved was strictly off-limits, as this is a trade secret!

Construction of the piano keys occupied a whole area in the factory. Determined to find a solution to the ivory dilemma, Schimmel have found a way to produce keys which feel comfortable to play and are eerily similar to those made entirely from ivory. Yet they are made with ‘mineral material’ (again, another trade secret!). It was interesting to visit the voicing room, where each piano comes to receive its final ‘sound’. The technician worked at shaping each hammer-head in order to refine the tone and sound quality; a painstaking job requiring much skill and expertise.

The pianos are sprayed in the colossal polyester room, and here we could examine the wide variety of models on display; from the traditional black polyester (or shiny) finish, to white glass, black and clear glass with gold trimmings, and the famed ‘Pegasus’ piano which would suit only the most avant-garde (or adventurous) buyers! Most Schimmel pianos take between nine months to a year to build, and this dedication to evolution has enabled them to become the most ‘awarded’ German piano maker.

After appreciating all Schimmel has to offer, we were treated to a mini recital by the owner of Peregrine’s, Dawn (pictured mid-concert below), who was, for many years, a concert pianist. She played two short works by Russian composers, Lyadov and Rachmaninov, and she was introduced by the fourth generation of Schimmels, the Company’s President, Hannes Schimmel-Vogel. A hearty, jovial meal at a picturesque German restaurant in the town centre concluded our brief but thoroughly enjoyable visit.

Dawn Playing

There is no doubt that Schimmel pianos are quality instruments. I tried a few in one of the selection rooms; a couple of uprights and one of the Konzert grands. The upright was incredibly responsive, with a fulsome bass and sonorous, bell-like treble. The Konzert grand had a favourable, resistant, heavy action; it was possible to sink fully into the key bed, commanding plenty of sound. If you would like to try these instruments, take a trip to Peregrine’s Pianos who have a whole range in their showrooms.

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Simultaneous Learning: The Definitive Guide by Paul Harris

Simultaneous Learning is published today!!! Off to Faber HQ for a little celebration...

Paul Harris is a highly respected and revered music teacher, author and educationalist, who is single-handedly changing the delivery of instrumental and vocal teaching. With over 600 publications to his name, Paul is in great demand as an examiner, adjudicator, workshop and seminar leader, all around the world.

As a pianist and teacher, I have admired and ingested a whole collection of Paul’s extremely helpful and erudite books; some of which are devised for students, such as the wonderful Improve Your Sight-reading series, whilst others are designed specifically for teachers, such as The Virtuoso Teacher and equally essential   Improve Your Teaching. Faber Music are renowned for their dedication and commitment to music education. They have published Paul Harris’ books for over 20 years, so it was a privilege to attend the launch of Paul’s latest book at their head office in London last week.

Simultaneous Learning: The definitive guide is the culmination of Paul’s approach to instrumental and vocal music teaching. It’s a philosophy which empowers students, enabling them to become confident, individual, creative musicians. It focuses on positive, imaginative teaching where all the elements or ‘ingredients’ of music are connected, giving rise to lessons which are full of joy, enjoyment, cultivation of a love for music,  and the introduction of a thorough musical understanding. This organic, holistic path aims to banish frustrated teaching (and teachers!), by providing specific tools so that pupils will flourish. Paul believes that every student (irrespective of their standard or ability) can and will make progress via the Simultaneous Learning method, and every instrumental tutor can easily convert to becoming a Simultaneous Learning teacher. As someone who has integrated this concept already, I can confirm this to be true; it has definitely transformed my teaching and the way I present lessons.

The book is succinct, easy to read and full of innovative ideas to engage pupils, using every minute of lesson time productively. Paul insists we must move away from the misguided ‘reacting to mistakes’ style of teaching. The myth of ‘difficult’ is brushed to one side and replaced with more fruitful ways of teaching pro-actively, in a non-judgemental, inclusive, friendly manner. Each lesson activity is carefully set up so that it feels ‘natural, inevitable and sequential’, making connections through various elements such as investigating rhythm, scales, theory, improvisation, aural and musical detail in interesting and inventive learning patterns, often before any instrumental playing or singing commences. It employs a Simultaneous Learning Map to base these elements around pieces and songs, entrusting students to become complete musicians as opposed to teaching a few random pieces and a couple of scales, in the all too popular trend of ‘old-fashioned’ teaching, where moving from one exam to the next is frequently de-rigueur.

Each chapter takes us through the various processes necessary to become a Simultaneous Learning teacher, meticulously plotting our journey by suggesting practice and teaching methods and ideas. I particularly like the ‘Points to Ponder’ and ‘Practical Exercises’ which conclude every chapter. Also useful are lesson plans (from beginners through to advanced pupils). This book is very practically based employing clear language, using plenty of learning ‘maps’ highlighting and reinforcing Paul’s concepts.

It’s relatively simple to adjust our teaching by using this philosophy, and conversion does not have to occur overnight.  Neither is it a rigid, inflexible idea; teachers can select what they wish to include in lessons, gradually increasing the Simultaneous Learning theories.

This important publication can be regarded as an instrumental or vocal teaching ‘bible’, suitable for all those connected with music education, it could even be successfully applied to other subjects or genres too. Paul sums up Simultaneous Learning in one phrase: ‘its essence is that learning happens through making and embedding meaningful connections in a positive environment’ (chapter 6, page 35). If we can change our approach to music teaching, then we can make a significant difference to a pupil’s whole musical experience.

You can order your copy here.

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