Cui International Music Festival 2015

Cui Festival

I enjoy discovering and highlighting new piano related courses and festivals, and this event is taking place in Canada, from July 31st to August 9th 2015. The Cui International Music Festival is essentially a Summer course focusing on singers and pianists, and it boasts an impressive faculty of professors, an interesting array of guest artists and an innovative programme. Faculty members are world-recognized musicians from Israel, Poland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Russia, France, China, and the USA.

The Festival’s mission is ‘to provide talented individual singers and pianists with an exciting multi-cultural exchange in which to experience and learn excellence in the performance of classical music from around the world.’ Held at York University, which is situated in Toronto, participants will be housed at the campus and all classes and rehearsals will take place in the specialized music building.

Participants may take part in master classes, individual classes, performances, tours, and an array of lessons and activities. Over 100 participants, volunteers and spectators are expected.

César Antonovich Cui (1835 – 1918) was a Russian composer who belonged to the group of composers known as ‘The Five'; the other group members were Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Cui was a music critic and military engineer, who composed copiously, predominantly writing operas, songs, and piano music, so he is the perfect namesake.

Those interested in participating as a student click here and as a guest artist click here. The closing date is May 1st 2015.

For more information:

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9 Top Piano Resources for April 2015

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My recommended resources for April contain an eclectic group of piano related practice books, sheet music, a book and an online resource, which I hope will be of interest.

Beginners and Elementary

Music Practice Notebooks

Rosa Conrad - Practise book - Cover

Practice notebooks are becoming increasingly popular, both with teachers and students. Whether they contain colourful pictures, cartoons or stickers, children certainly enjoy this addition to their piano lessons. Composer and teacher Rosa Conrad, has designed this notebook and although devoid of bright colours or any pictures, it does contain manuscript, plenty of space to write weekly comments at lessons, and a selection of Rosa’s compositions at the end of the book, including duets and a solo piano piece. It’s priced competitively too; just one pound! Get your copy here.

Improve Your Theory!

Last month I mentioned Faber Music’s new selection of Simultaneous Learning editions, Improve Your Piano Grade! Faber’s latest release in this series, Improve Your Theory! provides more very useful material. As before, I looked at Grades 1, 2 and 3; Grade  1 contains all the expected information, from time signatures, ties and dotted notes, and intervals, to note learning and basic key signatures. They are presented in a logical, easy-to-learn method, in tandem with the Simultaneous Learning ethos as established and honed by educator Paul Harris. They will serve as a thorough grounding for theory, especially for those sitting exams. Get your copy here.

On the Lighter Side

16 Pieces for Piano

A collection of 16 short piano pieces for those of approximately Grades 1-3 standard. Written by John Kember and published by Schott Music, these little pieces will appeal to anyone just starting their piano playing. The jazz-inspired selection  provides a wide-ranging introduction to swing and rock phrasing, use of blue notes and pentatonic melodies, walking bass and syncopated rhythms, plus some more reflective pieces exploring jazz harmonies. These works would appeal to young learners as well as more mature players. Get your copy here.


Welsh Folk Tunes For Piano

Welsh Folk Tunes

I picked this volume partly due to my Welsh heritage (!), but essentially because the arrangements work well in this piano version. Written by Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music, the book consists of 32 traditional solo pieces. Welsh fans will love the collection which contains favourites such as The Ash Grove, The Maid of Sker and The Bishop of Bangor’s Jig, all transcribed tastefully for those of around Grades 4-5 level. The score is relatively detail free, which gives performers scope for plenty of imaginative touches and dynamic colour. Get a copy here.

Glo for Piano


This work, written by celebrated composer Roxanna Panufnik, is a beautiful little reflective piece. Composed in 2002, in memory of a family friend who died of cancer, it meanders around the keyboard, featuring widespread note patterns. Requiring controlled piano and pianissimos, and careful pedalling, Glo would suit pianists of intermediate level (perhaps Grades 5-7), who want to learn less familiar Twenty-First Century repertoire, and who enjoy experimenting with tone colour and timbre.  Recorded by pianist Clare Hammond, Glo appears amongst a whole collection of piano works by Roxanna and her father, Andrzej Panufnik; the recording is called Reflections (cover pictured above). Glo is published by Edition Peters; get a copy of the score here and buy the recording here.


On My Travels

Image for After Hours: On My Travels

This is the latest in the series of After Hours volumes written by composer Pamela Wedgwood and published last month by Faber Music.  These pieces would suit those of Grades 6 upwards, and have a relaxed, blues feel, requiring thoughtful tonal control and colour. We are taken on a journey from the French Alps to Canada via South Africa and Australia in this dynamic volume which travel lovers will enjoy: it’s perfect for stress relief after a hard day at work or school, and these pieces are also great material for sight-reading too. Get a copy here.


Butterflies Front Cover

A lovely solo piece written by pianist and composer Marcel Zidani and published by EVC Publications. This will suit advanced players of Grade 8 and beyond, and is Romantic in character. Containing oscillating harmonies and filigree passagework, a beautiful melody is laced with semi-quaver movement covering the entire keyboard, but particularly the upper echelons of the instrument. Continuous figurations represent Butterfly wings flapping in the midst, providing lots of opportunity for advanced players to shine. To listen to this piece and buy a copy click here.

Piano Technique Demystified


I’ve only just discovered this interesting book about piano technique. Written by American pianist and pedagogue Neil Stannard, it focuses on breaking down piano technique and revisiting it in a different way. The ideas presented are based on the principles of the Dorothy Taubman method and is a must for anyone interested in honing their playing, or those just wanting to understand how to move around the piano economically. Each chapter deals with various technical and musical issues, and ideas are presented logically and are easy to grasp. Get your copy here.


My Piano Trip To London on Piano Maestro App


Earlier this month, Elena Cobb’s new piano method My Piano Trip To London was added to the piano method book library on the superb Piano Maestro app. This method was recommended in my New Year List, and has since proved very popular. Elena has taught the piano for over 30 years, and during this time she became more and more convinced that beginners are not interested in talking about how to play, they simply want to play something – however simple. In this book, students will play tunes at once. The little pieces are universal and will suit any style of teaching. Piano Maestro App by Joy Tunes is a great way to practice on your iPad. 



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5 Top Tips to Improve Wrist Staccato

Wrist Staccato 1

This is the second post exploring touch and articulation. The first focused on finger staccato (you can read it here), and today I’ll try to provide a few practice ideas for wrist staccato. Wrist staccato technique is generally used to play chordal passage work or groups of two notes or more in a very short, detached manner.

A pianist friend and I were chatting recently about articulation  (we need to get out more!), discussing the whole gamut of staccato possibilities and variants. After a long pause my friend suddenly remarked, “what if wrist staccato doesn’t really exist – it seems to have been incorrectly labelled”. I’ve been pondering this ever since.   Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely  the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension will prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body. So, in this post, I will aim to describe wrist staccato, and how to achieve it as transparently as possible.

1. As always, start with arms in a relaxed state (they should feel ‘heavy’, with muscles relaxed). This is the feeling you are trying, if possible, to replicate when playing. Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually akin to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

2. Once the basic movement has been assimilated away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords or intervals on the keyboard. A C major triad (similar to those in the example above) might be helpful. Play hands separately at first, and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers.  After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can really help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation or no tension.

3. In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord or interval. Therefore, release the upper body after every single chord. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension release method. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving up and down, because the use of some arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempos. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

4.  After a while, move from playing one chord at a time, to several on one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

Wrist staccato 4

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Wrist staccato 3

5. Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passage work, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been grasped, velocity and virtuosity will appear.

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Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy 2015


There are a plethora of Summer Schools on offer around the world, many with superb faculty teachers and performance opportunities. The Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy is in its third year, and boasts an excellent Summer School programme for advanced students plus a concert series all rolled into one. This year’s Academy (taking place from 25th July – 2nd August) coincides with a Summer celebration of Irish culture, sport and history occurring all over Ireland.

The 2015 faculty includes Archie Chen (the Festival’s Artistic Director), Edmund Battersby, Lance Coburn, Evelyne Brancart, and HJ Lim, who will also give recitals as part of the Festival.  Sixteen lucky performers will be selected to take part in the advanced course, and they will enjoy a full programme including masterclasses, lessons, seminars, concerts and performance opportunities. Successful applicants will also gain additional online exposure with a permanent page on the Festival’s website with their photo, biography, video or audio, and web link to their personal website. The young pianist’s performances and professional photos will also be added to all of the Festival social media pages including their YouTube channel, Facebook and Twitter feeds.

If this Summer Academy appeals, you can apply to participate online here. You must be over the age of 18 (there is no upper age limit), and the closing date is Friday April 17th.

The Festival is also open to the public, and you can enjoy the official trailer below. Find out much more here:

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5 Top Tips to Improve Finger Staccato

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One aspect of playing I have written little about is touch and articulation, specifically staccato. This past semester, several of my students have taken advanced graded ABRSM exams, requiring many scales, the majority of which must be played legato (smoothly) and staccato (short or detached, indicated on the score by dotes above or below notes as in the example above).

Most pupils have few problems negotiating rapid legato scales, but short detached passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable, hence staccato scales are sometimes taken much slower than the intended tempo. Scales are only one facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they do provide a convenient vehicle for those just getting to grips with short, crisp articulation, and with this in mind I aim to offer a few tips, which may (or may not!) be helpful.

As with so many areas of piano playing, tension can rear its ugly head and ruin even the best intentions. Economy of movement is essential as is ‘built in’ flexibility.  There are many different types of staccato; ‘close to the keys’ staccato, ‘finger’ staccato, wrist staccato, whole arm staccato, and a few others in between. Each variant will need a different technical approach. This applies to both the physical and mental set-up.  However, in this post, I will deal with finger staccato, and how to achieve crisp, clear and even note groups, helping those who are working at their scales, exercises, or simply wanting to produce neater articulation.

1. Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. This is true, however, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement virtually impossible. Start by ensuring complete freedom in the upper body. Drop your arms by your side freely, whilst sitting at the piano, and notice the relaxed, ‘heavy’ feeling. If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

2. Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without the aid of the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, using the first two joints of each finger particularly. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to assume a tapping movement. This can be built up, so work in short sharp bursts for a few minutes at a time, returning to dropping arms  by your side at the end of each brief session.

3. As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing much heavier, forcefully and with strong fingers in order to strengthen them and become accustomed to the quick, snappy movements.  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension at designated places.

4. Once heavy movements have been assimilated and they feel comfortable, lighten your touch, using the finger tip (or top of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards, almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

5. Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice different strong beats, so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a  ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections to begin with, building up as and when strength is acquired.

The deeper and heavier fingers are worked whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached. This can work for many other types of technical issues too. Try incorporating some of the above, and hopefully your finger staccato will sound lively, energetic, and clear!

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Variations for Judith: And the Winner is……..?


Many thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a signed copy of Variations for Judith; a wonderful collection of 11 piano pieces composed by eminent composers for amateur pianists of around Grade 4-6 standard.  Variations were composed for Judith Serota as a leaving gift when she retired from her job as Executive Director of the Spitalfields Music Festival in East London. For more information about the works and to purchase them, click here.

Judith selected the winner this morning, and she loved David’s comment. So many congratulations David! Please send your address via my contact page (here on the blog) and a copy will be on its way to you.

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Variations for Judith: Win a Signed Copy!

Variations For Judith

One recent discovery whilst searching for repertoire for an article I wrote last year, was this wonderful little set of pieces written for Judith Serota, and presented as a leaving gift when she left her role as Executive Director of the Spitalfields Music Festival in East London. The collection was the brainchild of composer Diana Burrell, and it contains pieces written by a collection of illustrious composers; Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Berkeley, Diana Burrell, Anthony Burton, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Dove, Stephen Johns, Thea Musgrave, Tarik O’Regan, Anthony Payne, and Judith Weir.

Each piece is based on “Bist du bei mir” by G H Stölzel arranged by J S Bach, hence the title, Variations, and they are perfect for students who want to explore Contemporary music idioms. Around Grade 4 – 7 standard (of the British examination boards), students and amateurs will love their accessibility. You can find out more about these works in my original blog post here.

I have one copy, very kindly donated by Judith, and signed by the first performer, concert pianist Melvyn Tan, and also by Judith herself, to give away to one lucky reader. To take part in this competition, just leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and Judith will select a winner on Monday.

Judith Weir is composer of the week on BBC Radio 3 from Monday March 30th, and her contribution to the collection, To Judith, from Judith will be featured. You can enjoy Melvyn Tan playing a selection from Variations at various concerts halls around the UK this year, including on 25 April, in Portsmouth , and 29 April at the Wiltshire Music Centre. Enjoy his performance of the whole set here:

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