Training to be a Repetiteur

A repetiteur can be a fulfilling and immensely satisfying job. Repetiteur, accompanist and teacher Kevin Thraves has enjoyed a highly successful career, and here he writes an illuminating article on the prerequisites of this demanding role.

As Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, one of my main responsibilities is to oversee and tutor the postgraduate repetiteur students.

Many concert pianists, accompanists and piano teachers often do not know what the job of an operatic repetiteur actually entails. Even regular audience members who attend the opera might not fully appreciate what the job of a repetiteur actually involves. There is little information and practical advice available regarding the training and the skills required to work as a repetiteur, and many musicians do not fully realise that the role of a repetiteur is one of the most varied, enjoyable and gratifying areas of all musical activity.

A repetiteur is a highly skilled pianist whose main work generally takes place in a rehearsal studio of an opera house. Requiring a broad range of performance and musicianship skills, an operatic repetiteur not only needs to have a solid and confident keyboard technique (enabling them to play the most complicated operatic scores), but they also require a good working knowledge and have the confidence to coach singers in a variety of languages – English, Italian, German and French (and sometimes Russian and Czech). A repetiteur is required to offer historically correct instruction in musical style during the rehearsal or vocal coaching process, correct musical and linguistic inaccuracies and often has to assist the conductor by taking notes on their behalf during the stage and orchestra rehearsals.

Repetiteurs are often required to play other keyboard instruments in rehearsals and performances, such as the harpsichord, fortepiano or celeste. They also need excellent sight-reading skills, and, more importantly, the skill to be able to learn music quickly with a good understanding of the full orchestral score they are required to play.  It is not a career for concert pianists who are perhaps interested in public recognition and fame, but it is one of the most rewarding for those pianists who enjoy being involved in collaborative work with a dynamic and creative team, often working alongside more than one hundred people at a time. Repetiteurs need robust teaching principles and the skills to impart the necessary musical coaching, training and directional aspects of their job. They also need agreeable communication and interpersonal skills, patience, and the ability to stay calm in pressured environments.

Is work experience or learning on the job the best kind of training for a young repetiteur?

It can certainly be a very good way of getting a real and practical insight into the working life of a repetiteur, but I would encourage anyone who wishes to work professionally in this field to undertake a specific period of study on a dedicated repetiteur course, such as those on offer at many of the UK conservatoires. Although most of the UK conservatoires offer a postgraduate course in repetiteur studies, it seems that often the course information is not easily accessed and, in some cases, is not available at all. Many of the courses available do not appear to be entirely comprehensive and it seems that many repetiteur students are often left to their own devices to develop and enhance their skills without clear guidance.

Ideally, a good repetiteur course or training programme should contain the following elements (assuming the pianist is already at an advanced level): regular keyboard lessons (piano/repetiteur tuition with some dedicated time and tuition spent discovering the skills required to play the harpsichord and fortepiano); regular Italian, German and French language lessons (with the emphasis on comprehension, correct pronunciation and a clear understanding of the rules of singing in these languages); the opportunity to study, adapt and play a wide variety of operatic scores whilst following a conductor; mentored vocal coaching (one to one and ensemble); the experience of playing for opera rehearsals in a studio as well as in an orchestra pit; some involvement in orchestral keyboard playing and scheduled dedicated conducting tuition. The programme of study should be a very busy and full timetable. A course containing all of these elements would certainly give a talented young repetiteur the initial skills required and every opportunity to succeed in eventually securing employment in this fulfilling profession.

It is an extremely rewarding career. The variety of skills required make for an interesting time in the rehearsal room and opera theatre. The interaction between repetiteur, conductor, singers, directors and orchestras is nothing short of exhilarating.

Kevin Thraves photo

Kevin Thraves (pictured above) was born in Cheltenham and studied as an undergraduate pianist at the Royal College of Music and as a postgraduate accompanist at the Royal Northern College of Music.  He has worked as a repetiteur for many of the main UK opera companies including Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, English National Opera and Opera North.  Kevin has worked with many of the UK’s leading orchestras including the Hallé, the BBC Concert Orchestra – during the Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Philharmonic, and the Manchester Camerata.  Kevin has a busy and varied recital career which has led to performances at many of the leading international music festivals. He is currently the musical director and repetiteur for the Mananan International Opera Festival.  Kevin is the Head of Music Staff in the School of Vocal Studies and Opera at the RNCM where he has worked on many of the award-winning operas.

The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is pleased to offer an exciting bespoke postgraduate course in Repetiteur Studies attached to the School of Vocal Studies and Opera. For more information click here.

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EPTA Yamaha Urtext Primo Study Day with Nils Franke

EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) have introduced a series of three one day events this year. They are all to be held at Yamaha London in Wardour Street, and will be free of charge for EPTA members and their students. The first event is on March 19th and is an Urtext Primo Study Day with Nils Franke and Universal Edition.

Nils Franke has held scholarships and awards at several music colleges and universities, including the Royal Academy of Music (London). He studied piano, amongst others, with Sulamita Aronovsky and Vovka Ashkenazy. In 2005 Franke became the course director of the MA in Instrumental Teaching at the University of Reading and in April 2013 took up the position of Head of Studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). His commercial recordings include music by Rachmaninov and Bortkiewicz for Warner and Brilliant Classics, and his work in piano pedagogy led to an involvement in professional development programmes for piano teachers. Franke’s work as a pianist and researcher in historical piano pedagogy has led to a number of publications, including CD releases, editions of sheet music and the Urtext Primo Series from Wiener Urtext Edition.

Nils, who is author of Wiener Urtext’s Primo series, will look at three specific topics on March 19th: grading repertoire, the purpose of urtext in piano teaching, and the pedagogy of some of the great pianist-composers. He will play some of the rarer teaching material included in this series, and lead two workshop presentations in how to grade piano music. The day concludes with a short seminar that explores pianist-composer’s ideas about piano teaching, and their ‘top tips’ for technique development.

Adrian Connell (Universal Edition, London) recently interviewed Nils about the forthcoming UT Primo day, and here is their transcript:

AC: Nils, you are running a free day course for piano teachers. What’s the theme?

NF: I guess the story is Piano Teaching and Learning, but from a teacher’s perspective.

AC: What do you mean?

NF: The sessions offer piano teachers three things: a workshop in grading their own repertoire, an understanding of what the term URTEXT actually means in piano teaching, and an insight into the teaching practice of great pianist-composers, sometimes in their own words, sometimes in those of their students.

AC: What made you decide on these three topics?

NF: I wanted to place the teacher at the centre of the debate. Much CPD is –quite rightly- concerned with the student, from people’s learning styles to more specific pianistic issues. But teachers give a lot of themselves, every lesson, every day. I think sometimes it’s good to do something for yourself, and to spend some time enriching one’s own world. But there is no doubt that what we’ll be doing on the day will also benefit the students.

AC: Ok, tell me more about the sessions.

NF: The workshop on grading will use almost exclusively little or unknown repertoire. It’ll get people thinking about the criteria for what is suitable for students at what grade, and how a piece might be of technical and/or musical value to the student’s development.

The Urtext session looks at what this term means, and how to distinguish a really good and current edition from something, well, less convincing. But it’s not an academic presentation, it’s all about the music we use in teaching, and this time using some core repertoire.

And the talk about great pianist-composers as teachers will look at some really interesting stuff, for example Chopin’s drafts and thoughts for his piano method, Liszt’s advice on technique maintenance (even at the early stages of learning to play the piano), and Beethoven’s and Brahms’ advice to their students about technique and repertoire.

AC: Overall, what’s your goal for the day?

NF: I want those attending to leave the room with bags more information, with ideas and tips they can use for their own work, and be excited about knowing where to look for more info. Shall we have another round of coffee?

To reserve a place at this event contact

You can find out more information here.

UT Primo Day Yamaha Music 19 March

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Bilingual Piano Workshops in Germany

I enjoyed another wonderful time in Germany over the weekend, and love being part of a bilingual piano project, organised by singer Kery Felske, and supported by the IKM Gelsenkirchen (in the Ruhr region). The workshop concept is becoming increasingly popular, with classes running all day on Saturday and Sunday. Young (and older) pianists are now coming from further afield, from various backgrounds, and from all age groups too. Anyone can come and play, irrespective of standard or ability, and it’s always interesting to witness the improvement made by the participants; both during the weekend and over the months between classes. Several pupils have come to every workshop thus far.

Saturday’s session (which lasted around five hours), included some technical work, namely Czerny exercises and some scales. British exam boards are not popular in Germany, and some students weren’t familiar with scales, but it wasn’t long before my group digested the various keys and fingerings (the Grillo Gymnasium, where classes are held,  is equipped with several practice rooms on site, allowing pupils to work on their own). Participants practiced between classes on Saturday and Sunday, and progress was most impressive.

After a further all day session on Sunday, we host a late afternoon concert for family and friends, although classes are also open to the public. The concert provides a platform for every student, and it motivates them to work that much harder, because they know their efforts will be on display. I’m perpetually concerned as to whether two days is really enough to substantially make a difference to a pupil’s playing, but each student has risen to the challenge beautifully.

Repertoire ranged from C.P.E Bach’s Solfeggietto H.220 and Burgmüller’s L’Orage Op.109 No. 13, to Mozart’s Sonata K. 331 in A major, and Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2 by Chopin. Pupils generally present standard repertoire, but I’m looking forward to eventually hearing some Contemporary music!

All classes are conducted in English, posing few problems for young German pianists. Several more workshops are planned for 2015, as well as a Summer Piano Course in 2016. The IKM Gelsenkirchen are involved with a variety of musical events, from pop and rock concerts, through to classical recitals. They stoically represent German commitment to culture and the arts, and I’m very grateful for their interest in this project.

Pic 2 Germany

Working on a Mozart Sonata with one of my students: Photo by Kery Felske

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Jamie’s Concerts with Noriko Ogawa


Noriko Ogawa performs for Jamie's Concert

In April and May 2015,  Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa will perform two Jamie’s Concerts in the UK; one in Manchester and another in London. Jamie’s Concerts are designed specifically for parents and carers of children with autism, although they are also open to people interested in autism too.  The aim of these unique events is to give carers the rare chance to relax and listen in a supportive and calm environment, as well as provide the opportunity for carers to meet other carers.

Noriko says:

“Jamie’s Concerts are designed to fit in with the busy timetables of parents and carers of children and adults with autism, to be a sanctuary of sorts. I wanted to offer brief respite for hardworking people devoted to their children.  To be able to relax and unwind is rare for many of those caring for children and adults with autism and it is my hope that these concerts offer a little calm, a chance to regroup then go forward with renewed spirit and strength.”


The first 2015 Jamie’s Concert will be on 22nd April in the Barbirolli Room at The Bridgewater Hall, as part of the hall’s Ravel and Rachmaninov Festival, of which Noriko is associate artist. The second will be on 5 May at Milton Court Concert Hall, Guildhall School.

Noriko will also perform an evening concert on 9th April at St Peter’s Eaton Square as part of the Eaton Square Concerts Spring 2015 Series. The concert will help raise awareness about autism and Jamie’s Concerts, and will also be the official launch of Noriko as a Cultural Ambassador for the National Autistic Society.

You can find out much more about James’s Concerts and Noriko’s connection to autism here. Noriko chatted about her wonderful charity work in an interview recorded at Steinway Hall in 2013;

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10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

The following article was originally published in Piano Professional magazine, which is an EPTA UK (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it appeared in the most recent edition; Issue 37.  You can read the original article by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page, and I have compiled a list of ten top tips based on the article, as a PDF download, so you can print out and use at the piano.

 Tone Production

The piano is capable of providing infinite tonal variety, despite being a percussion instrument. From the softest whispers to the grandest, most powerful fortissimo, pianists have an abundant smorgasbord of tone available with which to conjure poetry and pathos. Whilst there are certain limitations or restrictions due to the varied quality of instruments, pianists are generally responsible for the sound they summon during each and every performance.

Exquisite tone production is the secret of a successful pianist; it makes each player unique and in some cases, instantly recognizable. Many great artists and teachers have spoken about the necessity of focusing on tone quality. These include the great pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) who devotes a chapter to tone production in his book The Art of Piano Playing:

‘Mastery of tone is the first and most important task of all the problems of piano technique that the pianist must tackle, for tone is the substance of music; in ennobling and perfecting it we raise music itself to a great height. In working with my pupils I can say without exaggeration that three-quarters of all work is done on tone’ (chapter 3; pg. 56).

Renowned pianist and pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), also commented on tone production:

No life without art, no art without life. One does not win people’s hearts only with runs of scales and fast thirds, but rather with a noble singing style, clear and powerful, gentle and soft.’

Extract from After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (Chapter 5; pg. 139).

Other influential pedagogues such as Frédéric Chopin, Ferruccio Busoni, and Tobias Matthay, have all remarked about the importance of tonal quality. Many pianists and pedagogues cite this facet as the most crucial factor when delivering an expressive, musically committed account.

Yet, surprisingly, tone production is sometimes rather side-stepped during piano lessons and practice sessions. It’s seemingly consigned as an after-thought; something to focus on during the final stages of preparation. How piano sound is produced does fundamentally change the whole concept of interpretation and performance, and therefore should ideally be placed at the forefront in lessons. Pupils of all standards, from beginners through to advanced players, can benefit from knowledge regarding how sound is produced and the fundamental difference this can make to their performance. Placing a student’s attention on how and why they must make a full, sonorous tone, and how this issue is intrinsically linked to phrasing, articulation and dynamics, is surely of utmost importance. So with this in mind, how do we create a beautiful tone allowing our artistic imaginations to take flight?

Before learning how to produce a good sound at the instrument, we need to understand what is required from our bodies, because the way the energy from the body is transmitted through the keys is the crucial determining factor in changing the sound. Many feel playing the piano is all about speed, fast fingers and quick hand movements (and this does play an important role!), but to significantly change the sound produced, affording a full, warm, rich tone, the whole upper body must be involved. This is the reason why any kind of tension or rigidity whilst playing generally results in a harsh, thin sound or timbre.

It begins with our upper body i.e. the back, shoulders, whole arm, elbows, wrist, hand and finger muscles, which all move specific parts in the hand, enabling it to strike the correct key. Similarly, bone structure also helps to transmit energy cushioning the hand, particularly from the back and shoulders (through the arm, wrist and hand), projecting the sound into the keyboard. The combination of the pertinent back, shoulder, arm, hand, wrist and finger movements all working in tandem, results in a bountiful, expansive tone, it also feels comfortable, relaxed and much more flexible too. Good tone production encourages a more secure, reliable technique and a feeling of calm and serenity during performance. In short, a full sound requires a pianist to move freely, swiftly and abundantly, which consequently generates greater note accuracy and assured control at the keyboard.

It’s paramount for piano students to fully explore their potential regarding the sound they are able to produce, because without learning how to use and control the keyboard’s complete sonority, it becomes almost impossible to grade tone from ppp through to fff successfully. This will prove imperative when employing an effective dynamic range appropriate for each musical period, style and composer.

Here are a few ideas to enable a more beautiful sound:

Sit comfortably at the keyboard; posture is a deciding factor where tone production is concerned. Many feel sitting too low is not good, but if you are too high over the keyboard, gaining control can be problematic. Always sit with a straight back and start with fingers on the keys, so that you will have control over the hammers (which strike the strings and hence produce the sound), and this will help with note accuracy too. Control of the sound can only happen between the time immediately before you depress the key and the escapement of the hammer. After a note has been played, pupils can relax and ‘release’ the note and their hand position, thus eliminating any further tension.

Allow the shoulders (and the whole back area) to be in a natural position, i.e. not raised.  Raised shoulders (and a tense back) can cause many problems definitely promoting tension, by stopping free and flexible movement in the arm and hand. Correct this by constantly reminding pupils to think about how they feel whilst playing. One idea is to encourage students to drop their arms by their side freely, assuming ‘dead’ arms, ridding all tension. It’s this heavy ‘weight’ that must be grasped and assimilated when learning to improve tone production. We have a tendency to ignore how our bodies really feel during a performance, usually because we are so focussed on what we are playing, but tension anywhere in the body will usually result in a certain discomfort and can lead to repetitive strain injury too. Regular prompting will eventually establish a good habit, and pupils will learn how it feels to be totally comfortable.

The wrists are probably the most vital body part for promoting a good sound. Interestingly, they are the seat of much stiffness and constriction. Some schools of thought promote high wrists, others favour a low position, but the most conducive is a constantly moving wrist. If they are kept moving, there is little chance of the wrists becoming stiff or tense. Experiment by laying both hands on the keyboard, moving the wrists (rather than the hand or arm), first up and down then from side to side, and finally in a rotational movement or motion. Practice this every day before practice commences. It allows the wrists to become accustomed to moving around flexibly.

Another exercise which can be beneficial, is to play a five-finger pattern (place the fingers over middle C, followed by nearby D, E, F, G; using the fingering 1-5 (or 5-1 in the left hand), and whilst holding down the first note (middle C), encourage the wrist to make a complete circular motion keeping the thumb (of the right hand) firmly attached to the note (even though the sound has dispersed). This allows the wrist and arm action to feel malleable whilst playing a note. Now continue playing D-G (and back down again, from G to middle C) using the same motion (taking time between each note) focusing on sinking deep into each key, feeling the key bed every time. By doing this regularly, pupils will become aware of the relaxed hand and wrist positions required to produce a more attractive sound. It’s certainly a technique to be worked at consistently; instilling the feeling which will ultimately metamorphose into a good habit.

Once the wrists are more yielding, so the arms and elbows also move freely too. The circular wrist motion will allow the upper body to move more effectively and efficiently, making keyboard coverage that much better and quicker.

The hand should now already be in a relaxed position; many prescribe forming and honing an arch shape, with the knuckles in an elevated aspect (like that formed when grasping an apple!). This can be an effective approach and will help to eliminate a collapsing hand, buoying the fingers, so they can work independently of the hand, striking each key with plenty of power by employing each finger joint (joints must not collapse, instead they should be totally engaged, supporting each finger). A rotating wrist movement will help the fingers to work on their own after a while, because of the freedom attained from the rotation motion whilst playing one note at a time (as the above exercise suggests).

A soft, elastic, heavy whole arm movement provides plenty of gravity, support and substance behind the wrist, allowing it to harness this arm weight generated by the back, shoulders, and upper arms, using this to produce a full, fat sound. The fingers should ideally play on their ‘pads’, the padded, soft area of skin on the finger-tip, because this will further ‘cushion’ the sound. If the sound is sufficiently cushioned by the finger (and whole arm) as it attacks the key, it in effect plays the key at a very slightly slower speed, caressing the key rather than forcefully hitting it. That combined with the weight of the arm seems to change the sound, thus producing a richer, warmer colour. Thorough flexibility in the wrist and ‘looseness’ in the other parts of the upper body are vital, but the fingers must remain like steel; and this is developed over time by strengthening finger and hand muscles (usually via scales, exercises, studies etc.).

It takes a while to master the use and control of the body in the way necessary to change the sound, but it can and will become a habit with patient practice. Once the fingers employ the heavy weight supported by the arm and upper body, they’ll take on a new persona and will begin to adopt completely new sonorities, particularly with regard to singing tone or cantabile. Cantabile is only really possible with plenty of weight behind the key; fingers must sink into the key bed, right to the bottom of the key, focusing on the musical line, playing with either a crescendo or diminuendo from note to note.

The piano sound’s natural decay means listening to a musical line is crucial when judging each sound in order to proffer a musically satisfying phrase. So listening becomes a vital part of tone production and tonal variation, and similarly, learning to voice within counterpoint, chords, and copious different piano textures is also essential.

It can be a good idea to practice this component by working at sound variation in combination with the physiology of tone production as outlined above. Try using Figure A as a vehicle for creating different tonal possibilities; pupils can work at creating their own sound variations, from as quiet and soft as possible to all out fortissimos, whilst being sure to check their body is working efficiently.

Figure A

Experimental chords

Plenty of experimentation will foster an increasingly large and diverse tonal palette, allowing for expert gradation of tone. Another interesting challenge is to use the same example to practice voicing specific lines i.e. highlighting the top of each chord, then the bottom note in either hand, followed by some of the inner notes within each chord. This will help to gain finger control too.

When producing a powerful fortissimo, guard against the urge to play as loudly as possible, because beyond a certain level, the sound tends to become astringent and unpleasant. Also having some sound in reserve can be important; not playing at full capacity (whether fff or ppp) all the time, keeping some power or delicacy for certain performance situations can be a good idea (in order to cope with different instruments and acoustics).

Employing the pedal further changes timbre and luminosity, and ideally the pedals can be used to enhance or complement tonal variety. Whether using the Sustaining (Damper or Right) pedal, the Sostenuto pedal (Middle) or Una Corda (Left) pedal (on grand pianos; uprights pedals may vary), each one adds a different tonal quality and ought to be used as an extra sonority as opposed to merely making the instrument louder (Sustaining pedal), quieter (Una Corda) or as a bolster (or cover) for defective finger legato.

Hopefully, these ideas may inspire students to continuously strive and search for a pleasing, more generous, opulent resonance at the piano. Once the technique for expanding and consolidating tone production has been acquired, students will enjoy the increasing feeling of beauty and control within their grasp

10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty PDF Download: 10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

View the original article here: Tone Production

© Melanie Spanswick

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Daily Expressions Piano Music: Winner

Thank you to everyone who took part in my Friday Freebie competition, for a signed copy of Daily Expressions by Paul Birchall. It’s great to know Paul’s piano music is so popular. However, a winner had to be selected.

The winner is Dennis Dooley. Many congratulations to you. Please get in touch via my contact page here on the blog, and a signed copy of Daily Expressions will be sent for you to enjoy.

If you would like to listen or purchase Daily Expressions, you can do so here.


Link for top image


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A Friday Freebie!


We all love freebies (who doesn’t?), so today’s post is a give away for one lucky reader. My 15 Top Piano Resources were published on January 1st this year, and in this post, I briefly reviewed Daily Expressions by Paul Birchall. These lovely little works were brought to my attention by composer Elena Cobb who is Paul’s publisher.

Daily Expressions are a collection of seven piano pieces (one for every day of the week), and would suit pianists of approximately Grade 5 ABRSM exam level and above.  These works could be described as mood music, verging on Minimalist. Paul wrote one new piece everyday for a month, then included just seven of the compositions in this new volume. Students will enjoy the various ‘moods’ conjured by the different feel depending on the day of the week. Perfect for those who want to play modern pieces without a strictly Classical edge. Whether a piano teacher or pupil, you will find these little gems are a great addition to your repertoire. You can listen to each work and purchase them  here.

To win a signed copy of Daily Expressions, simply leave your comment in the box below. Elena and Paul will pick a winner – so make your comment a good one! The results will be announced on Sunday, so stay tuned. Good luck!

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