An Advanced Piano Workshop with Julian Jacobson at Jackdaws

There are lots of courses around the country dedicated to music education. Many are held during the Summer time and particularly the school holidays, but Jackdaws Music Education Trust run educational programmes throughout the year, which come complete with spectacular scenery and superb tutors. According to their website ,  “Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through weekend courses, Education projects, a Young Artists Programme and performances by world-class musicians.” Based in Somerset, Vallis Vale in Great Elm, courses and retreats are residential with accommodation and food provided.

During 2013, Jackdaws delivered over 5,000 musical interactions between international musicians and school children through Education projects such as ‘Year of the String Quartet’, ‘Song Story’ and ‘OperaPLUS’.  The Jackdaws mission is indeed ‘To enable creative expression by bringing music to life!’

Amongst the courses on offer are a plethora of piano activities, including a piano club, which meets every few weeks for a couple of hours allowing piano lovers to get together to play on a Steinway model B and chat about piano music.  Tutors on the residential courses (which are usually run during weekends), include Philip Fowke, Graham Fitch, Elena Riu, Margaret Fingerhut and Mark Tanner.

Pianist Julian Jacobson, who is Professor of piano and chamber music at the Royal College of Music in London, is the tutor for the Advanced Piano Workshop which is being held from June 20th – 22nd 2014. Julian is a regular at Jackdaws and is a highly experienced teacher.  His  busy career combines international appearances as soloist, and chamber musician (with a long line of distinguished instrumentalists), as well as recording for a variety of labels including Meridian, Hyperion, Chandos and Decca Argo. Last year he performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in one day at St. Martin-in-the-Fields (yes all 32!) for charity, and he particularly enjoys performing Contemporary repertoire. You can find out much more about Julian here. To book a place on his course and glance at all that Jackdaws has to offer click here.

Jackdaws Tutor Julian Jacobson

Julian Jacobson

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20 Top Reasons to Play the Piano


One of the first scribblings on my blog was this article, 10 Reasons to Play the Piano, which has since proved to be amongst the most viewed posts on this site. Several readers have written over the past few months asking for an even longer list, so I decided to expand on my original post, and have realised twenty various reasons to learn this demanding but ultimately fascinating instrument. We all now know playing the piano is a fantastic hobby and there are copious benefits from the study of a musical instrument. Here are twenty reasons (which appear in no particular order) to encourage exploration of this truly wonderful pastime:

1. Music creates happiness. It is central to human health and, for many, human existence. To be given the chance to make music is vital because it can supply an emotional and creative outlet.

2. Playing the piano is an excellent source of pleasure and fulfilment, providing a deep sense of satisfaction.

3. It’s believed that children (and adults) who take part in musical activities are happier and more sociable than those who don’t.

4. Music making bestows great opportunities for social interaction, group activities and communal endeavour.

5. Playing the piano can boost creative thinking.

6. Playing any instrument requires commitment, determination and perseverance; all great personal attributes.

7. Piano playing requires physical strength and regular practice, which is akin to working out; honing certain muscles, which can help to keep students fit and healthy.

8. The piano provides both melody and harmony, and can therefore be played solo without any accompaniment. This is not the case with many other musical instruments (like the clarinet or violin which only produce one musical line, usually the melody line, so an accompaniment or ‘backing’ is always needed).

9. It’s possible to make coherent sounds on the piano from the very beginning because it has ready-made pitches (you depress a key and it makes a sound). This is unlike other instruments where it can take many months of study before a pleasant sound is produced (this is especially true of brass and string instruments).

10. Mastering the piano requires a tremendous amount of co-ordination (you really do have to multi-task!) thus cultivating useful mental skills. It really focuses and develops the mind and can help motor development particularly the coordination of the hands, eyes and body.

11. The study of music is an extension of the learning process, so children who excel at piano playing often do well at school too. Music, specifically, can amplify and boost memory development, as well as enable a higher level of concentration.

12. Once a competent level has been attained, a plethora of other skills will appear ‘easy’ by comparison and problem solving becomes a natural process.

13. Those who study music usually have a more positive outlook and attitude, are often more motivated and less intimidated by learning new things.

14. Playing the piano proffers the perfect opportunity to perform. Performing is so important. It can build confidence – which, as we all know, is crucial for success in all walks of life.

15. Piano playing can develop into a passion and provide an interest in life; those who play will always have something to think and talk about.

16. If you can enjoy an all-encompassing hobby such as this, you will never be bored; there will always be something new and exciting to discover.

17. You can explore all kinds of music and repertoire when you’ve studied the piano basics; Jazz, Pop, Rock, Musical Theatre, Improvisation; the possibilities are almost endless.

18. It can be a relaxing activity, counteracting the stress of everyday life, procuring a sense of calm and well–being.

19. You will always be a popular guest at a party, and will instantly impress your friends and family!

20. It’s fun!

We should all have the opportunity to learn an instrument at some point in our lives. If every child was given school piano lessons for just one year, the benefits would be amazing. I sincerely hope everyone who wishes to learn to play can make a positive start to their musical journey and if you wish to know more about how to begin playing the piano, my book might be a useful way to begin; So You Want To Play The Piano?

All you need to do now is motivate yourself to get playing. Good luck and enjoy!

Photo above from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Melanie Spanswick
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The 2014 Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy

The second Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy will be held this summer, from July 26th  to August 3rd. The inaugural festival last year was a huge success and the forthcoming festival looks equally interesting too. The programme is ‘tailored to those wishing to excel in piano performance and technique with a desire to visit the beautiful Dublin Fair City.’   

This unique festival is packed with lessons, master classes, seminars, student and faculty concerts, scheduled practice session, stretching classes, as well as relaxing excursions exploring the Irish landscape and culture. It promises healthy and wholesome energy meals and comfortable guest house accommodation for the duration of the trip.

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Joining the faculty this year on the Summer Academy, will be Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro, and Irish pianist and pedagogue John O’ Conor, who is Honorary Patron. Edmund Battersby and Evelyne Brancart (from Indiana University), Lance Coburn (an Australian pianist, residing in Ireland) and Artistic Director Archie Chen, will also be coaching and giving recitals.

Both International Piano Magazine and Bluthner pianos are on board as partners for the festival, the latter supplying excellent instruments for the concert series.  The course is limited to 16 students and is designed for advanced pianists over the age of 18. There are scholarships available and the closing date for entry is April 18th, so you will need to get moving if interested!. Here’s a recent review of the festival from the International Piano Magazine and you can find out lots more about the course here.

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Rhinegold LIVE Concert Series opens in style

Conway Hall 1

I don’t write many reviews (well perhaps just the occasional book or sheet music review!), but having returned last night from the first Rhinegold Live Rush Hour Recital, I feel compelled to talk about this wonderful new venture. The Rush Hour concert series was established by Rhinegold Publishing, one of the UK’s leading music publishers, and yesterday’s concert was held at Conway Hall in London. It’s notoriously tricky to get any concert series off the ground, but Rhinegold began in style, providing well-established concert artists (a prerequisite) with a highly innovative Q&A session with the artists afterwards.

The idea behind the series is to make Classical music very accessible to everyone, therefore the concerts are extremely informal affairs (the stage wasn’t used at all for example, allowing the artists to be as near to the audience as possible) and the subsequent Question and Answer session broke with the traditional formality of a recital, giving the audience a glimpse of the personality (or in this case, personalities) behind the music making.

The evening began at 6.30pm with a drinks reception (which will be a regular feature at all the concerts). This inaugural recital was given by renowned ‘cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and his wife Jiaxin, also a ‘cellist. They performed A Tale of Two Cellos, accompanied superbly by pianist Pam Chowhan (all pictured above). Two ‘Cellos are rarely heard together in one concert, and so this was going to be an unusual performance from the outset. Julian spoke between each piece, explaining how they had devised the programme, and how they had to ‘embark on some musical detective work’ locating various works for two ‘cellos as well as arranging many vocal duets by various composers.

The programme was devised to be audience friendly and each piece was short, yet still managing succinctly to encapsulate a whole gamut of emotions. A wide variety of composers were explored; from Henry Purcell and Vivaldi, to Avro Pärt, William and Andrew Lloyd Webber as well as lighter works such as Barnby’s Sweet and Low. The ‘cello sounds blended seamlessly and I particularly enjoyed the broad dynamic colour and tonal variety employed, which gave the renditions character and exquisite punctuation. The Q&A was conducted by Keith Clarke, Consultant Editor of Classical Music magazine and was a light hearted affair, with all three performers contributing vociferously (see photo below).

Future performances include recitals by conductor Andrew Litton (who will play transcriptions of Oscar Peterson’s music on the piano, all transcribed by pianist Steven Osborne) which takes place on June 2nd, pianist Charles Owen (who will perform Bach’s Partitas) on September 9th, followed by singer Mary Bevan and Richard Peirson, on November 10th. In the present climate of music cut backs, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy live music in a lovely, historical setting performed by first class artists with a pre-concert drink, all for free. Rhinegold has set a high benchmark at Conway Hall, I look forward to hearing the whole series. You can find out all about the Rush Hour concerts and Rhinegold Publishing here.

Conway Hall 2


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Janina Fialkowska in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

I’ve loved interviewing  thirty wonderful pianists and pedagogues. The Classical Conversations Series has been lots of fun, and I’ve learnt so much from speaking to all of the outstanding players and teachers who have so kindly taken part. The thirtieth interview features great Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska. We met recently in North London to chat all about her life and work. To enjoy my previous twenty nine interviews click here.

Beloved the world over for her exquisite pianism, Janina Fialkowska has enchanted audiences for over thirty years with her glorious lyrical sound, her sterling musicianship and her profound sense of musical integrity. Blending her vast experience with her refreshingly natural approach “Fialkowska has become an artist of rare distinction as well as retaining all the virtuosity of her youth” (La Presse, Montreal, February 13, 2009).

Celebrated for her interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire, she is particularly distinguished as one of the great interpreters of the piano works of Chopin and Mozart. She has also won acclaim as a champion of the music of twentieth-century Polish composers, both in concert and on disc.

Born to a Canadian mother and a Polish father in Montreal, Janina started to study the piano with her mother at the age of five. Eventually she entered the Ecole de Musique Vincent d’Indy, studying under the tutelage of Mlle. Yvonne Hubert. The University of Montreal awarded her both advanced degrees of “Baccalaureat” and “Maitrise” by the time she was only 17.

In 1969, her career was greatly advanced by two events: winning the first prize in the Radio Canada National Talent Festival and travelling to Paris to study with Yvonne Lefebure. One year later, she entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where she first studied with Sascha Gorodnitzki and later became his assistant for five years.

In 1974 her career was launched by Arthur Rubinstein after her prize-winning performance at his inaugural Master Piano Competition in Israel.

She has performed with the foremost North American orchestras, among them the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Houston Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony as well as with all of the principal Canadian orchestras, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa, the Calgary Philharmonic and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

In touring Europe and Asia, Ms Fialkowska has appeared as guest artist with such prestigious orchestras as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Halle Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Scottish National Orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic and the French and Belgium National Radio Orchestras as well as the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. She has also performed with the Israel Philharmonic, the Osaka Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Philharmonic and has worked with such renowned conductors as Sir Andrew Davis, Charles Dutoit, Hans Graf, Bernard Haitink, Kyril Kondrashin, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Slatkin, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Klaus Tennstedt as well as those represented by the “younger” generation such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Thomas Dausgaard, Eiji Oue, Fabien Gabel and Grzegorz Nowak.

She has won special recognition for a series of important premieres, most notably the world premiere performance of a newly discovered Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt with the Chicago Symphony in 1990. She has also given the world premiere of a Piano Concerto by Libby Larsen with the Minnesota Orchestra (October 1991) and the Piano concerto by Marjan Mozetich with the Kingston Orchestra (March 2000) and most recently in September 2010 with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra the world premiere of the Chopin inspired piano concerto “Prelude Variations” by John Burge, written for and dedicated to Janina Fialkowska as well. In addition she played the North American premiere of the Piano Concerto by Sir Andrzej Panufnik with the Colorado Symphony (February 1992).

Janina Fialkowska was the Founding Director of the hugely successful “Piano Six” project and its successor “Piano Plus”. This latest project brings together some of Canada’s greatest Classical pianists, instrumentalists and vocalists with Canadians who, for either geographical or financial reasons, would otherwise be unable to hear this calibre of “live” classical performance. In 2000 “Piano Six” won one of Canada’s top Arts’ awards, the Chalmers Award.

In 1992 the CBC produced a sixty-minute television documentary, “The World of Janina Fialkowska” that aired to great acclaim throughout Canada. This programme won a Special Jury Prize at the 1992 San Francisco International Film Festival. More recently, the CBC produced the 45 minute performance-documentary “An evening with Janina Fialkowska” based on a recital she gave in Montreal in February, 2013.

Ms Fialkowska is an “Officer of the Order of Canada” and holds honorary doctorates from Acadia University, Queen’s University and Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the recipient of the “2012 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Classical Music”, Canada’s foremost honour for excellence in the performing arts. She was the first woman instrumentalist to be so honoured.

In January, 2002 at the onset of a major European tour encompassing eight different countries, Ms. Fialkowska’s career was brought to a dramatic halt by the discovery of a tumour in her left arm. After successful surgery to remove the cancer, Ms Fialkowska underwent further surgery in January 2003; a rare muscle-transfer procedure. After 18 months of performing the Ravel and Prokofiev “Concertos for the left hand” which she transcribed for her right hand she has resumed her two-handed career beginning with a tremendously successful and highly emotional recital held in Germany in January 2004.

Ms Fialkowska’s discography includes discs featuring the 24 Chopin Etudes, Op. 10 & Op. 25, the Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3 and the Impromptus, a solo album of Liszt piano works and her astonishing version of the 12 Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt. Also a solo Szymanowski album and the highly praised CD, “La jongleuse – Salon pieces and encores.” She has also recorded her immensely popular CD of the Paderewski piano concerto with the Polish National Radio Orchestra, the rarely heard piano concerto by Moritz Moszkowski and the tremendously successful CD of the three Liszt piano concertos with Hans Graf conducting. Ms Fialkowska’s recent recordings include performances of piano concertos by Chopin and Mozart in authentic versions consisting of piano solo and string quintet accompaniment. Both of which were released to highest critical acclaim.

During the 2010 Chopin anniversary year three of Ms Fialkowska’s CDs were released. The CDs were devoted to the music of Chopin and all three received stellar reviews from the most distinguished critics around the world. The “Chopin Recital” CD made it into the Gramophone classic charts as well as among the London’s Sunday Times Top 10 “Best classical recordings of the year”. It also received a nomination for the “International Classical Music Award 2011”.

Bryce Morrison raved in Gramophone Magazine about her double album “Chopin: Etudes, Impromptus, Sonatas”: “Indeed, lesser mortals may well weep with envy at such unfaltering authority.” And David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) sums up his review about Ms Fialkowska’s latest CD release (Chopin’s piano concertos, a live recording with the Vancouver Symphony under Bramwell Tovey): “Among recent Chopin concerto discs, this is among the best.”

Other highlights of the Chopin year included the world premiere of a Chopin inspired piano concerto by John Burge written for Janina Fialkowska and her triumphant period instrument debut playing Chopin’s e Minor concerto on an historic Pleyel 1848 piano with the Tafelmusik Orchestra in Toronto (“Most memorable classical concert of the year”, The Toronto Star). In Germany Ms Fialkowska gave her debut at the famed Schleswig Holstein Festival (with immediate reengagement for 2011) and hosted her first “International Piano Academy” which was held in the Bavarian town of Marktoberdorf.

Ms Fialkowska celebrated the Liszt anniversary 2011 on concert stage (“Virtuosa assoluta”, Munich Merkur) as well as on CD. Her CD “Liszt Recital” was hailed as “The most beautiful Liszt CD of this decade” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and the London Times stated: “… the playing is magical.” She also shared her Liszt expertise in several master classes around the world, including at her own “International Piano Academy” in Bavaria and at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival.

During the 2012- 2013 season Ms Fialkowska was heard in concert on tour in the United Kingdom with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra including a performance in London, in recital at Wigmore Hall in London as well as performances in Montreal, Toronto, Houston and New York City. She also made her Berlin recital debut at the Berlin Klavierfestival held at the venerable Berlin Konzerthaus.

In April she received the coveted “Instrumentalist of the year” award from the BBC Music Magazine for her recording “Chopin Recital No.2”.

In October of 2013 Ms Fialkowska will be giving the Canadian premiere of Witold Lutoslawski’s brilliant piano concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Ms Fialkowska and her husband, cultural manager Harry Oesterle, reside in Bavaria, Germany.

Janina in action…..

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

Melanie: “Renowned Canadian concert pianist Janina Fialkowska came to prominence at the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Israel and has been playing all around the world to great acclaim ever since. She is a specialist in the classical and romantic repertoire, and I’m so pleased that she’s joining me here today in North West London for my 30th Classical onversation.


Janina: “Thank you.”

Melanie: “Fantastic to be chatting to you today. Wonderful.”

Janina: “Thank you. And it’s such a beautiful day!”

Melanie: “It is, It really is. I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old were you when you started, what was the catalyst?”

Janina: “Oh, the catalyst was quite clear. My mother. [Laughter]

I was 4 years old. My brother, three years older than I, was already playing. I wanted to be like him. My mother is a piano teacher and- so she got us going, but she sensed a little bit of talent there, so – and I must say, my mother is wonderful. She wasn’t a stage mother, but she certainly wanted me to play the piano well and so- it was a serious business right from the beginning.”

Melanie: “And so, which teacher then or teachers do you think were most crucial in your development?”

Janina: “I have been extraordinarily lucky with my teachers. There wasn’t one that I didn’t love, actually. The first one and this, perhaps was the luckiest of all, was Yvonne Hubert. She was a pupil of Alfred Cortot and she’d somehow landed in Montreal, which is where I was born and where I was raised, and, you know, half of the Canadian pianists that I meet or even three quarters of them that have made it to big international names studied with Yvonne Hubert and I’m not just speaking of myself, Louis, Louis Lortie, Marc-André Hamelin, and so on. André Laplante. We all studied at Yvonne Hubert. We studied all at the same time. It was an explosion of pianists at that time. And Angela was also studying just down the road, Angela Hewitt. It was actually in exciting time for all of us and so Yvonne Hubert was definitely a huge influence. I was with her from the age of 11 until the age of 17, and a wonderful just natural pedagogue. Very clear, very serious and I think probably what I- if people would say that I played piano cleanly and clearly and honestly, some people say that, it was probably because of her. You know, she didn’t let anything go by, you know. Of course, she was a very wonderful musician. I was very lucky to know her. From her it was a natural progression to go to Paris, where I studied two years with Yvonne Lefébure, who was absolutely different and yet also a pupil Cortot. But, she was theatrical, and she was late Beethoven, and she was French music and; where as Yvonne Hubert for me was much more Beethoven and Chopin. Yvonne Lefébure was all these new composers. I did a lot of Bach with her, for example, and learned a lot about colour and well, the theatrics of playing in concerts and what it meant to be a concert pianist.”

Melanie: “How’d you develop your technique? I always love to ask this question because everyone develops in such a different way.”

Janina: “You know, there was never- there was actually never any thought about developing my technique. With my mother, I did the Cortot exercises until about the age of nine, but after that really it was just doing pieces and working- I guess I had a fairly natural technique so- and by the age of 11 I was already, well I’d done Czerny Etudes which were not very interesting for me. Although, some of them aren’t so bad now looking back at it, but then, you know, the glory of finally getting to the Chopin Études and the Liszt Études. That all started by around the age of 11. I was starting to play those and that was of course wonderful, Moszkowski Études. Yvonne Hubert was very intelligent in giving me specific repertoire, for example, quite early on, when I was about 12 or 13, she gave me Saint-Saens G minor Concerto to learn. She thought that would help broaden my octave technique and you know various things. She planned the pieces specifically to develop certain aspects of my technique, but never forcing it. Never said: Oh, we’re doing this for technical reasons. They always put the music first, which I thoroughly appreciated.”

Melanie: “So, you came to prominence after the Rubinstein price, and how did this shape your career do you think? It must have had a big impact on you, because he was your mentor as well?”

Janina: “He was my mentor. The only reason that I went to that competition was because the CBC of Canada sent me. The competition had been scheduled for the year before, which was very unfortunate. There was a Middle East war. Of course, then the competition was, we thought, canceled, and at that point I entered law school. So, that’s how Rubinstein changed my career, because then the competition was put back on in September ’74, which was when I was supposed to start law school. And I nearly didn’t go, but then the CBC said “Go, go!” and then my wonderful teacher at the Juilliard School was Sasha Gorodnitzki said, “If you go there, you know, something wonderful could happen.” And he said, “Arthur Rubinstein is there he has no axe to grind. He is not politically any way.” You know, he said, “He has no pupils, and he’s there. If he likes your talent, he might help you.” And those were very, very wise words. And so I said, “Right. I’ll miss the first few days of law school.” And of course, that’s how it changed my career. Because before, before there was no competition, I played exactly one professional concert in my life.”

Melanie: “Gosh, so huge change.”

Janina: “Huge change. From one to 44 all the biggest possible dates because Rubinstein. I didn’t win the competition. I claimed third prize. The winner was mybest buddy Emanuel Ax, who thoroughly deserved it. I was- as I say, I was totally inexperienced, but I think Rubinstein sensed something in me that should be helped, and so he set up my first 44 concerts simply by saying, “I will play this concert if Janina plays it next year. So that was his last tour, my first. And so that was pretty hectic.”

Melanie: “So you’re renowned for your interpretation of Chopin. What are the qualities that you particularly love? What draws you to it so much?”

Janina: “If you have a name like Janina Fialkowska, you can’t not play Chopin. It’s, it’s a national thing, you know, of Poland, like who else has an airport you know called you know the Chopin Airport in Warsaw. I had to. Needless to say, he is in my heart and my favorite composer to play because I feel that he understood the piano better than any of the other composers with the exception of Liszt or something. And well, it’s the melodies, it’s the Slavic mood of Chopin. It’s the rhythms, of course, which I don’t know, I really don’t know if it’s in your blood or if isn’t in your blood but there’s certain things that surprise me and I never had to learn the Mazurka Rhythm, for example, which a lot of people do. It just came- so perhaps I’m lucky or perhaps it is something to do with being half polish. I love Chopin, and what can I say? He has everything. The drama, the, the kind of slight- the nobility- the slight distance to- between you and the audience, you know, but everything that is going on, but he’s slightly hiding it. Then you have to find it. I just love everything about Chopin. The mystery, the sadness.

Melanie: “This love is the reason you love Paderewski and Moszkowski as well? This polish-roots

anina: “What happened is that, of course, it’s other people that said, “Oh, she’s polish. Oh, she plays Chopin? Well, then she should play the others.” And I didn’t know the Paderewski Concerto. And I didn’t know the Moszkowski, but people came to me and said, “Would you learn this?” And then I’ve played them. Of course, they’re not the greatest composers in the world. They’re not at the level of Chopin or Mozart or anything, but I have to say the slow movement of the Paderewski Concerto is a masterpiece. It’s just fabulous, and the Moszkowski- it’s certainly on a level with the Saint-Saens.

Melanie: “Yes”

Janina: “I call it the Slavic Saint-Saens. And they’re well worth hearing and I keep trying to programme these pieces and boring orchestras.”

Melanie: “They are not interested.”

Janina: “Well, they’re not interesting. They’re frightened. They’re frightened the audience might not take to this music, but it’s not even what’s so called contemporary music. I mean, contemporary music now is anything written after 1920, I think. But, you know, it’s totally accessible, very romantic, very flashy. I try – some places will do it still, but I don’t know when the last time I played the Paderewski must be 7 years ago or 8 years ago. Moszkowski, 10 years ago.”

Melanie: “That’s a pity.”

Janina: “Yes, it is.”

Melanie: “You also play a lot of contemporary music though. And you’ve given a lot of premieres.”

Janina: “I do.”

Melanie: “So, what are the challenges of learning that compared to Classical or Romantic?”

Janina: “It’s actually, to be totally honest, it’s much easier because if you’re playing contemporary music no one’s done that before you.



Melanie: “Except for the composer who will know, of course.”

Janina: “Well, he doesn’t know most of the time.


They don’t know. The poor composers. What a job these days, these days. [Laughter]

They’re so grateful they you’re actually playing their work. So, it’s actually very nice playing. You have to find a piece that you really like, then it’s lots of fun because then you make it your own. You can use whatever you want in it. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult when it’s a concerto because then to put it in an orchestra and stuff. I just played the Lutosławski concerto in Toronto. It’s an absolute masterpiece, absolutely great concerto, but it’s terribly difficult. Now that is terribly difficult, because it does matter every note that you play, it does matter. You can’t fake it. So, that was tricky, but I would love another chance to play it I don’t know when. I mean, one gets the chance because the composer is a 100 years old. I mean do I have to wait now 150 years to play it again?”

Melanie: “You do a lot of outreach work. I think you got Piano Plus and Piano Six, you set-up, you’re the founder. Tell us a little bit about this, and the reasons why you set it up.”

Janina: “Well this was- I set it up back in the ’90s and what I realized- actually it all stems from Rubinstein again. Rubinstein had a beautiful silver tray in his sitting room that had been given to him by his manager in the U.S. and on the tray- I think for their 25th anniversary- and on the tray were all- inscribed were all the names of the towns where he played in North America. And I was looking at these towns one day at his house and I thought, “I’ve never played there, I’ve never played there, I’ve never played there.” And this stayed with me and then years later, I started to think about it seriously, because I was seeing that little recital series where I had played in, in Canada, for example, had died out. They just ran out of money. And whole generations were not getting to hear music. Canada is pretty sprawled out so it’s hard. And in Rubinstein’s time he would fly into Montreal or even Halifax, get on a train and at every stop play a concert, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Leontyne Price or Horowitz or Arrau. They all did that. That’s why in the tiniest little towns like Chicoutimi or Moose Jaw, or wherever in Canada, they got to hear the greatest. And by the time I was playing and, you know, this explosion of Canadian pianists in the 80s and 90s and we were all playing in some of the big towns where you fly to or abroad.

So I thought this is all wrong and no one’s going to do anything about it, so we had to do something about it. So I wrote to Angela Hewitt, I wrote to all of them, Marc-Andre, all these Canadian pianists and we formed a group of six and then the government jumped on the idea. They loved it. They’re our Canada counsel. And a lot of sponsored money, a lot of- everybody loved the idea, because we were doing it for nothing and no could believe that we would do something like that for nothing. And it got a lot of publicity and Canada’s- it’s easily manageable. They’re only 31 million people, so it lasted nearly 10 years and then I was ill. But I set it up so that my six we all got- it was exhausting. It was wonderful, but it was exhausting. You would fly into a town, you would spend the entire day doing workshops, kiddy concerts, teacher meetings, dinners and then the concert at night. And so when you left and you would drive to the next place 500 miles away or whatever and you’re already 10,000 miles away from any human habitation sometimes even really far North. It was, it was exhausting and also, we all had at our own careers – it was really too much so we, after 10 years, we all said, “Others can do it.”

Then a lot of Canadian violinists, singers and young pianists came along. I set it up for them and then I stopped administrating. But, it did succeed and the- Why it succeeded so well that now I’m actually invited to play on regular series in some of those towns that had not even had a former piano when I first went in the 90s and so, it did really work.”

Melanie: “Now, in 2002 you were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in your left arm, which had a huge impact on your career. How did you find the strength to carry on and resume after that?”

Janina: “I think I am very stubborn and I think I’m not very bright. I just, I just did it and you know I- you work so hard to achieve a level of excellence, a certain level of excellence in the piano, and to have it taken away from you, it’s just- and to have that whole, your whole life devoted to music. You know, it’s something to say oh well you’ll always have your music you can listen to it or whatever. It’s not the same. You want to make it yourself, so I, I just did it.”

Melanie: “But, you took quite a while off didn’t you, was like a few years?”

Janina: “Well, I had my arm paralyzed. My left arm was paralyzed for nearly two years when I was waiting for the- I needed the muscle transfer surgery and we had to see if the muscle worked. My fingers were always working. So I could always practice holding my hand like that, because I believed that the arm would work eventually and it works fine for playing the piano. It’s absolutely useless for anything else. I can’t reach, I can’t do anything, carry but it- the surgeon gave me this motion so…”

Melanie: “That’s fantastic.”

Janina: “And yes, in fact it’s, it’s much harder now than it was then when I was fighting it and, “I’m going to get it I’m going to be back at playing the piano.” Those first years were wonderful and very heady but now it’s- I want to keep it up and you get older of course and so, what is old age, “Are my fingers are working just as well and ahh, this darned arm.” I know I can’t do the octaves there anymore. You have to pick the right repertoire and I’m sure that I had, let’s see, I had six operations. I’m sure it took a toll on somewhere, but I’m back.”

Melanie: “But, you transcribed, didn’t you, quite a few works for right hand? I’m fascinated about the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, that you transcribed for the right, so how did you come to do that?”

Janina: “Very lucky, I had never learned it before.”

Melanie: “Yes, yes, of course.”

Janina: “It was always on my wish to do list and I never did, and I had this huge repertoire of concertos which I’ve drastically cut down now but in those days I didn’t, but I always wanted to do the Ravel.You know it was three days after I got back from the hospital that- with the new muscle which I wasn’t allowed to touch for, I think it was three months, I wasn’t allowed to move anything but I knew “Oh what’s gonna happen, this is so boring.” You know, and so I said that there are these darn concertos written, lots of them for the left-handed, let me just see. And so, I got out the Ravel. And, of course, it goes fine with the right hand, it’s no problem. The melodic parts that you’re supposed to play them with the thumb of the left hand, well I just played it with the thumb of the right hand. And, I think there was one note at the end that was a bit of a problem to get, one note. And so that’s not going to stop me from playing this piece. And I must say that people were very nice, orchestras were very nice. It was just really nice and I got to play the Prokofiev, which was a wonderful piece. And I was all set to do the others that I wanted to. I wanted to play the Britain which is a terrific piece and there’s Korngold, and there’s two by Richard Strauss, one good and one not so good. And so I – no, of course again, people only went for the Ravel and Prokofiev.”

Melanie: “It’s a shame.”

Janina: “Yep. So, I actually haven’t played them since because then people are a bit confused, “Well why should she play them now with the right hand? She’s playing with two hands.” I couldn’t do it with the left hand. My left hand isn’t up to doing that kind of fiendishly difficult. It can do, it can do all of the Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven. There’s certain Liszt I can no longer play, certain Brahms – But certainly a left hand concerto would really be pushing it.”

Melanie: “So, what are your plans for the future? What concerts have you got coming up, recordings?”

Janina: “Well, I have- very exciting- the recording which means absolutely the most to me that I just made and the edits are going to be sent to me now. The complete Chopin Mazurkas. I’ve wanted to do that all my life and- because for me that’s the essence of Chopin. And so, that will be out this fall. And then I’m also gonna be recording Greig Lyric Pieces, 25 of them, which I love very deeply. And then my next Schubert recording will be about also- so I have 3, they’re all sort of on the boil right now, and as far as concerts go, well, this is a very busy year for me with non-piano activities as well. I have a book that I’m writing so this is being edited now. I’m getting things back from my editor and I having to correct things.”

Melanie: “What is this subject?”

Janina: “The subject is me unfortunately for everyone. I do write sort of 3 full chapters of my time with Rubinstein which I hope people are interested in. A little bit about my arm and then a lot of just the everyday life of a touring concert pianist and then- I bring the book up from childhood up until my comeback concert and then I stop there because since then it’s been too much [Laughter] and- what else am I doing? There’s- oh, yes, I have, I have in Germany an Academy that I founded in Bavaria. I sometimes sit on international piano juries, not often, but I go once every two years or so. And I am usually perfectly happy with the winner because the winner is usually a very accomplished pianist, but every single competition my heart is breaking for someone who was eliminated and who I felt had enormous talent, but just not your average, like, competition pianist. You know, too personal. You know, even other members of the jury, to be perfectly honest, they just didn’t like this person so they didn’t mark them well. And I sort of thought like well wonderful. I started an academy and would invite these so called people who got eliminated who I thought should have done better. And I started this about three years ago and some of my kids have gone on to win first prizes all over the place, so. I mean, seriously, international competitions. You know, they just needed a little boost and I know some of my fellow jurors do that. They get in touch with people they like and just say, you know, we believe in you because it can be such a terrible business and the kids all seem to do hundreds of them.”

Melanie: “Yes, there’s many more.”

Janina: “Well, there’s many more and just one first prize doesn’t get you anything in this world, you need about ten. I just think it’s the most dreadful profession. I feel so sorry for the kids. I feel sorry for myself that at my age I’m still battling to get concerts, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. It was supposed to be- Rubinstein always said, “You will see that when you hit age 50 you’re gonna be the Condame of this and that” and well you know, I’m waiting [Laughter] but no. At least I’m lucky that I have a career and I’m able to support myself but the kids, what do they do? And there’s so many more of them.”

Melanie: “So many fantastic ones.”

Janina: “Fantastic pianists. The actual, sort of, great talents the Murray Perahias, the Radu Lupus,They’re still few, but they’re there. I find them, you know, and I hoping that the cream rises to the top eventually, and some have, of course. But, there’s not an overabundance of them, but there’s an overabundance of fantastic pianists.”

Melanie: “Yes, What does playing the piano mean to you?”

Janina: “It’s my life, of course. It’s sort of- playing the piano is- I always think of extremes. It’s extreme pleasure for me, extremely emotional for me, and there’s nothing more- actually apart from- I love my husband dearly so I’ll say I love to be with him more than anything else, but after him, you know, just spend- practicing the piano is just the highlight of my day, every day. I am- even if the world is collapsing all around me, if I practice nicely in the morning some part of me is happy, but the other extreme is- I also think of suffering when I think of the piano. I’m not, I’m not a concert stage fanatic. I don’t- I’m not dying to get out there. I’m thrilled when I’m there and it’s going well but I can be weeks beforehand suffering. I’m not, I’m not a natural performer in that sense of a word. I do suffer, so that’s my extreme, playing piano.”

Melanie: “Thank you so much for joining me today.”

Janina: “You’re very welcome.”

Melanie: “Thank you.”

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Absolute Articulation

I have spent much of the last month adjudicating at various amateur music festivals around the country. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable job; I get to visit all different parts of the UK, and also hear a wide variety of piano playing. Standards vary of course, from young, inexperienced beginners to incredibly accomplished performers. Whilst it’s my job to mark (or judge) the competitors, I’m also able to comment on their playing in a fairly detailed manner, via a written mark form and verbally at the adjudication.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these young players (and some not so young; there are always adult amateur classes at most festivals!), are very happy to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Care is needed when discussing any negative traits, particularly in a public forum, but nevertheless, it can be a great way for pianists to obtain an unbiased appraisal of their work. Where possible, I try to give helpful practice tips and advice. At a couple of the recent festivals, I also gave short workshops at the end of classes; these are hopefully useful, partly because the entire audience can benefit from what is essentially a public lesson.

One major issue, cropping up with absolute regularity, through a whole gamut of piano playing, irrespective of standard or ability, seems to be that of articulation. I never cease talking about this subject. Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe this aspect to be one of the most crucial elements in good performance practice. Without it, a successful performance is virtually impossible, especially when a pianist reaches diploma level and beyond. In fact, the more advanced the player, the more important the subject of articulation. It is one of the main reasons why the Baroque and Classical repertoire remains the most challenging.

In many ways, articulation is like speech and diction; some clearly pronounce or ‘articulate’ words, often with a staccato or ‘short’ effect, enunciating every syllable, whilst others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Articulation refers to the musical performance technique that affects the transition or continuity on a single note, or between multiple notes or sounds.’ Good articulation generally stems from total rhythmical control, allowing each note to be played with equal value whilst employing a variety of different effects or touches, and this in turn comes from finger control. Crisp, clear finger work, particularly in rapid passages, all depends on how fingers are, in a sense, programmed.

Articulation also implies different touches; staccato, legato, marcato, and even martellato too, but in this instance, I’m referring to the lack of precision between each beat; it’s all very well playing rhythmically on the main beat, but then what happens within each beat? Frequently, groups of quavers or semiquavers (and demisemiquavers) are rushed or played unequally.

Arguably, one of main the differences between the amateur and professional pianist comes down to articulation; professionals generally articulate with a total accuracy and almost mechanical regularity, allowing for a convincing interpretation.

So, how do we learn to play notes crisply, evenly and with the utmost precision? Here are a few practice tips which may be helpful:

  1. Effective articulation must be instigated from the outset, so when looking at a new piece for the first time, be quite clear on your fingering for both hands, particularly if rapid passage work and ornaments are involved (secure articulation is vital when negotiating trills, turns and mordents etc.). It may be a good idea to write all the proposed fingering into your score before learning begins. If the fingering isn’t completely assimilated, then haphazard, unrhythmical playing could become a problem.
  2. The slower you practice, the easier it will be to play smoothly, rhythmically and also to listen to what is actually being played. This might sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to switch off and ‘imagine’ what we are playing; the reality can be somewhat different. Listen to the clarity of your finger work, and the ‘space’ between each note. Ask yourself, are all the notes in this phrase really equal or are some being rushed, or perhaps being played too slowly?
  3. For total precision, count each and every beat out loud (even if you are playing semiquavers), when you play to your own (equal) counting, it becomes quite obvious if the passage work is clear and in time.
  4. Flexible wrists can help with clear articulation, allowing for free hand and finger movement. Separate motions (or movements) can be really useful when staccato and non-legato touches are involved. Pay special attention when you need to turn the hand, or place the thumb under the hand in running passages. This is where problems can occur, and where ‘bumpy’ or jerky sounds will hamper a run or group of notes played at speed.
  5. It can be very beneficial to practice with a powerful heavy sound (this can help with clarity and also to develop stronger fingers), the weight of each finger being evenly placed and transferred from one note to the next. Use proper arm-weight and play on the fleshy part of the finger-tip. After a while, when you return to playing ‘lightly’ with less force, you should find it easy to articulate each note; each fast passage or run will feel more comfortable and manageable.
  6. If you have the time and inclination, practice each phrase with many different touches, from legatissimo to staccatissimo. When you return to playing the particular phrase ‘normally’, there should be a real improvement in clarity.

Ideal repertoire on which to practice perfecting articulation are works from the Baroque and Classical period (as well as using technical exercises), especially less demanding, smaller pieces, such as those from the Anna Magdalena Notebook,  the Eighteen Little Preludes and the slightly more intricate  Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772 – 801 , all composed by J.S. Bach. Less complicated pieces by Handel, C.P.E Bach, Scarlatti can also be useful as can the Sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau.

For articulation inspiration, the performance linked below offers a stunning example of the wonderful combination of technical clarity and musical mastery. It’s played by celebrated Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, who is, incidentally, the next interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series.

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It’s All About Piano!


The It’s All About Piano! Festival 2014 looks as interesting, diverse and innovative as it did last year. I loved taking part in the 2013 festival, which was the first of its kind. I gave a talk about my new book and was fortunate to attract a large audience, as did most of the concerts and lectures at this unusual piano smogasbord.

Organised by Artistic Director Françoise Clerc, the festival is held at the Institut Franςais in South Kensington, London, and runs from the 4th-6th April. The event aims to highlight the ‘infinite possibilities offered by the black & white keys’ and there is indeed something for everyone from recitals to jazz, film screenings, children’s activities, workshops and much more.

Alexei Lubimov,  Jean-Marc Luisada, David Kadouch, Thierry Huillet, Pascal Amoyel, Geoffroy Couteau, and Pascal and Ami Rogé (piano duo) are all giving recitals during the two-day activities. There are twelve piano recital in all, including one given by six young pianists selected from the Royal College of Music and Paris Conservatoire performing works for four and six hands! Three jazz concerts provide a genre change; Bojan Z, Jacky Terrasson, and Arshid Azarine are featured.

You can enjoy a short documentary all about Steinway’s magical pianos, a film of Charlie Chaplin’s Shorts accompanied by Stephen Horne, a recorded master class with Daniel Barenboim and what promises to be a fascinating documentary about pianist Piotr Anderszewski’s life. Pascal Rogé will be giving a live master class (definitely a must for the keen pianist!) and pianist Lucy Parham will perform a words and music themed evening; Liszt, Odyssey of Love, with actors Henry Goodman and Joanna David.

A pre-concert talk by Nimrod Borenstein on his new piece Reminiscences of Childhood opus 54 with musical illustrations by the pianist Pascal Amoyel, also looks to be an engaging occasion. There are plenty of events to keep the children amused too, including Musical Storytelling and animations, The Magic Piano & The Out of Tune Piano. Free piano tuition will be available throughout the festival with Music’All providing the perfect opportunity for all those with a desire to learn.

This will no doubt be a superb way to spend a weekend, and if anything like the first festival last year, it will be oversubscribed, so book your tickets now! You can check out What’s on and book online, or call the box office: 020 7871 3515.

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