The Importance of Breathing

I’ve been working in Germany this past weekend, giving classes and piano workshops in a busy town in the Ruhr. I do this two or three times a year. My students are invariably an eclectic group of all ages and abilities, intent on improving their playing. We work for two days and then present a little concert at the end. The venue for these classes sometimes changes, but the concept is always the same. The course is becoming increasingly popular, and provides an opportunity for pupils to develop various piano skills.

I work closely with course organiser and singer Kery Felske, and together we try to vary the content slightly; adding a new aspect of piano playing each time (which might involve highlighting anything from sight-reading or scales to the importance of posture). The topic on this occasion was breath control. Once this useful skill has been assimilated, it can be added to the smorgasbord of performing tools in a pupil’s ever-increasing armoury.

At the beginning of every session, we practised deep breathing, which can be effective for all types of performing. The class visibly relaxed after around ten minutes, and those who employed this technique before the concert said they found it beneficial.

Kery lead the group ‘breathing session’, and for readers keen to improve their breath control, here’s what we did:

  1. Stand up straight; your feet parallel with the width of your shoulders. Knees should ideally be flexible and not at all stretched, so that moving is easy (imagine you are preparing to Ski, with the knees in a slightly bent position). Sway from side to side freely, and find your centre by allowing body movement to become smaller and smaller.
  2. Breath through the nose and imagine your stomach is filling with air, encouraging the diaphragm to contract downwards (wear elastic or comfortable clothes!). When you intake air, make sure the belly is totally supported, so it is able to expand fully.
  3. Hold the air-filled stomach for a moment, then change the breath direction from breathing in to breathing out. Start breathing out by pursing the lips, making an ‘F’ sound, thus allowing yourself to feel a connection between the air-filled stomach and the mouth. Aim to be aware of a pillar of air between the stomach and mouth. Hold this position for as long as possible.
  4. As you release the diaphragm, the muscles of the stomach will take over, supporting your breathing as the air releases. Watch how the stomach caves in and finish with a ‘shh’ sound, making sure all air has been expelled.
  5. Then, once again, change direction of your breath, as you repeat this process. When executed correctly, you may feel slightly dizzy to begin with, and if so, take more time and slow down (or stop for a while and try again later). Repeat the process around five times at the most to start with. It should be done rhythmically and with purpose. Breathing out must take longer than breathing in. Breathing in could be considered the passive part of this exercise, and breathing out, the active part (it’s possible to stand or sit whilst doing this exercise).

    Once ingested, you will hopefully feel a sense of  tranquility by the end of the process. The ‘flight or fight’ instinct will calm sufficiently and this may help alleviate nerves, or at least help to control the rapid breathing associated with nervousness before and during a performance, as well as aiding concentration whilst playing.RZ6_8420With Katharine Pilgrim during a workshop session.


Image: Ralf Zeiß


A Master Class with Leon Fleisher

I’m off to Germany today for a weekend of piano workshops, so thought it appropriate for my Friday post to feature this master class given by American pianist, conductor and master teacher Leon Fleisher. It was recorded at the Music Academy of the West’s Summer Festival in July this year.

After becoming the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels in 1952, Leon Fleisher has enjoyed a glittering concert career, despite suffering a debilitating condition of his right hand, later diagnosed as focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes the fingers to curl into the palm of the hand. He teaches at Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and regularly gives master classes around the world. I hope you enjoy it.

11 Top Piano Resources for September 2015

Badge Graphics Draft 3

I can’t believe it’s the end of September already, and therefore time for another round-up of piano resources. As usual, I’ve mentioned music, books, online apps and ebooks, music  clubs, as well as a festival, and everything relating to the piano. I hope you find them all interesting and useful.

Beginners and Elementary

70 Keyboard Adventures with the Little Monster

Keybaord Adventures

This early piano book could be described as a ‘method’ or tutor book, and is designed for those at the very start of their musical journey. It’s not a new publication, but does seem to be increasing in popularity. Written by a cohort of German composers and published by Breitkopf, the volume is beautifully illustrated, produced and presented. The little pieces become slightly more complicated as the book progresses and there are many opportunities for the young pianist to experiment with improvisation and less familiar keyboard effects. I must confess I was introduced to this book a few years ago and have used it with one or two students (including my nephew), and they didn’t particularly like it, but for the right student, it could be a fun and highly beneficial supplement to regular method books. Get your copy here.


Classical Favourites from Russia


Classical favourites from Russia is a new collection of pieces for four hands (or duets) published by Universal Edition and arranged by Russian composer, arranger and editor Nicolai Podgornorv. Consisting of 7 well-known themes hailing from Russian opera and ballet, they are intended for those between Grades 2-5 level. The publication includes; Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from Sleeping Beauty and Dance of the Little Swans, Borodin’s Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens, Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet, Shostakovich’s Waltz from Jazz Suite No.2, Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance from Gayane and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee. Ideal for those playing duets for the first time, or wanting extra material for sight-reading practice. For more information and to purchase, click here.

Snapchats Duets

Snapchats Front Cover

A shameless little plug for my new duets. They are intended for those between Grades 2-4 level (ABRSM) and are tuneful, diatonic and allude to Minimalism. I’m forever interested in Buddhism and its influence on daily life, so I’ve named some of the pieces accordingly. Each duet is very short (8 – 10 bars) and  they explore different piano sonorities, with effects such as glissandi (not generally used at this level of playing), the harmonic series, and less familiar chordal progressions. I hope they are fun to play too. Published by EVC Music Publications, you can hear each piece here and get your copy here.

Christmas Carols 


This sparkling collection of familiar and less well-known carols has been published by EVC Music Publications and arranged by American pianist, writer and blogger, Gail Fischler. I know it’s too early in the year for such music (!), but some pupils like to purchase their Christmas music ahead of the game, in order to be well-prepared when the big event arrives! Gail is known for her blog, Piano Addict, and she has selected a wide range of tunes from all around the world. There are carols from Norway, Poland, Mexico, France, Ukraine, and of course the US too. They are perfect for intermediate players. You can hear them and order your copy here.


My Life in Music

My Life in Music

This is the new autobiography by Dame Fanny Waterman, published by Faber Music. Dame Fanny occupies an eminent position in the piano teaching fraternity. Not only is she an expert teacher who has published a whole host of piano publications, but she is also the joint-founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition. This book provides an upbeat, fascinating glimpse at a life dedicated to music, and more specifically piano playing. Yielding countless stories, told in a frank and often candid demeanour, the book offers plenty of ‘behind the scenes’ moments and a collection of wonderful colour photos. A must read for anyone interested in the world of the pianist, and especially those wanting to glean more about the inception and development of an international piano competition. Get your copy here.

The Pianist’s Guide To Standard Teaching and Performance Literature


This hefty volume, written by Jane Magrath and published by Alfred Music, isn’t a new book at all. However, I have found it very useful and feel compelled to include it in this list. Helpful for teachers, students and all those interested in playing the piano, it’s essentially a list of all standard and less familiar piano repertoire from elementary up to advanced levels. It takes readers on a journey from early music to Twentieth Century piano music (although not Contemporary, as the book was written in 1995), and looks at a considerable amount of repertoire. Magrath also discusses the music, in some cases in-depth, and indicates its suitability for various levels. Great to have as a reference book on the piano. Get your copy here.


Mastering the Piano with Lang Lang

Lang Lang

This new app, pioneered by Faber Music and powered by Tido, is an inspired approach from Lang Lang to learning piano technique. The App contains innovative technology, exclusive content and practice tools. It’s designed to run in tandem with Lang Lang’s mastering the piano books (I’ve reviewed these before, here on my blog, and also for Faber’s Pianofforte Magazine), and there are five levels (from elementary to intermediate). The app features a whole range of carefully selected digital sheet music, composer biographies, historical content, and exclusive coaching videos with Lang Lang demonstrating at the piano, as well as videos of him playing many of the pieces. It’s also easy to use and navigate. You can purchase and find out much more here.

Strike a Chord

This app provides a ‘creative approach to mastering music theory’. This idea is certainly welcome, as many struggle with theory and it can also be tricky fitting theory tuition into an already packed piano lesson. Now available for the iPad, the app is designed to consolidate theory, as well as encouraging improvisation and composition too. There’s also a helpful play back feature allowing pupils to record their work. It is ‘great for complementing in-person piano lessons & for learning on the road or traveling’. You can purchase from the iTunes App Store, and check it out for yourself here.

Practising the Piano eBooks

Practising the Piano

Many readers will no doubt enjoy Graham Fitch’s excellent blog, Practising the Piano. Graham, an expert teacher, has a series of ebooks which have proved very popular. More recently, he has embarked upon a project to combine many of the blog posts (featured on Practising the Piano) into a series of free eBook mini-guides. These can be downloaded for eBook readers and apps, or viewed online. Each mini-guide will focus on one or more topics featured on Graham’s blog, with the first two guides relating to performance.  To find out more and download these ebooks, click here.


Schott Piano Meetup Group


Meetup groups are certainly gaining popularity. They provide a performance platform for (generally) amateur pianists, allowing them to relish the opportunity of playing to a sympathetic audience mostly consisting of fellow pianists. Schott Music is superbly situated in London (on Great Marlborough Street) and is the perfect place to host such events. Held throughout the year in a beautifully appointed room (downstairs at the shop) which houses a Steinway Model M grand piano, participants can enjoy a variety of themed evenings. Ranging from concerts for Grades 1 – 4 level (elementary), to those featuring certain composers, there is sure to be something to suit all tastes. The next Meetup event takes place on October 16th, participation is extremely reasonably priced (£5.00 per person) and you can find out much more here.


Hounslow Music Festival


I don’t normally highlight festivals, but this year the Hounslow Music Festival (affiliated to the Federation of Festivals) is re-opening its piano classes, which have been dormant since 2009. To be held at the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge in London, which houses a Steinway grand piano, the classes will take place on June 18th and 19th 2016. The festival will feature a whole spectrum of classes from beginners through to advanced levels, and it will also feature Elena Cobb‘s music, as well as more traditional fayre. This festival provides an excellent opportunity to practice for those Summer piano exams! I will be adjudicating all the piano classes. Click here for much more information and the syllabus.

A few thoughts on demonstration

Interviews with great pianists are always interesting (this I know first hand, after speaking to forty concert pianists in my series Classical Conversations), but one particularly fascinating interview popped into my timeline recently; Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin spoke to Frederic Gaussin about his life and work. You can read the complete interview here. Detailed, in-depth and searingly honest, Kissin reveals his love for poetry, various composers, and admiration for his teacher Anna Kantor. Amongst many comments about her teaching, Kissin makes this statement:

‘Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.’

And it got me thinking; do we rely too much on demonstration during piano lessons? Just how easy is it to verbalise all instruction? Surely, showing students is far more productive? But Mrs. Kantor makes a very valid point, of course, by demonstrating we are subconsciously influencing our pupils’ interpretations.

After writing many articles on piano playing and providing written ‘lessons’ on piano works for various magazines, I’m aware just how tricky it can be to teach via speech or written ‘speech’ at least. Finding the right expressions, phrases or words isn’t easy, and can be  quite cumbersome. Lessons provide the opportunity to really show how to do it. But then, teaching young, very gifted students (such as those who would have frequented Anna Kantor’s class) is quite different from working with those wanting to pass a few exams, play for pleasure or even take a diploma.

Nevertheless, I decided to give this concept a chance. I asked a student to  participate in  my experiment, and I  conducted a thirty minute lesson without touching the keyboard. We worked on a few scales, arpeggios, and a Grade 7 exam piece.

Teaching scales might seem easy without demonstrating, but at the start of the lesson my student wasn’t moving as flexibly as she might, and rather than show the necessary finger movement in slow motion (as I normally would) followed by the rotational hand/wrist motion needed between notes and/or groups of notes, I’m left trying to describe it, which takes twice as long (and isn’t really as effective). Testing knowledge of keys/key signatures and pin pointing fingering is simple, but we then talk about accentuation and touch, which posses a few problems for the ‘verbalist’ (i.e. me!). I end up singing where accents might be placed or at least practised, and using my voice to show how to work in various rhythms in order to strengthen fingers, especially those in the left hand.

On discussing finger staccato, I’m left demonstrating again, but in the air! Having said this, my student understands immediately, and doesn’t appear bothered by my lack of participation.

Arpeggios prove equally awkward, but I manage to show the swivel movement required for security, again, in the air, which works to a degree. One element which comes to light as a result of not touching the piano, is the importance of listening, especially with regard to coordination. We all know the benefits of listening carefully to our playing (or a student’s playing), but whilst explaining how to practice when aiming for complete unison between hands, I calmly talk the student through the usual practice techniques which, for me at least, demand more concentration than usual (it’s definitely an added challenge to describe as opposed to demonstrate). If I had been showing in the normal way (i.e. playing myself), I perhaps wouldn’t have been so attentive in terms of totally focused on my student’s efforts.

As we move on to the exam piece, technical aspects are becoming less difficult to explain (you can certainly get used to this way of teaching fairly quickly) but what is rather arduous, is to verbalise the required sound. Talking about tone, variations of tone and a rich or Cantabile sound, doesn’t seem to quite work with a Grade 7 pupil, and I’m accustomed to either illustrating wrist movement, finger motion or necessary arm-weight, or helping students with their movements whilst they play in order to change or vary the tone. Many facets of interpretation can be talked about or ‘described’ with ease, but teaching any kind of voicing, variation in texture, phrasing or colouring seems to be more effective when demonstrated.

As the lesson ended, my pupil said she had still learnt a lot via this method, but I’m not sure this is the case, especially with regard to alleviating tension, which is still best illustrated (in my opinion).

I know from my own piano lessons, that by hearing piano sonority and aspects of interpretation from my teachers, I carried their playing in my mind, and used it as a  beacon for what I was trying to achieve (this could be cited as ‘copying’, of course, but the majority of pupils do need guidance up to a certain point).

Another positive aspect of demonstration is inspiration. Talking about playing, practising and discussing interpretation can provide plenty of food for thought, but if a passage or a section of a work is played reasonably well by the teacher, this can help the student to overcome various difficulties purely by watching and observing.

I enjoyed the experiment and have complete admiration for Mrs. Kantor’s style of teaching, but I’ll be sticking to a healthy mix of demonstration and verbalization in future.

Demonstrating at a recent workshop at Yamaha Music London, with piano enthusiast, Roger Toye.

Working with Roger Toye, at a recent workshop (at Yamaha Music London).

Image: Elena Cobb

Weekend competition winners…


Thank you all for taking part in my Weekend Competition. Get Set! Piano author, Heather Hammond and I have enjoyed reading your comments. After much deliberation, we have awarded the books as follows…..

Betsy Stocksdale wins Pieces and Tutor Book 1, and Marla Mosiman wins Pieces and Tutor Book 2. Congratulations! As always, please send your addresses via the contact page on this blog and your books will be on their way tomorrow.

You can find out more and purchase Get Set! Piano here.

More competitions coming very soon!

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Weekend Competition: Get Set! Piano

Get Set Piano 1

It’s Friday! And therefore time for another weekend competition. Today’s prize features several copies of Get Set! Piano which is a tutor (or method) book series published by Bloomsbury and written by Heather Hammond and Karen Marshall.

Tutor Book 1 is accompanied by Pieces Book 1, and there is Tutor Book 2 and Pieces Book 2 as well (I’ve a copy of each, therefore two lucky readers will receive either both Tutor and Pieces Book 1 or 2), and this combination provides lots of material for beginners. Posture, hand positions and improvisation with teacher are highlighted, as well as writing exercises and simple, but effective illustrations. The thumb is introduced sparingly, and little tunes are slowly incorporated.

As usual, all you need to do is leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and Heather Hammond and I will select two winners on Sunday evening (British time).

You can find out much more about Get Set! Piano here.

Get Set Piano


So You Want To Organize A Piano Competition?

Chicago Comp Logo

Piano competitions are becoming increasingly popular around the world, whether amateur or professional.  Amateur pianist and competition planner, Sally Olson (pictured below) lives in Chicago (US) and is on the committee of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016. This competition, which began in 2010, is steadily growing in popularity, with entrants hailing from many countries (the 2014 winner came from Glasgow). Few realize the tremendous amount of planning, fund-raising and marketing behind such an enterprise. Here, Sally lifts the lid on her experiences so far…

A pinnacle of achievement for an amateur pianist is to compete in an amateur piano competition. For this reason alone, amateur piano competitions are thriving and they’re popping up all over the globe. The United States is no exception. This year, with some hesitation, I asked to participate in the 2016 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition’s (CAPC) planning committee. I envisioned attending meetings, sitting back and watching “how it was put together”. 

It’s so easy to say – “Let’s start an amateur piano competition”. But, beyond that decision lurks all kinds of Catch 22’s. In my case it has become an adventure in planning and a desire to put together an “upscale” competition. Most piano competitions are what I like to think of as “cookie cutter” events. You show up, meet other pianists, play on the stage 12-15 minutes, attend a couple of social events or a masterclass, and complain vociferously about poor judging (especially if you didn’t get to the second round). The real challenge, as I see it, is how to raise a competition a level above that.

With that in mind, I am listing the “basic” criteria you need to know if you wish to design an amateur piano competition. Moving it up one level – well, I can only give you hints and theories.

Location, location, location

In the United States most of our competitions are based in largely populated areas such as Boston, Washington D.C., New York and, of course, Chicago. There are numerous reasons for this. Large cities have many colleges and universities to draw on for judges. You will definitely get a better attendance than, let’s say, in a small country setting.

Money, money, money

What surprised me the most was when I heard the actual cost of running even a small competition. In no time at all you can have expenses of $20,000 dollars and up. Competition fees (Application fees, acceptance fees and masterclass fees) will only get you half way there. So, donors and sponsors become a necessity to covering the expenses. To move our CAPC competition event up a notch we could clearly see we needed an additional $10,000 dollars. Why? Judges.

Judges, judges, judges

The most important aspect of an amateur competition to the participants is “Who will be the judges?”, and that is the “secret” to raising a competition to a higher level. It’s the difference between three local judges (who are very competent) to importing two or three international judges such as a judge from Europe, a Van Cliburn winner and so on. This will elevate the competition significantly and that alone will attract more applicants which in turn results in more application fees and a better quality of competitor.

Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers

Volunteers can make or break a competition too. They greet competitors, make sure snacks are readily available, do page turning, make announcements, build websites. The list goes on and on. Without them – the competition can fail miserably.

Sally has a lot more to say on this subject, so will  highlight the importance of marketing, ‘live streaming’, and website design in a future post. Meanwhile, you can find out much more about the competition here: perhaps you may even be inspired to take part?




Snapchats for Piano Duet

Snapchats Front Cover

Melanie Spanswick has written a beautiful, sparkling new series of duets. They are highly evocative and will appeal to adults and children alike. I recommend them wholeheartedly!
Snapchats duets by Melanie Spanswick are enjoyable to play, and are varied in
character and texture. The most appealing feature of this collection, is that due to their brevity, they can easily be performed as a cycle or as a small group.

My new piano duets are now available to purchase as a digital download or as a hard copy (pre-order). Snapchats are  a collection of eleven pieces for those of around early intermediate or late elementary level (approximately Grades 2-4 ABRSM).

Piano Duets are fun to play, often providing players with the only opportunity to work with a fellow pianist. They offer the chance to improve many aspects of piano playing, including ensemble, sense of rhythm and sight-reading facility, as well as sharpening up listening skills too.

Snapchats are varied in texture, character, and mood. They require several slightly more unusual piano techniques and sound effects (for this level of playing, at least); glissandi, silently depressed chords, and assorted articulations (staccato, legato, tenuto etc.). Tuneful and Minimalist, each duet is very short; my brief was to write pieces of around eight to ten bars in length (yes, really!), which was quite a challenge! Their brevity encourages students to play them as a whole set, or as a smaller group, and they are suitable for children or adult pupils.

You can listen to each duet in the set by clicking on the links below. I recorded them last week with British concert pianist Nick van Bloss. You can buy the score and find out more here.

EVC Music Publications

Blue River & Arabia Winners

announcing our contest winners banner

A big thank you to all those who took part in my Weekend Competition. I’ve enjoyed perusing your comments, and I know Elena Cobb (who has kindly composed, published and provided the piano music for this competition), has read your thoughts with interest. Elena has also selected today’s winners…

Tracey Baetzel wins a signed copy of Blue River, and Brenda Stocum wins a signed copy of  Arabia. Many Congratulations! Please send your addresses via the contact page on this blog.

There are many more competitions and giveaways coming up here on my blog, so stay tuned!

To find out about EVC Music Publications, who publishes these piano pieces and many more, click here.

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Weekend Competition!

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It’s Friday, and therefore time for my Weekend Competition. I have a signed copy of two books to giveaway to two lucky readers, both courtesy of composer and publisher Elena Cobb. Elena’s piano pieces are vibrant, tuneful and students love them.

Blue River is a collection of six intermediate level pieces with a jazz feel; the pieces are imbued with blues, Latin and other musical styles popular today. You can listen to three works from the collection and find out more about them here.

Arabiatudes-Tableaux) is a dramatic, Persian inspired piano romp! Written as a  study in octaves for the advanced pianist, it’s a modern Romantic piece with a distinct Oriental flavour. Find out more and listen here.

As usual, to win please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post. Elena will be selecting the winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out more or buy these books by clicking here. Piano pieces published by EVC Music Publications can now be purchased in London at the Chimes Music Shops, in Manchester at Forsyths Music Shop (see photo below), and also at Foulds Music Store in Derby, as well as online.

Forsyths Photo