Meet the Judges Live Stream Interview

14064206_10154295173330516_9004869624879616375_nAs you may have gathered, I’m in Chicago all week adjudicating at the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition. Judging starts today, but this competition offers an impressive events roster (a fairly unique concept amongst competitions), which runs in tandem, therefore proceedings actually started last night.

Fifty-five talented pianists will play a short programme over the next two days with finals taking place on Friday (for the two-round competition) and Saturday morning (for the three-round competition). However, events kicked off last night with a ‘Meet the judges’ interview which was live streamed on Youtube. Russian/American pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, American pianist and composer, Adam Neiman, and myself (pictured above on stage and ready to go, before the live stream event!) will adjudicate over the next few days and this interview was designed to introduce competitors to their judges and provide an opportunity to ask questions about our lives.

You can watch the whole interview (although sadly, the connection was lost at the beginning so around 10 minutes of the opening has been cut!), by clicking on the link below. You can also watch/hear every competitor on live stream by clicking on this link here. The competition starts in just a few hours, and we will be hearing around half of the competitors today. I hope you find it interesting!

The Power of Repetition

Finding the appropriate practice tool for a specific issue can, as we all know, be a matter of trial and error. When all the usual methods have been exhausted or have perhaps already been overused, it’s time to experiment with new ideas and find a fresh approach in order to nail that awkward passage.

Recently, I’ve been working with a couple of students who are both preparing Mozart’s Sonata K. 311 in D major. The first movement can be deceptive, with many rapid passages containing unforgiving twists and turns in the right hand particularly. Changing fingers at speed can be a major challenge for many, especially during the trills, which whilst look similar, in fact require different fingering depending on the succeeding note  patterns.

There are  many ways to finger an ornament, but copious hand rotations, or thumbs set under or over the hand often need a different practice regime, so that fingers are literally programmed to play the pattern accurately every time. If this doesn’t happen, then hesitations or a slowing down (or destabilising) of the tempo may occur. Here’s a notorious spot for some (bars 35 – 36):

New Mozart exampleIt’s the second time this trill appears (first time is at bar 31), and the material following the ornament takes a different turn (than that after the first time), hence the unexpected finger change at the end (turning the hand over the thumb to play a 2nd finger), which can sometimes upset the flow (the following is only a suggested trill interpretation):

Mozart 1Here, I normally suggest applying many different touches (non-legato, staccato etc.), followed by different rhythms (dotted rhythms, triplet figures and the like), and a whole array of accents (I love using accents for practising purposes), as well as playing in various octaves around the keyboard (I could go on here, but you get the picture!). However, occasionally further detailed work is necessary.

This is when we turn to the repetition method. A successful ornament demands strong independent fingers; ones which will work very quickly,  cleanly, and rhythmically. If trills are becoming sluggish, slower than necessary, or notes are not fully sounding or are unequal, try the following suggestion.

The ornament must be isolated and taken out of context. Banish any sense of rhythm or pulse and just focus on the notes, working at the right hand. Start by playing the pattern in double notes. Follow this with triplets:

Mozart 2And finally you could try playing four semiquavers per note! Make sure you use the fingers with which you will play the ornament. Always practice slowly to begin with and, most importantly, free of any tension. With this in mind, you may need to ‘bounce’ the hand after each note (at first), especially at the beginning of each beat (to free the wrist), so that it doesn’t ‘lock up’.

Now experiment with accents; start with one on the first beat of every group, then on the second beat. Follow this with accents on beats 1 and 3 of every note group (for the triplet group). Add speed gradually until you can play quite fast and with a warm sound. Ensure each note is completely even tonally and rhythmically (whilst you are not yet adhering to the pulse, the notes must still be equally played). You could also try using dotted rhythms on each repetition, whether two, three or four notes are being played.

Once you’ve mastered this, return to playing the ornament as written. Lighten your finger touch and, hopefully, the practice repetitions will enable an even trill (fingering, notes, rotations) with all notes clearly articulated and fully sounding. Try now to combine the trill with the left hand.

You might require a fair amount of practice in order to become acquainted with the feeling of repeating the notes with flexibility (the wrist must always be free of tension and ideally should move after every quaver beat, albeit imperceptibly). Playing the repetitions with the left hand semiquaver pattern might also be beneficial (at very slow speeds), enabling perfect placing of each note.

Repeating notes in a pattern can be successfully applied to all tricky passages and ones which combine both hands too; if there is a unison pattern of quavers or semiquavers, this may be a useful way to help coordination. Happy practising!

Here’s Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311:

At The Drop Of A Hat; the winner is…

At-The-Drop-Of-A-HatMany thanks to those who took part in this weekend’s competition, to win a copy of boogie woogie piano duet, At The Drop Of A Hat, written by Pam & Olly Wedgwood. Without any further ado, the winner is….

Catherine Whitehouse

Many congratulations! Please send me your address via my contact page and I will send the book very soon.

If you would like to find out more about this week’s featured publication, you can do so here.

Weekend Competition: At The Drop Of A Hat

At-The-Drop-Of-A-HatToday’s competition features a new piano duet written by Pam and Olly Wedgwood. This dynamic duo has written an intermediate level (Grades 5-6) work for four hands in boogie-woogie style, destined to become a firm favourite with pianists of all ages, and perfect for recitals, festival performances, and lessons.

Click the link below to hear the composers perform At The Drop Of A Hat:

I have one copy for one lucky reader, so to be in with a chance of winning, just leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post and I will announce the winner here on my blog on Sunday evening (British time). Good Luck!

If you would like to purchase, or find out more, click here.

A master class given by Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz

With the Olympics in full swing in Rio de Janeiro, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer dedication and tenacity emanating from every Olympian. Whilst piano playing is much more subjective, a similar pursuit of excellence and perfection must be sought by the concert pianist too, whether they be young or old.

As you’ve probably gleaned from the TV coverage, Brazil is teeming with breathtaking scenery, exotic plants and wildlife, and colourful, unique, original music (samba, bossa nova etc.). It also possess a rich classical music culture, with many fine musicians hailing from this huge country. Cristina Ortiz was born in Bahia, and studied in France with Magda Tagliaferro before winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1969.

I couldn’t resist highlighting this very interesting master class given by Cristina at the Musical Odyssey Summer Master Classes in Greece in 2014; here she is working with British pianist Thomas Harris. The workshop focuses on Beethoven’s monumental Sonata in E major op.109 (last movement). I hope you enjoy it.

I interviewed Cristina at her home in London in 2014, where she spoke about her childhood spent in Brazil and her love for Brazilian music. To watch, simply click the link below:

The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

Today’s post features an article I wrote for Piano Professional Magazine (an EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association publication). It was published in June this year, and focuses on a few practice suggestions for counterpoint (or polyphony). There are so many different ways to work at this demanding style, and my thoughts are based on my own approach. I’ve included a link to the original article at the end of the post, and a downloadable PDF with twelve tips for students, teachers or anyone who loves practising the piano. Hope you find it helpful.

Polyphonic writing has been a popular compositional technique in Western music for over six centuries. It’s a method of writing favoured by a vast collection of composers, irrespective of their style and genre. Responsible for producing some of the most complicated, intense and beautiful music ever known to man, it’s a form which piano students must grasp thoroughly, as otherwise progress in piano playing will be challenging; at every stage of pianistic development and at virtually every music exam, pupils are expected to perform a piece constructed in this manner.

Polyphony may also be referred to as counterpoint (or contrapuntal style), alluding to the texture, or construction of a piece. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Polyphony is:

‘The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other’

The art of playing many lines of music at the same time can cause a myriad of issues for students, and the study and practice of this genre requires a very different approach to that of a texture consisting of a melody and accompaniment (known as Homophonic style).

Countless composers from the whole spectrum of Western music have employed contrapuntal techniques; from Beethoven to Bartók, and Busoni to Shostakovich. However, arguably the greatest and most prolific era of this style occurred during the Baroque period (approximately 1600 – 1750). J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) was of colossal importance in the Baroque period’s golden polyphonic era, and his music provides a fundamental element in today’s piano repertoire.

Polyphony emerges in many guises and forms; from preludes, fugues, suites, and dance movements, to appearances in concerto movements and sonatas. In the Baroque period (and earlier), these pieces would have been played on completely different instruments; the harpsichord, organ and clavichord. The clavichord was, by all accounts, J. S Bach’s favoured instrument for performing his keyboard music. The possibility to vary the sound and colour, coupled with a slightly more responsive feel, undoubtedly played a significant factor. This provides insight into the performance of Bach’s music; and whilst much of his work may be described as generally highly rhythmic with continuous repeated patterns, it requires a level of musicianship, depth and commitment rarely witnessed in other genres.

How do we help students overcome the difficulties beset in the polyphonic style? Here are a few suggestions:

Learning any polyphonic work will require a substantial amount of analysis or study especially at the start; it can be helpful to take the score away from the piano. The linear element is the main focus in contrapuntal music, therefore the following observations will be vital; the shape and construction of each melodic strand within the contrapuntal texture (especially the thematic material), the key (particularly key changes), cadential points, how the melodic material develops, changes, or migrates throughout the piece.

Counterpoint usually consists of two or more lines or strands of material, and if a work such as a fugue is to be studied, three or four lines of texture will be evident. Once the score has been ingested, it can be useful to lay each part out on a separate stave, separating the textures, allowing complete understanding of where the music is going. I find absorption of each part is quicker this way.

Here is the opening of the Fugue in E major from Book 1 of the Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues by J. S. Bach. The three parts or musical lines of this (three-part) fugue have been separated, making it clear to see each subject entry (the subject is the main theme of the work):

Polyphony 1Students might find it beneficial to write the whole fugue out in this manner. It’s important to note each entry of the subject particularly, as this guides interpretation and also dictates articulation as well. In the example above (Fugue in E major), I’ve marked the subject and it’s three entries at the beginning (A1, A2, and A3) in each part. I encourage pupils to do this throughout a work, every time each entry appears (writing a piece out in this way assists with memory and really ‘knowing’ a piece).

Once the melodic material has been marked up and each strand of music has been grasped, work through the piece deciding how the texture will be divided between the two hands; sometimes two parts can be taken with either the left hand (LH) or right hand (RH), but occasionally the most convenient interpretation will see the subject, and subsequent material (often a countersubject, or an ‘answer’ to the subject), divided between the hands.

Taking the fully digested score to the piano, now is the time to mark up the most ideal fingerings. This will take time and will involve working hands separately, carefully observing comfortable hand positions, and the necessary movement needed to play each entry with a warm sound and varied tonal colour. This may involve certain hands movements, and a ‘leaning’ on particular fingers in order to create the desired sound within each strand or line of music. Aim to write as much in the score as possible; this will serve as an important prompt until the piece is really learnt.

Returning to the three-part score (which has now been written out), ask students to play each voice (each musical line) separately (using the correct fingerings, which may feel tricky at first). This could be extended to other thematic material too, disentangling various strands of texture, providing a feel for the musical content as a whole, whilst getting to grips with the various shapes and patterns within the piece.

Rhythm plays a paramount role in any contrapuntal work. In some cases, the pulse can be relaxed a little, taking slight ritenutos into consideration (mostly in improvisational passagework or at the end of a piece), but whilst playing fugues, dance movements and the like, a very firm rhythmic inner pulse is the secret to the ideal rendition. Encourage students to sub-divide the beat and count in semiquavers (or the smallest rhythmic denomination within a piece). A metronome can help, but I find counting every note (regularly and throughout the piece), the surest way to develop a reliable inner pulse.

Each hand will require a huge amount of practice on its own. It’s generally acknowledged that separate hand practice yields the best results, however, polyphonic music commands slow, pedantic, laborious work in this way, often for a substantial period of time (especially if a student hasn’t played much of this genre previously). The key to mastering polyphonic music is extremely slow practice. The slower, the better. Each hand must know what it’s doing to the point that it can, not only play fluently (free from hesitations and with all correct rhythms), but is totally independent of the other hand, and as though the patterns and shapes could almost be played by rote, without too much thought (so as to allow focus on purely musical concerns).

In order to comprehend patterns and chord structures, it may be wise to develop a variety of methods to enable pupils to learn quickly. The following example (from the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Book 1 of the ‘48’), the Prelude is understood swiftly by first of all ‘blocking out’ the semiquaver patterns like this, from bars 1 – 4 (it’s possible to work through a large section of the piece in this way):

PolyphonyThis can be followed by practising the necessary movements, when playing as written; ensure the wrists are free, flexible, and a lateral wrist movement is in place, with the wrists and hands moving inwards from beats 1 to 2 (bar 1), and outwards again from beats 2 to 3 (especially in the RH), in order to coax a richer, fuller sound on the outer melodic line, lightening the inner parts, as highlighted here with the use of accents (bars 1 & 2):

Polyphony 3Outer fingers (often fifths), will benefit from playing deep into the key bed, employing the fingertip, which will gradually encourage them to gain strength and produce a larger sonority.

Students sometimes find the inclusion of multiple touches helpful in a work such as the Prelude; slow non-legato, dotted rhythms and accents on different beats of the bar, especially on unexpected beats. Experiment by using accents on beats two and four; both pertaining to the crotchet beat as well as the second and fourth semiquaver, within each crotchet beat (if the speed is very slow), which can be amazingly effective, and will definitely help with any coordination issues.

When practising hands together, assume one beat at a time to begin with, placing each note carefully and with focus, being mindful of the rhythm, as well as notes and fingerings. Mastering a fugue, beat by beat can certainly pay dividends, and when learning bar by bar (after each beat has been successfully negotiated), always stop over the bar line (or over onto the next beat if practising in crotchet beats). This will help with continuity, as it’s vital to be able to ‘pick up’ from any spot within the piece.

Now that your student is playing their fugue (or any polyphonic work), slowly and accurately, try suggesting they sing one voice (or line) whilst playing other linear textures at the same time. This might sound perfunctory and out of character (for this style), but by returning to the original concept of thinking about each strand in a polyphonic work’s texture, the act of playing one part and singing another can be very useful, and will cement learning.

Memorization is not necessary for those taking higher graded exams or some diplomas, but the act of remembering and ingesting all the information in a contrapuntal piece will only aid fruitful learning. Assimilating where subject entries occur, whether by singing, playing, tapping the pulse, or becoming acclimatised to the muscular movements (or a mixture of all the above!), within a piece, will eventually result in being able to remember the score, and most pupils find this valuable, even if they don’t plan to play from memory. Focused practice of any kind for long periods of time, tends to assume this outcome.

Articulation and ornamentation in polyphonic music can be a minefield, and are often deemed personal taste. Generally, we are not privy to any Renaissance or Baroque composer’s intentions; phrase markings, any accentuations or rhythmic inflections can be difficult to gauge, particularly if (as is often the case) nothing has been written in the score.

The following favoured practices may be taken into consideration: notes with longer time values, such as minims, crotchets, quavers, are effective when played non-legato (or slightly detached), whilst semiquavers and shorter note values, are best played legato. However, there are many exceptions to these ‘rules’. In order to interpret any polyphonic material, a degree of ‘separating’ notes will be necessary, and there are many varying degrees of separation, from staccato and staccatissimo, to tenuto or portamento. Appropriate touches will depend on many components including speed, character, harmonic context, and rhythmic patterns.

Ornaments are best left out when learning a work, as they tend to disturb the pulse, and can be the cause of hesitations and uncertainties. Eventually, most pupils will feel the pulse and play seamlessly, and as this happens, embellishments can be gradually introduced. In order to produce even, rhythmic ornaments, suggest students practice the intended embellishment incredibly slowly, powerfully, with finger strength (and a free wrist and arm). Once the pattern has been studied and can be played with ease, lighten the touch to reveal even, added notes. Then insert them at the appropriate place within the piece, slowly building speed until they feel and sound comfortable and natural.

Colour and voicing will become a deciding factor in the success of a performance. This is an issue which can be resolved from the outset (as can articulation), if tonal importance and rhythmic clarity is instigated when playing each melodic strand separately at the beginning of the learning process. Ensure melodic material such as a subject (in a fugue) is always clearly enunciated on every entry, and the accompanying material is sub-ordinate. Deciphering where textures rise and fall will be a consideration too; one tip is to allow a (very) slight hiatus after a climax, so the music is given time to breathe, and doesn’t feel rushed (but don’t be tempted to use rubato!).

Resist the urge to pedal with alacrity. Frequently depressing the sustaining pedal will merely smudge and obscure the numerous lines of music, which must ring out, allowing the listener to hear the textures clearly. The sustaining pedal may be used sparingly, to highlight specific points in the score, and to provide resonance. Tonal clarity, rhythmic precision and above all, musical integrity, will ensure a beautiful performance of any polyphonic piece.

Suggested Further Reading:

Keyboard Interpretation: Howard Ferguson (OUP)

Ornamentation; a Question and Answer Manual: Valery Lloyd-Watts, Carole L Bigler, Willard A Palmer (Alfred)

Downloadable PDF: The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

The Art of Polyphony: original article as it appeared in Piano Professional Magazine






Rock & Pop Studies: the winner is…

RockMany thanks to all those who took part in this weekend’s competition.

The winner of Rock & Pop Studies for Piano published by Faber, is:

Matthew Ellson

Congratulations! Please send your address via my contact page and your book will be on its way.

If you would like to find out more about this publication click here.


Weekend Competition: Rock & Pop Studies

RockToday’s weekend competition features a useful Rock & Pop tutor book written by Lucy Holliday and Oliver Weeks, published by Faber Music. For beginner to intermediate level (around Grades 3 – 5 ABRSM), this volume contains 88 progressive studies and exercises which become more complex, both harmonically and rhythmically. Each exercise is accompanied by practice tips and advice, and stylistically many genres are covered: Motown, metal, blues, soul, funk, ska, reggae, disco, country, indie, classic rock, synth pop and lots more.

I have one copy to give away to a lucky reader, so as always, please leave your comments in the comment box after this post and I will announce the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

To find out more or purchase, click here.

A visit to the August Förster Piano Factory

August forsterPeregrine’s Pianos are organising a two-day visit to the August Förster piano factor. This factory is one of the oldest established piano factories in the world and it thrives in a corner of Saxony steeped in rich musical traditions. Peregrine’s Pianos is the London dealer for August Förster Pianos.

The trip is intended for customers interested in learning more about this company and its culture. Taking place on the 25th and 26th October 2016 and limited to twenty customers, included are flights from London’s Heathrow airport to Berlin, private coach transfers to Dresden and Löbau, and overnight accommodation in a beautiful mountain hotel. Guests will be shown around the factory and entertained at the Förster Villa (pictured below).

In order to illustrate the cultural background of August Förster, the visit begins in Dresden.  Lunch will be served at the Grand Café in the Cosel Palais before an afternoon recital in the Dresden Piano Salon, a hall in which both Robert and Clara Schumann performed. This is followed by a brief tour of Dresden’s Baroque buildings including the Zwinger, Augustusbrücke, Hofkirche and the famous Frauenkirche.

On the second day, a visit to the town of Löbau is first on the itinerary, as it’s where the factory is situated. After lunch in the old town, a tour of the factory takes place. The factory buildings are 150 years old and piano making is all by hand. There will be an opportunity to play completed instruments and to select a piano to purchase.

For full details of this visit and much more information about August Förster pianos, click here, e-mail: or call: 020 7242 9865


Jackdaws Piano Course 2016

GetAttachmentThumbnailMy piano course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust will be held in October this year and the bookings open today!  This is my second visit to Jackdaws and I’m very much forward to it.

Jackdaws has a wonderful history and tradition, and is renowned for its instrumental and vocal courses, education projects, young artists programme, and performances by world-class musicians. Situated near Frome in Somerset (UK), the venue is set in exquisite countryside. There are a whole range of courses on offer featuring many outstanding teachers, and lots are residential. You can find out all about the Education Trust here.

My piano course will begin on Friday 14th of October at 6.30pm and finish on Sunday afternoon on the 16th October at 4pm. It consists of eight concentrated sessions throughout the weekend, providing ample opportunity to work on many aspects of pianism. I was fortunate to have a full house last year (10 participants), which was fun (you can read more about the weekend and repertoire presented here).

I’ll be focusing on piano technique, memorisation and sight-reading. These are topics I often offer for courses, as I believe they are frequently neglected. However, there will also be plenty of time for more traditional workshop fayre; where each pianist plays a prepared piece and we work on it in a master class format. Therefore we ask each participant to bring two short  pieces of their choice (however, your pieces do not need to be polished or performance ready – we will work on this together).

GetAttachmentThumbnailThe weekend will commence with sessions on evaluating and honing technical freedom at the piano, with full class participation. This will be followed by plenty of tips and practical guidance on memorisation, again with class participation, and the course will finish with sessions on sight-reading, and a final opportunity to work on chosen pieces.

This piano course is open to any standard or level of playing, and there are a maximum of ten places. The fee for the  course is £200 for the entire weekend, to include all meals except breakfast (there is a selection of B&Bs to choose from if you would like to stay nearby). To find out more about the course, and for booking and registration (which is now open) click here – I look forward to meeting you.

‘A very enjoyable course Melanie. A lot of information was covered. Really appreciated the technical help and also watching your approach to teaching the other students. Alex’s food was indeed wonderful, catering for so many varied food requirements. Such a high standard of skills from the variety of participants. Very enjoyable indeed. Looking forward to another course in the future – can’t have too much knowledge, always willing to learn more.Thanks again Melanie. Highly recommended!’

Maggie George: Participant on the 2015 Jackdaws Music Education Trust Course