PIANO WEEK 2018

For the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of observing the inception and subsequent development  of various piano courses, both at home and abroad. There are many such courses available, catering for pianists of all levels and abilities. PIANO WEEK has been at the forefront of these developments, having metamorphosed from a week’s course held in North Wales, to an international festival with an impressive series of international residencies, all within the space of five years. I’m delighted to be joining the PIANO WEEK faculty this year, and am looking forward to participating in two courses at Moreton Hall (in Shropshire, UK), as well as further afield.

For those interested in finding out more about this continually expanding festival and summer school, here are some details.


International Festival & Summer School PIANO WEEK expands further afield in 2018 and welcomes new renowned members of the faculty to cater for the growing demand for piano tuition amongst professional and amateur pianists.

The festival directors are thrilled to announce that the PIANO WEEK team will be joined by Melanie Spanswick (UK), Grace Yeo (South Korea), Olivia Sham (Australia), Madalina Rusu (Romania), Gemma Beeson (UK), Annabelle Lawson (UK) and Nico de Villiers (South Africa). Headed by British concert pianist Samantha Ward (founder and artistic director) and Polish concert pianist Maciej Raginia (creative director), the festival offers high calibre performances from the in-house team of concert artists. It runs alongside the summer course, which is open to participants of any age and ability. In 2018, the festivals travel three times to Weston Rhyn (UK), twice to Beijing (China), as well as courses in Bangkok (Thailand), Sankt Goar (Germany) and Foligno (Italy).

PIANO WEEK’s Summer school forms an intensive programme of master classes, performances and one-to-one lessons, offering participants an opportunity to study with a distinguished international faculty of concert pianists, pedagogues and educators who hail from around the world. PIANO WEEK’s unique locations across Europe and Asia, world-renowned guest artists and inspiring faculty, make it one of the most exciting touring piano festivals today.

SANKT GOAR | GERMANY

5th – 12th August 2018

Taking place in a beautiful 1892 villa on the bank of the Rhine river (pictured to the left), this PIANO WEEK residency offers participants an intimate, boutique summer school experience. Surrounded by vineyards, woods and picturesque vistas, the property creates a spectacular backdrop to an intensive week of music making. You can enjoy the town and its surrounding area, part of the Upper Middle Rhine UNESCO World Heritage Site, either as a residential or non-residential PIANO WEEK participant.

FOLIGNO | ITALY

15th – 22nd July 2018

PIANO WEEK returns to the scenic town of Foligno in Umbria (image to the right) for the second time in 2018 and is open to non-residential participants only. Based at Scuola Comunale di Musica Alessandro Biagini, a beautiful building right in the heart of the old town, this location offers PIANO WEEK participants a chance to immerse themselves in the town’s ancient history alongside intensive coaching, master classes and performances. Foligno is a bustling town filled with restaurants, bars and historical sites, hosting several of the most important festivals in the whole of Italy.

WESTON RHYN | UK

25th March – 1st April 2018
22nd – 29th July 2018
29th July – 5th August 2018

Moreton Hall School (pictured to the left), PIANO WEEK’s UK base of the festival caters for both residential and non-residential participants in rural, peaceful Shropshire. Located near the Welsh border and not far from historic towns such as Shrewsbury and Chester, it is the perfect place to relax and work intensively for a week on your piano playing. Those who stay on campus during the festival can enjoy over 100 acres of beautiful green and safe grounds, a 9-hole golf course, an indoor 25-metre swimming pool, tennis courts and a fitness suite among many other of the School amenities (subject to availability).

BANGKOK | THAILAND

15th – 22nd April 2018

If attending a piano course in Europe is not adventurous enough for you,  this particular location might be the answer. PIANO WEEK visits the Thai capital for the first time in April 2018 and in the run up to the 4th Thailand Steinway Competition. Taking place during Songkran, one of the most colourful and festive times of the year to be experienced in Bangkok, this PIANO WEEK residency promises to be as exotic as it sounds!

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My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

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A few thoughts on publishing houses: a tour of Oxford University Press

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to tour Oxford University Press, the renowned publishing company affiliated to Oxford University. The premises of this outstanding publishing house, situated in Oxford on Walton and Great Clarendon Street, is majestic, grand and almost 200 years old (OUP has used three major sites in Oxford city over the course of its history). With nearly 6000 employees worldwide, it publishes thousands of new titles each year, including children’s books, school texts, music, journals, an extensive English Language catalogue, and academic works in every field from philosophy to quantum physics. Many of their publications are now in electronic format too.

My tour started in the museum, which was fascinating. Here, amongst the copious mind-boggling facts and figures, are rare printing artefacts (some behind alarmed doors) including machinery, lithograph imprints and wonderful photographs all capturing the spirit of various historical periods from over five centuries of publishing.   The press started in 1478  (it’s the oldest publishing company in the world), with the publication of a single volume (which was printed in Oxford with the university’s support), and is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, attributed to Theodoric Rood (a printer from Cologne).

In 1585, Joseph Barnes became the university’s first official printer and a year later a Star Chamber document, under Queen Elizabeth I, recognised the university’s legal right to employ printers. A group of academics established the Delegates of the Press in 1633 (to supervise the printing), and by 1636 the University Chancellor William Laud obtained the ‘Great Charter’ from Charles I, affording the right to print ‘all manner of books’.

OUP is synonymous with the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary. The former was first published (King James version) in 1675, and subsequently revised in 1881 (New Testament), with a million copies dispatched within 24 hours. The Oxford English Dictionary (the first part of which was published in 1884), took years to complete, and was only available in the full version in 1928. OUP now publishes all manner of reference books from the Dictionary of National Biography (which was acquired in 1917), to A S Hornby’s Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (published in 1948 and later called the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).

My tour guide was thorough and delightfully enthusiastic, punctuating all the facts with anecdotes and stories. The machinery used for printing was well-preserved and quite different from the procedures we are accustomed to today (the image to the right illustrates a printing machine on display in the museum).

Moving to the Twentieth century, OUP formed its music department in 1923 (founded by Hubert Foss), and it immediately attracted renowned British composers, publishing original scores as well educational music books. Ralph Vaughan William, William Walton, and Constant Lambert, were all published by OUP, and it continues to publish influential British composers today, including John Rutter, Howard Skempton, Rebecca Clarke, Michael Finnissy, Alun Hoddinott, Michael Berkeley, and Kerry Andrews.

Championing new composers alongside educational text books reminded me of my publisher, Schott Music, who have a similar historic background; Schott was founded by  Bernhard Schott (1748 – 1809) in 1770, with headquarters in Mainz near Frankfurt, Germany). They have a very impressive music catalogue, having published manuscripts of such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Orff, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and more contemporary composers; Hans Werner Henze, Michael Tippett, Gyorgy Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Mark-Anthony Turnage (to name a few).

The Schott group also includes the publishing houses of Panton, Ars-Viva, Ernst Eulenburg, Fürstner, Cranz, Atlantis Musikbuch and Hohner-Verlag, two recording labels (Wergo and Intuition), and eight specialist magazines. I feel  tremendously privileged to work with this publisher, and (in my experience) the attention and support they offer their authors and composers is second to none.

My tour ended with a wander around the premises, a quadrangle  (pictured at the top) and to the left) with, what on first glance appears to be a decorative water feature, but (according to my guide)  is apparently a very deep well where old printing machines were supposedly dispatched when they eventually ‘died’!  A sumptuous, private press lunch, held in one of the oldest parts of the building, brought my visit to a close.

We are lucky to have (and be able to enjoy) publishing houses offering a wealth of history. Nothing can replace such longevity and reputation, and it was a real pleasure to witness OUP’s long and interesting history via their museum and impressive premises.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Learn to Sight Read: the winner…

Many thanks to all those who took part in the weekend competition. The prize is a copy of the new sight-reading book published by E-Music Maestro, Learn to Sight Read. This book is the first in the series and is therefore at Grade 1 level (there are also Grades 2 and 3 available).

The winner is:

BOB SEPPY

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog, and your book will be on its way.

For more information about this series, click here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Weekend competition: Learn to Sight Read by E-Music Maestro

My competition today focuses on a new set of publications from E-Music Maestro. Lean to Sight Read & Hear the Difference is a series of comprehensive sight-reading manuals for teachers and students using free QR code technology. Included in each book are 100 short pieces, in a range of appropriate keys covering a wide variety of musical styles, rhythmic patterns, time signatures, and note ranges comparable to the piano exams at that grade. At present, the books range from Grade 1 – 3 level.

There is a note for teachers at the beginning about how to use the books and an explanation of how to use the technology alongside each piece. For those who enjoy featuring tablets or phone apps in lessons, this method will certainly be of interest.The pieces are tuneful and there are tips from the Maestro ‘dog’ (a cartoon character) alongside many of the pieces. At certain intervals throughout the book (denoted by ‘sets’) there is a progress chart for students to log their sight-reading journey.

I have one copy of Grade 1 level to give away to one lucky winner. For your chance to win, as always, please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post. I will select the winner on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out much more, here.

www. e-musicmaestro.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

STARS OF THE ALBION: 5th International Performing Arts Festival & Competition in London

The period from February to April is always a busy one for adjudicators (or music judges). Many music festivals (often those affiliated to BIFF, or the British and International Federation of Festivals) take place at this time, as well as other competitions organised by musicians far and wide.

One such event is the Stars of the Albion, which is an international performing arts festival and competition. It’s an annual event, uniting young talented musicians and dancers from across the world. The project forms a unique bridge connecting different cultures and, in particular, that of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.

Organised and promoted by Musica Nova Academy of Music, which was founded and is owned by Russian singer, pianist and educator Evgenia Terentieva (pictured, second from the left, with some former winners). This bilingual establishment (situated just around the corner from King’s Cross station, on Crommer Street), combines the British and Russian principles of teaching. It’s held under the Patronage of the World Association of Performing Arts (WAPA) and is supported by the Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian cultural centre in the UK.

This is the 5th performing arts festival & competition, and it will be held from the 16 – 18 February 2018 in London (primarily at the Mission of Rossotrudnichestvo (Russia House in the UK) at 37 Kensington High Street, London W8 5ED).

The competition consists of two rounds. The first one has been based on video recordings (either on DVD or YouTube), and the second round is open to the public and held at the concert hall of the Russian Cultural centre, and at the Musica Nova Academy. Forty soloists and fifteen ensembles or groups will be selected to come to London to participate in the second round. Participants come from Great Britain, France, USA, Malta, Cyprus, Russia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Ghana to take part in the competition.

This is my third year on the panel of judges at this competition and it has always been a fascinating day spent with colleagues and fellow judges, hearing a complete mixture of music and dance. Last year I was one of four judges for the piano and strings section and the standard of playing was generally high.

Anyone can attend this event. The awards ceremony and gala concert will take place on Sunday 18th February at 6.30pm at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre,  35 Park Road, London NW1 6XT. You can also attend the opening ceremony on Friday 16th February, which features performances of previous winners and some of the adjudication panel (at the Mission of Rossotrudnichestvo in Kensington High Street).

The classes include the following disciplines;

• Singing (classical, contemporary, folk)
• Instrumental playing (solo and ensemble)
• Dance (ballet, modern, historical dance, street-dance)

(as well as classes in music theatre, fringe theatre, one man show, performance in fine art, and performance in photography).

Age category: Children from 6 years old to adults, no age limit.

Applications deadline: 1 February 2018

For ticket sales & reservations call: +44 (0) 7832341745 | +44 (0) 207 8330502

Visit www.starsofthealbion.org.uk for more information

Send a message to: info@starsofthealbion.org.uk

Tickets online at: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk

 

5 Top Tips for Keeping Time

My column for the latest bi-monthly newsletter for Pianist Magazine contains tips and suggestions for how to keep a rhythmic pulse. Accuracy in this respect is an incredibly important component when learning to play any instrument, and many of you have written asking about the best ways of doing this. So here are my ideas – I hope they are of interest. You can read the original version here.


Keeping time (or playing rhythmically) can be a challenge for many, and particularly for pianists, as they are often playing alone and therefore have the opportunity to change the tempo as often as they wish! For those who feel they need to curb any tendency to rush or linger, here are a few ideas to implement at your practice sessions.

  1. To create the best tempo in any work (for you), locate what you feel is the most taxing area of the piece being studied and decide what speed is most comfortable in order to achieve clarity, fluency and a musically coherent performance.
  2. Once you’ve instigated a speed (when learning a new piece), go through the piece and tap the rhythm of the right hand part with your right hand (on the lid of the piano), and the left hand part with the left hand (also on the piano lid). You could do this hands separately at first, then both hands together. Ensure you count as you do this, so you establish a firm, steady beat. It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision (at the start of the learning process) when notes are separated from the rhythm.
  3. For fluency and rhythmic accuracy, consider using a metronome at the beginning of the learning process. Listen to the ‘tick’; both the speed of the tick and the ‘space’ in between. One of the most useful methods to attain accurate pulse keeping, is learning to ‘sit’ on the metronome tick. This skill can be acquired by playing exactly with the tick every time it occurs, as opposed to just before or after; both of which can happen with alarming regularity if you’re not used to attuning your ear and mind to decisively following a pulse. To do this effectively, it’s best if notes are securely learned, so you’re free to focus on time-keeping.
  4. Once the metronome has been used for a period of time and you’ve got used to playing along to an omnipresent beat, aim to count out loud as you play, or count along to the beat you have established. It can be a good idea to sub-divide the beat for this purpose. If your piece is in crotchets, count in quavers, and if it is in quavers, count in semiquavers, and so on. It may be exhausting, but by playing along to your verbal counting, you’ll quickly become accustomed to where you are in the bar and should eventually be able to ‘feel’ the pulse. As a general rule, the smaller the sub-division, the more accurate your pulse keeping.
  5. Finally, curb any sense of rushing (or slowing down), and encourage excellent articulation (or touch) by paying attention to the ends of notes; experiment by employing ‘active’, strong fingers, placing every finger precisely, producing a full, rich tone, paying special attention to the fourth and fifth fingers. Each note (or chord) must ideally be in its rightful place at any time, and shouldn’t be ‘cut’ or brushed over.

As with many facets of piano playing, listening will prove to be a vital element when learning to play in time. If you can train your ears to be really aware of what is being played, then you’re on your way to honing rhythmically sound performances.

Image: Nathan Nelson/Flickr


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Musical Chairs 2018

If you play an orchestral instrument (or have played one in the past and fancy rekindling this passion), I hope this event might be of interest.

Musical Chairs offers the chance to play in an orchestra for a day. You’ll spend the day working with a team of professional music tutors and young musicians from the National Orchestra for All (NOFA), rehearsing and performing two favourite works – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Now into its fourth year, Musical Chairs is a charity  offering support for young musicians with complex lives.

Musical Chairs is encouraging you to reacquaint yourself with an instrument you used to play, or try a new instrument for the first time. The musical parts have been specially arranged to cater for all abilities – whether you’re a complete beginner or a virtuoso!

Money raised on the day will be used to deliver an annual programme of OFA activities offering access to life-changing experience of ensemble music-making for 11-18 years olds.

A full day will be spent rehearsing at Cecil Sharp House in Camden (London) from 10 – 4pm on Saturday 24 February 2018. There will be a mixture of full rehearsals and smaller sectional rehearsals in your instrumental groups. At 4pm, there’ll be an informal concert to friends, family and supporters, followed by a well-earned drink.

There are many ways to secure your seat in the orchestra for Musical Chairs 2018. You can raise sponsorship, make a donation, or even gift a place for a friend or loved one. The suggested fundraising target or donation to take part is £250, but any contribution is welcome. Once you have signed up to take part via the online form, one of the team will be in touch to explain the next steps in terms of securing your seat and will send the sheet music.

For those who feel their instrumental skills are a bit rusty (or if you are a beginner), there are up to three ‘after work’ First Aid Clinics in the run up to the event where you can go for extra support and help. A team member will be on hand to take you through your part and show you how to play the tricky bits.

If you have any further questions, you can get in touch on 0207 267 4141 or at info@orchestrasforall.org.  Sign up to take part on February 24th by using the online form, here.

Find out more about Musical Chairs, here.

 Image link

Piano Gallery: the winner…

Many thanks to all for taking part in my first competition of the year. The prize is a copy of Piano Gallery, a new collection of 14 pieces written by Pam Wedgwood and published by Faber Music.

The winner is:

SHARON SCOTT

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page here on this blog, and your book will be on its way.

More competitions coming soon! For more information on Piano Gallery, click here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Weekend Competition: Piano Gallery

The first competition of 2018 features an innovative, attractive volume penned by renowned composer Pamela Wedgwood. Piano Gallery  (published in November 2017 by Faber Music) is a collection of 14 piano pieces which, as the title suggests, have all been inspired by great works of art. Each piece corresponds to a particular painting, and these paintings have been beautifully printed and included as a pull-out (in the middle of the publication) alongside the music.

‘I’ve relished writing this music that responds to the mood, colour, style, story and even humour behind each painting.’

Pamela Wedgwood

The works are easily accessible and intended for the intermediate level pianist (around Grade 4 – 6 of ABRSM standard). Playing through them, I would suggest they contain a variety of styles, yet Pam’s own voice can still be clearly heard. I enjoyed Starry Night (painting by Vincent Van Gogh), Fatata te Miti (painting by Paul Gauguin) and Large Wave (painting by Hokusai).

You can discover the music and paintings behind them for yourself by taking part in my competition. I have one copy to giveaway to one lucky winner. As usual, just leave your comment in the comment box below this blog post, and I will pick the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Be sure to check the post here on this blog, to see if you’ve been selected. Good luck!

You can find out more about Piano Gallery, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Guest Post: Andreas Eggertsberger speaks out about Focal Dystonia

I first met Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) last November, when we were both presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference. I was fortunate to catch Andreas’ fascinating presentation which focused on this little known condition. Injuries are frequently considered a taboo subject for pianists, and tend to be surreptitiously swept aside or ‘brushed under the carpet’, however, I thought many might be interested to hear his story.

I have written extensively (both on this blog and in magazine articles) about the importance of being aware of body movement, hand positions, and posture when playing the piano (it’s a subject I feel passionately about!). But, increasingly, I hear stories of pianists who can’t play anymore or those who have (and continue to) suffer terrible pain due to physical injuries sustained whilst playing. Andreas’ extraordinary journey must surely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks this issue isn’t a serious one. Over to Andreas…


My Experiences with Focal Dystonia

Injuries often occur in the music world. Although still a taboo theme, a lot of musicians are suffering from it. While pain is something which is commonly known amongst musicians, there is another injury out there which is approaching something much subtler. It is called focal dystonia. Prominent sufferers in the piano world are pianists like Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Keith Emerson, Michele Beroff, Michael Houstoun or Hung Kuan Cheng. The principal oboist from Chicago Symphony, Alex Klein, has a long story of losing, regaining and losing his job again because of dystonia.[i] Most likely it seems that Robert Schumann was also prone to this devastating condition.[ii]

What is focal dystonia?

Dystonia belongs to the family of movement disorders. It is a neurological condition with a very broad range of manifestations. The basic underlying problem involves over-activity of the main muscles needed for a movement, extra activation of other muscles that are not needed for the movement, and simultaneous activation of muscles that work against each other.[iii] The term focal describes where just an isolated area is affected. For pianists, it usually means that one hand (in most cases, the right hand) is disturbed, although in some cases both hands are troubled by it.

Weird Movements

In the Summer of 2012, I was participating in a Summer festival in Italy. A violinist colleague and friend pointed at my left hand as I was playing the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106). She told me that she has never seen a pianist whose hands were moving so differently. She was telling me that she could hear a different colour and that there is always an issue of accuracy when she listens. Some notes got swallowed. She directed my attention to my index finger and we came to the conclusion that if it stretches that much, then I could not bring it down on the key on time. Besides that, my middle finger was curling. The ring and pinkie finger were also stretching a lot. All of this seemed to be unnatural and was causing problems. At the end, we came to the conclusion that this was a real issue for me.

Here is a recording of my playing of the fugue which made my friend so uncomfortable:

The next day I started to compare my finger movements with other pianists. I found a recording with Wilhlem Kempff and consciously compared his hands to mine:

I saw that his hands moved in the same direction. I started looking at pianist’s hands everywhere! A video of Michelangeli playing the 4th movement of the 2nd Chopin Sonata (Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35)  confirmed that hands in normal cases were mirroring each other and not going on different paths:

I started also looking at the hands of the other participants at the festival. And I could not find any pianist whose hands were heading in different directions. Everyone’s hands were moving synchronic. Mine were different. This was separating me from the rest.

I told my observations to the piano professor in the festival and expressed my concern that there might be something wrong. The reply was that I should not worry about it and just enjoy the sound. The same week I played for another teacher at the same festival and she too told me that I should not be concerned. Some great musicians make some weird movements. She gave the example of a famous violinist who held his bow quite awkwardly.

At this point I was quite skeptical towards this advice, but I was also clueless about what was really going on.

The Diagnosis

Back in Austria I had to play a recital at the festival in Gmunden. I played the whole concert with a feeling of losing control. In the intermission, I told a friend that I think that something is wrong but that I have no idea what it was. The next day he visited me in my home and I played for him. He too came to the conclusion that I have to change and this was indeed a problem.

I investigated the problem further and implemented a simple exercise comparing the right and left hand:

As I found out, I was unable to play the little exercise clearly with my left hand. I sent the video to a piano professor. He replied to me that it is normal that left and right are not equal. But was it normal that the left hand was failing basic patterns? If this was normal then Chopin would never have written a piece like the Etude Op.10 No. 12 because no one could execute it clearly if such weakness in my left hand was the normal case.

I came to the conclusion that I had to look further. One evening I was thinking about the pianist Leon Fleisher. Why could he not use his right hand for around the half of his life? As I googled his name I found out that he has focal dystonia in his right hand. And that this was a neurological condition. As I watched one of his videos, I was able to draw a parallel to my own problems:

As one can clearly see, his ring and pinkie finger were constantly curling.

I then started to read about focal dystonia. And the more I read about it the more it was clear that this was my real problem. It was a neurological issue which was often treated with botox injections and was practically unhealable. But also, that musicians could manage the condition well and came back into playing, as Michael Houstoun had done, who recently recorded Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas to great critical acclaim.[iv]

I told a piano professor in Austria about my findings and that I want to consult a neurologist. He was quite amused about it and asked me what a neurologist has to do with piano playing and scales.

Nevertheless, I went to see a neurologist who made a careful investigation. At the end, he confirmed my assumption. To really make sure that this was dystonia and no other issue I had to have a brain scan. If this was normal we can exclude all other sorts of neurological issues and focal dystonia would be confirmed.

As we assumed, my MRI was completely normal. After this process, I had a completely sure diagnosis. It was recommended that I get in touch with Dr. Altenmüller[v] who is a great scholar on this issue.

I sent Dr. Altenmüller a video and he saw the problem too and recommended to start a retraining with Laurent Boullet[vi] in Berlin.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Europe and go back to USA where I was a third year DMA candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA), about to play all my doctoral recitals.

Complete Breakdown

Back in Ann Arbor I told my teacher that I was officially diagnosed with focal dystonia. “Focal what?” was his reply. I told him that it was a movement disorder where people had lost their control over their hands. At the end of our conversation he told me that there are people with real serious hand problems and that this was nothing to worry about it. I should just play through it.

This plan did not work out well and after a few weeks I was in real trouble. I started having problems playing scales:

When playing with my ring and pinkie finger, the middle finger would involuntarily move to the ring finger:

The same would happen also when playing slower:

I could not feel the space between the keys anymore. As I tried out to play the last page of the first Brahms concerto (Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15), I only played wrong notes. It was impossible to play it at all:

After these recordings, I went home and I realized that I had problems opening my hand at all. I couldn’t even tie my shoes. I could not open my hand enough to hold a glass with my left hand. Focal dystonia was now causing problems in my every-day life.

Road to recovery

I had to take a break for the next few weeks. I could barely open my hand. After some time, the cramping got less and less. So, I could start to practice again. But after this experience I knew I had to begin solving it. The normal lesson was of no help and I wrote to Laurent Boullet who was offering retraining in Berlin. We made an appointment on Skype the next days. After playing for him via Skype I began to understand what was going on. My index and middle finger were compensating for the instability of my ring finger. As soon as I started to stabilize the edge of my hand the curling and stretching of my middle and index finger became less.

I also had to change the position of my wrist. Ideally the wrist should be positioned slightly under the metacarpophalangeal joint, also known as the large knuckle. When playing I consciously rested the ring finger as much as I could on the keyboard. I made sure if kept contact as much as I could with the surface of the keyboard.

A good example of the ideas which I applied to retrain is the C–minor Sonata  (Sonata in C minor, Hob. 20) by Haydn. The triplets F-Ab-Bb were unrhythmical as the second finger was hyper extending. I was playing them with the fingering 3-2-1. As I silently held down an additional key with the fourth finger the hyper extension decreased. My aim was to accomplish this without depressing the additional key. I used a combination of rotation and lateral movement towards the thumb to make the execution of the triplets effortless. I practiced this passage diligently, sometimes up to four hours a day. After 9 months, I realized that I had achieved the precision I was seeking in this passage.

I did something very similar with the passage in Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor (‘Tempest’) Op.31 No. 2. I kept the ring finger depressed while I was playing with the others. I also added some rotation on E and C#.

I made exercises to consciously use my fingers just as weight transferers. Weight cuffs (0.5kg) were worn around the wrist to help highlight the sensation in the MCP joints for providing support for the hand.

I also played with the middle and ring finger only while I stayed relaxed with the other fingers.

In scale passages, learning how to cross the fingers over the thumb while maintaining stability and flexibility in the thumb:

Over time things have changed. In 2012, I played Mozart’s Sonata KV331:

As one can see: the index finger was hyper extending already in the theme. In 2016 this had significantly changed:

It comes out clearly when comparing the third movement in both recordings. Listening to the two recordings, it is clear that the sound in the later recording has more projection and that it is more fluid. The tone has got a much more cantabile quality and the sound was generally fuller.

The way into Dystonia

As I was diagnosed with dystonia I was thinking that it was probably going on for much longer than I was aware of. Some issues in my biography started making much more sense.

As a child, I was an incredibly fast learner. After six months of learning piano I played already Wilder Reiter from Schumann’s Album from the Young Op. 68:

It was recommended that I enter the local conservatory in Linz. There I proceeded very fast again. I soon played Mozart’s Sonata in C major KV545 and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor (‘Pathétique’) Op.13. I was practicing a lot. I was experiencing troubles with the scales in the left hand in the recapitulation of Mozart’s Sonata KV545. I solved the problem with a lot of practice. After practicing them around four hours long (voluntarily!) I could play them perfectly. Youth success continued. I won the national youth competition and a prize in Ettlingen in the international competition for young pianists. I was the youngest recipient of the Yamaha scholarship. I gave my first full recital at aged 12 and played my first Mozart concerto with the Bruckner Orchestra, aged 13. I became the youngest graduate in the history of the conservatory at the age of 15 (a record not broken till today!).

A recording of me playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is revealing some differences between the two hands.

The wrist is high and the bridge is practically not there. Even in the picture “Il vecchio castello” one can see a hand with unnatural movements – a cramped hand (from minute 7.00 onwards, for example):

In summer holidays, I often practiced up to 10 hours every day. The amount of repertoire was growing fast. Soon the index finger started to hyper extend which became one of the typical movements of my dystonia (Minute 1:10):

After graduation in Linz I went on to study in Salzburg. I was experiencing a strange feeling of playing against a wall. The teaching took place quite irregularly and I had to follow my teacher to masterclasses to have a chance to play for him. Time space between lessons was sometimes several months. When I go through the scores I now see passages in the left hand were often circled. But hardly anywhere in the right hand. The first time I gave up working on a piece happened because it was exhausting to use the left hand in the Etude Op.10 No. 12 by Chopin. In Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op. 16, my teacher asked me why I was not able to play the left hand solo passage regularly. It was recommended I practice it and play it slowly.

A quite interesting habit was the inclusion of warm up exercises. One of them was playing chromatically from C to E and back. Then from C# to F etc. While this exercise was not difficult for my right hand, my left hand often needed repetitions to play it accurately.

Later I moved to Vienna. My playing was obviously deteriorating. At the time of my master’s recital, my teacher was telling me that I should be happy when I pass at all. I was practicing English Suite No. 3 BWV 808 by J S Bach and I saw some interesting movements from fingers in my left hand. I thought of them as quite funny, even though the left hand just did what it has to do. And if there would be a problem with it, it would have been a theme in a lesson. I still had no idea that something like focal dystonia even existed. I did not connect my finger movements to any problems which occurred during this time. I had difficulty playing the first solo, a sixteenth note scale run in both hands, in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 73, and also when playing the octaves at the end of the exposition of the Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16.

After graduation in Vienna I felt untalented and gave up playing. I studied political science in Salzburg and did not touch the piano for the next four years.

Coming back to play and finally being diagnosed

After four years of not playing at all I was curious to see what was possible. So, I started to play again. And I did nothing less than the Goldberg Variations BWV 998 by J S Bach. I learnt them again very quickly and played them in a recital. At first, piano playing felt easier. But soon I practiced left hand runs much more often again. One Sunday I practiced the 26th variation nearly the whole day, especially the left-hand passages. At the end of the session the passages nearly worked. The whole work was good enough to impress audiences and teachers. I was invited to perform at a piano conference in Serbia and had a great success with it.

I was then invited to study at the YST (Yong Siew Toh) conservatory in Singapore. In one lesson, the teacher there said that he has never seen anyone’s finger moving like this.

In 2008, I was invited to participate in an international piano competition and made it to the semifinal. After the competition, a judge came to me and told me that he expected me to get to the final. But he said that my coordination of the right and hand in the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor Op.111 was unclear. My left hand was playing in an unsteady manner and was sometimes lacking clear articulation. He seemed to be quite confused about it because it did not fit in to the impression I gave in the first round. I personally came to the conclusion that I probably was lacking in competition experience since this was my first competition for 12 years.

After that I auditioned for DMA in Ann Arbor and was taken into the programme. I was encouraged to play with more energy and to take more risks. I should play with more passion. Many of these elements I simply did with a strong will and much force. The diagnosis of dystonia came finally in 2012.

Conclusions

Focal Dystonia is still quite new to teachers and students. The condition as such was only recognized in the mid 1980s. My personal view is that we still have not much awareness of it. Therefore It is critical that musicians and teachers keep focal dystonia on the radar. Fortunately, the vast majority will not get focal dystonia, but people should know the signs so they can avoid the common pattern of misreading early symptoms, practicing harder, and thus cementing faulty brain connections.” [vii]

The symptoms I was developing were not perceived as dangerous for a long time. It was a time frame of around 18 years till the right diagnosis came. The seriousness of the problem was often denied or underestimated. Even as I was diagnosed with it, it was not perceived as a problem by my teacher. Managing to come clean about it took over 5 years. Comparing this fugue will show just how much has changed:

I want to offer some thoughts about how I originally got dystonia and how I think we can minimize the risk for future students:

  1. The prevention of focal dystonia starts already at the beginning. It is crucial to learn to move efficiently. “Unless the body maintains movement patterns that are biomechanically sound, the musician is at risk of injury.”[viii]
  2. In situations when we focus on the music only and on learning very fast, we might mistakenly open the door to focal dystonia. As I was starting my lessons I was going for the music and did everything which was necessary to achieve what I wanted. “When preparing for an important performance a musician will often practice without physical awareness because of focus on the music itself. Then it is easy for physical distortions to occur in order to produce a desired musical result and for these to become ingrained as a way of playing that is less than biomechanically ideal.”[ix]
  3. In my own experiences, I was encouraged to achieve a lot in the shortest amount of time. Teachers and audiences were surprised how fast I was growing. My first teacher’s idea was: the earlier, the harder, the better. As I was studying the Mozart Sonata KV545 the excessive practice of the scales and the permanent repetition led to success. In the long-term this might have taught me incorrectly. “…, incessant repetition of certain problematic passages, especially when the way of playing causes tension, can put musicians at risk. Highly motivated practisers tend not to vary the material in their practice sessions, meaning that there is too much repetition of the same physical movement.”[x]
  4. Another  point for me is that taking breaks is important. My habit of working through long sessions without breaks and repeating the same over and over was a factor which might have contributed to focal dystonia. Consciously relaxing and evaluating what was achieved will be of great help.
  5. I think another factor is the aim of perfection. Studio recordings nowadays are cut together and show often an unrealistic picture of artists. I think listening to older and uncut recordings can lead to more realistic aims for one’s own performances.
  6. Taking time to learn the fundamentals. The piano might be a quite injury provoking instrument as it is possible to produce a sound with simply depressing a key. Therefore, there is a big temptation to simply move on to the next, more difficult piece, pushing ahead.
  7. Developing both hands equally. Not every Sonata for example is challenging the right and left hand equally. Therefore, it is crucial to play etudes and other pieces which are aiming to develop both hands.
  8. Having a flexible hand position. The wrist should be constantly adjusted in order to avoid fixed hand positions.
  9. It is important for the developing artist to get regular mentoring. Having an irregular teaching schedule with lots of space between lessons makes it possible for bad practice habits settle in or to fall back into them.
  10. It is crucial that teachers and their students are aware of the lurking danger of dystonia and take issues of coordination seriously. Over time, tiny little problems can become big. There should be an atmosphere where the student can admit problems with a passage. Sometimes teachers might consider watching their students just from the right or left side and compare the finger movements of the two hands. If one hand is moving in a different direction than the other, chances are high that there is a problem developing.
  11. Students can record themselves with smartphones from the side and watch how their hands are moving. Especially virtuosic pieces with scale runs. The reason is that while playing, our eyes will be often ahead and barely get a full picture at all:

12. Rethinking our heritage: In teaching we rely on traditions. But old schools did not think about biomechanics at all. So called finger independence exercises might cause a lot of trouble because they cannot be done without tensions in the forearm.

13. Tailoring the teaching to the needs of a student. One day Richter came to Neuhaus and played the Liszt B minor sonata, S.178. There was not much to teach as Neuhaus wrote. They discussed the interpretation of some passages and the lesson was done. After that another student came in playing the same piece. Neuhaus wrote that he had to work on every bar with her.[xi] This is a great example how a teacher can adjust to the needs of a student. In my experiences, a lot of teachers just give everyone the same approach.

14. It is not about playing without tension but with the right amount of tension. We have to be aware that we release the built-up tension as often as possible.

I am convinced that we can at least minimize the risk of dystonia. It is crucial that it is recognized early as such and pedagogical intervention takes place. Although genetics play a role in the development of dystonia I am convinced that in a lot of cases focal dystonia is the result of an unfavorable use of the body. It might be of more importance how we achieve results and not just that we achieve them.

Over time I got in contact with quite a lot of dystonic musicians. I was astounded to learn just how many people knew someone who was suffering from it. Some of the pianists had won great prizes at competitions like the Cliburn, Busoni or Hilton Head. Very often it was a highly talented individual who went somehow down the wrong road. I was surprised how often I was confronted with it since having been diagnosed.

Focal Dystonia is a highly complex issue. Retraining is a complicated affair and very individual. In every case one has to find the fitting exercises. There is no way to apply the same exercises for every case. Recovering from it is possible but very time-consuming.

I hope that this essay will at least raise the awareness of this kind of problem. During my journey, I have encountered a lot of teachers who have never heard of it. I am hoping to improve this, and speak out, informing as many pianists as possible, so they may be able to avoid such issues.

You can explore Andreas’ YouTube Channel, here.

[i] http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-cso-oboe-alex-klein-denied-tenure-20170524-column.html

[ii] Altenmüller, Eckhart. Robert Schumann’s focal Dystonia https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/85633

[iii] https://www.datasci.com/solutions/neuroscience/movement-disorders

[iv] http://www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz/

[v] https://www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de/en/institute/people/eckart-altenmueller/

[vi] https://www.pianophysiology.com/

[vii] White, Joanna. “Musician’s Focal Dystonia: Strategies, Resources, and Hope.” Flutist Quarterly, p.33, (Winter 2017).

[viii] Wilson in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.1, 2015.

[ix] Tubiana in de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.5, 2015.

[x] de Lisle, Rae: “Focal Dystonia: An Understanding for the Piano Teacher.” 12th Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, p.13, 2015.

[xi] Neuhaus, Heinrich. Die Kunst des Klavierspiels, p.149 (1967)


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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