No Words Necessary Competition

This week Pianist Magazine and Schott Music are kindly running a competition on Pianist’s website; the prize is a copy of my new piano pieces, No Words Necessary published by Schott Music. This volume features 12 original piano pieces intended for students of around Grade 3 – 6 of the ABRSM examination board level.

These pieces are melodious and comfortable to play, and they are suitable for children or adult learners. If you or your students enjoy playing music by composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Yirumi and David Lanz, then they might like to try these compositions. You can find out more about the pieces, and hear them, here. And you can read a recent review on Pianodao website, here. To enter the competition (there are three copies to giveaway), click here.

‘These are pieces which I believe could easily find their place in the intermediate player’s heart, combining easy-to-master patterns, melodic charm, and simple structural cohesion. They give players a vehicle through which to develop expressive, engaged playing. And with plenty of variety on offer, too, the collection offers good value. If you’re looking for a fresh collection of accessible contemporary pieces, do give this a try! Warmly Recommended.’

Andrew Eales (Pianodao)

www.pianistmagazine.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.


 

 

Basic Tips for Healthy Piano Playing

Earlier this month I presented a workshop for piano teachers at Millers Music in Cambridge. This activity will become increasingly important during 2019; Schott and I have organised several workshops across the country, and I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with teachers and students. The following article was published on Millers Music website earlier this week (you can read it here) and it offers basic relaxation ideas, which is why I thought it useful to publish today. Hope it’s of interest.


My workshops for piano teachers offer a few ideas for developing basic flexibility in piano technique, with a view to harbouring positive habits during piano practice and piano performance. It’s a privilege to work with teachers, talking about technique, how to develop it, and more specifically, how to keep students free from pain, discomfort and tension.

The following tips serve as elementary suggestions; some can be done away from the instrument, and, as with piano practice, regularity is the key to success.

Before a practice session begins, sit at the instrument and drop your arms by your side, so that they hang loosely from the shoulders. Ensure your upper torso is really relaxed; it’s sometimes difficult to notice tension – this is why a good teacher can prove crucial. Relax from the shoulders and arms, through to the wrist and hand. The feeling should be one of looseness and ‘heaviness’. Remember this feeling, as it provides a useful reminder of relaxation during practice sessions.

From this relaxed position, swing your arms up (from the elbows), and literally rest the hands on the keyboard or a table top; it’s the ‘feeling’ that you need to cultivate, so it doesn’t matter if there’s no instrument present. Keep your upper body relaxed and loose as your hands rest on the piano keyboard. And don’t worry if you are not in the ‘correct’ playing position (your hands and wrists will probably be in a hanging position). This is not about playing, but rather about understanding the feeling of relaxation required for the concept of ‘tension and release’ necessary in developing technique. Assimilation may take time, especially in older students.

The next step is to use a simple five-finger exercise: try middle C – G with both hands in either minims (half notes) or semibreves (whole notes). Start with the thumb (in the right hand); play and hold the note (middle C) and then drop the hand and wrist afterwards. Keep hold of the note; you may need the other hand to help here, as both the thumb and fingers have a tendency to fall off the keys at first. As you drop your wrist, ensure that it feels loose; the wrist should be relaxed, and will probably be ‘hanging’ down from the key.  It’s not the position you would ever use to play, but it can provide the key to promoting flexibility, fostering relaxation. Work at each note in this way and then try with the left hand.

The final step for basic relaxation, would be to use the five-finger exercise again, but this time introduce a circular wrist motion technique. That is, using the same note pattern, but forming a circular motion with the wrist between every note whilst keeping it depressed.  They key here is to make sure that the whole arm, wrist and hand feel totally loose. If done after every note, this motion can really instigate complete flexibility, both physically and mentally, that is, students learn to remember the feeling and start to implement this into their practice regime. I encourage pupils to play to the bottom of the key bed, or play heavily and powerfully on every note, establishing a firmer touch.

These steps may take a good few weeks to master, after which we move on to little exercises (usually by Czerny, and these are followed by J S Bach’s Two-Part Inventions), implementing wrist motion techniques on extended passagework.


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.


 

5 Tips to Create the Illusion of Legato

Every pianist knows the importance of legato, or the creation of a smooth musical line or phrase, notes joining evenly from one to the next. But there are many instances in piano music where we can’t join the notes; the melodic line might leap beyond our comfortable stretch, for example. How do we overcome this inconvenience and lull our listeners into believing that we’ve created a beautiful legato line? In my recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter, I offer a few ideas to instigate the illusion of legato. I hope it’s of interest. You can read the original article, here.


Legato, or playing smoothly, is probably one of the first techniques we master as beginner pianists. We learn how to transfer our finger weight evenly from note to note, joining them all neatly. But what do we do when notes are difficult or impossible to join? Whether a large leap or an awkward, widespread melody line, we simply can’t reach the notes purely with our fingers, and yet there still must be a sense of shape and legato. That’s where the illusion of legato comes in handy.

  1. Sit down at the piano and with your right hand play a middle C and then the D next to it; use your thumb followed by your second finger. Practice playing legato, transferring weight from thumb to finger, listening to the smooth sound you create. Now play both notes with a rich tone, using just your thumb, and listen to the sound ‘gap’ between the notes as you play them one after the other.
  2. To create the illusion of legato, we must close that sound gap. Play the C with your thumb using a deep touch. Keep your thumb depressed on the key until a millisecond before you move it to play the D, also using your thumb. The D must be played slightly lighter than the C, and by moving the thumb from the C to the D extremely quickly and lightly, the ear shouldn’t be able to detect a gap in the sound between the notes. Aim to match the sound of the second note (D) to that of the dying C.
  3. It can help to employ the ‘drop-roll’ technique’; a pair of slurred or joined notes are played with the hand and wrist dropping as the finger or thumb plays the first note, then rising up as the second note is played. Using the wrist and hand to ‘drop’ into the C, as you reach the bottom of the key with your wrist in a lowered position, ‘catch’ the D (played with the thumb) as your hand and wrist rolls upwards.
  4. Practice until the legato is smooth and fluent; you will need to listen carefully. You can then experiment with other fingers; try playing two consecutive notes using your fifth finger. Then try using your fourth finger. Also practice the same note patterns using the left hand too.
  5. Finally, introduce larger intervals. Play from a middle C to an E; the drop-roll technique, slurring the two notes with your thumb, will be most beneficial with larger note skips. Drop the hand and wrist into the C, playing it with your thumb, via a flexible downward movement, and as you turn the wrist to move upwards, manoeuvre the thumb extremely quickly to play the E softly. As always, match the sound of the dying note (C) to that of the new note (E).

Work will be required in order to close the sound gap and create the illusion when playing larger intervals, but with practice it is possible to ‘join’ notes without using consecutive fingering or the sustaining pedal.


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.


Image link

Teaching Improvisation to Groups Part 2 by Christopher Norton

Today’s guest post has been penned by renowned composer and educationalist Christopher Norton. This is the second post in a series which offers practice ideas and suggestions for those teaching group improvisation (you can read Part 1, here). Christopher’s work has, for many years, involved teaching students how to improvise using his imaginative and very popular music. Over to Chris…


Having looked at right hand chords (with a track) using root position G, first inversion G and second inversion D chords, with a bass pattern added, we can now talk about some simple techniques for right hand improvising on Samba Sand from Connections for Piano 3. Here’s the piece again:

With the track, play this left hand pattern 3 times:

Once this feels comfortable, almost automatic, you are ready to try adding right hand.

With students, I often find they are happier tapping than playing initially, so I would try tapping unaccented quavers (eighth notes!) on the right leg while playing the left hand chords:

Now for the magic moment – miss one eighth note out. For example:

Now we play right hand notes, playing the same rhythm. I suggest starting with G, A, B, C, D, but play around to see which ones sound good where! My first solution:

I’m already using some principles of melodic development – repeating a phrase with one note changed (bars 1 and 2) repeating an idea (bar 3) and having a contrasting idea (bar 4) The tune also joins the left hand rhythmically for the final bar of the phrase.

Now try missing out the 5th eighth note. Tap first:

This suggests different tunes. For example:

Notice I’ve added a low D and an E (so a sixth note) Students often do this – adding new notes – quite naturally (and so do I!). If a tune suggests itself, go for it, whether the notes are the given ones or not.

Now experiment with missing other eighth notes out to create different rhythm patterns. Always tap first, then play. And don’t be worried if slight variations happen spontaneously, while tapping and while playing. The left chord rhythms may also vary spontaneously as well…

Another useful tip: play the left hand chords and try playing right hand rhythm patterns starting on one note. G is the best starting point. Then try 2 notes (G and A) 3 notes (G, A, B) and 4 notes (I like G, A, B, D – when in doubt, keep it pentatonic!)

Here’s an example of a tune which gradually build the number of notes:

This is another principle of melodic development – playing the same rhythm with different notes. And I’ve also done a new rhythm in bar 7 and I have also repeated a pattern higher up (bars 1 and 2, then bars 5 and 6).

In the next lesson, we will look at various other right hand tricks – grace note, chords (ie more than one note at a time), pedal notes, arpeggio figures and changing direction. Lots of fun!

Until next time…

The Connections for Piano series, with tracks, are available from www.80dayspublishing.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.


 

No Words Necessary Review

Writers, composers, musicians, and almost anyone in the arts, tend to wait with bated breath after the completion and release of their latest achievement. Will anyone actually like it? And more pertinently, what will the critics say? Never is this more true than when publishing compositions, because our tastes in music, particularly educational music, are all very different. Therefore, I was really delighted to read this lovely review of my new piano pieces, No Words Necessary, written and published earlier this week by writer and reviewer, Andrew Eales, who owns the Pianodao blog. I’ve published Andrew’s complete article below, but you can read the original, here. For more information about the pieces, and to purchase No Words Necessary, please click, here. Over to Andrew…


Lots of piano players enjoy the contemporary stylings of popular composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Yirumi and David Lanz, but it’s not so easy to find really good arrangements of their music that are accessible to intermediate players, and which manage to be both concise and accurate distillations of the post-minimal piano style.

The search for an educationally sound and musically engaging alternative just got easier with the publication by Schott Music of No Words Necessary, an excellent collection of 12 new pieces composed by Melanie Spanswick.

These interesting and enjoyable pieces will certainly satisfy those looking for approachable contemporary piano solos, and they further confirm Melanie as an imaginative and engaging composer.

So let’s check it out …

Concept and Recordings

Ever since it was established in 1770, Schott Music has been open to current trends and new development in music, seeking to represent a broad and colourful spectrum of new music. At present, they seem to be going through something of a golden age, with a succession of brilliant new publications in 2018, and much more scheduled for the coming months.

No Words Necessary joins their releases for this Autumn and brings well-known teacher, writer and adjudicator Melanie Spanswick to Schott’s roster of contemporary educational composers. Spanswick may be known to readers as the author/compiler of the outstanding Play it Again: Piano series, which I reviewed here last year.

According to Spanswick, No Words Necessary is:

“… a collection of 12 piano pieces intended for those who are approximately intermediate level, Grades 3-6. Consisting of melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, they are reminiscent of the Minimalist style…
Easy to learn and comfortable to play, they are equally well suited to the younger or more mature learner, and perfect for either concert performances or playing for pleasure. The collection will hopefully unleash the imagination and make piano playing an immensely rewarding experience.”

The Pieces

While reading on, you can start to discover the pieces for yourself using the composer’s own video recordings of them:

If the music isn’t your cup of tea, we’re done for today (you can discover more intermediate music here though!)

Otherwise read on for my thoughts…

The pieces appear loosely in order of difficulty, with the beautifully serene Lost in Thought providing a wonderfully contemplative opener. Inflections particularly reminds me of Philip Glass, while in Dancing Through the Daffodils there are echoes of Bach and Clementi, their motifs refreshed for the present day.

Spanswick’s melodic sensibility is more to the fore in the swaying Pendulum, the lyrical Walking in the Woods (my personal favourite here) and delightful China Doll. Other highlights for me include the restrained Voices in my Head, exotic Phantom Whisperer, and Beneath, which conjures a superb sense of hushed wonder. All these pieces are in my view well worth a look.

In terms of level, I would say most are accessible at the lower end of the advertised range; the book is ideal for the Grade 4 player wanting to explore fresh new music.

A feature of the contemporary post-minimal piano style is the emphasis given to organic flow rather than single gestures; often such music includes little in terms of suggested articulation, phrasing, and only a block outline of dynamics. Teachers will be pleased that Spanswick gives more detail here, including indications of balance between hands using a different dynamic for each.

The Publication

For the book itself, Schott have used their generic plain cover, which is a little disappointing given the target audience and imagination of the music within.

Spanswick-No-Words-Necessary

Inside though, Schott’s house style is as welcome as ever: with quality cream paper, crystal clear notation engraving and well spaced layout, the presentation is a cut above that sometimes found elsewhere. The amount and suitability of suggesting fingering throughout the collection is also, I think, spot on.

The premium quality Schott bring certainly adds to the ease and enjoyment of exploring the music itself.

Conclusion

It’s been a busy year for new piano music, but this latest publication certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.

These are pieces which I believe could easily find their place in the intermediate player’s heart, combining easy-to-master patterns, melodic charm, and simple structural cohesion. They give players a vehicle through which to develop expressive, engaged playing.

And with plenty of variety on offer, too, the collection offers good value. If you’re looking for a fresh collection of accessible contemporary pieces, do give this a try!

WARMLY RECOMMENDED


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.


 

Play it again workshop at Millers Music

For anyone in the Cambridge area (UK), I will be presenting a workshop at Millers Music next Friday. This free workshop is essentially for teachers, but anyone is most welcome to come along. I’ll be focusing on topics which run throughout my Play it again: PIANO course; with a brief walk-through of both books (touching on Book 3 too), followed by a practical workshop highlighting the suggested practice techniques intended for technical improvement which feature at the beginning of Book 1 and 2.

There will be plenty of opportunity for audience participation, and hopefully lots of discussion. Each audience member will be given a copy of my workshop notes detailing the considered topics, which will mostly examine the importance of cultivating a tension free technique.

The workshop will be held from 6.30-8.00pm on Friday 16th November, and you will find Millers Music in the heart of the city: Millers Music, 12 Sussex St, Cambridge, CB1 1PW, UK. You can register to secure your ticket, here.

If you would like to find out more about Play it again: PIANO, which is a course for students returning to playing the instrument after a break, click here. You may also be interested in the following video, which has been recorded by piano returner Tommy, who runs a ‘piano corner’ on Youtube; this is the first video in a series which will survey each piece in Book 2.


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.


 

No Words Necessary: 12 Piano Pieces

It’s been a busy year so far, with several publications nearing completion. One new volume, about which I am particularly excited, has been released this week. It marks my debut as a composer for my German publisher, Schott Music. Whilst I already write for Schott as an author, I hadn’t previously published a book of my own compositions. The new collection is called No Words Necessary and it is a selection of twelve piano pieces for intermediate level, or for students of approximately Grades 3 – 6 standard (of ABRSM, Trinity College London or London College of Music exams).

I wrote the pieces earlier this year during my stay in Hong Kong, working as an adjudicator for the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. Adjudicating is a demanding job, but I frequently enjoyed unusually long lunch breaks  of around an hour and a half in length. Adjudicating sessions often took place in splendid theatres with lovely well-tuned grand pianos, so I decided to put this time to good use. Within a few weeks I had written all twelve, albeit scribbled on manuscript paper as opposed to using my Sibelius software.

The pieces are characteristically tonal, with a nod to Minimalism. The title, No Words Necessary, was inspired by German poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856):

‘Where words leave off, music speaks’

Each work is intended to evoke thoughts, emotions or images in the mind. Many are reflective in character, with melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, but there are also more energetic, lively pieces too, for those who want to get their fingers moving. When composing for students, my aim is to write in a tuneful, expressive style, which I hope resonates with pianists of all ages, levels and abilities; these works are equally suited to younger or more mature players. Each one is comfortable to learn and rarely employs large chords or overly elaborate passagework, and they are intended as concert or festival pieces, examination pieces or simply to learn and play for pleasure.

The titles are as follows:

  • Lost in Thought
  • Inflections
  • Voices in My Head
  • Pendulum
  • Phantom Whisperer
  • Dancing Through the Daffodils
  • Walking in the Woods
  • Beneath
  • China Doll
  • Balletic
  • Tinged with Sadness
  • Spiralling

Recorded at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, and at Jaques Samuel pianos in London at the beginning of August, you can hear each piece by clicking on the links below. The book can be purchased as a hard copy or digital download (either the complete book or each piece separately), here: No Words Necessary.













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.


 

 

 

Structured Piano Practice for Beginners: 10 Tips

Several readers have recently written requesting a post on structured practice ideas for beginners. I scrolled through my archives (you can browse them here) and realised that I hadn’t written anything on structured practice for this vast and significant group of piano students. I’m very sorry about this, and in order to redress the balance, I hope you find the following of interest!

  1. Beginners, particularly teenagers and adults, might benefit from setting goals. Decide what you wish to achieve by next week, next month and next year. When goals are in place, you are working towards a tangible outcome. It will help focus your mind and encourage you to keep going during those less than fruitful practice sessions.
  2. Stick to that routine. Find a time of day which works for you, then you can look forward to practising at the same time everyday or whenever suits your timetable. Piano practice might not always be possible, but if you can mark it in your schedule and are keen to do it, then you’ll be sure to make it happen.
  3. Little and often can work well. A beginner really doesn’t need to practice for more than 20 – 30 minutes a day. You may find it easier to work in two sessions. Aim to practice regularly as opposed to a couple of rushed sessions before your lesson (if you have one).
  4. Studying with a teacher is much more productive than learning alone. Find a suitable teacher and a beginner’s tutor or method book which is user-friendly and well organised (your teacher will probably advise here). Use this alongside other resources; it’s best to explore a variety of material as opposed to relying on one piano method book.
  5. Try to start your daily practice with a brief memory session on note testing. Practice writing the notes on manuscript (music) paper, and follow this by naming and locating them on the keyboard. Repetition will prove key. Learning to read music is a prerequisite when studying the piano. In my piano course, Play it again: PIANO Book 1, there is a music theory section at the back of the book with note-reading and rhythmic exercises.
  6. Begin your practice with a few relaxation exercises. Relax your shoulders as much as possible, and try to ensure they don’t rise up during practice. Keep your wrists loose, and arms, light and fluid. Fingers need to be firm, but the hand, wrist and arm should ideally be loose and flexible.
  7. Rhythmic reminders are vital. Clapping or tapping on the piano lid may prove beneficial, as will counting out loud along to your playing. Always keep a steady pulse, and aim to ‘feel’ a regular beat which might be described as similar to that of a ticking clock or heartbeat. It can be helpful to clap along to either a metronome or stop watch in order to become aware of the regularity and steadiness required. Clap or tap the pulse and rhythms in your pieces before learning the notes.
  8. Find and play the notes in your piece (or pieces) without the rhythm. Learning to coordinate both hands whilst grasping note patterns can take time, so try to do this before you add the rhythm. Write your fingering into the score, and ensure you use it! Take time moving around the keyboard and aim to find the notes with your fingers before you need to play them. Name the notes as you play, and keep your wrist and hands loose and relaxed.
  9. Repetition is important when getting to grips with note patterns. When combining the notes and rhythm together you may need to work at each bar many times. Keep your fingers close to the keys, eliminating any possible errors. Set an extremely slow pulse at first. When confident, add speed and repeat the phrases using a different tonal colour (try playing softly, then much more powerfully, for example). This precludes mindless repetition, encouraging focus on dynamics, phrase shape and other important musical features.
  10. Spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes on each little piece (similar to those in length in a piano method or tutor book), and in that time, concentrate fully until you can play fluently. The sense of achievement will feel monumental when you can skip through your piece with no errors. Play each piece from beginning to end after your practice session. This will channel your concentration, and illustrate what needs to be done at the next session.

And finally, make a note of each practice session in a notebook. It can help to write down what was achieved and how you did it.

For more practice ideas for beginners, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.


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.


 

At The Piano: a study series by G. Henle Verlag

Many will know G. Henle Verlag as a sheet music publishing company with a difference: they are one of the few publishers who can claim to produce world-class Urtext editions. From music students through to professional musicians, G. Henle’s volumes are probably the most popular worldwide, with the familiar smoky deep blue covers adorning a fair few music desks.

Henle has always been my edition of choice and I have a rather substantial collection, including all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas in both the hardback and soft cover editions!

Günter Henle was a keen amateur pianist and he formed his company in 1948. Based in Munich, Henle specifically focuses on publishing Urtext sheet music. ‘Urtext’ is characterised by using the correct musical text according to the composer, drawn up from following strict scholarly principles, often including extensive commentaries about the original sources and details regarding the readings. G. Henle publishes all the major composers, including the complete piano works of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, J. Haydn, W.A. Mozart, Schubert and R. Schumann.

More recently, Henle have added a study edition series (smaller study formats) to their score library, as well as facsimile editions of composer’s manuscripts. They have also created a pedagogy (teaching or study) programme intended for a specific student demographic. The first venture in this direction, the At The Piano series, features a collection of twelve volumes, each focusing on a particular composer. This series is primarily designed for those returning to the piano; predominantly more mature students who have played the piano to a considerable level, and who wish to return to this enjoyable but exacting past-time.

Each At The Piano volume contains a selection of original works which are generally considered to be amongst the composer’s more accessible, ‘easier’ piano compositions. The progressive nature of At The Piano encourages a carefully gauged return to playing the instrument, and a reintroduction and familiarization with a composer’s style and technical attributes.

The books follow the same format and they all begin with facts about the content, Urtext score, historical context, and information about the composer’s stylistic traits. This is all beneficial and interesting, particularly regarding the Urtext commentaries.

There are twelve composers from which to choose: J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, J. Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, F. Mendelssohn, Grieg, Chopin, R. Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy. The number of pieces included in the volumes differ depending on the length and difficulty of each work, but typically they contain between 10 – 15 pieces, a large proportion of them well-known; a vital component when enticing the returner.

Placed in order of difficulty, the pieces are beautifully laid out, as might be expected. Henle’s scores are lavishly presented with pristine, clearly defined print, set on rich, thick cream paper. And they are past masters of ‘spacing’ the music carefully, providing a sense of space between the notes. This might not appear obvious at first glance, but it cleverly leads us to believe the music is possibly slightly simpler than it really is, enabling students to learn with more confidence.

The levels of difficulty are displayed on Henle’s website and at the front of the books: level 1-3 (easy), level 4-6 (medium), and level 7-9 (difficult). This general guideline doesn’t adhere to the usual British graded exam system, and therefore, At The Piano would undoubtedly seem advanced for those expecting to see traditional examination levels. Some volumes that I examined began at around Grade 4/5 level (ABRSM), but others were more challenging. However, this may suit the returning pianist, who will probably be adept at note reading and will already know their way around the keyboard.

The pieces have been selected to complement one another, and they are also designed to prepare students for more advanced repertoire written by that particular composer. At the beginning of every piece is a commentary, commencing with a paragraph or two highlighting historical facts, informing readers about how or why the work was composed. This is followed by suggested performance notes. These practice notes vary in length depending on the complexity of the piece, and they tend to be a ‘walk-through’ with helpful guidance on phrasing, articulation and dynamics. Edited, annotated and fingered by German pianist and professor Sylvia Hewig-Tröscher, every publication contains reproductions of a page of the autograph or engraver’s copy. These are interpolated at various points throughout; an imaginative touch which extends the historical value.

At The Piano is an excellent series for students and teachers. Those who fancy learning a major composer’s ‘piano favourites’ will really enjoy working their way through each book. G. Henle have combined a scrupulous ‘pure’ score with plenty of valuable information, offering a fascinating glimpse into the history and style of each composer.

You can find out more about the pieces included in each volume, and purchase the scores here: At The Piano


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.


 

 

How loose are you? Piano teaching in Asia

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):

 

You can watch all four videos in this series by clicking here. Huge thanks to my publisher Schott Music for their fantastic worldwide support. I look forward to next year’s Far Eastern adventures.


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.