A Grade 7 Journey

Today’s guest blog post has been penned by my student Becky Flisher. Becky is a typical adult piano student who has a full-time job and many other hobbies and interests. She has been learning the piano for a while and attends several piano courses every year, including my course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust, and PIANO WEEK. I asked Becky (pictured below) to write about her recent experiences whilst preparing for her Grade 7 (ABRSM) exam, as I thought her preparation might inspire other adult learners to step up to the challenge of taking an exam as a mature learner.


My name is Becky and I’m an adult-returner to the piano. I’ve studied with Melanie for 4 years now (I have lessons every other week), and during that time I have learnt an incredible amount; I was around ABRSM Grade 3 level when I picked up the piano again 4 years ago. I’m a typical adult learner; time-short, self-conscious, nervous and not used to performing or playing in front of people. However, I am also academic and like being given certificates that celebrate my progress. This is a diary of my journey towards my Grade 7 exam. For my exam, I prepared the following programme:

  • Clementi, Allegro assai: 2nd movement from Sonata in G, Op. 1 No. 2
  • Backer Grøndahl, Sommervise: No. 3 from Fantasistykker, Op. 45
  • Ravel, No. 5 from Valses nobles et sentimentales

Early September 2018

Steady progress. My scales are starting to come together, I’m able to play them through with the right notes! Now I need to focus on evenness and articulation. I can play the Clementi and Grøndahl through, but not up to speed and there’s certainly no subtlety in them yet, lots of refinement needed. The Ravel I have only hands separately at this stage. Time is already ticking…

Mid-September 2018

Misery – I’ve felt clumsy and uncoordinated all week! I haven’t dare attempt anything too complicated, but have kept myself to slow, deep practice to make sure that I wasn’t getting frustrated and ingraining stupid mistakes. I know that sometimes you must go backwards two steps before you can move forward again so I’m reminding myself of that this week. When I feel sluggish, I do some slow, deep scale practice, relaxing between every note. Then I follow that with some staccato scales, I find that really helps ‘wake up’ the fingers and remind them of that articulated feeling. Over the course of my learning with Melanie, I’ve discovered that frequent practice helps keep that ‘articulated’ feeling closer at hand, (if you’ll pardon the pun) and each practice session it takes less time to get back to that feeling.

October 2018

At last, I’m over the ‘blip’. My fingers feel light and nimble again today after a week of feeling clumsy and un-coordinated. If my lessons with Melanie have taught me one thing, it’s to trust the method. It works. Playing slow and deep when you’re working towards a looming exam deadline might feel scary, but a solid foundation to a piece is key. Today I tried my pieces closer to performance speed and it worked – for a moment. Then I started over-thinking it again and getting stuck on notes. The trick is finding that balance between relaxing and enjoying the music, and not being so relaxed that you lose concentration. For me, I’ve found the best way to do this is to focus on the overall musical line, rather than on individual notes. That way if you slip or stumble on a note, it doesn’t throw off the entire phrase.

Early November 2018

I’ve slowly increased the speed of the Clementi – creeping nearer performance speed – and I’ve lost all ability to play light and nimble again! So frustrating!! Everything is suddenly incredibly uneven at this faster speed and I’m slipping on and off notes. Back to lots of slow deep practice to really get my fingering sure on all these fast passages.

Mid-November 2018

In today’s lesson I tried the Ravel hands together. Lots of scrunched chords with awkward hand positions and I’ve realised I’ve strained my right arm by not fully releasing the tension between notes. Lots of slow practice today dropping and releasing my hand and arm after every chord, and then extending that light, relaxed feeling into my arm and shoulder. Who knew that relaxing could be so difficult? (Perhaps I should get a massage, to help my piano playing…?) After this session I thought I’d have a go at the Clementi and it was super! I was so focused on keeping my arm relaxed I forgot to worry about the notes or how fast it was and inadvertently played it the best ever! From today I’m going to start every practice session with 5 minutes of relaxing and letting my fingers sink down into the notes (while I entertain myself with thinking about the paradox that control comes from letting go…)

December 2018

I’m finally managing to relax more easily, which is getting me closer to performance speed for the Clementi. I’m also getting much better at not thinking about the notes so much and following the melodic phrase instead. It’s not fully accurate yet but a shape is beginning to emerge…

January 2019

I attended one of Melanie’s Masterclasses on ‘Performance Technique’ at Jackdaws Music Education Trust this weekend. This was the perfect platform for me to test the Clementi in front of an informal audience. I put all my tricks into practice, tried to focus on staying relaxed and the phrasing. It highlighted lots of areas for improvement and those ‘problem spots’, but it was invaluable in terms of showing how I might perform in exam conditions. I came away hugely motivated to put in even more effort. If you haven’t been to a piano festival or Masterclass before, do consider one – not only can they really improve your performance playing, but they are great introductions to new repertoire, teachers, courses, techniques, methods, resources, and like-minded amateur pianists.

February 2019

I’m starting to prepare properly for my exam, ramping up my aural practice, practising scales out-of-order (including staccato, hands separately, etc). I’m still doing lots of slow practice in those problem areas, and my fingers are starting to feel stronger. I went around to a friend’s house and played all three pieces for her on her piano. I’m glad to say that they are much improved.

March 2019

I played at two Music Festivals this month, as practice runs for the exam. The first one I rather muddled through, but I managed to keep going at least. The second was vastly better. I felt I managed to give a performance rather than just play the pieces. This was a much more formal environment than the Jackdaws performance, but I felt I did infinitely better. I managed to shut the audience out and just focus on the music and enjoying it. This is the feeling I need to recreate in the exam room.

Late March 2019

Exam day. I did a slow, deep warm-up and ran some practice scales and sight reading, played through my pieces and then stopped. Important not to overdo it. Exam time.

It was over before I knew it. I focused on staying calm and trusted the preparation I had put in. However, I did make some errors in one of the pieces, and I felt the pedal was particularly difficult to control.  It’s incredibly hard to be objective about these things, but I am hopeful I have passed. Regardless, I have learnt some new pieces, improved my technique and learnt to trust in my practice methods. If I feel myself getting frustrated because I’m slipping or uneven, I know it’s time to go back to s l o w  p r a c t i c e! When I’ve done that thoroughly, I know that I can lighten my touch and relax, and it will all be there, securely under my fingers. When you learn to trust the practice you’ve put in, then you can let go and enjoy the music.

For more information about ABRSM exams, click here.

Becky achieved a Merit in her Grade 7 exam, and is now looking forward to exploring more repertoire before focusing on Grade 8.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Piano Courses 2019/2020

Tutoring piano courses is certainly a lot of fun.  I’ve been doing more and more of this work, and it’s a great way to connect with a variety of different piano students.

Jackdaws Music Educational Trust offers a wonderful selection of piano courses with superb tutors. You can view them here. My course takes place in January 2020, and I’ll be focusing on piano technique. This is a subject close to my heart, and it’s an element which I truly believe to be vital when learning to play, whether you’re an amateur, student or professional pianist. We will concentrate on developing and maintaining flexibility during practice and performance, and I work with participants both on their selected repertoire and via simple exercises.   The course venue, an attractive house in Somerset near Frome, contains excellent facilities, including a Steinway Model B piano, and several practice rooms. If you decide to take the plunge and book a course, you’ll enjoy the most beautiful countryside, delicious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends. And this year Jackdaws have added a new concert venue, too (see photo below).

For my course, participants are advised to bring two to three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready. I do hope you’ll join us!

Polishing Your Piano Technique: January 17th – 19th 2020

 

Finchcocks Piano Courses are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why. A beautiful setting (see photo to the right, and click here for a review of my last course for information about the venue), coupled with excellent food, an inviting selection of different instruments on which to play and practice, and the prospect of meeting fellow piano-loving course members.

In a similar vein to Jackdaws, Finchcocks offers an impressive roster of teachers, and what is interesting and definitely more helpful is the fact that the courses are categorised in terms of ability. There are courses for beginners (roughly Grade 1 -3 level), intermediate (around Grade 4 – 7 level) and advanced level players (Grade 7 and above), and there are also courses for teachers.

I will be conducting an intermediate and an advanced course this Autumn, and we will be working on a variety of different piano ‘elements’. Starting on a Friday evening with group duets and trios, which provide a fun introduction. On Saturday there will be a brief foray into discussing flexibility at the keyboard in the technique session, plus sessions on memorisation and sight-reading. And it’s a good idea to bring along two or three pieces to play.

You can find out more about these courses, here.

Here are the dates for my Finchcocks courses:

Intermediate Course: October 4th – 6th 2019

Advanced Course: November 15 – 17th 2019

I look forward to meeting you.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

The Joy of Duets: a guest post by Eleonor Bindman

I’ve been teaching at PIANO WEEK for the past two weeks. Held at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire (UK), it’s been a rewarding experience and a lot of fun, but also very hard work, involving six hours of teaching and coaching per day over a six day week. Therefore, today I’m handing over the ‘blog reins’ to pianist, chamber musician, arranger and writer Eleonor Bindman (pictured below).

Eleonor has, amongst many other projects, composed a new arrangement of the six Brandenburg Concertos for Piano-four-hands. Eleonor’s Brandenburg Duets were completed and recorded in 2017, released by Naxos Records on their Grand Piano label in March 2018, published by Naxos Publishing in 2019 and was Grand Piano’s best-selling album of 2018. In this post, she explains the inspiration behind her love for duets and how it has influenced her work.


For as long as I remember playing the piano, I remember playing piano duets.  “The Russian School of Piano Playing,” the method book “officially recommended for use in Children’s Music Schools throughout the Soviet Union,” was full of them  (images to the left, and below).  In the Soviet Union, official recommendations were not to be taken lightly. But this was one of those rare official recommendations which actually made sense. The first duets were 8-measure folk songs with names such as “The Young Girl Walked in the Pine Forest” but for me they were leaps into a different dimension.  Here I was, a struggling beginner, meekly navigating an ocean of black and white keys while trying to dutifully count 1-2-3-4 and keep track of the tiny fingering numbers on the page.  Then suddenly my teacher would get up from her chair, come over to the left of the keyboard and play along with me.  Those moments were magical: new sounds were added to mine and everything seemed in perfect order. I was making music.

Over the years, my appreciation for playing the piano with a partner has become a lot more informed. I came to the U.S. as a teenager and started teaching piano when I was in college. Piano duets were an important part of my tool kit from the start.  I would make up simple accompaniments for my students’ beginner pieces and play along.  If I taught siblings, they always had a duet assigned. Adult students, some of whom were actually unaware of the 4-hands possibility, were thrilled to discover it, reading through the uncomplicated works like Schubert’s dances, Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” Faure’s “Dolly” along with pieces from piano-duet anthologies that I always had in my teaching library. While working on my Master’s degree and attending Vladimir Feltsman’s master classes, I met Susan Sobolewski who became a wonderful piano partner and a dear friend.  After decades of hand-crossing and elbow-poking, a few arrangements and some recordings, 4-hand playing still feels like the best way of sharing what I love most.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, piano duets provided an overwhelmingly popular and sociable medium of domestic music-making. Playing duets was the best way to bring popular orchestral and operatic works into the home, since radio wasn’t yet invented.  Many 4-hand transcriptions of orchestral works were made during that time since most city homes had a piano and a few people who played it.  And for some visitors, 4-hand playing provided a sanctioned opportunity for courtship; two bodies seated at extremely close proximity, inviting an occasional touch of hand and perhaps a slight electric shock, were however engaged in something quite wholesome.  Of course, there was the didactic use, when the teacher (the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert) would come to a student’s house and play along, often composing pieces for the occasion.  Those composers well understood that their pupils should learn about steady rhythm, modulations, balance and interpretation not only intellectually but through imitation.

Unfortunately, the piano duet genre doesn’t enjoy as much popularity today.  Our entertainment and leisure pastimes have devolved into those not requiring much skill or effort.  TVs and other screens outnumber pianos in our households by a staggering ratio.  Active amateur pianists of child-bearing age are rare these days since we are all so busy; most children who take lessons will quit somewhere around the age of 12 and then will maybe start up again as adults when they are close to retirement.  On the professional classical music side, where star pianists must perform virtuosic repertoire to keep their reign, 4-hand repertoire is essentially dismissed.  Why would a star want to share a stage with someone instead of brightly shining alone, unless that someone is a sibling, a spouse or – as in our social-media dominated times – a commercially viable collaborator?  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: some eminent performers do play duets together sometimes, and there are well-known piano duos, of which most of us can probably readily name 3 or 4. Other than that, in my humble opinion, the piano duet scene is in great need of revival.

Three years ago I decided to make a new piano duet arrangement of Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos, to replace the existing one by Max Reger. Over the years, I tried to play through the Reger with my partner several times and it always seemed awkwardly done: the Primo part was hard to read with clusters of chords and little visual trace of the actual counterpoint whereas the Secondo mostly consisted of the low string parts in octaves.  I looked for performance evidence and found only a couple of YouTube videos of separate movements and only one complete although painfully ponderous version in a dark church. So I set out to suitably edit the old version but ended up starting from scratch with an orchestral score. You can read more about the process, here.

Upon hearing the news of my project, many people would ask: “Why not for 2 pianos?” Certainly two pianos would be much easier to arrange for.  No need to decide which string parts to omit completely, no need to transpose up or down an octave, no need to worry about density of texture in the middle register or about dividing a harpsichord cadenza between two players.  It would have also been easier to have an entire keyboard for each pianist: no feeling crowded, no deciding whose hand goes into an awkwardly high or low position, no issues of balancing different registers or exact sound/touch matching when sharing the same theme.  Yet needing a second piano is a huge logistical problem, in the home as well as in a concert or recording setting whereas as a 4-hand version, this music can be enjoyed at home with a friend whenever you are both available.  My goal, after all, was to replace the Reger version, finally giving piano partners a significant body of work besides those of Mozart and Schubert.

After nearly 2 years of work, the new “Brandenburg Duets” were finished and recorded in 2018. I am hoping that these gems – a total of 18 movements of the most wonderful and varied set of orchestral pieces ever transcribed for piano-4-hands – can become a new source of learning and enjoyment. The single-keyboard format dictates a thinner texture and therefore simpler parts for both pianists, suitable for intermediate/advanced levels.  Some slow movements are very easy to coordinate, some fast ones are quite difficult and there are many in between.  Many faster movements sound equally good at a slower tempo and may be used for exercises in finger dexterity and coordination. These pieces are a perfect reason for two pianists to come together at home or in a music school classroom and to spend a little time advancing the cause of the piano duet.   Playing in close proximity is such a joyful feeling!  And after all, we pianists are entitled to a little fun, aren’t we?

www.eleonorbindman.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

An Interview with Anna Sutyagina

I first met Anna Sutyagina (pictured below) several years ago on Facebook. I greatly admire the way she has built a successful career performing and recording Contemporary piano music, and sharing it with her growing legion of fans. Anna is the artistic director of Moving Classics TV , a website which highlights her own recordings, videos and interviews with a variety of living composers hailing from all around the world. After recording one of my educational pieces (please see links below), she kindly agreed to give me this interview which offers an insight into her background, motivation and inspiration.


1. Tell us a little about your background; when did you start studying the piano and who do you regard as most influential in your piano playing?

I was born in Tomsk, Russia. Tomsk is one of the oldest towns in Siberia with ca. 500 K population and 6 large universities. Tomsk does not have the reputation of being a musical town, it is called a “science city”. It is a 3 hour car drive from Novosibirsk – a real piano centre with a good Conservatory in Western Siberia.

I was lucky enough to learn the Russian piano school. From my early childhood I was put into a strict system with systematic learning and emphasis on the discipline to progress to the more difficult works by Beethoven and Chopin. I am thankful to my teachers for helping me to learn sight-reading. I remember me playing through hundreds of compositions from my Mum’s library instead of practicing the same passages from the obligatory repertoire 😉

My other childhood memory is my sister practicing Chopin and Liszt etudes. “Revolutionary” and “Gnomereigen” are still my favourites. My Mum had a singing warm velvety piano sound that our Scholze upright would give back. When I was alone, I would listen for hours the Sofronitsky recordings of Rachmaninoff. Of course, replaying the prelude op. 23 nr. 5 …

2. When did you become interested in recording and highlighting Contemporary piano music?

In the years after the break of Soviet Union, there had been big changes. The intensive cultural focus was substituted by the fascination of foreign cultures. My priorities in life were from now on to learn foreign languages and travel. I was lucky to get two scholarships for business administration: student exchange programmes in Oklahoma State University (USA) and Frankfurt/Main (Germany). During those years my interest in piano performance was low.  One possible explanation could be that I grew tired of the traditional academic musical education with the required programmes from several epochs that we had to learn and repeat over and over again. Fortunately, my keen interest in music came back and I was hobby experimenting with singing and acting only to realise that piano was my vocation. During no-piano times I learnt about the music business in Munich, one of the leading musical centres in Germany. The Munich audience is known as being conservative and loyal to big stars and big concert halls. There are several piano recitals/concerts happening EVERY day so you can imagine the high level of piano performance and as the result, the huge competition. On the other hand, these pianists play the same compositions and increase the competition even more!  Imagine that in one season you can hear 4 Schumann piano concertos or 5 complete Chopin etudes recitals.  My observations are that pianists tend to play the same Romantic repertoire over and over again; It is completely opposite to literature and visual arts where the most popular works have been created recently and where every year you can expect something totally new.

This huge discrepancy made me curious: what is new piano music now?  At that time, I could not give an answer. I just did not know who was composing music in 2016. The social media was a powerful source of information for my research. My curiosity led me to a totally new scene full of amazing composers and their precious music that was often not played or recorded. It was a perfect challenge for me!

3. You have been extremely successful with your website, Moving Classics TV. How and when did you begin?

At first Moving Classics TV was just an experiment to combine music and film. We started with video recording of the well-known piano compositions and would make up a story to go with the music. After some time, I could see that my wish was not sustainable. But a new solution was already on the way: my curiosity about new piano music and my wish to document it, to record and to present it in the Internet were very strong. I would not be able to realise this ambitious project without a great support of my friends. We are 5 music lovers in different professional fields: a camera person, IT specialist, strategy consultant, musician and me as a pianist. Great team is the prerequisite for a lasting infrastructure and the continuity of our initiative and it helps me to focus on the artistic and musical issues.

4. You perform and record all types of Contemporary music, but which styles do you prefer to play?

The idea behind the video recordings is to share the beauty of tonal contemporary piano music as heard and appreciated by the general Internet-music-listening community. My challenge is to re-introduce the beautiful contemporary music to the broader audience. With the music that I choose to play, I would like to capture the spirit of our times or what I call “zeitgeisty”. I do not like to define the style or genre; it is more the philosophy behind the composition. In a world of increasing intensity, in which everything gets faster, more complex and more extreme, new piano music seeks to strike a balance to the intensive life and offers listeners an emotional escape. The music of today invites to lean back, relax and to gain strength. The new music gives room for ideas and feelings. It gives people what one is seldom getting in everyday life – beautiful and harmonic moments. I am searching for this important quality in the music that I choose and play.

 5. I really enjoy the ‘composer of the week’ series. How many composers have you featured and how do you select the music and composers?

Every Friday we feature a new composer – “Composer of the Week” with a profile presentation, an interview and a video recording of the composition. As of today 125 composers had been featured as “Composer of the Week”. In total we currently present 230 composers on Moving Classics TV.

For the selection of new piano music, I would listen to playlists and suggestions in YouTube and Spotify, Soundcloud.  I would go to MuseScore and listen to new unfinished compositions. At the beginning I would be contacting the composers in the hope of getting their scores to read and play. As Moving Classics got more popular, I started getting emails with submissions from different countries. I would also get recommendations from our followers.

What I am searching in new piano music is the “zeitgeisty” quality of the composition.  To be more precise, it is the mixture of my experience what Moving Classics Internet community would like to listen to and interact with and what I consider to be the musical reflection of today as I above.

6. I particularly like the way you include music by renowned Contemporary composers alongside those who are less known. Is this a conscious decision?

Yes. Usually the music we hear for the first time needs repeated hearing. They say that the typical psychological process of listening would have three stages: avoidance, curiosity and friendliness/acceptance. In comparison to the names like Bach and Beethoven, even renowned contemporary composers are not known to the audience. I was surprised to talk to my colleagues about Max Richter and find out that they never heard his name or music. Today the profession “composer” has so many faces and can mean totally different things. Many composers are professors at the University and are known to their colleagues only.  There are composers who have the support of big publishing houses and get prestigious commissions. There are talented pianists-composers who popularize their works in the recitals. I know composers who are very successful on Spotify and manage to get financing through Patreon. Some have day non-musical jobs. But they all express the feelings of today in their music. There are so many fascinating new composers whom I would love to show at Moving Classics TV. Surely my heart is with the indie composers who are real heroes!

7. Do you feel a strong connection between music and other art forms?

I am a big fan of symbiose of the arts: for example, in my Munich Classics Salon I tried out piano recitals with visual and light/laser effects or literary-musical soirees dedicated to famous personalities. My last project was “Dante – Divine Comedy” in St Markus Church in Munich: it was the combination of architecture, coloured lights, music compositions for piano solo and choir acapella.

8. How does the repertoire you perform in public differ from that on your website?

It is very difficult to attract the audiences for the piano recitals with new piano music. Unknown names in the program means a risk for listeners to get something they do not like.  Internet is a very powerful tool to reach many people and take this fear away and discover at no cost the music that would otherwise not have a chance.

With my public piano performances, I try to turn classical piano recitals into a real emotional experience. I created “Concerto Sentimentale” where I take the audience on the musical journey through the world of emotions. Concept is to use the spoken word to intensify the played music , to help sharing my thoughts and stories about the music of my favourite composers whom I play.

9. Where can we hear you perform live?

My next exciting project is going to be dedicated to minimal music. It is the solo piano recital on the 15th of September in Kassel (Germany) where I will be playing the music of John Adams, Kris Lennox, Douwe Eisenga, Olivia Kieffer, Irminsul, Ulli Götte and others. It is a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in the world of minimal music and share the beauty of it with the audience.

 Thank you for your questions!  

Thank you, Anna.

Here are a selection of videos from Anna’s impressive collection:



www.movingclassics.tv


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

 

 

 

Touring in Singapore and Malaysia

If you’ve been following my social media sites, you’ll know I’ve been working in Singapore and Johor Bahru (in Malaysia) over the past week. I aim to organise several overseas book tours per year as I love to travel, and I also enjoy meeting teachers and students from different parts of the world. I’m extremely grateful to my publisher, Schott Music, for their continued support; without them arranging such trips would indeed be challenging, particularly with regard to book distribution which can be tricky in some Far Eastern countries.

I have visited Singapore on a few occasions during the past couple of years; their hospitality is legendary as is their hunger to learn, and the same is true in Malaysia, too. I name these trips ‘book tours’, but they are actually much more than that. A book tour might describe an author who visits a country offering a brief presentation focusing on their book with, perhaps, a Q&A at the end. I generally offer workshops, public and private lessons, lectures or presentations, and adjudicating. Such elements are all connected to my piano course, Play it again: PIANO, but these workshops and classes are not merely presentations about the books. My teaching generally centres around piano technique, and during the workshops I touch on many technical aspects, and crucially, how to keep loose and relaxed whilst developing a solid technique.

In Singapore I gave a six-hour workshop for piano teachers employed by Cristofori. Cristofori is the largest piano company and music school in Singapore with a network of over 30 centres island-wide.  Over 400 instrumental teachers are affiliated to the music school, and I was delighted that over 100 piano teachers came to my first workshop (see photo to the left). I offer four half-hour piano technique workshops in total, and after each one I encourage teachers to come to the piano to try out various ideas and exercises. Teachers can be a fairly reserved bunch in Singapore, but it didn’t take too long to coax them to the piano. And once one or two came up, there was no stopping them!

Chatting to Cristofori teachers at the Singapore Conference Hall

The following day I took a trip over the border to Malaysia. The second workshop (which was also for piano teachers) was shorter, and differed slightly from the first, still mainly featuring piano technique, but I also spoke about my compositions, played some of them, and then answered questions about incorporating composition into piano lessons. This took place at the Forte Academy of Music in Johor Bahru. Around 50 piano teachers attended the event and I appreciated their dedication and interest. They had no qualms about coming up to the piano to try my suggestions, and I endeavoured to answer the numerous questions about technique, piano teaching, and, of course, that perennial subject, piano exams.

Teaching at the Forte Academy of Music in Johor Bahru

Piano exams feature heavily in piano study in the Far East. ABRSM are the preferred exam board, and, again, copious questions ensued about various aspects of examinations, and particularly the diplomas, of which there are many candidates in this part of the world.

The final engagement on this short trip was adjudicating. It’s a privilege to listen to young pianists, and adjudicating (or jury judging) involves hours of listening and writing.

With fellow adjudicator Anthony Hewitt and our hosts from The Musique Loft, Winnie Tay and Angelyn Aw

The invitation to adjudicate at the 3rd Overseas Performer’s Festival came from my friends and colleagues, piano teachers Angelyn Aw and Winnie Tay who run The Musique Loft. This organisation hosts piano competitions, master classes and other events for piano teachers and their students. The festival consisted of a two-day event held at the Chinese Cultural Centre in the urban financial district of Singapore.

I was fortunate to adjudicate alongside fellow British pianist, artistic director, and professor of piano at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Anthony Hewitt (see photo to the left). Tony and I have previously worked together on several occasions and it was wonderful to work in conjunction with another judge, otherwise this job can seem a hefty responsibility on one’s own.

Adjudicating in action

We heard over 200 performances, and many were superb. An extremely high standard of playing was coupled with an interesting selection of diverse repertoire. Every performer played from memory (even the duets and trios), and students ranged from four- or five- year-old Grade one or Grade two students to twenty-five-year-old conservatoire graduates. All participants received trophies and lengthy written adjudications (it’s fair to say that my index finger didn’t work properly for a day or two afterwards!).

I’m not going to discuss whether competitions are ethical or not, but irrespective of this, such displays of piano playing can surely only help to secure a healthy interest in piano music, classical music, and music education in general. I’ve grown tired of making comparisons to the UK, but unfortunately it seems as though we are trailing far behind.

My trip ended with a further day of master classes for The Musique Loft and some private teaching. It was a full week in terms of engagements, but I felt inspired, energised and heartened by this outpouring of love for the piano and its music. I’m looking forward to returning to this part of the world in October to visit Jakarta (Indonesia), Singapore and Johor Bahru.

If you would like to attend one of my technique workshops, I’ll be at Ackerman Music Store in Hove on August 29th 2019, and at Forsyths Music Store in Manchester on August 31st 2019. I look forward to meeting you.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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 Top Tips for Hand Coordination

My latest article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter focuses on coordination between the hands. A perennially tricky but important subject, there many ways to improve this facet. I hope my suggestions are useful.


Coordination between the hands can be a sticking point for many pianists. How do we play rapid passagework in both hands, ensuring each and every note is depressed at exactly the same moment for perfect synchronicity? Many players find their left-hand flagging, and this can result in unclear articulation and a dragging left hand line. Here are a few practice ideas to help the left hand (or right hand, if you feel that to be weaker) keep up and come to life!

1 Good coordination requires careful listening. Start with a simple C major scale. Aim to practice with just one octave at first. Play each hand separately, and decide on the best fingering, learn it thoroughly and stick to it. A heavy touch, when used for practice purposes, can help with finger agility and strength. Keep the wrist and arm flexible and relaxed, and try to play in to the key bed, past the double escapement action. I encourage students to play on the tips of the fingers when developing a strong finger technique.

2 Put the hands together and play the scale deeply and slowly, producing a full tone, listening to every note, ensuring fingers are depressing the keys at precisely the same moment. It’s sometimes easier to do this using wrist circles (or circular wrist rotations) between each note; this way, you can gauge the moment of key depression whilst keeping the hand and wrist relaxed.

3 For really exact coordination, allow the left hand to lead. I find this works best with most rapid passagework. To do this, lighten the touch in the right hand a little, and deepen it in the left. This will provide a more powerful bass line, and also proffers the chance to ‘hear’ your articulation in the left hand more clearly.

4 Now take the left hand down an octave, so that you are playing the scale two octaves apart. Watch and listen for crisp, clear articulation as notes are played altogether. Practising passagework in the lower parts of the keyboard necessitates a stronger, deeper touch as the keys are generally heavier. There are many beneficial variations when developing coordination; you may like to experiment with various dynamics or different touches in either hand.

5 Finally, lighten your touch and add speed. As you skim over the keys, you will hopefully find the notes easier to play, and both hands should ideally be uniformly coordinating. If you want to work at developing agility in the right hand, reverse these practice suggestions.

Practise this type of exercise little and often. There should never be any pain when playing the piano. Eventually, fingers will find greater agility and coordination will feel under control.

Pianist Magazine


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

A Master Class with Jonathan Biss

It’s time for a master class. I haven’t posted one for a while, but we can learn so much from observing the classes of others, and I enjoy highlighting public lessons for this reason.

To complement his series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 2017, devoted to the late style, Amercian pianist Jonathan Biss gave two public master classes to six young artists on the late solo works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. They took place in February 2017 at the Weill Music Room in New York. The following videos represent three of the classes recorded and I hope you enjoy them.




My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Peaceful Piano Playlist: the winner

Many thanks to those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of Faber Music’s latest piano anthology, Peaceful Piano Playlist. You can find out more about this volume, here.

The winner is…

MICHAEL THOMPSON

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

More competitions coming soon!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.

Peaceful Piano Playlist: A Weekend Competition

It’s time for a weekend competition. Faber Music publish some of the most innovative educational piano material on the market. And they offer a wide selection of piano anthologies, providing teachers and their students with the valuable opportunity to access a diverse and vibrant collection of music by numerous composers, all, as it were, ‘under one roof’. Their latest piano volume is a cleverly designed tome catering for those who enjoy their playlists.

Peaceful Piano Playlist is a generous compilation of 35 thoughtfully selected piano pieces from an interesting bevy of composers. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on ‘peaceful’, and it’s clear from the tasteful colour scheme on the front cover that Faber are continuing with their plight to encourage mindfulness: Mindfulness: The Piano Collection was published a few years ago to great success, and this new book represents a similar theme. It will no doubt strike a chord with teachers and students due to the current popularity of this subject, which seems especially significant in our often chaotic world.

Amongst the selected group of popular composers are J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Robert Schumann, Erica Satie and Ludovico Einaudi, who effortlessely rub shoulders with a lesser-known group of Contemporary writers; Max Richter, Chilly Gonzales, Alexis Ffrench, Poppy Ackroyd,  Jessica Curry, George Winston, and Anne Lovett. Faber have also created a spotify playlist to accompany the book, enabling pianists to listen to each work.

I do like this concept, and I’m all for combining old favourites with Contemporary works. Having played through a few pieces in this collection, I particularly enjoyed Flora (by Henrik Lindstrand), Piano Piece, Imperfect Moments Pt. 4 (by Johannes Brecht), and Meeting Points at 2AM (by Ondrej Holý). Mainstream composers are represented by their most well-known, reflective pieces, such as Clair De Lune (Debussy), Prelude in C (J. S . Bach), and the second movement of the Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 (Beethoven).

I have one copy of this book to give away in my competition. To take part, leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winner on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

For an in-depth review of this book, head to Pianodao blog (click here), and to purchase a copy, click here.

www.fabermusic.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

Finchcocks Piano Courses 2019

A weekend spent at the splendid Finchcocks manor house is rather like stepping back into the Eighteenth Century. Situated in Goudhurst, in the South East of England, and set in ample grounds, it’s positioned advantageously for panoramic views of the Kent countryside. This elegant Georgian mansion (see photo above), built in 1725, provides the perfect setting for luxury piano courses. Soft furnishings, tastefully muted colour schemes, original flagstone floors, marble and granite fireplaces, elaborate chandeliers, impossibly high ceilings, and wonderfully creaky staircases, allow a glimpse into what life might have been like nearly 300 years ago.

Accommodation on the third floor of the Finchcocks Mansion.

Last weekend marked my second visit to Finchcocks. On this occasion our accommodation was in the main house, whereas previously, we (myself and course participants) had stayed in the Coach House, a separate building to the right of the manor house. Meals are enjoyed altogether in a palatial dining room, with locally sourced food, all prepared and served by a chef. And for those who like a tipple, there is plenty of wine on offer too!

Courses begin on Friday evening at 7.00pm and end at 3.30 – 4.00pm on Sunday with afternoon tea. And they are fairly intensive affairs, so it really is possible to learn a substantial amount in a short space of time. I tutored an intermediate course; approximately Grade 5 – 7 level of the ABRSM examinations. We began on Friday with a duet session – the ideal ice-breaking introduction. I used my own duets and trios (Snapchats Duets & Trios), which are purposefully simple and tuneful, for a stress-free, friendly, and fun opener.

Duets & trios on two pianos in the crypt.

Saturday started at 9.00am with a two-hour technique session, focusing on straight-forward exercises which are helpful for developing flexibility, and alleviating physical tension. The weekend consisted of several class sessions, with participants playing their prepared repertoire, a memorisation session, a sight-reading session, and individual lessons for each course member. On Saturday evening, before dinner, we enjoyed a piano recital given by pianist Alexander Metcalfe, who played a programme of works by Satie, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt.

Built in 1974, with a powerful sonorous bass and a lyrical mid-range, this model 200 Bosendorfer was manufactured in Vienna, with ivory keys and is used for concerts and recitals in the hall.

A particular highlight at Finchcocks is the tantalizing array of pianos on which to practice. There are ten in total, and the majority are housed in the attractive crypt (see photo, above left); here, the pianos are contained in their own segregated area, allowing for private practice. Finchcocks was a musical instrument museum for forty-five years until it was purchased by current owners Neil and Harriet Nichols. The museum housed a variety of keyboard instruments, and therefore it seems fitting that the current collection also showcases an interesting selection of historical instruments.

The ‘flagship’ Steinway Model B, housed in the recital room.

Alexander gave his recital on a Bosendorfer, which is situated in the main hall on the ground floor (photo above, right). Also on the ground floor, there is a new Steinway Model B (photo, left) in the recital room, and a small Broadwood piano in the entrance hall. This instrument (see photo below) was constructed especially for Bertha Broadwood and it was designed to fit into her living room, therefore it is just 5 feet in length (and it’s nicknamed ‘Bertha’!).

Built in 1900 for Bertha Broadwood, chairman of Broadwood at the time, to fit in a space in her front room.

Most of the remaining instruments are in the crypt, and you can click on the gallery images below for more information about each one.

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Course participants brought a variety of prepared repertoire, including works by J.S. Bach (Prelude No 4 from Six Short Preludes), W. A. Mozart (Sonata in G major K. 283), Friedrich Kuhlau (Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1), C.P.E. Bach (Solfeggietto in C minor H. 220), Frédéric Chopin (Prelude in D flat major ‘Raindrop’ Op. 28 No. 15 and Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6), William Gillock (Holiday in Paris), and Richard Rodney Bennett (Rosemary’s Waltz).

Finchcocks hosts piano courses virtually every weekend, and there is certainly something to suit every level with beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, alongside those for improvisation and even a course for piano teachers. You can choose from a cohort of expert course tutors including Dave Hall, Graham Fitch, Warren Mailley-Smith, Penelope Roskell, and Lucinda Mackworth-Young.

I will be tutoring two further courses this year; an intermediate course from October 4th – 6th and an advanced course from November 15th – 17th. If you are seeking a majestic weekend retreat to hone your piano skills, or you’re returning to the piano after a break, or you simply wish to connect with new piano friends, you will love Finchcocks.

Click here for the list of new courses.

www.finchcocks.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.