New Year Weekend Competition: the winner…

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590Many thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist published by British music publisher, Faber Music.

Without further ado, the winner is…

LEON WHITESELL

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

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

There are lots more competitions and giveaways coming soon, so stay tuned!


 

New Year Weekend Competition

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590Welcome to the first competition of the New Year here on my blog! The prize is a copy of Faber Music’s latest publications, The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist. A great selection of pop songs, all arranged for the intermediate pianist, or around Grade 5 – 7 level (in my opinion!).

Classics by artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume.

I have one copy to give away, so please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post and I’ll announce the winner on Monday evening (British time).

Good luck! You can find out more and purchase the book here


www.fabermusic.com

Improve Your Sight-Reading Skills: 5 Top Tips

leer-y-tocar-piano-a-la-vezMy latest article for Pianist Magazine’s New Year’s newsletter focuses on sight-reading. I’ve written about this subject many times, but it’s an important topic for pianists, and is often ignored or sidestepped in piano lessons until absolutely necessary i.e. just prior to an exam or audition, when testing is unavoidable. Few pianists are keen sight-readers, many believing a specific talent is required to read quickly. Aptitude is helpful of course, but there are copious ways to improve reading. For those who feel their skills would benefit from an over-haul, here are a few suggestions. You can read the original article here.


1. Sight-reading is all about the preparation. On first glance, check the score for the key signature (noting the major and relative minor of that written). Note the time signature (particularly if it changes during the piece), obvious note patterns such as scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves and the like (aim to decipher fingerings for such figurations before you play).

2. Separate the rhythm from the notes. Focus on the general pulse; always start with very slow speeds when learning to read (perhaps a third of the intended tempo). Then tap the rhythm of the treble clef in the right hand, and the rhythm of the bass clef, with the left hand (at the same time), keeping in mind the slow pulse you have already set.

3. Now play through the left hand alone (without adhering to any pulse), locating note patterns, hand positions changes and fingering (and remembering the key!). Then do this with the right hand. If you’re preparing for an exam, you will probably have just enough time to run through each hand separately in the 20 or 30 seconds allocated inspection time beforehand.

4. Decide how you will keep time during the exercise. A metronome may be helpful (for ‘sitting’ on the pulse), but counting out loud along to your playing is also a reliable method (providing your count is rhythmical!). Try to sub-divide the beat (i.e. if crotchets are the main beat, count in quavers). Counting a bar’s rest at the beginning can be useful too (for setting a firm tempo).

5. Play your chosen exercise very slowly, reading ahead all the time, whilst aiming to play through your mistakes (it’s tempting to stop and correct errors, but by playing slowly, you will eventually be able to resist this urge).

When reading, keep in mind the overall rhythmic structure and play the notes to the pulse as opposed to the other way around. This preparation will become gradually quicker over time, as will your reading. If you can spend 10-15 minutes sight-reading at every practice session, you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved.


www.pianistmagazine.com

PIANO WEEK goes to Frankfurt

PrintA profusion of piano courses and festivals can be found in the UK (and many abroad too), therefore enticing young (and older) pianists to part with their money and time to attend such ventures is an increasingly demanding task.

British pianist Samantha Ward has risen to this ambitious challenge with aplomb. She began her piano course, PIANO WEEK, in North Wales in 2013, and since inception, it has swiftly grown. Now an international piano festival and summer school, it is en route to become one of considerable note in the UK, Europe and in Asia.

This year the festival’s profile has evolved into a touring enterprise with international residencies in China, Italy, Germany and two here in the UK. Moreton Hall and Rugby School are both featured in the UK’s roster of events, which boast state-of-the-art facilities. Each PIANO WEEK residency  proffers a different character; from the intimate setting of a 1892 villa on the bank of the picturesque Rhine river in Germany to a  perfect four-day retreat in Umbria. If a rather more urban setting suits your taste, the bustling city of Beijing hosts what will no doubt be a glittering Asian extravaganza.

piano-week-1Places at  PIANO WEEK’s first residency this year in Frankfurt (in Sankt Goar at a beautiful villa (see photo to the left and below), part of the Upper Middle Rhine UNESCO World Heritage Site), are limited, and the deadline for application is the 20th January 2017. The course runs from the 16th – 19th February 2017, and the faculty consists of pianists and pedagogues Samantha Ward (artistic director and founder), Maciej Raginia (Creative Director), and Niel Du Preez.

For those lucky enough to attend, sessions will run throughout the day, including three one-to-one lessons, two opportunities for solo performance, as well as part of a duo, and also a chance to perform your own composition. The week will therefore include a duet lesson, two composition classes, two master classes, a sight reading class, plus a complimentary duet book, allocated practice time (which will be subject to availability) and access to all faculty recitals and master classes.piano-week-2

Concerts will be held in the evenings for both participants and faculty, followed by dinner. There will also be ample opportunity for sight-seeing, with breathtaking scenery, lovely restaurants, and a chance to enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the famous Lorelei Statue (all very close to the venue).

You can find out much more about the course and book your place by contacting Samantha by either e mail or mobile phone: pianoweek@yahoo.com or 07775 207066

www.pianoweek.com


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 Top Tips to improve your Practice Schedule in 2017

happy-new-year-2017-with-a-colourful-background

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I hope you had a fabulous Christmas and 2017 brings much joy, good health, and happiness.

New Year’s resolutions? You’ve probably been mulling over what the next year might hold. Perhaps you’ve also been wondering how to fruitfully work on your piano playing?

An issue on many a pianist’s lips; how to secure a helpful, attainable, enjoyable, and productive method of ongoing practice.  As we know, many begin their practice with great vigour and dedication (whether at the beginning of the week or a new year), but very soon, old habits surreptitiously creep in; finding enough time is nearly always at the top of the ‘can’t practice’ list, and for a sizeable proportion, acquiring the right type of motivation can also prove tricky.

Finding the right weekly practice schedule for you is a largely personal affair, so in this post I merely aim to throw a few ideas your way, shedding some light on a continuous dilemma.

  1. Many prefer morning practice, but sometimes working late in the evening can be beneficial. Irrespective of the time, set yourself a workable goal. I have only a couple of adult students, and they both practice before going to work, starting at around 7am.  They manage to focus for one hour, and then much later in the day (after work), occasionally find the energy for a further 30 minutes. Considerable dedication is required. This might not be an option for you but, depending on your level, aim for 45 – 60 minutes 5 days per week. Allowing a couple of days for rest and relaxation! Serious students (and advanced diploma students) will, of course, need and want to work for a much longer period if time, and for 6 or 7 days per week.
  2. When you sit down to work at the piano, have a structured routine in place; one which encourages some freedom, but keeps work on track, doesn’t feel onerous, and still manages to pique your interest as well as preserve concentration. I suggest a few flexibility exercises as a warm up (away for the keyboard), letting your arms swing loosely by your side; stretch out your arms and hands, freeing each muscle. Take note of how relaxed the upper torso feels (then if tension arises as you play, you can revert to this feeling when necessary). Prior to this, sit still, and quiet your mind for a couple of minutes. Clear your thoughts and decide on a positive practice session (you’ll be surprised at just how effective this mini-meditation can be).
  3. Once you’ve warmed up your muscles, some five-finger exercises might be helpful; begin on middle C going up to G (and down again) with the right hand (and an octave lower for the left hand), slowly key-bedding (playing with each finger, heavily into the keys), and as you play, ensure your whole arm, hand and wrist feels relaxed, loose and flexible between every note. Aim to do this a couple of times with each hand separately.
  4. Now you’re ready to go! My students tend to begin with a 10 minute sight-reading session. Sight-reading is a multi-tasking challenge, so to make progress, implement at the start of a practice session when concentrating powers are at their strongest. Have plenty of material, and choose exercises which  are well below your true standard of playing, so this element feels easy and enjoyable. For more sight-reading ideas, click here.
  5. For those keen on exercises and studies, now may be a good time to include them in your regime. I appreciate some of you will be grimacing in dismay at the thought of Hanon, Czerny and the like (personally I love studies, but that’s just me). You can work at your technique on scales and arpeggios, or via sections of your pieces, but I find it easier to isolate technical difficulties and work on them away from the music. Whatever you do, make sure you are actually improving your playing, as opposed to repeating old habits of stiffness and tension (a good teacher is paramount here!).
  6. Turning to your repertoire, it may be advantageous to rotate pieces i.e. rather than work at each one every day, practice one or two pieces (or movements) at each session, then leave them the following day to work on something else. This keeps your mind fresh and motivation, high. But it can be helpful to ‘play through’ areas (or whole pieces) you worked on the previous day, just to keep them in mind, and establish what was successfully achieved at your practice session the day before.
  7. Give yourself a deadline. If you are learning a particular 5 minute piece, aim to have it fluent and under your fingers in a week (or maybe two if practising regularly is a real challenge). Goals can really help the learning process, whether for an exam or performance, and you will profit from the extra effort required to make sure you can play it quickly. It’s always possible to learn ever quicker, but this takes a cool, level-headed approach which generally precludes copious ‘play- throughs’; instead focus on small sections, speedy finger precision and a constantly attentive ear.
  8. When learning, apply a totally methodical approach to mastering a piece; careful fingering, hands separately, then hands together with a metronome to a very slow tempo, until fully grasped. If you use a ‘standard’ approach when learning a work, it can be employed for most repertoire, therefore learning will be progressively swifter.
  9. As soon as you lose focus, switch your attention elsewhere; move to less challenging music, or work at a piece you already know. The beginning of the learning process is generally more demanding, so try to have several pieces already secure, enabling you to hone interpretation and tonal quality.
  10. End your session on a high note, and play something which is securely learnt, and which you enjoy, Aim to do this at every session – this will aid positivity and bode well for future efforts. Good luck and happy practising!

My Books

You can find out more about the new Faber Music Piano Anthology here (and also on Amazon UK and Amazon US).

Read about my piano guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

Image link

HAPPY CHRISTMAS! And a trip down memory lane…

mary-baby-jesus-anglesMay I take this opportunity to wish you and your families a very Happy Christmas. Thank you for perusing my blog this year, whether you’re a regular reader or someone who pops by occasionally, I appreciate your support and interest. I hope 2017 will be a wonderful, healthy, and happy year, and may all your dreams come true.

I thought it might be worthwhile revisiting my top 10 most popular blog posts of 2016. So here they are in order of popularity (to read, just click the link of each listed post). I hope you have found my musings and teaching tips useful. If there’s a topic I haven’t yet covered but on which you would like some input, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (via my contact page here on the blog).

The top post (How long will it take to learn to play the piano?) has been in top spot since this blog’s inception, and many of the posts are perennial favourites.

  1. How long will it take to learn to play the piano? 
  2. 10 reasons to play the piano
  3. A few thoughts on Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor Op. Posth.
  4. Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?
  5. Resolving tension in piano playing; article for EPTA’S Piano Professional
  6. Structured piano practice in 5 simple steps
  7. A few thoughts on Beethoven’s Für Elise
  8. Contemporary Piano Music?
  9. 10 Top Tips for successful practice in 2014
  10. Teaching & Adjudicating

Post number 5, Resolving tension in piano playing, has become increasingly popular, and over the past month has repeatedly been in the top spot. Which perhaps shows how many suffer from tension related issues (it’s the technical element I spend most time working on and alleviating in my teaching). Point number 10, Teaching & Adjudicating (which is really part of my biographical information) has also increased in popularity too.

Happy holidays and see you in 2017!

Melanie x


 

Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy 2016

15578580_1520394787976095_3242794519795826310_nI ended a busy year with two days of classes at the Yehudi Menuhin School last week, teaching on the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy. I love giving these classes and have done so on several previous occasions (in 2012 and 2014; the academy runs every other year). Malaysian pianist Bobby Chen organises the whole event, which lasts 10 days and involves around 30 young Malaysian students (and a few from Singapore and Vietnam too), who have been selected and invited to participate in an amazing mélange of classes and events.

These include individual piano lessons given in the form of open master classes (with many expert teachers), conducting, composition and improvisation classes, many concerts and lectures featuring visiting artists, sight-seeing trips to London and my contribution, which was to deliver piano technique, sight-reading and memorisation classes. All classes take place at the world-renowned school and pupils stay on campus. The academy finishes with a concert in the beautiful concert hall, featuring every student.

I thoroughly enjoy working with these pupils (some of whom are pictured with me above); they range in age from 9 years old to postgraduate music students, and are all Grade 8 level and beyond. I offer several workshops for presentation at music educational institutions, but this particular one is, (piano technique, sight-reading and memorisation), is always the most popular.

During the classes (I taught seven students per class, and four classes in all), a young Malaysian student, Jessica Cho, kindly gave me a recording of her own piano compositions (which also included works by three other leading Malaysian women  composers; the CD compilation (entitled Interweaves) is apparently the first recording featuring entirely female Malaysian composers). I have a real interest in Twenty-first century music (particularly by women composers), and always like to highlight new work.

On listening, the music made an impression and I felt this style, connecting Western and Eastern music, is one which resonates with me (and might interest anyone who enjoys Contemporary classical music).

The Five Little Pieces for Piano were written in 2010, and are a set of strongly contrasting miniatures (all one page in length), with a concise structure, and inspired by Hungarian composer Gyürgy Kurtág’s Játékok. To obtain the score, you can contact Jessica here. These pieces would make an interesting choice for advanced students searching for a fresh Contemporary style. You can click on the link below to hear them:

5 Top Tips to Improve Your Warm-Up Regime

getattachmentthumbnailThis article first appeared in Pianist Magazine’s Newsletter in August 2016. Most of us benefit from a brief ‘warming-up’ or ‘pre-practice’ session before work begins in earnest, whether that may be stretching, playing very slowly, negotiating simple piano exercises, sight-reading or even preparing mentally with a coffee! Everyone has their preferred method; during my interview series (Classical Conversations), one eminent pianist remarked that morning practice was simply  impossible without playing scales at a quarter of the intended speed whilst intermittently sipping a weak cup of English breakfast tea! I hope these suggestions may be of interest. You can read the original article here.


Warming up before you practice is important, especially before negotiating large chords or octave patterns. Warm-ups don’t need to last a long time; 3-5 minutes is ample. Here are a few ideas to add to your pre-practice routine:

1.  Before you start, stretch out your arms, hands and then fingers, one by one, and encourage your wrists to make circular motions in the air (away from the keyboard). Flexibility and freedom during practice can be helped by freeing and relaxing the muscles beforehand.

2. As you put your hands on the keys, play a triad (one in each hand), slowly, allowing your fingers to sink into the keys. Repeat this with different keys and chord shapes. I like to play diminished sevenths as they fit my hand comfortably.

3. Now start playing scalic patterns; again, very slowly, allowing the tips of the fingers to play deep into the key-bed. You could begin with five-finger note patterns, hands separately, then play them in unison.

4. Move on to a few scales. Once you’ve played several two octave similar motion scales (in different keys), work with various touches: legato, non-legato, staccato, martellato, etc. If the wrists make small rotational movements after each note (when playing slowly), this will be a helpful way to keep flexible and tension free.

5. End with a few arpeggios and broken chords. Select your keys and work carefully, observing the movement required to play each note with an even sound (and pulse). Keep arms moving freely, guiding the hands and fingers during the larger intervals. When warming-up, slow speeds are much more beneficial.

You could now move on to exercises such as those by Hanon, Cramer or Czerny, working on technique, or you may just want to dive into your pieces!


Purchase or find out more about the Faber Music Piano Anthology here (and also on Amazon).

Read about my piano guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

Pianist Magazine Subscription Offer

thumbnail_93-digAs many will know, I usually publish a weekend competition or Friday freebie, but today is a little different. Pianist Magazine are kindly offering my readers a Christmas gift; a one year half price digital subscription.

I’ve written about this magazine on several occasions before, and am one of its regular contributors. Published six times a year (or every other month), Pianist contains a wealth of information for anyone who loves to play the piano; including interviews with eminent pianists, copious ‘how-to-play’ articles with expert teachers, news from the piano world, over forty pages of free scores (for all levels, from beginners to advanced), and a complimentary CD of featured pieces, plus lots more.

Visit Pianist‘s website, where you can enjoy helpful video ‘lessons’ as well as regular competitions. To purchase the half price digital subscription, which is a mere £13.50/$18 (for six digital editions), click here.


Celebrity Christmas Gala at Kings Place 2016

Yesterday I spent a thoroughly enjoyable morning at Kings Place (a hub for the arts near Kings Cross Station in London), soaking up a Christmas Gala concert with a difference. I don’t write many reviews (you’ll already know that if you are a regular reader of this piano blog), and I rarely go to concerts (just too busy with my work, sadly), but I wanted to write a few words regarding the value of concerts such as this one.

Organised by British concert pianist Lucy Parham and agent extraordinaire, Lisa Peacock, Lucy Parham & Friends consisted entirely of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843 -1907) piano music, focusing on his Lyric Pieces (Lyric Suite Op. 54). At first glance, this might seem a fairly standard concert with conventional repertoire, but a ‘typical’ recital this was not. The programme featured a raft of celebrity amateur pianists, all playing for fun and for the love of music.

Lucy Parham, Sarah Walker, Oliver Condy & David Pickard playing In the Hall of the Mountain King

Lucy Parham, Sarah Walker, Oliver Condy & David Pickard playing In the Hall of the Mountain King

There’s no doubt this concept transformed the ‘traditional concert’ into a wonderfully inspiring, innovative event. Introduced by charismatic BBC Radio 3 presenter Sean Rafferty (who interviewed every performer before their performance), a group of fourteen pianists, who make their living doing something totally different, braved a fairly discerning, but sympathetic audience to play one or two works. Overcoming nerves is an issue for many professionals, therefore to witness those who aren’t professionals playing with confidence and clear enjoyment, was splendid.

The line up included; Sarah Walker (BBC Radio 3 presenter), Edward Fox (actor), Oliver Condy (editor of the BBC Music Magazine), Alan Rusbridger (journalist and Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford), Sophie Raworth (presenter of the BBC news and other programmes), David Pickard (Director of the BBC Proms), Conrad Williams (writer), William Sharman (athlete), Myleene Klass (radio & TV presenter), Peter Fincham (TV producer and executive), Alistair McGowan (impressionist, comedian, and actor), Stephen Boxer (actor) and Cathy Newman (Channel 4 news presenter and journalist). Some had played for a few years, whilst others had been learning since childhood, and one or two had only been practising a few months. Duets and solos cascaded between two model D Steinways which dominated the stage of Hall One.

Alistair McGowan plays Grieg's Notturno Op. 54. N0 4

Alistair McGowan plays Grieg’s Notturno Op. 54. N0 4

Repertoire included a delicious selection of Grieg favourites such as Morning (Peer Gynt), Arietta Op. 12 N0.1, Puck Op. 71, No. 3, and March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 No. 3, to less familiar pieces such as the beautiful Notturno Op. 54 No. 4. Observing those who are famous in their chosen fields, tackle piano works of considerable difficulty, and move completely out of their comfort zone, was fascinating, and I appreciated the dedication, care and genuine enthusiasm for the instrument, which was displayed by every performer.

Myleene Klass & Peter Fincham play Anitra's Dance Op. 23

Myleene Klass & Peter Fincham play Anitra’s Dance Op. 23

Concerts such as this not only provide a superb platform for those with a desire to improve their playing (I guarantee all performers will have found the experience musically beneficial, even if they were terrified!), but they also highlight classical music, and in particular, the piano. In a climate where instrumental tuition is seriously declining (and generally underfunded), and music study is progressively sidelined in our schools, such interest is heartening and of great importance.

The concert ended with a rousing account of In the Hall of the Mountain King arranged for two pianos, and four pianists (eight hands), played by Lucy Parham, Sarah Walker, Oliver Condy and David Pickard.

Lucy continues her highly successful series of Word/Play concerts (this is her fifth season at Kings Place), on Sunday 8th January 2017 with The Fox Family & Richard Sisson performing The Tales of Beatrix Potter. There are five concerts in this series and you can find out much more here. I interviewed Lucy a few years ago as part of my Classical Conversations Series, and you can enjoy our chat by clicking on the link here.