A Holiday Competition!

This weekend Pianist magazine and Schott Music are holding a competition which takes place on Pianist’s social media sites. One of five copies of Play it again: PIANO Book 3 are available for five winners. You can enter and find out more about this competition by clicking here. And you can find out more about the whole Play it again series, here.

For regular piano updates subscribe to Pianist’s newsletter, which consists of more practice tips and piano information, here. Good luck!

 

 

I’d like to wish you and your family a very Happy Easter weekend.

www.pianistmagazine.com

www.en.schott-music.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.


 

Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 is now available, and, as I know some readers have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, today’s post provides some information about this new publication. I’m very excited about the third book in this series. Each book has its own character and unique collection of pieces, but this one is my favourite!

As a recap, Play it again: PIANO Book 1 and 2 were both published in 2017. Play it again is a progressive and graded piano course, published by Schott Music, intended for those who are returning to piano playing after a break. However, this course has also proved popular for students wanting to explore different repertoire between exam grades too. You can find out more about Book 1, here, and Book 2, here.

The course moves happily alongside the U.K. examination board system. Book 1 takes students from Grade 1 -4 and Book 2, from approximately Grade 5 – 8 level. Book 1 features 28 mostly original pieces taken from standard (as well as more unusual) repertoire, and Book 2 contains 21 pieces. Each ‘level’ consists of a group of pieces focusing on different aspects of technique and musicianship.  For many, particularly those learning alone, the most important facet are the copious practice notes and suggestions which accompany every piece. Piano teachers who fancy an anthology of pieces to work through with their pupils may like to explore this course too.

Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Book 3 will take students on from where Book 2 left off; approximately Grade 8 level through to Associate Diploma level. The new book is much larger than Book 1 and 2 (at 156 pages), and the practice notes which accompany each piece are, as may be expected, far more extensive.

What you can expect to find in Book 3

Book 3  consists of 11 piano pieces,  the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works and those suitable for exams). Similar to Book 1 and 2, there is a ‘technique’ section at the beginning of Book 3, with practical exercises and suggestions; these are especially helpful for those with tension issues. In the ‘technique’ section I have included hand flexibility exercises, information on the Bridge position, and exercises for developing finger agility  (especially for the fourth and fifth fingers), as well as thumb exercises. The Warm-Up exercises at the end of the book focus on ways of developing a more holistic approach to pre-practice preparation.

Each piece contains between 3 and 10 pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. The layout is very similar to that of Book 1 and 2. As this is a progressive course, it’s possible to ‘return’ to a level to suit your current standard; some may want to start at the beginning of Book 3,  whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at a later stage.

Book 3 is divided into two parts:

1. Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma

2. Post Grade  8 Diploma –  Associate Diploma

As Book 3 is a much more advanced level than that of Book 1 and 2, the repertoire is classical and the book is geared towards those who want, or are possibly considering, taking post Grade 8 exams. It’s possible to create a suitable post grade 8 diploma (ARSM/DipLCM) or Associate Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, ALCM) programme entirely from this book.  The former section consists of six works, and the latter, five. Each section contains a concert study (in the same manner as Book 1 and 2), alongside a collection of standard, as well as lesser known, pieces.

I hope you like my selection! This choice was based on many factors: the need to include pieces which employ particular techniques, musicianship, and, most importantly, works which display the chosen composer’s overall style effectively, and it was imperative to represent many different styles of music. Each work also had to be enjoyable to play, and, as with most commercial publications, some works simply had to be well-known. Other more practical aspects, such as overall programming of the book and the length of the piece, also came into play.

Book 3 Repertoire

Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma:

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major K. 215
Edvard Grieg: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op. 65 No. 6
Claude Debussy: La Puerta del Vino L. 223 No. 3
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No.  6
Paul Hindemith: Interludium and Fuga Decima in D flat
Melanie Spanswick: Frenzy, Etude for Nimble Fingers

Post Grade 8 Diploma to Associate Diploma Level

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor ‘Pathetique’ Op 13
Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major Op. 118 No. 2
Edward MacDowall: Wild Jagd from Virtuoso Etudes Op. 46 No. 3
Issac Albeniz: Asturias Leyenda Op.  47 No. 5
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12

Layout

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key, where appropriate; or I have linked it to those already featured in Book 1 and 2.  There are warm-up or pre-practice exercises, tailored to every piece. My aim was to highlight a myriad of practice ideas and different methods of breaking pieces down, hopefully re-assembling them with ease and with a greater understanding.

Each piece contains fingering, dynamic suggestions and (where necessary) some pedalling. Although you may choose to ignore this and add your own. All the information provided for every piece is transferable to an infinite number of piano works, therefore building solid practical methods for tackling different styles and genres. There are four videos online already, on Schott’s Youtube channel, and we will add another three teaching videos to this playlist very soon.

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The pages are well laid out and are designed with ‘tip circles’ and ‘technique box-outs’, and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano (see gallery above for an example of the page layouts).

Play it again: PIANO is now sold worldwide and many piano schools are using it as their course of choice for students. Schott Music and I launched Book 3 on April 4th at the Frankfurt Musikmesse (see image below; pictured with my editors, Robert Schäfer and Schott Editor-in-chief Rainer Mohrs, and the Cristofori Singapore team).

This year I will be travelling around the U.K. visiting various music stores giving Play it again workshops, so if you would like to find out more about the books, please keep an eye on this blog for updates about my travels. I’ll also be visiting the Far East twice for book tours, as well as Germany and Italy.

You can purchase Book 3, watch my teaching videos, and find out more about the Play it again: PIANO series, by clicking here.

Alternatively, purchase from Amazon, here.


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.


 

How to Make a Professional Recording: 16 Tips

My guest writer today is American pianist and author Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda’s previous guest post focused on her new novel, The Waco Variations. As she has enjoyed considerable success as a recording artist, I asked Rhonda to write about her experiences in the recording studio.


One of the biggest goals most musicians have is to create a recording. For the professional, it’s a necessary rite of passage and it’s a worthy goal for talented amateurs as well. Thankfully, what was once reserved for record label artists is now open to anyone. But since the process of making a record is neither simple nor inexpensive, it’s important to learn as much as possible about it before you start. These brief tips are some important things I’ve learned through recording my own CDs.

Before you record:

* Be clear about what you want to record and why. It’s much more complicated to create a professional recording than to preserve a few pieces for family and friends. Research saves time, money, and a lot of frustration.

* Know your chosen repertoire very, very well. Perform it anywhere and everywhere for anyone who will listen. Record yourself playing, both to hear yourself clearly and to become comfortable being recorded. Make sure you can play the music flawlessly from beginning to end, in perfect time. Yes, recordings can be edited, but editing is tedious and expensive. You’ll thank yourself later if you do your work before you enter the studio.

* Decide if you wish to record a “live” album or studio recording. Live albums have the advantage of being less expensive than studio recordings, but they’re inherently less perfect because you can’t do things a second time in a concert.

* Research your local recording options. If using a studio, which has the best piano? If recording in a performance hall or church, is it soundproofed? Because the piano has a huge dynamic range, it’s important to find an engineer who has experience recording the instrument, which includes capturing the overtones and the effects of the room.

* Create the cover art. Unless you’re a graphic artist with lots of experience making album covers, hire someone to create it for you. Know (before you start) if you want to make a physical CD, offer the music as digital downloads, or both.

* Hire a tuner/technician to prep the piano for the recording.

During the recording

* Don’t try to record for more than 4 hours a day. Full-length albums will most likely require several 4-hour days to complete, even if you’re perfectly prepared.

* Show up rested. Wear comfortable clothes and bring plenty of water and favourite snacks.

* Take breaks as needed. Move around and stretch.

* Be gentle with yourself; “red light panic” is real, people.

* Wear headphones to hear how the piano sounds through the mics.

* Record several “takes” of each piece so you have choices.

After you record

* Editing. This is where the real work begins. Your first task is to pick the “take” you prefer. If the take contains mistakes, this is your chance to edit them out, usually by re-recording sections. Depending on the number of edits required, this can take hours.

* Mixing. All the mics record different parts of the piano or the room. This phase mixes everything together. This is also where the engineer can “tweak” the sound by changing how “live” the room sounds, or emphasizing one part of the piano over another.

* Mastering. This is the stage where the individual tracks are turned into an album. All the recording levels need to be even. The spacing between the tracks needs to be uniform.

For more information on mixing and mastering, click here.

* If creating physical CDs, be prepared to work through a professional distribution company. I recommend CDBaby. I also recommend using them for distribution of digital tracks as well.

There’s a reason the phrase “art isn’t easy” is a cliché. Making a record is a big commitment of both time and finances, and experience has taught me that doing this sort of thing “on the cheap” usually leads to disappointing results. The more you can afford to pay professionals to record, edit, mix, master, press, and distribute your CD, the easier you’ll find the process. Do your research before you begin the project and commit to giving the process your best playing, time, and financial resources. Your reward? An album you can be proud of for years to come.

 

Rhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com. The Waco Variations, a Novel is available at www.Amazon.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.


 

Play it again workshop at the Frankfurt Music Fair

I’m really looking forward to giving a presentation and workshop at this year’s Frankfurt Music Fair or Musikmesse which takes place from April 2nd – 5th.  My workshop will be held on Thursday April 4th at 2.00pm. This presentation focuses on Play it again: PIANO Book 1, 2 and 3. Book 3 will be officially launched next week at the Fair, after which I’ll add links as to where it can be purchased for those of you who have kindly enquired.

I very much enjoy giving workshops and presentations. They nearly always include references to my books, and this one will be no exception. I’ll start by speaking about all three books within my piano course, which, as many readers know, is intended for those returning to piano playing after a break. The workshop highlights the importance of developing physical flexibility in piano playing, with audience participation and some relaxation exercises too.

The new addition to the Play it again course, Book 3, begins where Book 2 stops. It takes students on a journey from Grade 8 to the Associate Diploma level, via the new Post Grade 8 Diploma. As a quick recap, Play it again Book 1 is approximately Grade 1 – 4 level, and Book 2, Grade 5 – 8. Each book contains a collection of pieces mostly selected from standard repertoire. There are twenty-eight pieces in Book 1, and twenty-one in Book 2.

Book 3 features eleven works by a variety of composers and genres, with copious practice notes for each piece (some pieces have up to 8 pages of notes). It’s possible to form a Post Grade 8 Diploma or Associate Diploma programme from this book. Book 3 will be on sale at the Frankfurt Fair, and I’ll be publishing a much more detailed survey of the book next week.

If you would like to attend my presentation, you can find more information here. 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.


 

Selecting the piano course for you: 5 top tips

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter focuses on piano courses. Hope you find it of interest.


Piano courses are becoming increasingly popular amongst adults and children learning to play the piano. And to keep abreast of this growing demand, there are significantly more opportunities for this student demographic, with courses for students of all levels, semi-professionals and piano teachers, popping up every year.

My first post offers a few tips for those considering a course, and my second (to be published in Pianist’s next newsletter) will offer suggestions for preparing for such an experience.

  1. When selecting your course, it may be prudent to decide what you would like to achieve. It might be that you want to study with a particular teacher, or perhaps you fancy playing more chamber music or duets with a fellow pianist of a similar standard, or it could be that you need more experience at performing in public. Look for courses with an emphasis on your chosen aspect. Each one will offer something different and unique.
  2. There are piano courses which pride themselves on a really luxurious experience with sumptuous food and beautiful accommodation (although you may pay a premium), whereas others might be held in a school, but offer excellent practice facilities with well-tuned instruments. Offsite B&B accommodation is a prerequisite for some residential courses, which in turn can provide much-needed relaxation and respite from a demanding schedule.
  3. Generally, the larger or longer the course, the more fellow students you will meet. Piano courses can be wonderfully social affairs with the same students returning year after year, forming close friendships. This is the primary reason why adult students stick to the same ones; camaraderie can fuel an optimal study experience.
  4. If you would prefer to be an observer, attending lessons, workshops and classes, but not participating, then this can be a great introduction. Many courses offer this option but always check with the course administrator. ‘Open class’ policies are most helpful for the less experienced student. I encourage my students to attend as many master classes and workshops as they can, because often more can be learnt this way, without nerves and stress intervening; it’s then easier to decide if this course of study is suitable for you.
  5. Some courses are ‘specialist’ with one expert teacher giving master classes for a select group of students (these are usually shorter or weekend courses), whilst others include multiple study options such as theory, aural, composition lessons and sight-reading classes, or the chance to study with more than one faculty member. You may like to take this into consideration, particularly if you are preparing for an examination, diploma or concert performance. For those less confident in their playing ability or skill, there are courses which focus on certain levels; intermediate courses or courses for beginners or elementary players, for example.

The following piano courses are held in the UK and all offer a different experience (they are placed in alphabetical order):

– Benslow Music Courses

– Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists

– Finchcocks Music

– Hindhead Piano Course

– Jackdaws Residential Piano Course

– Piano Week

– Summer School for Pianists

Image: Finchcocks Piano Courses


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 Waco Variations: writing about music

My guest writer today is Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda is an American pianist and author, and in the following post, she explains how and why she started writing fiction. Her first novel, The Waco Variations, has been well received, and here, she outlines the plot and offers a few thoughts on writing about music.


“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own–spoken in a language too deep for words.”

–excerpt, The Waco Variations

I planned to be a pianist. I planned to be a piano instructor and part-time university teacher.  I planned to write music articles.  I didn’t plan to write a novel.  When Cassie, the protagonist from The Waco Variations, “showed up” in my imagination and demanded that I write her story, I swatted the idea away.  I’m too busy, I told her.  I’m not a very good fiction writer, I told her.  She kept nagging.  A week later I sat down in a coffee shop and wrote the outline of the book.  Several years and multiple drafts later, I held that book in my hands.

Cassie’s story is an unusual one—the story of a young woman who watches her world burn to the ground in the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas.  She enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality. Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her.

I wrote about music because it’s what I know. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love with Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Readers ask me if it’s autobiographical.  It isn’t.  Yet how could the story not reflect my life’s work of living inside musical lines?  How could my own experience of trying to find “normal” after leaving a rigid Seventh-day Adventist upbringing not work its way into this story?  Bach, Beethoven and Brahms taught me to think.  The piano allowed me to express what I couldn’t say verbally.  Classical music allowed me to play “at the doorstep of eternity”—throwing open the narrow, concrete doors of a closed religious system into a universe of timeless beauty.  It healed me.  Any doubt I feel, any loss I mourn, I know that music not only accompanies me, but it has been there first.  Where words fail, music remains.

The process of writing and releasing this book taught me that I’m not alone.  In my readers I meet others who know the disorientation and depression of loss.  They’ve experienced the highs of a wonderful musical performance and the intimacy of collaborating with others.  Some share my journey out of fundamentalism.  As I hear stories from readers about their own love affairs with music, or their personal tragedies and how music has healed them, I realize one of the unconscious reasons I wrote this book was to start this sort of dialog about music and healing—letting people know that (as one reviewer wrote) “music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more.”

This story—and the experience of writing it—is ultimately about the bedrock truths that connect all of us.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.

The Waco Variations, a Novel is available at www.Amazon.com.

Rhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.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.


 

Stars of the Albion Grand Prix 2019

March is one of the busiest months for music adjudicators or music judges. Many British music festivals, and particularly those affiliated to the Federation of Festivals, take place during this time, and therefore adjudicators are buzzing around from one to the next, hearing large quantities of young (and older) players. During this past week I’ve been adjudicating in Bedford, at the Bedfordshire Music Festival (U.K.), and this week I will be in Somerset for the week, enjoying a feast of music at the Highbridge Music Festival, near Bristol.

As an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF), I get to hear a vast number of young and more mature performers. I normally adjudicate the piano classes, but as a generalist adjudicator, it’s not unusual to judge some instrumental classes too. Increasingly, I’m invited to judge competitive festivals which are not affiliated to BIFF. Last Saturday was one such occasion.

The Stars of the Albion Grand Prix is a popular competition organised by founder and executive producer Evgenia Terentieva (pictured to the left). It’s been a great pleasure to be involved with this event for four of its six-year history.

Stars of the Albion is an international performing arts festival & competition. Held annually, it seeks to join talented musicians, dancers, actors and artists from across the world, forming a unique bridge connecting different cultures and in particular, that of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.

The project is organised and promoted by Musica Nova, an International Academy of Music based in London, and a bilingual establishment combining the best of British and Russian teaching principles. It is held under the Patronage of the World Association of Performing Arts (WAPA) and is supported by the Mission of Rossotrudnichestvo Russian Culture Centre in London.

This year’s competition was held from March 1st – 3rd 2019, and it consisted of two rounds; the first was a private video recorded round, and the second was open to the public and held in several venues across London. The final Gala concert took place at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in central London. This year, Stars of the Albion hosted participants from the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Israel, Malta, France, Spain, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Participation is open to artists from six years old, with no age limit, and is divided between five age categories with two participation options; amateur or professional. All styles and genres can be presented for the competition programme. This year the event was held during one of the major Russian traditional festivals called “Maslenitsa”. There were cash prizes for the best performance of music by a Russian composer and for the best vocal performance in Russian language. The adjudication panel comprised a variety of international judges, all known in their field.

I chaired the instrumental jury which was held at Peregrine’s Pianos, situated in Gray’s Inn Road. We totalled four judges; alongside me (from left to right in the photo above) were Rebeka Molly De Gama (U.K.), Snezhana Polshronova Karnolsky (Bulgaria), and Constance An Chi Hsieh (China).  The photo below is a ‘flashback’, or a happy memory of the first time I was on the jury panel at this competition.

Performers were either pianists or violinists, and the categories were all age related. Many of the performances were superb and the overall standard was extremely high.

The selected repertoire, generally a free choice, was mostly standard fare. Whilst it’s always lovely to hear old favourites, for future competitions, I would encourage young players to explore more Contemporary repertoire. Some performers were clearly just beginning their musical journey, and whilst extremely competent and confident, were still in the process of learning to perform, and others were already well established young players; there was also a category for adult amateur musicians too. The overall class winners performed at the final Gala concert.

I really enjoyed working with several jury members because I appreciated the feedback from fellow adjudicators. Whilst we tended to agree on who should win, it’s useful to gain insight into a fellow musician’s thoughts regarding certain aspects of playing and performing. And as I often adjudicate alone, it’s a real pleasure to work closely with others in this respect.

Stars of the Albion Grand Prix provides an important opportunity for young musicians and artists from across the world. All those who took part did so because they valued the chance to be heard and evaluated by a professional jury. Over the past few years, Evgenia Terentieva has organised and developed one of the most vibrant and artistically satisfying competitive events in London for emerging artists, and long may this continue.

www.starsofthealbion.org.uk


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.


 

International Women’s Day 2019: The Pianist as Composer

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to share this lovely performance of one of my piano pieces, recorded by American pianist and writer, Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda, who lives in Wisconsin, has made several CD recordings and has just written and published her first novel, The Waco Variations (more about this publication soon on my blog). She chose to record Inflections which is featured in my latest collection, No Words Necessary, a group of twelve intermediate piano pieces intended for students.

Rhonda also writes an excellent blog, No Dead Guys (what a great title!), which focuses on living composers, and she kindly asked to interview me about my work as a composer and a writer. You can read the interview by clicking on the link below:

The Pianist as Composer: An Interview with Melanie Spanswick.

www.nodeadguys.com

You can purchase Inflections (as a separate download) or No Words Necessary, here.


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.


 

Twiddling Your Thumbs

Recently I’ve been working with several students, aiming to develop strong, active thumbs. This may sound rather strange, but we tend to take the thumb for granted. They protrude at the side of each hand and we just expect them to support the fingers. I’ve written several times, here on this blog and in various articles, about the importance of a strong finger technique, but so far I’ve written little about the poor old thumb.

Thumb movement can make a colossal difference to many aspects of piano technique, as essentially they ‘control’ almost half of our hands, due to their dominant, and slightly lower, position (compared to the fingers). Alberti bass accompaniments, octave playing, pristine rapid passagework, are just a few of the typical piano elements demanding a clean, well-formed thumb. In my teaching, I’m very aware of a student’s movement during piano playing. Demonstrating to pupils ‘how’ and ‘where’ to move is an issue which must be constantly addressed. Without correct, helpful movement, technique really can’t be developed. This is certainly the case with our thumbs, and they require a different approach to the fingers.

Whereas fingers are encouraged to play with all joints active, that is, not collapsing, and on the tips (or finger pads), ensuring strength and contact with the key, the thumb will, by necessity, play on its side. However, like fingers, they are best utilized with the joints fully engaged for optimum movement. If we allow our thumbs to just ‘hang’ or lag behind our fingers, or even worse, ignore them altogether, they will be unable to articulate with clarity and precision.

Here are a few ideas for clean thumb playing:

To be aware of thumb movement, start by moving the thumb; you can do this exercise away from the keyboard. Sway your thumb back and forth under the hand, gradually building flexibility. It can also help to move the thumb in a circular motion over the hand too, but aim to do this carefully and free of any tension.

Now experiment at the piano with four white notes; C, D, E and F using the right hand. Try this fingering 1, 2, 3, 1. The first and last note will be played by the thumb. When you play the third finger on the E, lift your wrist slightly allowing the thumb to go under the hand to play the final note, but don’t let go of the E. You’ll notice this position, that is playing the E and F together, will contort your hand slightly. Make sure your hand muscles and tendons, especially around the thumb joint, are pliable and flexible, so this position feels comfortable; it will require a ‘letting go’ or release of the tendons and muscles within the thumb joint in order to feel relaxed. This is best done whilst keeping both notes depressed, and it feels easier if you ‘drop’ you hand and wrist (as opposed to keeping them in a stiff position), releasing tension. Now do this with the left hand, perhaps using C, B, A and G.

You can also experiment with arpeggios. Using the right hand, play a C major arpeggio; middle C with the thumb (1), E with your second finger (2), G with your third finger (3),  and C (above middle C), again with the thumb (1). When you reach the G with the third finger, turn the thumb under the hand, leaving both finger and thumb in place, as shown in the photo:Try to ensure that your hand keeps loose and relaxed as both notes are depressed. Again, it’s the release of tension in the hand and thumb joint as the notes are held which will help and encourage easy thumb movement.  Now try this with left hand too; a C with the fifth finger, E with the fourth finger, G with the second finger, C with the thumb, and then turn onto the E with fourth finger, holding both the second C and E in place, releasing the thumb joint muscles.  This gap might feel unnatural at first, but when combined with a free wrist and arm movement, it will eventually feel relaxed.

Aim to use thumbs on a scale. Taking C major again, try this fingering: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 or even: 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3.

This works well with a chromatic scale too. It may feel a little unorthodox to begin with, as the movements required will test the thumb, encouraging it to ‘move’ out of its comfort zone, but provided this is done with total flexibility in the wrist and arm, and without tension, the thumb should feel more controlled.

Finally, find an Alberti Bass pattern (a broken chordal accompaniment figure), which requires the use of thumbs. Here’s a left hand example from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 (first movement):

A weak or flabby thumb is very obvious in this pattern (generally the thumb would play the repeated middle Cs in the example above). The thumb must skim the keys lightly but very precisely and rhythmically. After blocking out the chordal pattern (playing the notes altogether, so you are aware of the fingering and note patterns), play deeply into the keys on every note, with a heavy tone. Accenting can help, at first just on the thumb, ensuring it plays on the right hand corner of the nail and with a good connection to the key surface. Now accent every note, employing a very free rotating wrist movement throughout. Once the fingers have been given a thorough work out, play the note patterns again very quickly and lightly ensuring a tight rhythm. It’s essential to balance the hand in passagework such as this, so a combination or finger/thumb power and wrist rotation will be crucial. But without an active thumb, achieving evenness will be almost impossible.

I hope these suggestions may be of help. They will at least draw attention to the plight of the thumb, so it hopefully won’t be a bystander during piano practice sessions.


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 World’s First Piano Recording

Today I’m featuring an interesting piece of history, highlighted just this week on the Pianist Magazine’s excellent blog. The world’s first (or oldest) piano recording took place precisely 131 years ago. During this period, Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900) was Britain’s foremost composer, and a piano and cornet version of his song ‘The Lost Chord‘, which had been composed eleven years earlier, was the piece of music recorded to capture this moment.

This event took place at a press conference in 1888, hosted by American Civil War recipient George Gouraud, who was introducing the phonograph, a new device for mechanical recording and reproduction of sound, which was created by American inventor Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931). Invented in 1887, the phonograph was the first device of its kind to be able to record and reproduce sound, and it heralded the beginning of a new age for the music industry. Sullivan commented rather ominously on this subject:

“I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.”

You can read Pianist’s full article and listen to the recording here, but, as might be expected, the sound quality is less than ideal!

Many musicians and composers were quick to explore the phonograph’s possibilities, including Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók. Bartók (1881 – 1945) was renowned for collecting folk music, alongside his colleague and fellow countryman Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967).

From 1904, Bartók embarked on an extensive programme of field research, travelling around Hungary and Romania, collecting a substantial selection of folk songs, frequently employing the phonograph to reliably record villagers singing and playing their folk melodies. Often considered the father of ethnomusicology, Bartók went on to write down and arrange many of those recorded tunes, and quickly became known as an expert in this field. His subsequent compositions are full of folk melodies, and this music became a fundamental influence on his work.

You can hear one of Bartók’s recordings using the phonograph by clicking on the link below:

A History of the Phonograph: Image link

The Béla Bartók Memorial House and Museum


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.