A student’s memories: Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017)

Last Friday I attended the funeral (probably the most beautiful and moving I have ever witnessed) of one of my piano professors, and I felt compelled to write this short, personal reflection.

Teachers have a huge impact on our lives, particularly when we worked with them as youngsters; they influence everything from repertoire choices and technical development to performance practice and concert wear.

Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017), pictured above, was a British concert pianist and, for over thirty years, a professor at the Royal College of Music in London. Patricia studied at the RCM with Arthur Alexander, winning the Chappell Gold Medal, after which she won a French government scholarship to study with Marguerite Long in Paris. Later, in Vienna, she attended the class of renowned teacher Friedrich Gulda, where her fellow students included Alfred Brendel and a young Martha Argerich (she often recounted wonderful recollections and witty anecdotes from these classes).

Patricia enjoyed a distinguished performing career encompassing recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Mozart Saal in Vienna, many BBC radio and television broadcasts, and countless concerto performances including appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as many around the world. She performed on three occasions at the BBC proms, opening one season with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 in 1962. Later in her career, Patricia was especially interested in Victorian piano music and presented an ongoing series on BBC Radio 3 (and the World Service).

I first met Patricia on a cold, wet March morning. As a 15-year-old school girl, I nervously walked in to Room 70 (sadly, all room numbers have now changed at the RCM) to audition for a place at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She was one of three on the audition panel, and as I sat down at the impossibly large Steinway, she enquired, in a commanding, rather foreboding voice, what I would be playing. I don’t remember a note of my performance (although I do remember my programme: Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor (first movement), Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major Op. 69 No. 1 and Etude in C minor Op. 10 No. 12 (Revolutionary)), but I recall a tall, slim lady in a formal suit, with her hair tightly wrapped in a bun, bounding towards the piano afterwards, presenting me with some sight-reading; “Hmm, you’re not so good at that”, she laughed, “but your playing is pretty sound”.

And that was it. I was enrolled as a junior exhibitioner, and the following September, commenced my studies. Saturdays became my favourite day of the week and I spent several years working with Patricia, both at the Junior and Senior RCM. She had a strong, ebullient personality, which was full of wit, endless energy and infectious enthusiasm. Her stature and commanding voice could be intimidating, but as the years flew by, Patricia became a friend and an ardent supporter of all my professional endeavours, for which I will be eternally grateful.

As a teacher, Patricia was a stickler for accuracy and above all, control. She could analyse a score from many different perspectives (and on various levels), continually finding different ways of working. We spent innumerable lessons dissecting pieces, and the more complex and Contemporary they were, the better. To this end, I studied a broad selection of lesser known works (alongside the classics) by such Twentieth (and Twenty-first) Century composers as  Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, Nielsen, Poulenc, Hindemith, Parry, Britten, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Bliss, Finnissy, Knussen, Berio, Schnittke, and Shchedrin, to name a few. Her love of Victorian music (especially by female composers) also led to some interesting discoveries for me too.

On preparing works for competitions and performances (of which I took part in many at the RCM), Patricia would insist on several ‘run-throughs’; regular ‘performance practice’ classes were implemented every week for her students. On a Monday afternoon, we would run along to Room 70, clutching our latest piece (and woe betide if it wasn’t memorized). She was a firm believer in secure memorization, and there would be regular tests, just to ensure you really ‘knew’ your piece inside out; it’s attention to this important detail which enabled me to confidently perform complicated Contemporary pieces without the score.

When performances became serious affairs (i.e. end of year exams (or ‘gradings’ as they were known), final recitals, or external concerts), I was invited to her home in Wimbledon on a Sunday afternoon, where I would play my entire programme for her friends, family (including her Viennese husband, Hansi, and sometimes her children; Helena, Paul and Joanna) and a few students. Such concerts were followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, with a finale of rich Sachertorte (a Carroll specialty), washed down with Earl Grey Tea, and, for those who stayed on into the evening, a glass or two of fine Chablis and smoked salmon canapés. Repeated concert and performance opportunities instigated a certain assurance or confidence, and it’s this element which I feel is one of the most useful tools I learned whilst at the RCM.

A less than ideal performance would be met with a stern look, quick grimace and something along the lines of “well, you’ll be better prepared next time” or “a bit nervous today, but at least you got to the end!”, whereas after a successful performance, one could witness Patricia literally dancing about in the green room, and on a couple of occasions, I actually received a box of Viennese chocolates – so I knew I must have made a reasonable attempt. I found her sharp honesty refreshing and necessary, and it’s something I undertake with my own students.

Concerto ‘trials’ (they were just that – auditions to perform with college orchestras) and competitions were omnipresent fixtures every term. We would select our works, learning them quickly, deciding which movements and then which ‘sections’ we would play (although for competitions, generally the whole piece was performed). Patricia and I would rattle through my elected pieces; she would sit at the second piano, enthusiastically playing the orchestral part; on one occasion (a competition in the Recital Hall) whilst playing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Sz.119, we both had the flu and all three movements of this gorgeous piece were accompanied by coughing, sneezing, wheezing and unfortunate facial expressions, all of which the adjudicator was so kind not to mention at her adjudication!

Patricia was very keen on teaching her students to be good teachers, and to this end she introduced Art of Teaching classes at the  RCM. This may seem rather perfunctory and commonplace now, but during the 1990s it was a fairly new concept. Undergraduates in their first and second year, preparing for the internal DipRCM teaching diploma, spent two terms at her weekly lessons, which sometimes lasted a good few hours. She methodically embraced every possible teaching dilemma, providing copious accompanying notes (which I still have today).

Sight-reading was another essential accomplishment; she was adamant about its importance, and as a junior I would spend significant amounts of time every day reading through repertoire (particularly Baroque works) with the aim of improving this skill.

Patricia moved into the realm of ‘legend’ at the RCM when she introduced her  now famous sight-reading classes. Groups of pianists would descend on one of the larger teaching rooms, where two or three (and sometimes four) pianos resided. Overtures, symphonies and various other orchestral works, all arranged for  several keyboards, and usually for eight (or more) hands appeared, and we would march through these pieces albeit at a fairly steady tempo. Patricia would conduct each masterpiece; any hesitation or error was deeply frowned upon, therefore focus and concentration became a necessity. Such was the huge sound emanating from these classes, that many a ‘passer by’ would peer into the glass windows (resplendent on each door in the main building) to see what on earth was going on.

After I left college, Patricia still supported my career, coming to concerts and book launches (and even my fortieth birthday party) whenever she could, and we would meet every year in our favourite little café situated on the Old Brompton Road (London). I last saw her in 2016, when I gave her a couple of books containing my compositions; she looked at them with her usual zeal and  delight, saying she would try the pieces with some of her six grandchildren who, of course, took piano lessons with her.

Patricia was a fervent supporter of women’s rights, and was one of the first female pianists to play a concerto at the Royal Festival Hall (in London). Consequently, she was extremely encouraging to her female students particularly, often helping them find work and musical opportunities (I became her deputy or assistant at the Royal College of Music Junior Department whilst I was still a student).

One final thought: a teacher might well be defined by their student successes, but it’s their sheer dedication which proves most vital. Effective teachers frequently go way beyond their call of duty (that of providing mere lessons); they seek to afford moral support, whether at a performance (or before and after), thorough (sometimes round the clock!) advice, constant and careful guidance, as well as a critical ear. Thankfully, I was fortunate to have found one such effective teacher in Patricia. She left the RCM in 1999, returning occasionally to adjudicate competitions and end of year exams. Her spirit will live on through her students and all those who were lucky enough to come into contact with her during her long and successful career.

Patricia’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Royal College of Music


5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

If there’s a possibility to immediately improve any performance, most of us would jump at the chance! My latest contribution to Pianist magazine’s newsletter offers a few suggestions which can be easily implemented into your practice session. I hope you find them helpful.

5 Tips to Instantly Improve a Performance

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to instantaneously improve a performance. This is a perpetual dilemma when adjudicating at competitions and festivals. During the adjudication (before announcing the winners), I strive to help pianists in their quest for improvement, offering a few tips and practice ideas. The following suggestions have been born as a direct result of hearing numerous performances and I hope they are of interest.

  1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there’s often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining (or right) pedal. Why work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide under a cloud of pedal? For practice purposes, aim to play your piece sans pedal (from beginning to end). Once confident, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out, so you can focus on the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.
  2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), sometimes manifests itself in a general lack of smooth or legato playing. It’s easy to forget to join notes effectively, especially when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, students can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset (depending on the piece; generally Baroque music will require a non-legato touch), adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. If you have already studied and learned a piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ or legato fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
  3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can prove problematic, and this ties in with the important matter of providing adequate thinking time before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to mentally prepare; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will apportion time to collect thoughts and allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, and aim to count two bars before playing, almost as an introduction. Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a carefully chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).
  4. Body Movement. Too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating is not to move at all. Rigidity (which can lead to tension) can cause a harsh sound and, sometimes, inaccuracies. In order to play in a loose, supple manner, it’s important to develop flexibility by cultivating a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the keyboard. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists relaxed and use arms in a way so that they encourage hands to move freely. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
  5. Close to the keys. Aim to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms should ideally be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action.

Implementing just a couple of these suggestions will instantly improve and lift your piano playing, creating a more assured performance.

You can read the original post here.

My Books:

For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Image link

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: Trinity College London Grade 1

Today’s post focuses on the Trinity College London piano exam syllabus. As I’m exploring repertoire for both Trinity College London and the ABRSM exam boards, it has been interesting to note the differences and similarities between them and their syllabuses (I’ve chosen to highlight the syllabuses of just these two exam boards). Both have their strong points, and generally it will be your teacher (if you have one) who will determine which syllabus you follow.

Trinity College London places much emphasis on Contemporary educational music, written by living composers. This factor enhances the learning experience for students, particularly younger pupils, who love the idea of reading about, relating to, and possibly ‘meeting’ the composer who wrote their piano exam piece.

Trinity College London include technical and musical Exercises too, and as a result, there are generally fewer scales and arpeggios in the syllabus, compared to ABRSM. If you’re thinking about taking Grade 1, the following suggested programme (drawn from the current 2015 – 17 syllabus (as with the ABRSM exam tips, I haven’t included the alternative syllabus list)) might be of interest. I’ve also written five practice tips for each piece selected, which I hope will be useful, and I’ve added a performance, taken from one of many on YouTube.

1: Melody in C (from ABC du Piano) by Félix Le Couppey (1811-1887)

French composer Le Couppey’s piano music is synonymous with piano studies and exercises. The Melody in C is an effective opening to any exam programme; it’s a charming example of Le Couppey’s oeuvre, with transparent texture and four bar phrases. The piece addresses several important technical issues for students; balance between the hands, a cantabile melody line, and gradation of dynamics.

  1. It can help to learn hands independently for a while, so fingerings and note patterns are secure. In C major, this piece uses only white notes and much of it is centred around five-finger note patterns or positions. Practising each hand separately will provide the chance to hear both musical lines as important, whether it’s the melody (right hand) or accompaniment (left hand).
  2. The left hand material (particularly the quavers) must be even, rhythmical, and very legato (or smooth). Any bumpiness in the sound, will detract from the melody’s smooth simplicity. Aim to keep the thumb soft and light in patterns such as those from bars 1 – 4, leaning slightly on the lower notes, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Where larger note values occur (bars 5 – 7, for example), try a bolder dynamic in order for the sound to last longer, and match (tonally) to the next note.
  3. The right hand will benefit from a deeper touch (than that of the left), so encourage fingers to play into the key, and find the climactic point of every phrase. In the first phrase (bars 1 – 4), the G in bar 2 (beat 2), might need more colour, as would the F in bar 6, beat 2, as these are the climaxes within each phrase. Developing a feel for shaping and phrasing takes time, therefore it’s a good idea to experiment with dynamics from the outset.
  4. When combining the two hands, start by playing the notes in each bar altogether as a chord (you can do this either beat by beat or bar by bar, depending on the harmonic structure i.e. if the notes are from the same chord or triad). If you can locate the notes all at once (i.e. playing the E in the right hand (bar 1, beat 1), with both the C and E in the left at the same time, then progressing onto beat 2), moving swiftly from one position to another, when played as written, the note patterns will feel easier and conveniently ‘under the fingers’.
  5. Counting a regular pulse is crucial. How will you keep time? There are many methods, but whichever you chose, stick to it religiously. Always keep the rhythm in mind when practising, and try to count aloud (counting quaver beats is probably easiest).

2. Ghostly Conversations (from Music Through Time Piano Book 1) by Paul Harris (1957 – )

One of my favourite Grade 1 pieces, this ethereal work really captures a student’s imagination. Written by British composer and music education expert Paul Harris, Ghostly Conversations is an excellent contrast to Le Couppey’s Melody in C. It demonstrates ‘harmonics’ beautifully, requiring pupils to hold a chord silently with the left hand for the entire piece. The resulting ‘echo’ effects (when the right hand melody sounds) add an unearthly quality to this spooky number. As mentioned in the score, listening throughout is vital, thereby developing an often overlooked aspect of a musician’s armoury!

  1. The right hand needs much attention, especially at the beginning. Aim to tackle each two bar phrase at a time. Leaning the fingerings (all suggested in the score), and hand positions, which may feel alien at the start. In bar 2, the 2nd finger on the C, followed by a thumb on the G might be an uncomfortable gap for the smaller hand; play the two notes together (interval of four notes, or a fourth), consciously relaxing the muscles in the hand and wrist as you play, and after a while, the relaxation process will hopefully make this gap feel easier.
  2. The opening material (repeated in bars 4 & 5, 12 & 13, 14 -16 and 23 – 26), can all be played ‘in position’ (i.e. using fingering which doesn’t require moving the hand under or over the thumb) whether black notes are present or not. The accents and tenuto markings must be observed (on beat 2 and 4 of the first bar of each phrase) for the full force of the ghost’s ‘cry’, and the last note of each phrase (bar 3, beat 3, an E flat, in this case), is also enhanced by a fuller sound (until bar 24, where the music dies away).
  3. The passage work at bar 7 & 8 (also repeated at bars 18 – 21, and 28 & 29), must really contrast with the previous melody (denoting two different ghosts!?). It requires the right hand to reach over the left, and down into the bass clef. Practice this passage work separately from that of the material at bars 2 – 5, ensuring suitable fingering and a very detached, spikey, staccato touch. When playing the melodies together, keep them rhythmical, and work at the leaps between the clefs, slowly at first, and without  the left hand.
  4. Despite the fact that the left hand plays just one chord, it will need some work. Locate all five black notes in bar 1, and at first play them as expected i.e. with all the notes sounding. When secure, practice taking the chord down into the key bed but incurring no sound from the hammers at all. This may look easy, but it will require much balancing and careful evaluation of the key bed (or ‘biting point’ where notes sound). Once assimilated, keep the chord depressed but relax the hand.
  5. Practice both hands, giving plenty of time to depress the left hand chord (this can be a feature!). The right hand should be able to negotiate between the two staves (and voices), with the left hand in position. Keep tempo strict for a while, and then relax as per directed in the score. Enjoy the ethereal quality the depressed chord brings to the piece; especially important are the pauses (usually in the form of a bar’s rest), and allow a ‘whisper’ at the end.

3. The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Mark Tanner (1963 – )

This piece completes the line up for Grade 1, and is sufficiently contrasting to both the Melody in C and Ghostly Conversations. Written by British pianist, teacher, examiner and writer Mark Tanner, pupils will enjoy the bright and breezy demeanour of this work, as well as it’s slightly off-beat character. Set in D major with a two-in-a-bar feel, it moves around the keyboard fairly quickly, and demands accurate articulation.

  1. The right hand will benefit from slow practice in two bar phrases (as written). In the opening phrase, pairs of slurred notes and staccato must be negotiated at the same time. The drop-roll technique (where the wrist sinks down whilst playing the first note, rolling up and forward, after the playing the second), will be useful for phrasing such as that of bar 2, beat 2 (E to an A). This can be contrasted with staccato crotchets and quavers in both bars 1 & 2.
  2. In bar 2 of the right hand, the second finger will turn over the thumb at the end of beat 1. Ensure a flexible hand and easy movement for this turn; practice keeping the thumb (on the G) and the second finger (on the F sharp), depressed together, allowing the muscles in the hand to relax whilst in position. After this, the hand turn will hopefully feel more relaxed and loose. Apply this to all such movements in this piece.
  3. Similarly, the left hand also faces detailed articulation marks. Aim to employ the drop-roll for all slurred pairs of crotchets, taking particular care of secondary melodic material. The melody is generally given to the right hand, but bars such as 6, 7, 8, 10, and 14, contain thematic material in the left hand. The tenuto (or leaning) markings at bars 4 & 14, must be adhered too, adding extra emphasis and colour.
  4. When playing hands together, slow practice will be necessary in order to implement each articulation mark, especially when they are different in each hand (at bar 8, for example). Also, note each rest, ensuring it’s counted for its full value; bring the finger off the key, clearing the sound thoroughly in keeping with the ‘jaunty’ style.
  5. Constantly changing dynamics will breathe life into the piece, and be sure to notice the sign under the left hand stave at bar 20, which means to play an octave lower than written.

    My Books:

    For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each piece.

    If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

    The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

    My Compositions:

    I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.



Weekend Competition; the winners…

A big thank you to those who took part in my weekend competition, which offered a chance to win one of two tickets to the Holistic Piano Day, being held at Schott Music (London) with Genia Chudinovich and myself on July 16th.

Congratulations to AmyPianist and Sarah Martin! We look forward to welcoming you both. If you would like to find out more about the event, the schedule and where to book, please click here.

Weekend Competition: Holistic Day for Pianists

Holistic Day for Pianists is an exciting all-day event for amateur pianists, music students, piano teachers and young musicians from the age of 13.  The day will take place at Schott Music in London on Sunday 16th July from 10am – 5pm, and will be hosted by Russian-born pianist, teacher, composer and yoga expert (and founder of Piano-Yoga®), Genia Chudinovich (GéNIA) and myself.

I met GéNIA in 2012, and we immediately recognised our shared beliefs; helping piano students to realise their true potential by offering holistic technical and musical guidance, and thereby encouraging a different approach to piano playing. Subsequent workshops and projects have followed, and we are now really looking forward to presenting this holistic piano day which will explore several important elements; incorporating the physical flexibility and relaxation techniques employed in Piano-Yoga® with the mental mindfulness required in memorisation and sight-reading.

You can find out more about the day’s schedule and book your tickets by clicking here. My Weekend Competition offers two free tickets to two lucky readers. To take part, just leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and GéNIA and I will select two winners on Sunday evening. Good luck!


Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 1

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog. It will essentially examine selected repertoire across the grades.

I’m focusing on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London; both syllabuses require three piano pieces per grade (plus supporting tests). These works are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasize.

My selections are merely personal preferences, as all those within the syllabus lists have already been carefully picked in order to present engaging programmes. My aim is to provide a few tips and practice ideas (5 tips in all) for each of the three chosen pieces, and in many cases these tips can be applied to similar music elsewhere. I hope you find them helpful and informative.

My ABRSM Grade 1 exam programme comes from the 2017/18 syllabus, drawn from the main list (as opposed to the alternative list); I’ve also included a video recording of each piece, taken from YouTube, where there are many performances from which to choose!

When working at the repertoire, try to incorporate the necessary scales for the grade, and some sight-reading at every practice session (see my last post on exam preparation for more information).

List A: Aria in F (BWV Anh. II 131) by J.C. Bach (1735 – 82)

From the Little Keyboard Book, this attractive, lively piece was written by J.S. Bach’s youngest son when he was just a ten-year old; an excellent opening for a Grade 1 exam, it provides the opportunity to demonstrate nimble fingers and rhythmic poise. Divided into two distinct sections (and therefore in binary form), each section is repeated, although this isn’t strictly necessary in an exam.

  1. Start by practising the scale of F major, noting the key signature (with a B flat). Learn each hand separately, and ensure you know the left hand particularly thoroughly, before playing hands together (practice either a bar or phrase at a time until familiar).
  2. This piece is all about the articulation (or touch). Each crotchet in the bass can be non-legato i.e. lifting off a note after it has been played, leaving a slight gap in the sound between the notes. Minims could also be played non-legato, especially at bars 12 & 14, where marked with a ‘wedge’ or staccato sign.
  3. To keep a firm grip on the pulse, count in quavers, and place each crotchet precisely on the beat avoiding the urge to rush or linger.
  4. The right hand should ideally be legato (or smooth and joined up) where phrased (i.e. in bars 2 and 3), and after the double bar, a legato phrase from bar 8  –  11 will form a cantabile (singing) musical line. The trill in bar 1 could be played as suggested, or simplified to a four-note upper mordent (always leave out when practising, adding only when the piece is rhythmically secure and the trill has been fully mastered).
  5. The ‘wedge’ markings in both hands at bars 4, 12 and 14 need a decisive sound and staccato (detached) touch. A very slight slowing down (or ritenuto) at the end, is the only tempo change necessary here.

List B: Gypsy Song (No. 6 from A Baker’s Dozen) by Bryan Kelly (1934 – )

In contrast to the Aria in F, this melancholic piece proffers the chance to become acquainted with the A minor scale (which can be learned alongside the piece), as well as the opportunity to develop musical colour and atmospheric sound; perfect for encouraging sensitive, expressive playing. Think about this piece in terms of a song, with each hand providing important thematic material. Whilst this is a contemporary piece, it offers a romantic character.

  1. When practising hands separately, notice how the left hand begins in the treble clef, moving down to the bass from bar 6, and how the left and right hand phrases tend to overlap. Experiment with each phrase, joining the notes smoothly, beginning softly (right hand, bar 1), with a crescendo to bar 2, playing each a fraction more powerfully than the last, but without any sense of rushing or lingering. Bars 5 – 8, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18, can all be given similar treatment in this respect.
  2. Attention to detail in the right hand is advised from bars 9 -12 particularly; both accents and tenuto (leaning) markings need a special sound, adding poignancy.
  3. Aim to work at the left hand carefully from bars 9 – 12, where a detached, deeper touch will represent the tenuto quaver passages, and the last line (bars 20 – 27) will require solid fingering and precise quavers and semiquavers; when playing hands together, work at this section at a quarter of the intended speed, practising with a heavy touch, lightening it when secure.
  4. Hand position changes are common, so be prepared to move quickly, and plan the move (in your mind and fingers) ahead of time, so as not to leave it to the last moment.
  5. Be sure to count the rests (in bars 2 and 4) of the wistful opening line. The sustaining (right) pedal could be added at bars 8 and 26, to add resonance. Place the last right hand C sharp with deep touch, emphasising the tierce de picardie (or major third).

List C: Asian Tiger Prowl by Rob Hall (1969 – )

This is such fun! It’s full of drama, imagination, and colour, and written by British composer Rob Hall; it’s a great way to end a Grade 1 exam programme. The tiger is preying on its potential dinner, as it ‘prowls’ and waits for the perfect moment to pounce on its object of desire at the end.

  1. Staccato and tenuto chords are the important features here, appearing in alternating hands, the former needs a very crisp, erudite approach, whilst the latter can be held, creepily for slightly longer than deemed appropriate! Aim to use firm fingers for each chord (so they sound absolutely together).
  2. Rhythm is paramount, and counting in quavers is probably the best method, placing every beat precisely (especially the quavers in bars 2, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 19).
  3. Rests in bars 2, 4, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 18 must be adhered to and fully counted in order to conjure the tiger’s indecisive movements.
  4. Ensure the bars rest is held for its full value, and don’t be tempted to skip the beats at bars 20 and 21 either. Accents and phrase markings bring this piece to life.
  5. The last 3 bars need a full fortissimo, allowing the sustaining pedal to catch the final chord (bar 19; last quaver beat), providing a macabre final flourish.

My Books:

For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber Music) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.


9 Tips for Piano Exam Success in 2017

Selecting and Practising Piano Exam Repertoire is a new series on my blog, which will begin in earnest next week. Today’s post is in preparation, offering a few practice ideas to make piano exam study a more fruitful and rewarding affair.

Some of you have written (over the past year or so) requesting information about piano exam programmes and how best to select and practise various pieces, so I hope this series of posts might be helpful and of interest. Choosing appropriate pieces from any syllabus is always a major consideration; an important part of exam preparation is deciding which set works combine effectively, offering an attractive, interesting programme whilst also displaying your particular strengths.

I’m going to focus on two exam boards: ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London (starting with the old syllabus (2015-2017), moving to the new one over the coming months). Every post in the series will feature three pieces (for each grade) which complement one another, are fun to play, and supply engaging technical and musical demands.

These pieces are usually contrasting in style and character, which is an element I will emphasise in my selections. These selections are merely personal preferences, because all works within the syllabus lists have already been carefully chosen to present engaging programmes. My objective is to provide a few tips and practice ideas for the chosen three pieces (much of which can be transferred to other repertoire too), and I hope you find these helpful and informative.

Before I launch into the repertoire, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a mature student taking Grade 8, there are many ways of making sure you achieve your goal. Here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. A piano exam practice schedule is a good idea. It doesn’t need to be fanatically followed, but if you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will immeasurably improve. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every week; it might be 20 minutes per day, or 20 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is focused, mindful concentration. Five days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include all exam elements in each session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales & arpeggios (or technical exercises), sight-reading and aural (there are other options too, for some exam boards). Aim to include all (or at least three of the four tests) elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. A set routine can be profitable. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading usually requires your full attention, and although it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work, you may need a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practise scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical  work is practised thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces; each piano piece may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practise slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp i.e. you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved weekly (or daily), and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Set the metronome to a very slow speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the electronic pulse. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard i.e. how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece (for me, a really important aspect of piano playing).
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano, testing yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play (and sing) the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences and any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.

These ideas can be easily implemented. Piano exams can be daunting, but if prepared carefully and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve your playing.

The first post in my new series will feature the ABRSM Grade 1 piano exam. You can find out more about Grade 1 here.

My Books:

For much more information on how to practise repertoire, take a look at my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with copious practice tips and advice for each piece.

If you are thinking about playing the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? is full of useful information.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

Play it again: PIANO Book 1

The piano is an intoxicating instrument. Those who have played in their youth often harbour a desire to return to it later in life. Piano ‘returners’ make up an increasingly large cohort of amateur pianists. Whether younger or older, it’s usually fairly easy to pick up again and  progress can be swift, proffering the opportunity to fall in love with this majestic instrument (and its colossal repertoire) all over again.

My new two book piano course, Play it again: PIANO has been written with the ‘returner’ in mind. Book 1 was published just last month (and Book 2 will be available from the beginning of July). The first book takes pianists almost back to the beginning (but not quite; this isn’t a piano tutor or method book).

The course consists of 49 piano pieces, the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works), starting at elementary level (Grade 1) through to advanced (Grade 8). Each book has an extensive ‘technique’ section at the beginning, with plenty of technical reminders and practice recommendations, and a ‘theory’ section at the end. Each piece contains at least two pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. 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 (which is what I suggest, as this can be beneficial, even your playing is at a much higher level), whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at Book 2 or a later stage.

In Book 1, the technique section focuses on flexibility, posture, and keeping relaxed during practice sessions, with a few warm-up exercises, posture suggestions, and scales, arpeggios, and sight-reading practice tips. The theory section offers note reading reminders and exercises, how to keep time, time signatures, and all the information needed to understand the music within the book.

Each book is divided into four parts, and Book 1 looks like this: Elementary, Late Elementary, Early Intermediate and Intermediate. Although this course is not necessarily exam based, it’s helpful to know the approximate grades for each level; Elementary is roughly Grades 1 – 2 level (ABRSM exam standard), Late Elementary, Grades 2 – 3, Early Intermediate, Grade 3 – 4, and Intermediate, Grades 4 – 5.

Each level contains seven pieces (therefore 28 in Book 1); a technical study, an arrangement and a selection of standard repertoire. My brief was to include a wide variety of styles and genres, so there’s plenty for those who enjoy rock, latin, jazz, blues and even a piece for those who want to try their hand at improvisation. I’ve endeavoured to add a number of favourite original works throughout both volumes, and have balanced these with some terrific lesser-known gems.

The Elementary section includes works by Purcell, Petzold, Bertini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar (an arrangement of Salut d’Amour), a latin number by John Kember and Elena Cobb’s improvisation piece, Super Duck. Whilst the Late Elementary portion features Clarke, W.A. Mozart, Schumann, Gurlitt,  a study by Schytte, a Scott Jopin arrangement and a rock piece by Tim Richards. In the Early Intermediate section you can expect to find works by J.S. Bach, Gounod, Chopin, a study by Lemoine, The Sailor’s Hornpipe (an arrangement), a ragtime piece by John Kember, and a blues number by Mike Readdy. And the final collection, Intermediate, offers Clementi, Burgmuller, Satie, a study by Czerny, an arrangement of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, a rock piece by Jurgen Moser and a minimalist inspired Contemporary piece (Karma from Digressions) by myself.

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key (where appropriate), and warm-up exercises, tailored to certain pieces. There are a myriad of practice ideas, and different methods of breaking pieces down, resembling them with ease and with 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.

This book could be used by a plethora of students; adults returning to this pursuit (it could be useful for study on your own or whilst learning with a teacher), teenagers (or anyone of any age!) who fancy a progressive course with a variety of music (it could be used alongside piano exam preparation too), and piano teachers may find it a beneficial selection of repertoire to use with adult students in particular (several piano teaching friends have already started using Book 1 for this purpose).

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The pages are well laid out (see above) and are designed with ‘Tips’ and ‘technique’ box-outs (the books are published by one of the world’s leading music publishing houses, Schott), and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano.

You can find out more here, watch my taster videos by clicking on the links below, and order your copy from many outlets worldwide, including:

For those in the UK: Schott Music or Amazon (there are many other online shops also selling the book).

For those in Europe: Schott Music

For those in the US: Amazon

For those in Canada: Amazon

For those in Japan: Amazon

If you’re an EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) member, Schott are offering a free copy of Book 1 for 20 members (on a first come first serve basis); to claim your copy send an e mail to this address: marketing@schott-music.com (this offer is open for 2 months only) and please provide your name, address, gender, and information about how many years you have been playing and teaching the piano.  I really hope you enjoy using this book with your students!


Holistic Day for Pianists

Holistic Day for Pianists is an exciting all-day event for amateur pianists, music students, piano teachers and young musicians from the age of 13.  The day will take place at Schott Music in London on Sunday 16th July from 10am – 5pm, and will be hosted by Russian-born pianist, teacher, composer and yoga expert (and founder of Piano-Yoga®), Genia Chudinovich (GéNIA) and myself.

I met GéNIA in 2012, and we immediately recognised our shared beliefs; helping piano students to realise their true potential by offering holistic technical and musical guidance, and thereby encouraging a different approach to piano playing. Subsequent workshops and projects have followed, and we are now really looking forward to presenting this holistic piano day which will explore several important elements; incorporating the physical flexibility and relaxation techniques employed in Piano-Yoga® with the mental mindfulness required in memorisation and sight-reading.


9:30 Registration

10:00 – 11:30 Piano-Yoga® for Pianists

In this workshop GéNIA will demonstrate and invite participants to try out exercises which will help to improve concentration, stress management, aid back release and generally support your piano practice. No previous experience of yoga is necessary. To benefit fully from the exercises, you will be invited to take your shoes off, but it is not compulsory.

11:30 – 11:45 Coffee Break

11:45 – 13:15 Sight-reading workshop with Melanie Spanswick

Sight-Reading is vital for pianists of all ages and abilities. Once reading skills have been developed, pianists are able to play many styles with ease, enabling them to learn repertoire much more swiftly. Several different approaches and methods will be surveyed in this workshop with a list of ‘top tips’ to take away and practice at home. Everyone at the workshop will have the opportunity to put the theory into practice at the piano.

13:15 – 14:15 Lunch Break

14:15 – 15:30 Memorisation Class with Melanie Spanswick

Memorisation builds and instigates sensory and aural skills. The positive facets of memorisation will be considered alongside a brief history. Using various pieces and examples, we will work around the piano (for those keen to try the methods), learning small passages and assimilating them immediately, via various techniques, demonstrating the ease with which this facility can be grasped.

15:30 – 15:45 Tea Break

15:45 – 17:00 Piano-Yoga® Exercises from Transform Your Hands’ book with GéNIA and closing ‘Piano-Yoga®’ session

In this workshop GéNIA will demonstrate the piano exercises which were described by Pianist Magazine as a ‘Fascinating issue!” and enabled her to stretch her hand span and remarkably increase the strength of her fingers. Based on a 10 week course, GéNIA will take participants through the various stages of the book and share the main principles of the method. At the end of the session she will demonstrate exercises that will be helpful to do after your daily piano practice.

17:00 Book Signing

For those who would like to purchase our books (GéNIA’s and my own) there will be an opportunity to obtain a personal signed copy. This will be the first chance to buy both Book 1 & 2 of my new series, Play it again: PIANO.


Tickets are £65 and will include tea, coffee and soft drinks. Discounted tickets for EPTA music students & young people 13 – 18) are £55. Early bird tickets are also available at £55, to be booked by 7 June 2017.

The registration is via http://www.piano-yoga.com or via phone +44 (0) 20 7226 9829. For any enquiries please email info@piano-yoga.com.

We look forward to meeting you!

Chicken Wings

I try to be inventive when conveying various technical and musical details to students, but I’ve yet to come up with a ‘technical term’ as wacky as this one. Devised by my pupil Amy Reynolds, ‘Chicken Wings’ may be of interest to anyone focusing on the elbow. Many pedagogues feel this part of the body to be of real importance when playing the piano, and Amy felt compelled to write about her recent discoveries. I have reproduced her blog post here.

Chicken Wings

Yes, you read that right. Let me explain, I had a minor revelation last week. Every now and again I forget that I can do more than move my wrist up and down, I can use my elbow to aid the rotation allowing me to play a certain passage in one movement. I was practising some Beethoven, the Tempest Sonata to be precise, and I could not think of a name for this type of movement so naturally I decided to call it the ‘Chicken Wing’ because I was using my elbow. My students are very accustomed to me using odd terms to describe certain movements, the ‘Chicken Wing’  has now been added to that list!

Now, not all pedagogues mention using the elbow, and I can understand why. The arm is what it is, the most important work comes from below the elbow. But I feel that it is important for me to share my thoughts on why using my elbow works for me. Each person has a slightly different body structure meaning some movements may work for some and not for others.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, when I started lessons with Melanie we focused on keeping the wrist separate from the arm and hand to break tension. Well now I’m talking about separating the elbow. It acts like a pivot, and once you are able to move your wrist freely in all directions you can then use your elbow to cushion and adjust the angle of your hand, therefore allowing you to execute particular passages that need extra movement more easily. If you compare it to when we sit at the piano stool, we make sure it is the right height and we are comfortable before playing. But playing musical chairs by hopping on our bum isn’t how we reach those low notes or high notes. We rock using our sitting bones to allow ourselves a better position both low and high, it also gives easier access to the mid range of the keyboard when playing runs and arpeggios. Our elbow can be that medium between the shoulder and wrist giving us that flexibility, like the rocking of our sitting bones. Maybe I got this idea from playing the violin, where the elbow is something that cannot be ignored as it drives the bow’s direction.

I think that all parts of the upper body are important when playing piano, by combining the uses of each joint to tendon you can create more power and control over what you play, the elbow is just part of that whole system.

Read Amy’s Blog here.