Weekend Competition: The Piano Playlist & My First Chopin

Today’s weekend competition features two volumes, both new publications from Schott Music.

ed_13860-turner_648_The Piano Playlist is a collection of 50 arrangements by Barrie Carson Turner, featuring many popular favourites from opera arias (Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi both by Puccini), to ballet numbers, famous gems from orchestral works (Ode to Joy (Beethoven), The Swan (Saint-Saëns), Adagietto (Mahler’s 4th Symphony)), to piano concertos, instrumental music and  arrangements of piano pieces. Great for intermediate to advanced players.

ed_22459_1-ohmen_648_

My First Chopin has been  compiled by German pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Ohman. This collection of 20 pieces lies well within the capabilities of the advanced player, and contains some of Chopin’s best-loved works including a group of Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. These works are particularly popular amongst students, and this book features Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, Waltz in B minor Op. posth. 69 No. 2, Mazurka in B flat major Op. 7 No. 1, Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. posth., Funeral March (from Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35), to name a few favourites. An excellent addition to any library.

I have one copy of each to give away for two lucky winners, Please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post to be in with a chance of winning. I will announce the winners on Sunday evening (British time).

To find out more or purchase these books click here and here.


The ‘Stars of the Albion’ Arts Competition and Festival

stars-imageOver the past few weekends I’ve been adjudicating at various competitions. On several occasions I worked alone (as an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Music Festivals), but this past weekend, I was one of a panel of judges for the ‘Stars of the Albion’ competition.  Although I enjoy both challenges, working with others is not only more interesting and convivial, but it also shares the responsibility of selecting winners (which is never an easy task).

‘Stars of the Albion’ is an international performing arts festival and competition. It’s an annual event, uniting young talented musicians and dancers from across the world. The project forms 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.

Organised and promoted by Musica Nova Academy of Music, which was founded and is owned by Russian singer, pianist and educator Evgenia Terentieva. This bilingual establishment (situated just around the corner from King’s Cross station, on Crommer Street), combines the British and Russian principles of teaching. It’s held under the Patronage of the World Association of Performing Arts (WAPA) and is supported by the Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian cultural centre in the UK.

This is the fourth arts festival & competition. There are two rounds; the first one is based on video recordings (DVD and YouTube), and the second is open to the public and held at the concert hall of the Rossotrudnichestvo (situated just off Kensington High Street), and at the Musica Nova Academy. The Rudolf Steiner Theatre (also in London) plays host to the final awards ceremony and gala concert. Thirty international and twenty national soloists as well as five ensembles were selected to participate in the second round.

Participants hail from a large spectrum of nations including the UK, Russia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Republic of Belarus, Bulgaria, Malta, Philippines, Latvia, Armenia, Ukraine, Ghana, and India.

I was one of four to judge the instrumental category at the Musica Nova Academy (with colleagues, Alexander Ioffe and Yuri Zhislin (both from Russia), and Natalia Varkentin (who is Latvian)). The awards were segregated into three age categories; 6 -10 years old, 11 – 15 years, and 16 years and over, and all competitors were either pianists or violinists. The standard was reasonably high; students were expected to play their programmes from memory (including the duet classes), and many performed fairly advanced pieces (particularly in the age category from 6 – 10 years).

I’m always fascinated by the repertoire chosen for such events; there was a diverse selection from a piano arrangement of the theme from Schindler’s List (John Williams) and Yiruma’s ubiquitous piano piece The River Flows In You (played by a six-year-old!), to the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 by Liszt. We heard several renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Melody in E Op. 42 No. 3 (for violin) as well as typical selections from the ABRSM Grade 8 repertoire.

The winners of each class perform in the final gala concert (which was held last night), and some of them also win cash prizes. Whilst we enjoyed the instrumental classes at the Musica Nova Academy, a much larger panel judged the singing classes at the Rossotrudnichestvo Cultural Centre  (which were huge in comparison). I like the inclusion of multiple disciplines; there’s something for literally everyone (both amateur or professional), whether a classical performer, jazz player, pop singer, dancer, or folk musician. This flexibility will ensure that the ‘Stars of the Albion’ goes from strength to strength, and it will no doubt flourish and develop over the coming years.

www.starsofthealbion.org.uk

www.musicanova.org.uk


Lang Lang at the Royal College of Music: an event for piano teachers

langlang_covers_154Faber Music are offering an interesting and innovative event for piano teachers, which is to be held at the Royal College of Music on Tuesday 14th March. Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang (pictured above) will be at the college from 5.15pm – 6.00pm, discussing how his own experiences have led to his extensive work in music education and his aspirations for inspiring the next generation of young musicians. There will be an opportunity for you to ask questions as well as to hear Lang Lang play from his Lang Lang Piano Academy series, published by Faber Music.

The Chinese star pianist has been widely credited with encouraging 40 million children to learn the piano; Lang Lang engages with children around the world through his fun personality and imaginative approach to music education.

Secure your free ticket by calling the RCM Box Office on 020 7591 4314, Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm, or call into the Box Office in person. Your ticket can be emailed to you or collected from the Box Office. Unfortunately, booking for this event is not available online.

This event is for piano teachers only. You can find out about and purchase the Lang Lang piano method here, and his Piano Academy series here.

www.fabermusic.com

langlang


 Top photo: Rhys Frampton

Contemporary Music Festival Repertoire

I enjoyed an interesting and fun couple of days at the Music & Drama Education Expo at Olympia in London at the end of last week. My music publisher, EVC Music Publications Ltd, hosted a vibrant and busy stand at this event, and some composers (including myself) gave several presentations, enabling us to meet and chat to teachers whose students play our music, which was a real pleasure.

elena-cobb-star-prizeA particular highlight this year for me, is the inclusion of some of my pieces in the Elena Cobb Star prize, which is available to music festivals affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals.

Music festivals are essentially mini competitions for students of the arts (whether that be music, dance or speech). The Star prize can be implemented by any festival; there is a £50 prize for the winner of the class (as well as a Star Prize badge and certificate). This prize aims to encourage students to play music by living composers and there’s a whole syllabus of pieces from which teachers and pupils can choose (for beginners up to advanced level). You can view the complete syllabus here, which includes works by all EVC Music composers.

My compositions are featured in Grade 1 (Witch Cackle from Piano Magic), Grade 2 (Fairy Dust from Piano Magic), Grade 5 (Waltz on a Sunken Ship from Piano Waves), and Grade 7 (Digression from Digressions). My book of duets, Snapchats, can also be played in the duet classes.

Snapchats have proved popular with students and teachers around the world; these 11 duets are short (8 -10 bars), succinct, and use a variety of piano techniques which may be new to pupils of this level (written for those between grades 1 – 3 (ABRSM level)). Whilst the title, Snapchats has been inspired by the social media platform, the pieces themselves have been influenced by meditation and Taoism, and are therefore rather ‘atmospheric’, creating various moods, The primo and secondo parts are of similar standard, therefore they can be played by two students, teacher and student, or parent and student, and are therefore a useful addition to any studio recital or school concert programme.

I was recently sent three performances; Shanti Shanti, Light and Sutra (all from Snapchats) played by very talented brothers Arthur and Alex Anderson, who performed them in a concert in York (UK). I hope you enjoy these recordings. Find out more about Snapchats here, and you can hear all the pieces in the set here.



Music & Drama Education Expo 2017

expo

For those in the music education industry in the UK, the Music & Drama Education Expo event is a yearly highlight. Organised by Rhinegold, it’s held over two days (9th and 10th February 2017) at Olympia (London),  and features a raft of events, including professional development sessions, seminars, practical workshops, performances, show cases, and a huge exhibition of over 130 of the leading brands in the industry.

My publisher EVC Music Publications Ltd will be hosting many events over the two-day period; composer presentations, performances, and book launches, including those by composers Donald Thompson, Heather Hammond, Andrew Higgins, and a book presentation by piano teacher Irina Mints (all held at stand G8). EVC Music director, Elena Cobb, will also be giving a presentation at 10.15am on Thursday 9th February; The Art of Positive Self-Promotion held at the Rhinegold Theatre.

I’ll be giving two presentations at this year’s event on the EVC Music stand (G8) at 12.30pm on both Thursday (9th) and Friday (10th). The presentation will focus on my piano compositions, specifically the four books published by EVC Music. I’ll also be playing some of the pieces and chatting generally about how my works can complement exam syllabuses and specifically music festivals.

If you’re in the vicinity, please do come along and say hello!


 

 

 

Piano Notes 2017-18: the winners are…

PNotes17_18_001_Cover_0812BWM.inddMany thanks to all those who took part in this weekend’s competition, which was to win one of two copies of Piano Notes published by Rhinegold.

The notes have been written by teachers Fiona Lau, Katharine May, Michael Round, Murray McLachlan and myself. We wrote around 200-350 words on every piece (Grades 1 – 8) on the new ABRSM piano syllabus (2017-18), including all alternative pieces, detailing the most important elements, and advocating various practice tips and performance suggestions.

The winners are…

LIZ DEWHURST and ELAINE BELL

CONGRATULATIONS! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog, and your notes will be on their way.

You can find out more about Piano Notes here, and order your copy here.


Weekend Competition: Piano Notes 2017-18

PNotes17_18_001_Cover_0812BWM.inddPiano Notes were published last month and offer students and teachers a wealth of practical advice for the entire ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music examination board) piano syllabus from Grade 1 through to Grade 8, which started in January 2017 and goes through to Spring 2019. The notes include all alternative pieces as well as those printed in each graded book, so they make for a very beneficial and handy guide, irrespective of your standard or ability (and are great to keep by the piano as a reference).

Published by Rhinegold (the leading music education publishers, who also organise the Music and Drama Education Expo Event held in February 2017 at Olympia in London), the notes can be purchased from Rhinegold’s website.

Piano Notes have been written by a team of five writers, all of whom are  experienced teachers; Fiona Lau, Katharine May, Michael Round, Murray McLachlan and myself, and we wrote around 200-350 words on each piece (depending on the grade), detailing the most important elements, advocating various practice tips and performance suggestions.

My contribution was to write notes for all list C pieces from Grades 1 – 6. I was pleased to find a fairly widespread selection of works; from masters such as Kabalevsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók, through to vibrant piano arrangements, and many Contemporary composer’s works too. Although for my taste, there is probably too much emphasis on the ‘jazz’ inspired style, and not enough on Contemporary classical music (which I believe should be introduced to students from the beginning).

I’ve two copies of Piano Notes to give away this weekend, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post and I will announce the two winners on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

You can find out more about Piano Notes here, and order your copy here.


Manchester Music Festival Young Artists Program

yapHere’s a wonderful chance for young pianists and string players to attend a Summer course in Vermont (US) with an illustrious faculty and exciting performance opportunities.

The Manchester Music Festival (MMF) Young Artists Program is a full scholarship, six-week intensive chamber music festival for string players and pianists, aged from 18 – 26. Occurring annually every summer in scenic Manchester (Vermont), the 2017 Young Artists Program will take place from July 3rd to August 13th, 2017. Young Artists will receive daily coaching sessions by a faculty composed of world-renowned artists and pedagogues.

The primary focus of the Young Artists Program is to intensively study and perform chamber music at a high level, and to benefit from outstanding musical guidance on a daily basis. During the course, students can expect to study several chamber masterworks, with ensemble sizes ranging from duos to octets in a broad spectrum of repertoire spanning the centuries, from Baroque to Contemporary. Groups will also be selected to perform in the weekly MMF Young Artists concert series.

On August 3rd, 2017, Young Artists will participate in one orchestral concert, performing Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, with Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducting and pianist Alexander Kobrin.

Young Artists will also have the opportunity to perform in public masterclasses and take private lessons with many of the faculty members. In addition, they will benefit from forum discussions addressing principles of entrepreneurship and career development which will assist in forging successful paths as professional musicians.

‘This is a full-scholarship program, meaning that we offer this opportunity to outstanding students at no cost to them, other than the application fee. This makes us quite unique in the world of expensive summer programs’ –  Adam Neiman  (artistic director of the MMF, concert pianist and professor of piano at the Chicago College of Performing Arts (Roosevelt University)).

Each MMF Young Artist receives a scholarship providing full tuition, free accommodations, and a modest weekly stipend. Students are responsible for their own meals.

Scholarships are made possible by the generous contributions of individual sponsors and endowments, and all of the Young Artists will have opportunities to interact socially with their patrons during their stay in Manchester.

The closing date for applications is February 15th 2017.

Download the Young Artists Program brochure

Visit the website here


Guest Post: A Young Pianist’s Journey

Today’s blog is a guest post written by my student Amy Reynolds. Amy (pictured below) came to study with me a year ago, and together we’ve enjoyed quite a journey. Here, in her own words, she explains how we went about obtaining her dream, which was to study the piano at a British music conservatoire. After hours of dedication and hard work, Amy now looks forward to studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on the B.Mus course next September, where she has been awarded a scholarship.


 The one thing I struggled with when I first thought of applying to study at a music conservatoire was the lack of information about the required entrance audition standards; yes, they all say Grade 8 ABRSM distinction or equivalent, but many of us know that’s not strictly the case. There is not enough information available for prospective conservatoire students, aside from that on a music college’s website. I would prefer to see something written by students already studying at a music college, or those who haven’t been successful, but share their experiences anyway, because it’s useful information. As someone who didn’t go to a junior department of a music college, or a private music specialist school, it has been difficult to obtain an understanding of how music colleges work. Which is why I’m writing this article, not only to share my experiences, but in the hope that other young musicians might find this information helpful.

I’m often asked ‘why do you travel so far to have piano lessons?’ I live in Bristol (in the South-West of the UK) and travel to Maidenhead (25 miles west of London) for my lesson every week (a journey of an hour and a half each way). This is one question that I find very interesting. Many people (including friends) don’t understand how important it is to find the right teacher. Now I have evidence that going the extra mile, quite literally, means that you will get results.

I don’t come from a wealthy or musical background, and I certainly don’t come from the perfect family. Music is a universal language which speaks beyond background. I have always loved music.  I began learning the violin at age 6 and my mum and my grandparents have always fully supported me. However, it’s through my own determination that I’ve managed to get as far as I have. Parents can only do so much to help with your practise, the same goes for teachers, you can have the best teacher in the world, but only you can make improvements with the tools your teacher gives you. You need to be strong and resilient to fight for what you want, the competition is fierce.

I started learning the piano at the age of 12. A relatively late starter. I’ve always known that being a musician, especially a pianist, is no easy feat. Coming across obstacles and defeating them is part of the process of your development as a person and a musician. I welcome constructive criticism and healthy competition now, but when I was younger I really took it to heart.

Whenever I mentioned the word ‘conservatoire’ in secondary school, I was quickly put back inside my box. I was told such places were almost impossible to get in to, and I was no-where near the standard they expected; it was too far ‘out of my reach’ because of the age I started learning to play the piano. I’ve been told this so often, by older friends who went down a more academic university route, and by teachers at school. This made conservatoires all the more interesting. I knew of so few people who had been to one. It got to the point that I had built up this world inside my head of normal musicians verses musicians at conservatoires, which I know now isn’t healthy thinking, but it did give me that extra push I needed to work harder.

My first piano teacher took me through from the very beginning to Grade 8. Because of the violin I could already read the treble clef, so she started with the bass clef and we went from there.   Our lessons were filled with fun activities and I learned a lot from her, but the thing she didn’t teach me was technique. Of course we had the discussion about not squashing the hamster or Ping-Pong ball when I first started! But we didn’t touch on anything else.

It wasn’t until I started sixth form at Bristol Cathedral Choir School that I realised how much I needed to improve my playing if I were to become a professional pianist. When I started lessons with a teacher there she explained that tension was the cause of the pain in my forearms, wrists and shoulders. I made the common mistake of thinking that playing demanding repertoire was the answer, little did I know that playing less complex pieces properly was a far better option. I fell in love with Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor (Op. 3 No. 2), but unfortunately this only exasperated the tension situation. I found it almost impossible to play without some form of pain shooting up my arms.

Towards the end of the summer in 2015, I had an email from my piano teacher at Cathedral School, saying that there were limited places left on a three-day course that Melanie Spanswick was running at Jackdaws Music Education Trust in Frome. She thought the course would be good, and would help me to get a broader understanding of the cause of my tension, and learn more about technique. The course focused on ‘Piano Technique, Memorisation and Sight Reading’. I booked immediately. Looking back at the notes I made on that course after studying with Melanie, and attending the course this October, I see how blissfully unaware I was of the whole concept of piano technique. I had already decided by this point that I was going to take a gap year because I knew I wasn’t ready for the standards audition panels expect.

After this course I had never been more inspired, the way Melanie approached technique fascinated me. It was a completely different concept that I hadn’t come across before. So, when my teacher went on maternity leave, I emailed Melanie and asked her if she would teach me. She replied very quickly saying that she would.

A few days later (January 26th 2016) I was having my first lesson!  Melanie asked me what I had been learning, what repertoire I had played in the past (including chamber music) and how often I performed. I didn’t play much in this first lesson, looking back now I realise that she was assessing my technique and the way I learn. I must admit, I felt quite intimidated knowing this lady went to the Royal College of Music and had an amazing biography. It was like being in the same room as a celebrity. Saturday afternoons soon became my favourite part of the week.  

One of the first questions she asked me was what I wanted to achieve from my piano playing. I told her that I to be a professional pianist and study at a UK conservatoire. She was rather shocked and told me that I wasn’t close to the standards such institutes demand. Melanie has always been very honest with me, sometimes brutally, but I am so grateful that she has consistently told me nothing but the truth. This gave me even more motivation to work harder. It was clear that my Grade 8 distinction was not going to be anywhere near enough in terms of securing a place.

When I first realised how inadequate my technique was, I struggled to look at my hands, knowing that I had to undo every single bad habit honed over the past 5 or 6 years. It has taken many hours of practice to get to where I am now, and I still have lots to improve on, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without clear structure in my lessons alongside setting myself goals. I feel quite passionate about discussing the difficulties I have faced technically, because I’m sure there are others out there who have faced the same situation. I think knowing that Melanie learned to play the piano at a later age (like me), has helped me believe that there is potential in everybody, including myself.

The first piece we worked on in a truly technical manner was J.S Bach’s Two-part Invention in C major (No. 1). I became excited about this new world of technique. I swapped my social life for hours meticulously picking through Bach and Czerny exercises. We focused on dropping my wrists, learning flexibility and the feeling of relaxation needed to play with ease. Playing deep into each note and taking care to make sure everything was exactly even in tone and even rhythmically too. It actually took me a month to understand that the reason I wasn’t playing notes exactly evenly was because I wasn’t concentrating enough on what my body was doing, or listening to the sound I was creating. I was flabbergasted by the level of concentration needed to track every single movement from your back, shoulder, through your arms wrists and finally your fingertips. This was because I’d never practised or learned in this way before, being aware of every single movement. I still find it quite a taxing task, and often find myself daydreaming and losing concentration – that is when I know it’s time for a break!

Melanie really took me back to basics. She helped to undo all the habits that I had built up over the last few years. This meant retraining my ear In order to pick up on the smallest of tone and technical errors; my eyes watching every movement I made, and most importantly the feeling necessary to achieve this. Being able to feel free, and when I say free I mean tensionless, relaxed and flexible. This was the biggest obstacle I had faced so far as a pianist, the concept of freedom when one plays, was completely alien to me. Of course you need tension to play otherwise you would make no sound, but there’s a big difference between unnecessary and necessary tension. This was the first step into finding freedom at the keyboard.

First I was taught to drop my wrists as far as they would go whilst having my fingers holding notes down. Once I had ‘released’ the tension I would then move my arm around, and my wrists up and down to check that they were free, if they weren’t then I wouldn’t have full flexibility and movement. Melanie would hold my fingers on the keyboard allowing me to release all tension, this was extremely useful in helping me to understand the feeling of being relaxed. I do this on myself using my other hand when doing separate hand practise, which is especially useful for octaves and big chords; encouraging my hand to learn how to relax when it is in an out-stretched position.

When I was able to do this with ease, we moved onto wrist rotation, starting with a simple 5 note exercise beginning on C. To achieve this I would play the first note, drop my wrist in the way I explained earlier, and then swing my wrist around to play the next note. All the while paying attention to feeling free and playing on the tips of my fingers. I learned that the wrist is one of the most important components in piano playing, especially how it needs to be separate from the hand and arm. I like to describe it as something floating in the middle, like a cloud, to cushion the sound and the action of the fingers.

I had the common problem of ‘weak fingers’, not only would the joints of my fingers collapse, but the bridge of my hand would as well, meaning I had absolutely no control over what I was playing. So by going back to basics, I have been able to strengthen the ability to command or tell my fingers to do exactly what I want. We talk about strengthening fingers, but this isnt exactly correct because we have few muscles in our hands; they mostly consist of tendons. We strengthen the neurological connection to our fingers, hands and arms meaning that we can ship information to them quicker. A bit like a broadband connection that has just been upgraded to fibre optic!

It’s surprising how much technique overlaps, arm weight can help support weak fingers, but without using your wrist correctly you won’t achieve a deep sonorous sound. Melanie also advised me to completely ignore dynamic markings and all markings on the page to begin with (aside from the notes of course!) when first learning a piece. Instead, I always played deeply into the key bed, creating an even tone throughout. This is something that I continue to do, and she could tell you that it is a habit I’m still getting used to following! It’s definitely the best way to learn control and create evenness.

I love making lesson notes, which I do on the train after my lesson. I also set myself daily and weekly goals, as well as following what Melanie has set me. I find this really helps to organise my thoughts and be effective in the way I go about my practise.  

We had to work very quickly because my A Level recital was soon upon us, and I needed 15 to 20 minutes of contrasting repertoire. We then looked at the Trinity College diploma syllabus and chose a few pieces: The first movement of Sonata in C minor Op.10 No. 1 by Beethoven, a selection from the Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe, and the J.S. Bach Two-part Invention (No. 1 in C major). Due to certain family circumstances, I had no access to a piano to practise at this time, but I did manage 2 hours a day at school. Despite this, I managed to achieve an A star in my A level recital.

We then worked towards my ATCL diploma in piano performance, primarily as a kind of ‘warm up’ for the approaching entrance auditions. I took the diploma in late September at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. My programme consisted of the complete Piano Sonata in C minor Op.10 No. 1 by Beethoven, Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe and Intermezzo in A major Op.118 No. 2 by Brahms.

This programme was about 45 minutes long; the longest performance I had ever given. A few days prior to the diploma, I played a lunchtime recital at Bristol Cathedral, I was surprised by how silent the audience were. I’ve been a regular at the lunchtime recitals in the cathedral, and know that the audience are usually quite noisy and renowned for leaving early, so I was delighted by the fact that I had managed not only to fill the nave of the cathedral, but also to captivate this audience. I felt this was a great achievement. It was definitely one of the highlights of my year, as was receiving my ATCL certificate!

I applied for places at six conservatoires (Royal Northern College of Music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Birmingham Conservatoire, Leeds College of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), and we eventually adjusted my programme to suit the musical and technical demands expected at entrance auditions. I played the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata in C minor (Op. 10 No. 1), Stars from Sculthorpe’s Night Pieces and Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No. 6 by Scriabin. The Scriabin Prelude is, for me, a tour de force in octave technique and we spent much time (sometimes a whole 2 hour lesson) learning  the necessary technique this work demands. During this time I was practising four to six hours a day.

For entrance auditions, I needed to play from memory (not something I was accustomed to doing). Possibly the best thing I have learned from Melanie, aside from physical and mental freedom when playing, is memorising music right from the beginning. If you start out with the intention and mind-set to memorise a piece then it will be easier. It is much harder if you learn the piece first and then want to go back and memorise it. This is because you have already built your mental practise around a sheet of music not something which can float around in your mind.  Memorisation is a very psychological thing, and one which I was absolutely terrified of. That was only because it was something I hadn’t done in the right way before, if you go in with an open mind you can achieve anything.

It helps if you memorise each hand separately, starting with the left hand first, because the left hand is the anchor to any piece of music, there is something psychological about it. If our right hand loses its way we seem to be able to stay on track, but if the left hand disappears, it’s a challenge to pick up the musical threads.

Recognising patterns in chords, sequences or structure also helps. I now understand why playing from memory has become such a commended thing, because it really makes you pay attention to every aspect of the music and your technique. Once something has been memorised you can practise it in so many different ways, altering the rhythm adding accents, and playing with different articulation.  

I had my first audition on 27th October, which was extremely early in comparison to other colleges. Since then, I had an audition almost every week for the next eight weeks, and it was certainly tiring. But travelling around the country was a great experience. My last audition was on the 12th December. By then I had already received five unconditional offers and one scholarship; a week later I got an offer from Trinity Laban Conservatoire, for a total of six offers!

I was completely blown away; in eight months of having lessons with Melanie, I had taken my diploma and received offers from six conservatories. I know that there was no way I could’ve done it without her, or without my own determination, and I’m also on the way to building a secure technique free of any pain, discomfort or tension. This proves that it is possible to get or do anything that you want.

Read Amy’s blog here.

You can find out more about the music conservatoires discussed in this article here:

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Royal Northern College of Music

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Birmingham Conservatoire

Leeds College of Music

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance


Hand Flexibility

Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ necessary in our hands at the same time as keeping finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if you can’t get around the piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once you have assimilated the feeling of freedom in your wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto your hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to find a student who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an obvious exception, but I don’t teach little ones).

If you recognise this scenario, then read on! To begin with, you need to know which part of the hand to relax. The photos below illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring: thumbnail_20161203_180218_resized_1Photo 1 (above) shows the palm and surrounding areas (especially around the thumb joint); these are normally fleshy and soft (when not outstretched or used to play); they need to stay this way (as much as possible) as and when you play.

thumbnail_20161203_180036_resized_1Photo 2 (to the left) shows the muscles between the finger joints which also tend to tense.

Lay your hand flat on a surface (away for the piano), palm facing downwards. Determine how far your outstretched hand can open without feeling tense or uncomfortable. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, note the feeling of the hand when it is fairly relaxed and ‘loose’.

Now play the chords below (first with the right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with your other hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel just how your muscles in those fleshy areas respond. You might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid your hand feels.

hands-1The trick is to learn to relax the hand as you play. It’s paramount to know how your arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they have generally less musical content, so you can concentrate on how your upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, you will start to feel comfortable and relaxed whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be challenging to teach, as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands, and lots of patience! I constantly work with pupils on this aspect.

A good way to start is to play a repeated single note (in each hand, separately), As you strike each note, notice how the muscles within the hand respond; ask yourself whether they are tense, uncomfortable or rigid. You’ll need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as you play. Keep returning to the feeling you learnt when your hand was outstretched but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this feeling time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

Now play the following single note pattern (right hand, followed by the left); starting with six notes apart moving on to an octave (you could move to an interval of a seventh too, before the octave):

hands-2As you gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, encourage the usual wrist flexibility between notes (there are many way of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist between notes, allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion). Then, check the muscles in the hand (with the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing), to make sure they feel comfortable and  not tight. If they don’t feel relaxed, ‘let go’ of the muscles as you engage the hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation. This is the most challenging part. When you learn how to ‘let go’ as you play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place and firm, the hand starts to release its grip, and muscles feel moveable.

Eventually, octave intervals such as those in this exercise feel relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If you can do this with ease already, as you play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax, whilst still holding the notes down. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape as you move.

If you play octaves slowly, you can watch and feel the hand and its muscles, ‘letting go’ or relaxing, as the fingers depress the keys. Allowing the hand to attain total flexibility takes time, but becoming aware of the required sensation (or feeling) in your hands is a good way to begin.


My Books

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

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