Celebrity Christmas Gala at Kings Place 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Recommended Piano Resources for November 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3In the run up to Christmas, many of us are on the lookout for gift ideas for friends, family, piano teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. I hope this fairly substantial selection will inspire a host of piano related shopping. As usual, there’s something to interest all levels. I’ve made a few exciting composer discoveries (which is always fun); today’s list features a historical novel, a new piano method, a practice notebook, a Children’s piano concerto, and new compilations, as well as publications from our favourite publishers. Enjoy!

Beginners/Elementary

Piano Junior

ed_13801-heumann_648_This new method published by Schott Music consists of a series of books (8 books in total) and has been written by German pedagogue and composer, Hans-Günter Heumann. I was a consultant on this method, and it has been exciting to see the finished product. PJ is a robot who is the main ‘character’ (he has a friend called ‘Mozart’ the dog too!) in this tutor series for youngsters (age 6 and above). Piano Junior is designed as a ‘fun and interactive’ piano method, starting with black notes, employing innovative, user-friendly graphic notation before introducing white notes, traditional staves, clefs and time signatures. In addition to each book, there is also extra material on the website, which includes videos, audio demos and play-alongs for all the pieces, as well as downloadable rhythm checks, workouts, sight-reading exercises and other resources. Find out much more here and purchase here.

My Practice Palette

my-practice-palette-coverWritten by British teacher Roberta Wolff, this book can be enjoyed in paperback or e-book version and is designed to assist students and teachers in their quest for effective practising. My Practice Palette  is essentially a notebook which aims to educate parents, teaches, and students about how to practise while eliminating the need for teachers to write practice notes. This is done by teaching practice methodology and metacognition. Roberta recommends using My Practice Palette from grades 1-5. Teachers can also work through the Practice Palette during lesson time. The benefits of this are, no extra time is required for planning, and teachers can be spontaneous yet easily keep track of a student’s progress. It’s certainly a colourful volume and would no doubt encourage those who might otherwise find practising dull. Find out more and get your copy here.

14 Easy Pieces for Piano

lane_richard_14_easy_pieces_for_piano_pno73American composer Richard Lane (1933 – 2014) has written a group of charming little pieces for those of around Grade 1 level (ABRSM). I discovered Richard’s music through the ABRSM list C pieces (for 2017/8), whilst writing the Piano Notes series (due to be published by Rhinegold in January). These works, which are published by Swiss publisher BIM Editions, are tuneful, attractive and all feature particular technical elements (important for teaching repertoire). Duets, an arrangement and original pieces all feature in this volume. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Star

9781848499249This is a new series published by the British examination board, ABRSM, for beginners (or for those up to prep test level). There are three books in the series, each containing new arrangements and original pieces written by a host of different composers and teachers, all associated with the popular British exam board. The volumes include solo pieces and duets, offer a mix of styles, plus fun extension activities and plenty of illustrations. There are 74 pieces in total, written by 20 composers including Christopher Norton, Paul Harris, Mark Tanner and Mike Cornick, and children will love the tuneful simplicity of the pieces; this is certainly useful teaching material. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate

Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children

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An interesting discovery, written in 1993 by Russian composer Ilia Chkolnik and published by BIM Editions, in their Junior Series. Piano concertos written solely for children are becoming increasingly popular, with many, particularly Russian composers, highlighting this potential gap in the market. This score has an orchestral reduction (or second piano part), and at first glance, could be mistaken for advanced level. However, it consists of idiomatic, essentially tonal writing and lasts just 11 minutes. There are three movements, two fast outer sections, and a beautiful slow movement, which reminds me of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto in F major Op. 102. Teachers looking for varied contemporary repertoire will enjoy this piece. To hear, find out more and purchase, click here.

Intermediate to Advanced

My First Chopin

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A new publication from Schott Music, 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 genres are popular amongst students, and with the 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 student’s library. Find out more and purchase here.

The Piano Playlist

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A large selection of 50 popular classical pieces arranged by British arranger and editor Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music. Arrangements have always been a favourite with pianists, and this offers a comprehensive list of music across several centuries, all transcribed for intermediate up to advanced players. 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. My choice piece is When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. This is a beneficial volume for those wanting to discover some of the best-loved works in the Classical repertoire. It would also serve as excellent sight-reading material. Find out more and purchase here.

The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590A new publication from Faber Music. Containing 45 arrangements of best selling songs, this will please those who enjoy a wide variety of pop and easy listening music. Numbers from artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. This is designated ‘Easy Piano’ but few elementary pianists will manage these arrangements; I would suggest intermediate level as minimum. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume, and would make a perfect stocking filler! Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Collection by Jevdet Hajiyev

indexThe first book of a special centenary edition of selected piano works inspired by Azerbaijani traditional music, written by Azerbaijani composer, Jevdet Hajiyev (1917 – 2002). This volume is published by EVC Music Publications, in a project commissioned by the Muradov family archive. For intermediate to advanced level players, this book will be a useful addition to any piano teacher, advanced student or keen amateur’s piano library. With the expected Russian inflections, this music is generally tonal but with a direct influence of Twentieth Century masters such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Jevdet Hajiyev’s teacher). Some pieces are short (such as those from Musical Sketches), whilst the Scherzo and Sonata are more substantial. Listen to the music, find out more and get a copy here.  

Online

Flowkey

flowkeyFlowkey is a piano learning-app geared for all levels, whether beginner or advanced. It’s also a useful music education tool for parents, teachers, and adult learners, as it’s easy to get started. A wide spectrum of music is covered, from classical music to pop songs. You can apparently practice interactively and receive instant feedback; progress can be tracked and piano lessons are also on offer, in the form of various courses. Flowkey is partnered with Yamaha, and can be easily connected to digital pianos. Find out much more here.

Books

Ghost Variations

getattachmentthumbnailThis is the latest novel by British author, writer, and critic Jessica Duchen. Whilst not strictly focused on the piano, it is a very interesting musical tale. Jessica tells the true story of Hungarian-born violinist Jelly D’Aranyi’s quest to recover Robert Schumann’s forgotten violin concerto. It’s also the story of an aging woman in a world which is becoming progressively more hostile. Jelly negotiates her way through the changing world of 1930s London. War is ever-present, and the heroine has to come to terms with her fading powers and upcoming young stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. As a woman, she faces the ultimate decision, choosing between music or love.  Find out more here and buy your copy here.


You can find out more about my new Faber Music Piano Anthology here.

And my beginner’s guide, So You Want To Play The Piano? here.

Around the Globe Piano Music Festival 2016

around-the-globeSituated on the perpetually busy Talgarth road, to the West of London, Colet House is the home of the Study Society. Behind a perfunctory, inconspicuous door, lies a rather grand entrance hall which deftly transports visitors to a bygone era. I love places like this; the mystery behind the facade, the labyrinth of small passageways leading to endless, voluminous rooms, faded elegance hinting at the romance of yesteryear, dusty chandeliers, torrid tales and clandestine affairs. My imagination fires on all cylinders.

To the left of the hall, an impressively large room complete with white pillars, a sturdy wooden floor and gleaming Yamaha grand piano, provided a fine venue for an innovative music festival which took place over the weekend. The Around the Globe Piano Music Festival, was founded by  pianists and pedagogues Marina Petrov and Maya Momcilovic Jordan. This festival is an annual event created for junior and adult pianists of different levels, including professionals. There is no age limit, and the categories represent various musical genres including classical, contemporary and jazz.

The focus is primarily to promote contemporary piano composers from all around the world, particularly those who are less well-known in the UK (although there were classes featuring standard repertoire too). The concept of encouraging young pianists to perform new music, learn about modern composers and have a better understanding of the diverse musical trends throughout different world regions, is one which certainly resonates with me. In my experience, students respond very well when presented with works by living composers; interest is piqued by the idea of a composer who is still ‘alive’, and therefore potentially contactable, thus establishing a tangible connection. Most immediately reach for their phones, eagerly searching Google for more information.

I had the opportunity to listen to many classes, and one of the most appealing aspects was the variety of music on offer. Some composers were new names (Vera and Vasilije Milankovic, Peter Ozgijan, Trevor Hold, and a few competitors played their own works too), but the chosen pieces clearly spoke volumes to their performers such was the level of committment and musicianship. The general standard was very high throughout, which was duly noted by adjudicator, Tau Wey.

Marina had kindly introduced her pupils to my music, and they subsequently chose to include Ocean Surge and Seahorse Dream (from Piano Waves) in a couple of classes.  These little pieces (for intermediate level students (around Grades 5/6)) have proved popular amongst those entering music festivals, and at this festival they were played with panache and flair. It’s a privilege for a composer to hear divergent interpretations, and Piano Waves are fairly free in this respect. Edan Finan gave a serene and beautifully judged account of Ocean Surge in the Western European Composers Class, and he graciously allowed me to film his performance (which you can watch by clicking on the link below).

It was heartening to observe large audiences, mainly consisting of parents, teachers, siblings and friends, supporting the performers. Music festivals such as this provide immense value; introducing new music, offering a performance platform for less experienced players, building confidence, as well as bestowing generally useful, helpful feedback. Long may this tradition continue, and congratulations to Marina and Maya for their judicious programming.

You can find out much more about this event here.

Find out more about Piano Waves here.


 

The Faber Music Piano Anthology: the winner is…

cvxao0wxgaiytx8-jpg-largeMany thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition, which was to win  a signed copy of my new publication, The Faber Music Piano Anthology. I have really enjoyed reading through your lovely comments (65 in total), proving anthologies of piano music are of interest amongst teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. You can find out much more about this volume here.

The winner is….

ADA

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

As always, there will be more competitions coming soon.

You can purchase this anthology wherever you are in the world and if you order now, it will arrive for Christmas! The book is available on Amazon almost worldwide, as well as from Faber Music.


 

Weekend Competition: The Faber Music Piano Anthology

piano-anthology-023I’m extremely honoured to have been invited to compile a new anthology for leading UK music publisher, Faber Music. This hefty volume is designed to be a gift book for anyone who enjoys playing (or who fancies exploring) a large and varied collection of piano works. A luxury hardback edition featuring high-quality premium paper, page finder ribbon and ‘The Concerto’ linocut cover image by Cyril Edward Power, this book would make a great Christmas gift for that ‘difficult to buy for’ amateur pianist relative! On a lighter note, it would also morph into a wonderful coffee table book.

Piano teachers and students requiring extra or alternative repertoire (post exams!), or sight-reading material, will enjoy the broad range on offer here, and many teachers have already remarked that they intend to use the book as part of the now famous 40 Piece Challenge devised by Australian composer and writer Elissa Milne (find out more about this here).

The Faber Music Piano Anthology provides a musical journey through the history of piano music (almost!), starting with the late-Renaissance era, finishing in the mid to late Twentieth Century. It takes pianists from elementary (around Grade 2 ABRSM level) to advanced (Grade 8), and there are 78 original pieces in total, which I selected from Faber’s large catalogue of publications (containing around 400 works).

Well-known and favourite pieces rub shoulders with less familiar works, providing an interesting and eclectic mix. Here’s the content list (although the pieces don’t appear in this order in the book):

  1. Air (Water Music) (Handel)
  2. Alla Siciliana (Guilmant)
  3. Allegro (from Sonata in C major K545 – 1st movement) (Mozart)
  4. Andante (from Sonata in G K283) (Mozart)
  5. Arabesque (Op.100 No.2)(Burgmüller)
  6. Bagatelle (Diabelli)
  7. Berceuse (Op.13 No.7) (Ilyinsky)
  8. Chanson Triste (Tchaikovsky)
  9. Come With Us! (from On An Overgrown Path)(Janáĉek)
  10. Consolation (Op.30 No.3)(Mendelssohn)
  11. Consolations (S172 No.1, Andante)(Liszt)
  12. Danse Lente (Franck)
  13. The Fall of the Leafe (Peerson)
  14. Fantasia in D minor (K397) (Mozart)
  15. Fröhlicher Landmann (The Merry Peasant)(Schumann)
  16. Für Elise (Bagatelle in A minor, Wo059) (Beethoven)
  17. Gnossienne No. 1(Satie)
  18. Gymnopédie No.1 (Satie)
  19. Gypsy Dance (Haydn)
  20. Honey Humoresque (Dett)
  21. Interlude (Franck)
  22. Invocation à Schumann (Déodat de Séverac)
  23. La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)(Debussy)
  24. La Vision (Op.63 No.1) (Alkan)
  25. L’Avalanche (Heller)
  26. Le Petit Negre (Debussy)
  27. Lento (Op.16 No.4 from 5 Preludes) (Scriabin)
  28. Les pifferari (Gounod)
  29. L’harmonie des Anges (Op.100 No.21) (Burgmüller)
  30. Little Prelude in C (BWV 939) (Bach)
  31. Malagueña de España (Albéniz)
  32. Mazurka in C (Glinka)
  33. Mélodie (Op.10 No.5 (Massenet)
  34. Melody in F (Rubenstein)
  35. Minuet in G (Bach)
  36. Minuet in C (Scarlatti)
  37. ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (No.14 in C sharp minor) (Beethoven)
  38. Nocturne (from Sonata Romantica) (Britten)
  39. Old French Song (Tchaikovsky)
  40. Passepied (Delibes)
  41. ‘Pathétique’ Sonata (Op.13 No.8 – 2nd movement) (Beethoven)
  42. Piano Sonatina in G (Beethoven)
  43. Prayer (Op.43 No.2) (Glière)
  44. Prelude in C major (Bach)
  45. Prelude from Suite No.5 in C (Z666) (Purcell)
  46. Prelude in A major (Op.28 No.7) (Chopin)
  47. Prelude in B minor (Op.28 No.6) (Chopin)
  48. Prelude in B (Op.2 No.2) (Scriabin)
  49. Prelude in E minor (Op.28 No.4) (Chopin)
  50. Prelude (Op.36 No.3) (Lyadov)
  51. Rêverie (Borodin)
  52. Romance in G (Op.52 No.4) (Hummel)
  53. Romance sans Paroles (Op.17 No.3) (Fauré)
  54. Rondo alla Turca (from Sonata No.11 K331) (Mozart)
  55. Sarabande (from Suite in D minor) (Handel)
  56. Scherzo in B flat (D.593) (Schubert)
  57. Scherzo No. 2 (from Aquarelles Op.19) (Gade)
  58. Snuffbox Waltz (Dargomyzhsky)
  59. Soldatenmarsch (Soldier’s March) (Schumann)
  60. Solfeggietto (C.P.E. Bach)
  61. Sonatina No.3 (Clementi)
  62. Song (Reinecke)
  63. Study in A flat (Heller)
  64. Study in B minor (Op.139 No.98) (Czerny)
  65. Study in C (Op.17 No.6) (Le Couppey)
  66. Study in C (Op.63 No.1) (Köhler)
  67. Study in F (Op.65 No.25) (Loeschhorn)
  68. Sweet Dreams (Tchaikovsky)
  69. To A Wild Rose (MacDowell)
  70. To Alexis (Hummel)
  71. Toccatina in C major (Op.8 No.1) (Maykapar)
  72. The Top (from Humorous Bagatelles Op.11) (Nielsen)
  73. Träumerei (from Kinderszenen Op.15) (Schumann)
  74. Two-part invention No.8 in F major (Bach)
  75. Une Larme (A Tear) (Mussorgsky)
  76. Valse (Waltz) in A minor (B.150) (Chopin)
  77. Waltz in A flat major (Op.39 No.15) (Brahms)
  78. Waltz in A minor (from Lyric Pieces Op.12 No.2) (Grieg)

Released just last month, you can order your copy here. Or alternatively, I have one signed copy to give away to one lucky reader. Please leave your comment in the comment box provided to be in with a chance of winning, and I will choose the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

www.fabermusic.co.uk

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A master class with Garrick Ohlsson

I’ve been working in Germany over the weekend, tutoring a bilingual piano workshop near Düsseldorf, so I thought it appropriate to highlight a master class today.

Gelsenkirchen is a city in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany, and I’ve been visiting a couple of times a year since 2014, providing free piano classes to those who would not normally have such an opportunity. I love this concept and am very grateful to Kery Felske (director of IKM Gelsenkirchen) and our sponsors for their unwavering support, enabling the possibility to continue this important work.

The class always consists of a variety of levels and abilities (and age ranges!), from complete beginners to advanced players (probably to a standard comparable to UK diploma level), and this weekend focused on those who hadn’t played much before, although there was one intermediate to advanced level pianist. Classes are held in English, and for the younger participants this can seem somewhat daunting, but it hasn’t proved problematic as yet.

The value of an ‘open piano lesson’, which is ultimately what a master class or workshop is, cannot be underestimated; it presents a chance to observe a variety of musical and technical issues. Solving such challenges can be of benefit to everyone and therein lies its beauty. Hopefully, those who attended our two-day event found it useful, and will be encouraged to further develop their playing.

The following master class was given by leading American pianist Garrick Ohlsson and features Chopin’s Etude in A minor (‘Winter Wind’) Op. 25 No. 11 played by Netanel Grinshtein and recorded at The Jerusalem Music Centre last year.

As always, there’s much to enjoy in this class and I hope you find it of interest:


 

5 Top Tips To Improve Your Listening Skills

226I occasionally contribute to Pianist magazine’s newsletter (in addition to writing a ‘how-to-play’ article in the magazine), which pops into a subscriber’s e mail box every other month. It’s full of interesting articles, competitions and everything piano! If you would like to subscribe, click here.

The most recent newsletter article contains 5 tips designed to cultivate and improve our listening skills, and I thought it may be of interest to readers; hope you find them useful.


management-training-skills

We might think we hear what we play, but often our attention is focused elsewhere; finding notes, reading the score, pedalling – the list is endless. But when we are finally able and ready to concentrate on the sound we produce, we can really elevate our piano playing.

1. Begin with a few single notes, hands separately. Play each note softly at first, listening to and noting the sound as it dies away. Only play another note once the sound from the previous note has ceased.

2. Now play single notes with greater sonority, but this time don’t allow the tone to die completely, instead sound a further note and ‘match’ the timbre and dynamic to that of the dying first note. This requires careful listening and will attune the ears.

3. Experiment with chords (perhaps a C major triad in both hands). Start pianissimo, and build to fortissimo through a series of 8 or 10 chords. Each one must be placed more powerfully than the last, again fine tuning listening skills.

4. We can learn to hear our own playing when we release ourselves from looking at the score. Once learnt thoroughly, if possible, play through a passage from memory, and when secure, you are free to listen to every note with a clearer perspective. Now record yourself, checking whether the performance is the same as you imagined you heard whilst playing it.

5. Aim to observe the way your body moves; a flexible wrist, arm, and upper torso has an important impact on tonal quality, and by moving freely and encouraging flexibility, you can expect to hear a warmer, richer sound.

By implementing a few of these suggestions, you will hopefully unlock the key to ‘hearing’ with a sharpened perception.

Read the original article here.


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A Year At A British Music Conservatoire by Lewis Kesterton

Music conservatoires. Opinions are rife as to whether they are an ideal way to study music; some find them inspiring, others wish they had studied elsewhere. My own experience at the Royal College of Music was amazing and a really steep learning curve; it was a privilege to study at such a great institution. I will forever be grateful for the day I walked in to the audition at the junior department as a 15-year-old school girl, with short hair, sensible shoes and no clue about the journey on which I was embarking.

My experience now seems a distant memory, so I thought it might be helpful and interesting for those inquisitive of conservatoire study, if a current piano student wrote about their musical journey thus far.

Lewis Kesterton (pictured below) is a second year student at the Birmingham Conservatoire on the B Mus course studying with Professors Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam. In the following article (in italics) he sums up his music first year spent at music college.


13055936_994341543935957_3362955391831653267_oChallenging. Rewarding. Inspiring. These are just three of the many words I could use to describe my first year at Birmingham Conservatoire. It’s quite hard to believe that I’ve already been here for over a year; it’s been a whirlwind of a time! I’ve been through the mill both pianistically and personally, but I’ve come out the other side ten times the musician I was before, and I’m so excited to now be continuing on my journey. Throughout the course of the year I’ve met so many amazing musicians who have become friends for life, observed masterclasses and concerts from world class performers, and been pushed far beyond what I thought I could achieve. All in all, I am certain that I made the right decision in coming to music college, and I would really encourage anyone who has a real love, talent and passion for music to do the same.

My year began in the same way as for thousands of other students across the country. Moving to a new city was always going to be a challenge, however familiar I may have been with it beforehand. Birmingham is often looked down upon as a city, the Conservatoire included, which is something I feel really needs to change. Having now spent a year living in the heart of the city, my eyes have been opened to how cultured, diverse, and developing Birmingham really is, which is why more than 6,000 people left London for England’s second city last year. Living away from home was something that I had always been very keen on doing, and I’m so very glad that I did! It was far from the most glamorous living conditions I could have wished for, but I would encourage anyone to do it if they have the opportunity, as it gave me a whole new level of independence, and bridged the gap between home living and self-sufficient living (which is where I am now) perfectly. Aside from that, living in such close proximity to other musicians from the Conservatoire helped me to build friendships that will last a lifetime, both personally and professionally.

Studying at a conservatoire is, without a shadow of doubt, an all-encompassing experience. Along the way I’ve been thrown into situations that I hadn’t exactly envisaged. Of course, the endless opportunities to try out new repertoire in performance classes, observe masterclasses, receive world class one-to-one tuition and the plethora of academic activities set conservatoire education apart from that of a normal music degree. However, one of the things I’ve really loved about my time at Birmingham so far is that you’re often pushed well out of your comfort zone. World music classes have been a fine example of this! Never during the open days where I toured music colleges in awe of their facilities and course offering, did I imagine that a year later I would find myself standing in a circle, hopelessly trying to play samba music on a drum. Nor did I imagine that I would end up sitting cross-legged (which I actually find surprisingly comfortable) on the floor attempting to play gamelan instruments. No, these haven’t exactly been the most exciting of my achievements in the past year, but they have helped to open my mind to the vast array of possibilities that music has to offer. Always expect the unexpected.

Having friends who study at different music colleges around the country has given me a valuable insight into how courses differ between institutions. Overall, I have found that Birmingham offers one of the most varied out there. A typical week in my first year included a variety of activities outside of my first study area, which have opened my eyes to the different possibilities music can offer. I’m not going to lie; Mondays were a slog! Early mornings began with ‘Performance Traditions’. This was interesting in itself, as the module split the year-group in half,  swapping activities halfway through the year. I began with world music, which I mentioned previously, and after Christmas changed to lectures, teaching us about different aspects of performance and how they have changed over time. Following this, my late morning and early afternoon would be spent practising, or at least hunting for a room on one day everyone needed them! At 2.30pm, everyone would venture to the Birmingham Midland Institute for a History lecture, with the evening culminating in a Chorus rehearsal until 6pm. Tuesday’s schedule was far less intense. I would begin practising in the early morning, usually arriving in college for 8am. Later, I would return to halls to catch up on academic work, and continue practise in the evenings. Wednesday began with a history workshop, consolidating Monday’s lecture, followed by performance class, and accompaniment class in the evening. Thursday was another heavy practise day, with the whole morning being free. The afternoon was largely taken up with a 3 hour masterclass, a highlight of the week! Friday was another more academic day: harmony and aural classes in the morning, followed by Alexander technique sessions. Despite the often-hectic schedule, I usually averaged between 3 and 5 hours of practice per day last year, plus frequent chamber music and vocal accompaniment rehearsals. One of the things I was a little disappointed about when I came to Birmingham was the number of hours allocated to first study piano lessons. Having 30 hours a year, split 50/50 between my two teachers, worked out at roughly one per week. However, I feel that the variety of activities on offer at Birmingham make it reflective of the life of a modern musician, something I think is very important.

The time at which I joined Birmingham has really made for a unique experience. There’s been so much excitement this year following the appointment of Julian Lloyd Webber as Principal, the Conservatoire gaining its first Royal patron, and seeing the new building develop. That being said, this year hasn’t come without disruption. Our home effectively becoming a building site has made my studies here very interesting. Wading through thick crowds of photographers, journalists and enthusiasts in the first stages of the demolition of the old library, and trying to block out the noise of builders prising the metal frame of our concert hall apart during practise sessions hasn’t exactly made life easy. Despite the continuing disturbance though, these things have all contributed to making my time here special, and if nothing else, memorable! I am so excited to be moving to our new state of the art home next year, but I also feel honoured to have seen the Conservatoire’s history, and be a part of its transition.

Of course, as a pianist, the chance to listen to others perform and work with some of the world’s finest pedagogues has been truly inspiring. Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to observe masterclasses lead by the likes of Peter Donohoe, Pascal Nemirovski, and Hamish Milne, just to name a few. Much of what I have heard is far beyond my own current capabilities, but I cannot begin to explain how much I am still able to take from the classes. It amazes me to see what a difference sometimes the simplest of techniques and gestures can make to someone’s playing, and often these are relatable to my own repertoire. What I really find inspiring about the masterclasses here though, is the ability of these world-famous performers to draw out the very best in the students here. So no, our facilities here may not currently be the most impressive, but the incredible music making that goes on inside definitely is.

Before I came to Birmingham, I’d only ever had one other piano teacher, so to be commencing my studies here with two new teachers, Mark Bebbington and Katharine Lam, was really quite daunting, even though I’d started having lessons with them a few months before. From the outset, I knew that the style of teaching I would receive here would be very different from that I was used to, though of course, as I stated in my first post, I will be forever grateful for my first piano teacher, and how she inspired me to become the musician I am today. I’m so glad, and indeed lucky, to have found two teachers who cater for my needs so well. Having been late in deciding that music college was the best path for me to take, my technique was quite behind where I would have liked it to have been when I arrived. However, both of my teachers have focused on different aspects of technique with me, and even though I have a very long way to go before being anywhere near happy with it, I am now in an abundantly better place than I was this time last year. For anyone who might be apprehensive about one to one lessons at a music college, make no mistake, if you make the most of them, they are incredible. Every week I leave the room amazed at the way in which my teachers are able to guide me through my repertoire. I often think of my lessons as if they’re a visit to the doctors’ surgery. I go in with my pieces carrying a vast array of symptoms, and in need of some direction, and then leave with a prescribed set of instructions and ideas that, as long as I stick to a regular dosage of practise, will lead my playing to a new level.

I could go on writing for hours about my endless challenges and fantastic experiences I’ve had here in my first year at Birmingham. Believe me, I really could! From my first experiences of chamber music to singing in a radio 3 broadcast of Verdi’s monumental Requiem, I really have done it all! However, all you need to know, aside from what I’ve already told you, is that if you have a real love for music, whether you aspire to be a performer, teacher, music therapist or indeed anything else in the music industry, then music college is the perfect place for you to be. Yes, it’s very intense, and you will be faced with situations that will really push you as a person and a musician, but the time you’ll spend there are sure to be some of the best years of your life.

Read Lewis Kesterton’s blog here.


 

The Mindful Pianist: An Interview with Mark Tanner

4f07a817201ecThe Mindful Pianist is a new book written by British pianist, author, teacher, composer, researcher, examiner and adjudicator,  Mark Tanner (pictured above). This volume forms part of EPTA‘s (European Piano Teachers Association) Piano Professional Series, and is published by Faber Music. I invited Mark to answer twelve questions about his life and diverse career as a musician.  Here are his thoughtful, erudite responses (in italics). I hope you enjoy reading as  much as I did.


You’ve enjoyed a varied, eclectic career; performing, writing, editing, composing, teaching, researching, and working as an examiner and adjudicator. How is your time divided between these different pursuits?

I’ve evolved what musicians often like to call a ‘portfolio existence’ – partly out of necessity, but mainly in response to my varied interests, many of which I’ve been lucky to watch blossom over the years.

My performing career has spurred off into many directions. Appearances include five solo recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square, along with many other appearances up and down the country as soloist, in concertos and with a variety of ensembles. A venue close to my heart is St George’s Bristol, where I have appeared with Allan Schiller, Richard May, Gillian Poznansky and Michael Langdon-Davies – I’ve also made several recordings there. Recitals on cruise ships continue to form an important part of my life, too – I’ve given over 300 recitals on all of the Cunard, P&O and Saga ships, many of which have been with my partner, flautist Gillian Poznansky, with whom I have also recorded a couple of CDs.

I have made an especial feature of British piano music, with recordings, recitals and broadcasts of previously unrecorded music by York Bowen, Peter Wishart (I later edited Wishart’s entire output of piano music for Edition Peters), John McLeod (various premières in the presence of the composer, including live on BBC Radio 3), Graham Lynch and Graham Fitkin. Performing – and indeed the whole process of gearing up for recitals and recordings – has always fed naturally into my professional life. I went through a phase of playing piano/keyboards for musicals, pantomimes and backing well-known comedians in cabaret, which has certainly stood me in good stead when it comes to living off my wits (a surreal engagement in more recent times involved playing on a dummy piano to ‘accompany’ Susan Boyle for her guest appearance on the X Factor). Although these days there tends to be extended periods during which I allow practising to slip, I can’t really imagine a life without the challenge of new repertoire.

Teaching seems always to have played a role in my musical life. Any aspiring professional musician who is not prepared to consider a certain amount of teaching is probably being rather unrealistic. Moreover, teaching is a way of tapping into the realities and passions of others. For some sixteen years I was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset. Teaching in a public school environment carried with it all kinds of parallel activities (I was head of squash, umpired the 2nd cricket team, edited the school magazine, became deputy house master of a boys’ boarding house, as well as the usual musical activities such as running bands, doing bits of conducting and putting on musicals, carol services and so on). I have enjoyed teaching privately too, as well as at summer schools. These include the Chetham’s International Piano Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust and Dillington House in Somerset, Maryland College in Woburn, the Farncombe Estate in Gloucestershire and the National Young Pianists at Uppington School. Commitments at home and abroad have always discouraged me from taking on regular work at higher education establishments, though I do pop up at various colleges and universities from time to time, to give recitals and masterclasses, and also to talk with students about career paths. These days, I give occasional consultation lessons, the odd Skype session (perhaps in a student’s run-up to a diploma or recital), though I can’t usually offer the kind of continuity most pianists seem to need.

Composing continues to play a very robust role in my musical life. Stimulated initially by an interest in obscure contemporary piano music, I found myself partly switching tactic as far as my own compositions are concerned. This triggered what would turn out to be a very fruitful ongoing relationship with Spartan Press, an enterprising publishing company based in the Highlands of Scotland. For Spartan, I have now composed, transcribed and arranged over 60 volumes of music, roughly half of which is for piano, the remainder for a variety of other instruments and voices. Writing music for the ‘educational’ milieu requires a sensitivity to what is practical, not merely an idea of how one might like a particular piece to sound. This has undoubtedly tugged me towards a more pragmatic way of thinking and writing, which is no bad thing, for a piece is ultimately more likely to hit the mark as regards general appeal and approachability.seascapes

It was gratifying to have my ‘Scapes’ piano series (published in five volumes) shortlisted for a recent Music Teacher Award, and indeed to follow the progress of around 20 pieces onto the current syllabuses of ABRSM, TCL and LCM. I continue to get lively responses via my website (www.marktanner.info) regarding the five piano pieces featuring on the TCL syllabus. It is in the very nature of writing educational music that composers keep their fingers crossed every time a new syllabus launch is in the offing. My Lullaby for Prince George (a grade 5 piece composed for Pianist Magazine) captured the attention of Classic FM a couple of years back; this spike in interest certainly heightens the presence of a composer (incidentally, the Lullaby, along with Nocturne for Princess Charlotte, is now published in a volume entitled Sleep Tight).

I am particularly pleased with a recent five-volume series of piano pieces, which I ended up calling Listen to the World – it taps into all kinds of ‘sound-moods’, which range from Bangkok Busker to Air Balloons over Albuquerque. I like to think I have remained fairly true to the philosophy of my first series of published books – Eye-Tunes – which evolved over a few years into a twelve-volume set comprising exactly one hundred pieces; from these, I went on to cherry-pick some arrangements for flute and piano, which became Creature Comforts and Flute Pastilles. As a spinoff from my ‘usual’ approach to composing, I enjoyed putting together a four-volume series of Elizabethan pieces from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Pieces – intriguing miniatures, which seemed to be screaming out for a contemporary face-lift; I called it A Renaissance Keyboard Anthology. This later prompted me to compose a one-off set of quirky pieces in response to the originals, which I called The FitzTanner Collection.

Writing has always been something which gives me terrific pleasure and satisfaction. I wrote my PhD thesis on the performance history of Franz Liszt, and this spawned various articles in scholarly journals, published both in the UK and US. I then enjoyed writing several hundred articles and reviews for International Record Review, Classical Music, International Piano and Musical Opinion. For Pianist Magazine, I have written two dozen feature-length ‘masterclass’ articles, which cover aspects of piano playing such as rubato, improvisation, holding momentum, pedalling and so on. I was pleased recently to take on the role of Guest Editor for EPTA’s flagship Magazine, Piano Professional.

Examining for ABRSM is by its very nature hard work. It involves a lot of traveling around, plus an amount of administration and organisation, not to mention sitting behind a desk for six or more hours at a time, scribbling like a crazed man. The challenge of examining is to listen intently to what is happening, while keeping in mind the previous item about which you will probably still be writing! In the UK, I usually examine for about a fortnight in each of the three sessions, which is the maximum I can tuck in due to other commitments. Though I live in the South West, some of this will end up being in London, as I am on the Examiner Training Panel, which takes prospective examiners from interview on through a rigorous process leading to (hopefully) the finished article.

I find the international side of examining tremendously rewarding, though challenging work. There can be language difficulties to overcome, hassles with getting to and from obscure venues, issues with food (‘examiner’s tummy’ is an irksome topic all to itself) and of course the accumulation of tiredness, which can take a lot out of you as you move from one city or country to the next, perhaps leaping across time-zones. I have conducted several diploma-only tours to Hong Kong and Singapore, though most of my ‘solo’ tours these days involve a mix of grades, diplomas and teacher seminars. Each year I take on two lengthy international tours, which has proved to be an excellent way of seeing the world. Examiners get ‘under the skin’ of a foreign place in ways the holiday-maker is less likely to, and I find this an immensely rewarding experience – though undoubtedly the most fatiguing work I have ever done. I have undertaken over 30 international tours, to five continents (alas, we don’t examine in South America, as yet). These have taken me to the snow-topped Himalayas, the dreamy coasts of New Zealand, the stunning Swiss Alps, eerily abandoned South African diamond mining towns, Kathmandu (I happened to be working there just a fortnight before the major recent earthquake), all over the Far East many times, several trips to the USA and Canada, and (a particular favourite) India. I’ve just returned from an extended tour of South Korea and Japan, and am about to depart for New York and Princeton – next year I’ll be in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

I also undertake annual Presentation Tours for ABRSM, which involves making whistle-stop fortnight-long trips all over China (as many as a dozen internal flights), explaining to teachers how the exam system can be of help to them, providing a ‘system’ for serious study as well as fostering the simple joy of learning. I occasionally get involved with other aspects of ABRSM too, such as co-writing the Teaching Notes, an informative book to accompany the latest piano syllabus, and composing bits and pieces for various ongoing projects/syllabuses. One such project, which has just come into fruition actually, is the Piano Star series: three ‘repertoire’ books leading from pre Prep Test to about grade 1, containing solo items and duets. I also spend the equivalent of about a fortnight per year working for ABRSM’s Reading Panel, which forms part of the organisation’s ongoing quality control machine; we provide forensically detailed critiques (and of course positive feedback!) to support examiners in their quest to write helpful, consistent, well-matched comments.9781848499249

Adjudicating for the British and International Federation of Festivals is another strand of my work which I find very rewarding. Festivals in the UK tend to happen in March and November (when I’m invariably examining overseas), so I would generally expect to manage only perhaps a week or two of adjudicating each year. That said, I have adjudicated many of the festivals in the south of England, plus a sprinkling further north; this year I adjudicated the Singapore Festival of Performing Arts, with a few masterclasses and one-to-one lessons bolted on for good measure. I have adjudicated the EPTA Piano Competition several times, and this year also judged the National Composer’s Competition.

An important distinction between examining and adjudicating is the nature and depth of feedback. In a festival, it is often entirely appropriate (and sometimes specifically expected) that the adjudicator will get up onstage and offer help and advice on how to improve what was just heard. In an exam, by stark contrast, there is no provision for feedback ‘in the moment’ – just the comments given on the mark form, which is really the only lasting evidence that the exam ever actually took place.

If you were to pick one (or perhaps two!), which has been the most rewarding and satisfying, and why?

The first time we accomplish something important, I guess we tend to etch it into our memory and accord it a certain fondness. My first solo performance was at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aged 11 (the Bristol Evening Post described me as “the intrepid Mark Tanner” – I seem to remember getting lost walking off stage…) and this was followed shortly after by my first BBC TV appearance as semi-finalist in a piano competition called Major-Minor, adjudicated by Sir David Willcocks. My inaugural live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, in which I included a previously unknown work by Constant Lambert and a piece of my own, would certainly rank as a seminal moment, as would my Wigmore Hall debut. Completing my PhD, while simultaneously teaching full-time and establishing myself on the playing circuit, was an especially important five-year period for me, especially since it opened my eyes to the prospect of a side career in writing, from which I continue to gain a great deal of satisfaction.

You spend much time in the Far East presenting and lecturing for ABRSM, what differences have you noticed in the approach to teaching and playing in that part of the world, or are they very similar to those in the West?

Well, this a question I am often asked, and to which I doubt if I’ve ever given a fully honest answer! My feeling, having examined something in the region of 20,000 candidates all over the world, is that every examining day brings with it the potential for something memorable. In truth, examiners get to experience the full gamut of possibilities (in terms of playing quality) on virtually every tour they undertake. They also get to experience a very occasional tragic or humorous event, which may well turn out to be something they can dine out on for years to come. From my personal experience, the ‘average’ playing one hears in Cardiff will probably shake out as similar to that experienced in Dhaka or Helsinki, though as you might imagine, the extremes of the playing one encounters overseas can be an entirely different matter. As far as I can detect, the teaching in foreign countries (gauged purely in terms of the outcome of an exam) is every bit as effective as we would expect to find here in the UK – sometimes more so.

Many young students (including mine!) have loved playing your piano compositions (which have been published worldwide, and feature in a plethora of exam syllabuses), when did you start composing educational piano pieces? How would you describe your style?

I studied composition at college – my first ever piece was a full-blown orchestral work actually, which I’d probably shy away from doing today – and it would be fair to say that this angle of my life has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. Composing is something I can do while I’m sat on deck sipping a mocktail on the Queen Mary 2, or squeezed into the corner of a Starbucks in San Francisco, so I suppose this might explain why I have enjoyed devoting more and more of my time to this line of work.index

As far as style goes, I’m a bit hard to pin down. I have always been interested in jazz and lighter styles (I was an avid fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Uriah Heep in my teens), though of course my training as a concert pianist took me down myriad complex routes, too. In truth, I tend to allow a part of my imagination to run riot while I’m engaged in a particular project. So, by way of example, I’m mid-way through a five-volume piano series called Jazz Hands, which regularly ventures off-piste into more impressionist and even minimalist territory, and I have composed a series of study books for tackling the ABRSM Quick Study called Know the Score, which has helped a variety of instrumentalists to engage more fruitfully with this component of the DipABRSM. My two volumes of folk song arrangements came about as a natural consequence of a CD I recorded with veteran bass-baritone, Michael George, and these again encouraged me to dip my toe into an array of contemporary styles. I love playing around with different textures and re-working familiar structures and progressions until they yield something new and intriguing. Many TCL grade 6 pianists will have enjoyed thrusting their way through The Wit and Wisdom of the Night, a Bernstein-esque little ditty, or finessing The Owl and the Pussycat (a TCL grade 1 piece which is over before it’s begun). The style of these two examples could hardly contrast more, it now occurs to me (The Owl and the Pussycat is more reminiscent of Haydn than Bernstein). Apart from Mozart and Chopin, whose styles were pretty much in place from the earliest age, style seems generally to be a continually moveable feast (Stravinsky is an excellent example of a composer who was forever reinventing himself). The minute we attempt to define style, it has already begun to morph into something else. Composers, not unlike artists in my experience, can be a little disingenuous in that we wish to be regarded as ‘individual’, while at the same time often enjoy dabbling in genre-crossing. Besides, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a little derivative as a composer. Improvisation of course ties in inextricably with composition (the latter in some senses emerging as a ‘formalisation’ of the former), though the miracle of composing amounts to a coming together of real experiences in resonance with imagined ones.

When composing, what aspects are, for you, key? Do you hear the piece in your head before writing, or do you prefer working it all out at the piano?

An excellent question, which I shall proceed to dodge, strategically. In the same way that some Beatles melodies foreshadowed the lyrics, and others the reverse, I tend to respond to the moment and then run with it. There have been times when, for example sitting next to an elderly gentleman tapping his stick on the New York subway, I have found myself itching to compose a piece using an unusual 15/8 rhythm. But there are also occasions – for example, when I am getting close to finishing off a book pitched at a particular grade – where a more pragmatic approach proves necessary in order to hit the brief. For a piano piece to be fully pianistic, it would be silly not to road-test it thoroughly, sat at the instrument, or in the case of a violin or flute piece, to run it past an expert. Composers generally write pieces in order to coax a strong emotional response from the player and listener, not simply to be ‘clever’. This requires an appetite for new ideas, though in reality some of these may be partially preconceived. Ultimately one must trust in one’s musical intelligence.

mindfulI  thoroughly enjoyed reading your new book, The Mindful Pianist, which has just been published by Faber Music, and is part of the ongoing Piano Professional Series (published by EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association). ‘Mindful’ piano playing has become fashionable, why do you feel it’s important?

The whole mindfulness platform brims with potential; it can be of great value to musicians of all persuasions. To say that mindfulness has enjoyed a recent resurgence (I’d entirely agree – everything from macramé to bread-making and surfing) is perhaps a bit like saying that religion has grown in popularity. In truth, mindfulness is probably as old as human thought, though it evidently came of age through the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Musicians, and perhaps pianists in particular, often become side-tracked by their longer-term ambitions – for example, an upcoming exam or public performance – and though entirely understandable, such preoccupations tend to uproot our sense of the present moment. We end up overthinking, over-reaching, over-compensating and over-reacting to aspects of our musical lives lying some way off in the future, instead of focussing on what is happening right now, sat at the piano. This remarkably simple starting point is nevertheless the trigger for my book – we need to learn how best to harness all this energy and ‘spend’ it where it will be most likely be of optimum value. From here, pianists can gradually home in on the practicalities of learning and evolving, attending to details and working up a really compelling performance.

The Mindful Pianist is split into four broad areas of study: focussing, practising, performing, engaging. Each area challenges the reader (who might be a seasoned pianist, or perhaps a keen amateur) to reappraise what they are doing and head off the blight of performance anxiety. Occasionally, it seems the teacher can unwittingly contribute to a less than robust approach also, perhaps by glossing over the specific needs of the individual student, or else by over-emphasising a particular facet of playing and skimming over others. The role of the teacher, as I reinforce more fully in the book, is to teach the pupil to teach himself, so that every practice session becomes a self-taught lesson. If we are not encouraged to take responsibility for our practising and performing, we can never fully flourish.

Did you re-exam you own approach to the piano when writing this book, or are the ideas mostly derived from your work over time as a teacher?

The book is most definitely a coming-together of different strands of my teaching (and of course thinking) over thirty years, and feeds directly into the whole conundrum of piano playing. Though piano playing is a fine motor skill, I feel it ought not be segregated too far from the broader objectives of teaching and learning. Analytical approaches (I go into these in some depth in the book, and offer some innovative models) are examples of how the enlightened teacher can trigger a creative response from their pupils. Teachers of course learn all the time from their pupils’ mistakes, not to mention their own.

The book is peppered with quintessential advice and suggestions from other piano teachers and pianists, which adds a richness, emphasizing your fundamental points. In your own education, which teachers have been an important influence, shaping your teaching and playing?

The power of a teacher to help you learn is, I believe, inextricably tied to your own capacity to respond and adapt. This is why we feel more tuned in to certain approaches and correspondingly switched off by others. Nonetheless, I like to feel I have gained as much from participating in masterclasses with pianists such as Peter Donohoe, as I have from my ‘regular’ teachers, who have included Gwyn Pritchard, Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. They each played to their strengths as pianists (and in Gwyn’s and Philip’s case, as composers, too) as much as their qualities as teachers, which explains what I was able to take away from those lessons. Gwyn first opened my eyes to the value of thoughtful, methodical practising; Geoff endlessly impressed me with his extraordinary repertoire and powers of recall; Philip had me rolling around in fits of laughter (while gently nudging me to tackle some mammoth pieces); and Richard showed me what it is to be a resourceful ‘virtuoso teacher’ (as Paul Harris optimistically coined it in his book by the same name).

sp1297You teach many advanced adult students (at Chethams Summer School, Jackdaws Educational Trust, EPTA, and other educational institutions), how do their issues differ from those of the younger piano student?

Adults present a wholly different set of challenges for the piano teacher. Just as children are not small adults, adults are not big children; we so easily overlook this stunningly obvious observation. Younger players abound in energy, confidence and a gung-ho approach (not universally, but often, in my experience), while adults not infrequently fall victim to their own idiosyncratic psychological foibles. One manifestation of this (which, again, I tackle briefly in the book), would be choosing repertoire – for the physical capacity to play Rachmaninov is a quite different matter from the desire to do so; unfortunately, overstretching our capabilities can have a profoundly negative outcome over the longer term. Piano playing is hard enough without adding to the difficulties by persevering with repertoire which lies beyond our scope. Similarly, the acquisition of a reliable technique is but one among many equally worthy elements of successful piano playing. While stretching ourselves to the next level is always a commendable goal, arguably we will reach grade 6 more efficiently by first working up a clutch of grade 5 pieces to a good level, rather than by toying around ineffectually with a bunch of grade 7 pieces.

In summer schools, teachers routinely encounter a startling range of promising students – youngsters who can whizz through the Emperor Concerto without turning a hair, or older teenagers who are already able to improvise in any style from Scriabin to Coldplay. But there will be others for whom piano playing seems to have become all about persisting with a couple of pieces with which they feel a certain bond or kinship; this bittersweet tussle can endure for decades and is not always the most profitable use of their time, I’d suggest. The younger player could undoubtedly learn from his more senior counterpart, whose grasp of the musical landmarks in a piece may well be more sophisticated; conversely, the older pianist might take a leaf out of the teenager’s book as regards holding momentum and generally ‘going for it’. Knowing oneself is key to honing an approach that will prove fruitful over the longer term.

Another thing occurs to me regarding the adult learner, which is that teachers all too easily become counsellors or armchair psychologists – I am sure many teachers of adults will be familiar with the student who spends the first 45 minutes of an hour’s lesson discussing Brexit or Fracking, as if compelled to stave off the moment when they sit squarely at the piano, by which time the next pupil can be already be heard parking his car outside…

sp1180What advice could you bestow to the many pianists preparing to take performing and teaching diplomas, particularly regarding programming?

Mm…this is a knotty one. For a performing diploma, I would usually recommend a less-is-more approach. My father has a saying: “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”. In other words, why open yourself up to the possibility of demonstrating what you cannot do? Playing from memory, when this is not something that comes naturally to you, would be a prime example. If there is an own-choice component (as is the case for all three of the established ABRSM diplomas, and indeed the new ARSM, which is exclusively concerned with performing), then this is most definitely something worthy of serious consideration.

In general, my advice would be to put your best foot forward – start and end your programme with a strong item you know you can play exceedingly well (even if a noisy demonstration suddenly starts up on the street outside – which happened to me once in a St John’s Smith Square recital). Don’t feel hidebound by tradition, convention or chronology – it’s ok to end with Bach, so long as your choice ‘works’ – and by the same token you might consider launching your recital with Shostakovich. Pace yourself, both as regards the mental and physical stamina demanded by the occasion. Listen at least as intently as the examiner will be, and if something goes astray, airbrush out the memory in an instant – don’t let it snowball into a series of debilitating calamities.

For teaching diplomas, my best advice would be to know your stuff inside out. Many candidates sidle into an exam room with what looks like a shopping trolley brimming over with books they’ve borrowed; but when asked to put their hands on something specific, let’s say a grade 4 piece with issues of pedalling, they find themselves completely scuppered. Better, in my opinion, to bring in two handfuls of material with which you are wholly familiar, so that you can dip into it at a moment’s notice, even when under exam pressure. In the viva voce, take your time and answer the question. If you slip off topic too frequently, your examiner will be bound to lower his/her opinion of you. When you speak, aim to form sentences which have a beginning, middle and end; stick to your guns and think ahead to where you’d like to steer the topic next. Doing this will place you more in control of what is being discussed; from here you will be more able to reveal those little nuggets of information you’ve stored away.

In a few words, can you sum up the most crucial aspects of mindful piano playing; ones which students can immediately implement into their practice routine?

Start each session with something you can already play quite well, and finish with something you can play even better. In the middle part of your practice session (which in the majority of cases ought not to exceed an hour or so at a time), be prepared to fulfil a series of small, achievable objectives – tick these off one by one in your mind. If you are not measurably better after your practising, you cannot claim to have been working very effectively. Breathe calmly, pause for thought and reflect on what just took place at regular intervals. Think clearly about what you are broadly hoping to achieve for each task – then pursue it with confidence, courage and determination. Shake things up a bit when you are getting bored or restless, and in general, work from the back of a piece to the front, especially if it happens to be a large-scale work, for example a sonata or concerto. Queue up the bits of a piece which are giving you the most trouble and deal with each ‘quarantined’ passage one at a time, thoughtfully and methodically. Resist the temptation to pound away at something difficult, getting faster and faster as you do so; instead, isolate the problem, rather as a surgeon might, and deal with it mindfully: less haste, more speed. Record yourself practising from time to time, to gain a more ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, and take all opportunities to play for others, especially if your ultimate goal is to perform in some kind of ‘event’. Finally, practise practising, then practise performing – these are two quite distinct modes of working, each of which requires a specific mental outlook.

Most musicians in today’s world find social media a vital ‘tool’, however, you have successfully managed to side-step this marketing device, was this a conscious decision? Do you feel it isn’t as important as many might have us believe?

Twitter is something I am beginning to get to grips with, at long last, though I have been less enamoured by Facebook so far; I may well give in soon though. As with any form of communication, or networking, my feeling is that we shouldn’t bother to proclaim things unless we feel confident they are worth hearing; otherwise, we end up contributing to a bottomless quagmire of trivial nonsense. I also feel that if we do not impose a restraining order on our social media activities they can end up draining away every spare moment in our lives. On balance though, we cannot hope to gain advantage from social media if we are not prepared to take an active role. With this in mind, I have begun to add a series of ‘how-to’ videos to my Twitter feeds. I now have two: @MarkTannerPiano and @MindfulPianist.  It strikes me that we all use social media in different ways in order to accomplish different objectives. It falls upon each of us to decide where the useful stuff turns the corner into banality.

You can explore Mark’s music here, and purchase The Mindful Pianist, here.


Weekend Competition; the winners…

safari-cover-238-236-225-light-backgroundMany thanks to everyone who took part in my weekend competition. Two signed copies of Safari, a collection of 23 elementary pieces, by composer June Armstrong will be sent to the following winners:

Susan Hong and Rebecca Singerman-Knight

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page here on this blog, and your books will be with you very soon.

If you would like to find out more or purchase Safari, click here.