Weekend Competition! Safari by June Armstrong

safari-cover-238-236-225-light-backgroundMy competition this weekend features a new collection of beginner to pre-grade one piano pieces written by composer June Armstrong.

Safari consists of 23 elementary pieces and follows the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  You can meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others, as well as a myriad of atmospheric scenes such as Mountain Mist and Mirage. To listen to every piece click here.

This selection contains a distinctly appealing atmospheric sound, and one which I think both adult and child beginners will enjoy. A wide range of piano techniques are introduced, and therefore these little pieces form excellent teaching material.

I have two signed copies of this volume to give away, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will select two winners (and announce them on this blog, so stay tuned!) on Sunday evening (British time). If you would like to purchase Safari, you can do so here.

A Weekend at Jackdaws Music Education Trust

jackdawsI had the pleasure of tutoring a second piano course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust over the weekend. Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through residential and one day instrumental and vocal courses, various education projects, a Young Artists Programme, as well as performances by world-class musicians.

Piano courses, whether weekend courses or Summer schools, are proving increasingly popular with pianists of all levels and abilities (from beginners through to professionals). Jackdaws was recently voted second place in a UK Piano Course Ranking. According to the survey, those who attended such courses gave the following reasons as most important;  ‘the opportunity to work with leading teachers’ (something Jackdaws offers at every weekend course)  and the chance to gain ‘useful, critical feedback’.

Jackdaws is situated in the village of Great Elm, just outside Frome, in Somerset (UK). A picturesque venue and setting (see photo above), wonderful food (all home cooked by our chef Loo) and an excellent Steinway, make for a thoroughly enjoyable and, hopefully, informative few days.

My course focused on piano technique, sight-reading and memorisation, which are aspects sometimes forgotten or side-stepped during piano lessons, however, there was also ample time for each participant to work on repertoire too. In all, the weekend courses (which begin on Friday evenings at 6.30pm and finish at 4pm on Sunday afternoons), consist of around 12 hours of tuition, as well as a little time on Saturday afternoon to explore the surrounding area. It’s certainly a musically action packed weekend!

Course participants ranged from teenagers to the more mature, and from elementary level through to advanced; it was interesting to observe how this variety didn’t affect or impede enjoyment; the elementary students seemed to respond well to hearing advanced students perform and vice versa. By working at particular facets of piano playing, it’s possible to involve all standards and abilities, and offer a few ideas for improvement at every level.There were fewer pianists on my course this year, but those who came said they savoured the opportunity for longer one-to-one teaching sessions.

A weekend course doesn’t necessarily aim to overhaul piano playing overnight, but it can offer the possibility of change, and a realisation that certain elements can be tackled in a different way. Performance practice (i.e. the act of playing through a piece from beginning to end in front of a small audience) can be a triumph for some, and courses are useful for this aspect alone.

One of the participants on my course last year realised she needed another approach, and has since come for regular lessons; we have worked hard to alter and improve her playing, and she has just taken an ATCL diploma and is now preparing for music college and university auditions.

The prospect of meeting new and like-minded friends makes this a perfect way to spend a weekend. There are a plethora of piano courses taking place at Jackdaws throughout the year featuring a cohort of leading piano pedagogues (you can find out much more here), so you’ll no doubt find one to suit you.


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The Value of Lectures and Master classes

For many pianists, teachers and students, masterclasses, lectures and workshops can play a fascinating and beneficial part of ongoing musical development (when do we ever stop learning?).

Last Friday night I attended the first event of the new London Piano Festival (of which pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen are artistic directors) held at King’s Place. Legendary Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel (who has retired from the concert platform), gave a lecture entitled From Exuberance to Asceticism  focusing on Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor S. 178, a work which he has performed countless times during the course of his career.

Following on from the hour’s presentation, pianist Dénes Várjon treated the packed auditorium to a performance of the piece, after which Alan Rusbridger interviewed Brendel about his career and his relationship with Liszt’s music. Brendel’s many illuminating observations, during the lecture, threw light on the challenges when preparing and performing such a work, and he punctuated various musical episodes and thematic developments, with demonstrations. These ruminations were compelling both from a professional pianist or piano teacher’s perspective, as well as from a piano lover’s viewpoint.

Earlier last week, I was introduced to a series of video master classes (on Youtube) given in 1987 by the great Hungarian pianist and pedagogue György Sebők. Sebok died in 1999, however his legacy continues through those students who were fortunate enough to enjoy his teaching. A consummate teacher, he was amongst the glitterati of professors (at that time) teaching at the illustrious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, US.

The following video clips offer a wealth of interesting advice and suggestions, which centre around Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35, played by Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam. This is a piece I performed as a young student, and I found Sebok’s ideas engaging, witty, and extremely useful, especially his thoughts regarding sound and movement. I hope you enjoy them!

Three prizes; the winners are…

getattachmentthumbnailMany thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition, which offered the chance to win one of three books (pictured above) all published by Schott Music.

The winners are…

Rebecca Hardy wins Russian Folk Tunes

Pamela Denison wins Piano Piccolo

And, Julie Campbell wins Blues, Boogie and Gospel

Congratulations! Please send your name and address via my contact page on the blog and the books will be on their way!

To find out more about Schott publications, click here.


Weekend Competition: Three prizes!

getattachmentthumbnailToday’s competition features three Schott publications;

Russian Folk tunes comprises a set of traditional tunes arranged and played by bandoneonist, composer and arranger Julian Rowlands. There are 23 pieces in the volume, intended for approximately intermediate to advanced players. Find out more here.

Piano Piccolo which contains 111 easy original piano pieces compiled by German composer, teacher and arranger Hans-Günter Heumann. Great for elementary students who desire a broader repertoire. Find out more here.

Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection by British composer and jazz pianist Tim Richards. This book contains 13 original pieces plus two arrangements as well as copious practice and performance notes. Find out more here.

As always, for a chance to win one of these publications, please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will announce the three winners on Sunday evening (British time), here on the blog. Good luck!


To Skype or not to Skype?

skype-picPiano lessons conducted over Skype have become increasingly popular. Skype is a free computer, tablet or phone app which can be either audio (phone calls) or video. The fact that it’s possible to call anyone, anywhere around the world at any time, opens up limitless possibilities for many professions, but particularly for music lessons. Whilst a considerable number of teachers have embraced this new technology, others feel  remote lessons are less than desirable; how much can students really learn when not in the same room, or being demonstrated to at the same piano?

I used to be amongst the skeptics, routinely refusing to give Skype lessons because I wasn’t convinced I could give a pupil the necessary attention and advice from behind a screen. Then one day an advanced pupil who I had been teaching for a couple of years (in real life!) suddenly moved to the US to go to university, and wanted to continue lessons (and exam preparation) with me. Would I give regular Skype lessons? Faced with this conundrum, I tentatively agreed.

Indeed, it’s been an interesting experiment, and one with which I have been pleasantly surprised. Once we had decided on the best time (not easy when there is a substantial time difference), and the best position for the computer camera (as seen in the image above) so I can observe the keyboard, posture, fingers and hand positions, lessons commenced as usual. I sit at my piano with the laptop on the (collapsed) music desk, so I can play and demonstrate if necessary (and it usually is); it’s also vital to have all the intended scores or scales and exercises at your finger tips. Never have bar numbers, key changes, phrase structures and other ‘sign posts’ been so crucial. I still keep the proverbial pencil handy even though it’s unnecessary!

The assiduous Skype teacher will have a much more thorough set-up with multiple cameras, headphones, and the like, but it’s possible to obtain a fairly satisfactory result with just a computer and a piano.

Sound quality varies; there can be a slight delay, especially when I talk whilst my pupil is still playing. At this point, the sound simply stops, meaning I will probably miss a few beats, so I have trained myself to keep quiet until the end, whether of a play through or a replay of a small passage. Rarely, the video and audio disintegrates and stops; this has never really affected our lessons; and if it does, the dissipated passage or phrase is just repeated.

One aspect which concerned me, was the demonstrating of technique. I usually show students, and very often (with their permission), will correct them. This isn’t possible via Skype of course, although you can demonstrate by showing particular movements (it’s not the same as being at the same instrument though). This is never problem for my student because we have worked hard in this respect over the two-year period when she studied with me. But it could be an issue with a new student. Beginners would be a challenge too, as they generally rely on being guided around the keyboard.

Sound production could be another problematic aspect. Hearing piano timbre via Skype isn’t the same as listening ‘live’ in the room, and can sometimes appear ‘harsh’ and ‘thin’ in quality, when in fact the opposite could be true (in the same way a difficult acoustic can alter our perception of sound). Again, having already taught the pupil in question, these issues are generally avoided, but could be alleviated by physical demonstration from a teacher (at the piano). In this instance, it would be especially helpful if a camera was set up to show movements. Here, I generally use my arm, wrist, hand and fingers to make the same gesture or motions in the air (to the camera), as would be required at the keyboard, which has worked thus far.

I’m pleased to say my pupil  is now well prepared for her exam and we’ve had few issues being thousands of miles away from each other. So perhaps this has convinced me to think again about the use of Skype for more than just business meetings!

Why consider Skype lessons? Here are a few reasons:

  1. You want to study with a particular teacher, who resides far away from where you live.
  2. You have a limited amount of time and therefore perhaps cannot study regularly.
  3. You would prefer shorter sessions rather than one long lesson (although my lessons can be fairly lengthy).
  4. You want lessons in the comfort of your own home.
  5. You don’t want to travel and would like the lesson at a certain time of day, to accommodate your own busy schedule.

10 Top Tips To Pass Your Piano Exam

So you want to play the piano photo 5As the new term gets underway, many will be preparing for music exams at the end of the year and the aim of this post is to provide a few extra pointers and ideas for last-minute preparations.

Once the pieces have been learnt, scales, arpeggios and technical work is all in place, and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests have finally been understood, how can students feel motivated and keep improving right up until the last moment?

Here are a few suggestions for the final four weeks before a piano exam.

  1. Start by knowing all about your piano pieces; really understand their background, the context in which they were written, and that of the composer. You might be surprised  by how this knowledge affects the way you play a piece.
  2. Ensure you can play the left hand of each piece alone (preferably from memory). Left hand practice will have a substantial impact on continuity and will hopefully stem the dreaded curse of the ‘stumble’ or hesitation.
  3. When secure, play each piece through at least once a day, from the beginning to the end without stopping, eliminating errors. It can be helpful to play through under tempo at the start of the day (and with a metronome), and then later in the day, play through at the expected speed. When playing under tempo, I would play without the sustaining pedal too, as this tunes our ears to what fingers are actually doing.
  4. A week or so before your exam, arrange two or three play-throughs. These don’t need to be formal: perhaps one at your teacher’s studio, in front of other students, and another amongst family or friends. They need to make you feel ‘on edge’ and slightly out of your comfort zone, but they shouldn’t feel terrifying.
  5. Before you play any piece through, take a few seconds to think about how you are going to begin: set the tempo, think about how the piece makes you feel, and also about the sound you are aiming to produce. This will contribute to making a confident, secure impression as opposed to a shaky, unsure opening.
  6. Aural tests can take a while to sink in and become comfortable. Listen to every genre of Classical music, so that you are well aware of stylistic trends. This will be especially useful for the last test in ABRSM exams, and it will also help to distinguish the pulse, be aware of the beat (i.e. clapping) and  enable you to sing the musical lines (you must be able to hear the lines before you can sing them, so perpetual listening will be crucial).
  7. Scales and arpeggios (or technical work) are much more fun and palatable if you can find a piano playing friend to work with (perhaps your piano teacher has students who are of a similar level to you). However, you don’t have to be the same level. Test each other on scales and arpeggios; if you have two keyboards or pianos, play the same (or different) keys one after another as a quick fire test, and you could even play them together slowly (I used to do this and really enjoyed it). It’s amazing how effective this kind of focus can be.
  8. Ensure ample sight-reading material (there are many books available for various grades, and piano anthologies can be useful too) and make sure you manage at least 10 minutes a day (depending on your level). After you’ve prepared the piece in your mind (looked at the key, fingering, hand position changes and rhythm etc.), set the metronome on a very slow beat and play along to it, resisting the urge to stop and correct yourself.
  9. Define the order of your exam. Most boards allow you to start with either scales or pieces, and it can help if you make a firm decision before you enter the exam room. I advise pupils to begin with scales – they are great for a warm-up, allowing you to become acquainted with the instrument.
  10.  The day before, test yourself by doing a mock exam (you could do it on your own, or invite a crowd!). Play the pieces, all the scales, a piece of sight-reading (one which you haven’t seen before), and go through the Aural tests (using the many apps or audio versions available). This should help settle nerves and provide a feeling of security.

Good luck!

For lots of information on piano exam preparation plus plenty more, check out my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?

For sight-reading material or for alternative repertoire, check out The Faber Music Piano Anthology, containing 78 pieces from around Grade 2 – 8, selected by me.

Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music

Weekend Competition: the winners….

lang-langMany thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition. As always, it’s been a pleasure reading all your comments. Without further ado, the winners are:

Loraine wins The Lang Lang Piano Method Book 4

and, Jazzworkshops wins The Lang Lang Piano Method Book 5


Please send me your contact details via my contact page here on this blog.

For more information on The Lang Lang Piano Method, click here.


Weekend Competition: The Lang Lang Piano Method & Free Teachers’ Packs

lang-langAfter the Summer holidays, my weekend competitions are back! Today’s prize presents the opportunity to win one of two volumes from The Lang Lang Piano Method series, published by Faber. The fourth and fifth books have just been released and are on offer this weekend. These publications are a continuation of the series, providing the conclusion to the method. You can find out much more about Lang Lang’s books here and you can purchase them here.

To be in with a chance of winning, please leave a comment in the comment box at the end of the post and I will select the winners on Sunday evening (British time).

Good luck!

getattachmentthumbnailFaber Music are also giving away some free Lang Lang Piano Method Teachers’ Packs (pictured above), including pencils, stickers, bookmarks and sticky notes. If you’d like a pack, simply send an email requesting one to marketing@fabermusic.com with your name and postal address.

12 Top Recommended Piano Resources for September 2016

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September brings a bumper crop of new publications and resources which I hope you will find of interest. A selection of beginner’s volumes, great little elementary pieces, anthologies and fascinating piano related books as well as a novel, which should provide reading and playing material for the new school term. Enjoy!

Beginners and Elementary

The Lang Lang Piano Method Volumes 4 & 5

lang-langEarlier this year The Lang Lang Piano Method (volumes 1, 2 & 3), written by Chinese star pianist Lang Lang, was launched by Faber, and now volumes four and five have been released. A cartoon Lang Lang appears throughout these books providing encouragement, taking young pianists step by step through every section.These books build on the learning process already established in the first three publications, introducing new keys, rhythms, extending technique through repertoire which includes original pieces and famous tunes. Find out more and purchase here.

Improv Exercises

impov-exerices-for-piano-by-elena-cobb-730x1024Created by British composer and publisher Elena Cobb, Improv Exercises For Classically Trained Beginners is a 21st century educational concept based on the belief that, in addition to regular practice, classically orientated piano lessons should also include elements of improvisation. This book deals with blues scale improvisation on the basic twelve-bar blues with only three chords, and it will bring you to a firm understanding of how to structure your approach to improvisation. You will also be able to apply this new skill to another very popular element for playing jazz –  accompanying a band without the score. Containing a Twelve-bar blues chart & formula, Rhythm exercises, Noodling exercises, Blues scale exercises on all twelve keys, Basslines and much more. Purchase here.

Piano Piccolo

heumannThis is a new collection of 111 original easy piano pieces published by Schott and collated by the excellent German composer, teacher and arranger, Hans-Günter Heumann. Including popular repertoire as well as many less known works, over 60 composers from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods are featured. This books comes from the Pianissimo series, designed as an introduction to the collection, Für Elise. You can find out much more and purchase here.

Piano Train Trips


Piano Train Trips is the first book written by Spanish pianist, teacher and composer Juan Cabeza. The book includes 18 Études  and 9 Exercises with duet accompaniment, downloadable audio recordings of the pieces and play-along accompaniment for the exercises. Each étude covers a particular technique: scales, intervals, arpeggios and chords, which are all presented in an original and attractive way. They are fresh, modern and exciting pattern-based pieces. These pieces can be enjoyed by children or adult students, and are of a late elementary level. The book is available for Europe here and a digital edition can be purchased here. Soon, It will also be released  in the US by Piano Safari (pianosafari.com) and a German edition will be published by zauberklavier.de.


sonorousNew this past month,  Sonorous is an original collection of Piano Solos by Colombian pianist and educator Harold Gutiérrez. The books take students from beginner to intermediate level (Book 1), and intermediate to advanced level (Book 2) adopting the 21st century view of music education, in which enjoyment of performance is first and foremost. Each piece presented in this book has been composed as complementary material for young players and their teachers, encouraging students to perform and experience their musical achievements on stage. There are two books in the series so far, and the first is designated ‘for little hands’ with plenty of interesting melodies and technical exercises at the end of the book. You can find out much more, hear some of the pieces, and purchase here.


safari-firstA collection of 23 pieces by Irish composer June Armstrong. Intended for elementary level students, June’s music is predominantly educational with emphasis on interpretative qualities, engaging a pupil’s imagination. This is certainly evident in these works, which rely heavily on atmospheric harmonies. Safari charts the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  Meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others. Pieces often use specific hand positions, suitable for less experienced players. You can hear each piece here, and find out more and purchase here.

Elementary to Advanced

The Faber Music Piano Anthology

faber-piano-anthologyContaining 78 piano pieces, this large volume is suitable for those from Grade 2 – 8 (elementary to advanced), and has been designed as a gift book; a luxury hardback edition featuring high-quality premium paper and ‘The Concerto’ linocut cover image by Cyril Edward Power. Published by Faber, it has been compiled by myself and will hopefully interest a variety of levels and abilities. Many pieces are very well-known penned by the great composers, but there is also a cohort of less familiar works (and composers). From late Renaissance music through to mid to late Twentieth century, piano lovers can enjoy reading through (and learning) a much-loved repertoire of core pieces. Out later this month, you can find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate to Advanced

Russian Folk Tunes

russianPublished by Schott and containing 25 traditional tunes, this book is sure to be popular with all those who appreciate and enjoy playing traditional music. A selection of melodies including Russian folk tunes, Russian Gypsy music and Russian Jewish music, as well as folk music from the Ukraine. The pieces have been edited and arranged by British bandoneonist, composer and arranger Julian Rowlands, who performs them on an accompanying CD. There is also a brief history of Russian music as well as notes on the pieces (which are also available in French and German). The arrangements are from approximately Grades 4-8 level. You can find out more and purchase here.

Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection

bluesA new collection published by Schott, written by British jazz composer and writer Tim Richards. This volume contains 13 original works for piano by Richards and 2 arrangements (a traditional song and another by Jelly Roll Morton). There are copious interpretation, technique, theory and performance notes, accompanying each piece and a helpful CD of all the pieces (played by Tim). Chord symbols are provided to aid improvisation, and in my opinion, the volume complements other books in the series; Improvising Blues Piano, Exploring Latin Piano and Exploring Jazz Piano (all Richards’ publications). For more and to purchase click here.


The Mindful Pianist

mindfulWritten by British pianist, teacher, writer and composer Mark Tanner and published by Faber in conjunction with EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), this book is sure to be a winner for all pianists, presenting a fresh perspective on playing and performing. Applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano, this text explores the crucial connection between mind and body: how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing which is more compelling, refined and ultimately more rewarding. It also tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam too. Drawing on the expert advice of 25 leading pianists and educationalists (I’m delighted to be amongst those mentioned!), this unique book offers a wealth of exercises and musical examples to help every player succeed in becoming a Mindful Pianist. Out later this month, you can pre-order here.

The Steinway That Wouldn’t Budge

budgeA delightful little book written by British piano tuner Peter Tryon (cousin of concert pianist Valerie Tryon) and published by Austin Macauley. This volume is essentially an autobiographical tale of a life spent tuning the pianos of those in East Anglia (in rural UK). It’s full of anecdotal tales from boyhood piano lessons and moving pianos in all kinds of situations, to ghostly tunings (my favourite stories!), there is much to enjoy in this publication. You can purchase it for kindle and as a hard copy, on Amazon here.

Moscow Nights

moscowA thick non-fiction volume written by British historian and biographer Nigel Cliff, and published by Harper Collins, this book tells the story of Van Cliburn, who, as a young pianist from Texas in 1958, travelled to Moscow to compete in the First International Tchaikovsky Competition.  An unknown pianist, Van Cliburn was not the favourite to win, indeed a Russian had already been selected, but his playing captivated the nation. The novel brings together the drama and tension of the Cold War era, with a gifted musician  whose music would temporarily bridge the divide between two dangerously hostile powers. You can find out more and purchase here.