Piano courses are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s not hard to see why. They afford students the opportunity to meet like-minded new friends, enjoy excellent tuition, fine food, and a mini ‘holiday’. If the course happens to be situated in a beautiful place, so much the better.
For the last two weeks I have been on the faculty at PIANO WEEK, an international piano school and music festival all rolled into one. It was my first experience at this event. Pianist Samantha Ward is the Artistic Director and Founder of PIANO WEEK, and her husband (also a pianist), Maciej Raginia, is the Creative Director. Since its inception around five years ago, this course has gone from strength to strength, and is attracting ever larger groups of pianists from all around the world; we were joined by pupils from Taiwan, China, Switzerland, Italy, France, the USA, and the UK.
PIANO WEEK is just that; one week of highly intense piano study punctuated with concerts and lectures. During the first week, participants were predominantly children, and in week two, mostly adults. I was the only faculty member who stayed for both weeks (other than Samantha and Maciej). The course took place at Moreton Hall (pictured below), a large boarding school in Shropshire, just a few miles from the Welsh border. This school is a great place for such an event, being fairly remote and resplendent with wonderful country scenery. The food, which was served in the school canteen, was, rather surprisingly, delicious with plenty of choice. A selection of practice rooms were available for students, with many pianos brought in especially, and the faculty were assigned their own teaching room for the duration of the week.
PIANO WEEK is produced in collaboration with Steinway & Sons, and therefore the concert hall (the Musgrave Theatre) was equipped with the most beautiful Steinway Model D instrument, which complemented the smaller Yamaha grand owned by the school. Two pianos are a great asset, allowing for two piano recitals for students and teachers alike.
Course structure is such that pupils are occupied for most of the day. My timetable was packed, the second week being particularly busy, and I was generally teaching from 9.00am to 6.00pm. The variety of lessons on offer was impressive. I gave many one-to-one and duet lessons as might be expected, but there were also sight-reading and memorization classes, stage presentation classes, as well as theory and listening lessons (Aural), and I gave a lecture for adults on fingering too.
Most enjoyable (for me) were the composition lessons; teaching a small group how to write their own piano piece, with the aim of performing it in a concert at the end of the week. I thought this a tad unrealistic, but several students were really excited about the prospect, and did play their piece in concert by the end of the course.
Every evening there was a faculty recital. We enjoyed an electic mix of repertoire and superb performances; these concerts were clearly a highlight for the participants. Samantha and Maciej treated us to a two-piano and duet recital during each week, and they kindly performed a movement of one of my compositions as an encore (see the YouTube link below). The ‘star’ performer at the end of week one, was American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who played as a soloist as well as with Samantha on two-pianos (featuring works by Schubert and Debussy).
One element which marks PIANO WEEK from many other courses are the copious opportunities to perform. There are concerts on most days (with faculty attendance), providing students with several chances to play on the Steinway model D in the theatre, as well as a big recital at the end of the week. Samantha had teamed up with publisher Schott Music (who sponsor PIANO WEEK), to provide ‘Schott Showcases’, where students played pieces from various Schott publications, and Samantha and I gave books presentations afterwards (we are both Schott authors).
Students could play their pieces in concerts as many times as they wanted, and it was great to witness their improvement. Performance practice is an important topic for pianists, and the best way to gain confidence is to play the same piece several times to an audience. The standard of playing was varied; several students were almost beginners, yet there were also those who played to an extremely advanced level, including two second year undergraduates from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. All rubbed shoulders happily, and there was a genuine sense of camaraderie, with a large cohort of repeat participants each year.
PIANO WEEK is held in several countries including Italy, Germany, Japan and China, as well as the UK. There will be a total of eight residencies from which to choose in 2019. I’m looking forward to returning next year at Moreton Hall and Rugby School.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.