I can clearly recall the first time I was made aware of Chetham’s International Piano Summer School. A friend had participated as a student and had waxed lyrical about the bountiful facets she had encountered; the high calibre artists and teachers on the faculty, the opportunity to eavesdrop on lessons and forge new piano friendships, the chance to attend a myriad of concerts and lectures, as well as engaging in the high jinks on the final night of the week – also known as cabaret night!
This had certainly whet my appetite. Whilst I attended few courses as a young pianist, I have, more recently, really enjoyed tutoring them in the UK and abroad. So when, in 2019, I was invited to be a faculty member at Chetham’s Summer School, I was both excited and honoured. My task was to direct the Piano Teachers’ Course during Week 2 of the 2020 course. However, the pandemic had other plans, and we therefore decided to reinstate the invitation for Week 2 of the 2021 Summer School (August 21st – 26th), because my preference was to run the course ‘live’ as opposed to online.
Preparation took a substantial amount of time as the course was spread over four and a half days, and was almost entirely presented by myself. But, by Saturday 21st August, I was ready to meet the brave piano teachers who had enrolled, and, after a fairly long train journey – my first for over a year and a half, I strolled into the smart new modern building housing the renowned music school for the introductory meeting with my students.
I first visited Chetham’s about five years ago, when the new building, situated next to the original school, from which it is separated by a foot bridge, had just been completed. The attractive atrium is light and airy, with a whole host of teaching and practice rooms leading off the vast space which it inhabits. And then there’s the beautiful Stoller Concert Hall and the Carole Nash Recital Hall, with their fine acoustics and impressive collection of predominantly Steinway grand pianos. Chetham’s houses seven recital halls in total, as well as over 100 practice rooms. All Summer School students can enjoy on-site accommodation and meals, which were savoured in the school’s dining room. As a member of the faculty, I stayed at the stylish and comfortable Indigo Hotel, situated directly opposite the school.
A particularly important aspect about Chetham’s Summer School is that anyone can attend. There is no audition requirement at all, and there are a huge variety of courses on offer. This year the course opened with the new Junior Academy, for younger pianists, and there was also an online course, for those who couldn’t attend in person. Students range from talented children under the age of twelve, to conservatoire students and young concert artists preparing for international competitions. But there are also a considerable cohort of beginners, observers, and adult amateur players. The vibe is most definitely warm, welcoming and inclusive.
My course was available for those online as well as onsite; I thought this would be a challenge as it was the first time I had combined the two. There were eight teachers on the course in total, with three on Zoom, and it worked surprisingly well. My demonstrations were necessarily more pronounced, and I definitely spoke in a rather rambunctious manner, but the teachers were very accommodating and it seemed that little was ‘lost in translation.’
Some students on my course were young teachers who had never taught before whereas others had been teaching for over twenty years, and, therefore, it was tricky to pitch the right type and amount of information to suit all tastes and needs. My course was jam-packed and practically based, with copious teacher participation.
We started at 9.00am every day and finished at around 5.00pm. During this time, I focused on a specific piano teaching topics: the day started with one of four two-hour piano technique sessions, and there were classes on piano music from beginner to advanced level, sight-reading, fingering, pedalling, and memorisation workshops. We examined piano exams, rhythm and notation, composition and touched on the psychological side of piano teaching, too. Every afternoon, teachers were able to attend one of the many masterclasses given by the faculty, which formed the basis of our discussion at the end of each day.
A highlight on the Piano Teachers’ Course was author and educator Paul Harris’ excellent presentation centred around his Simultaneous Learning method. And teachers especially enjoyed the final session on the last day, where they had the opportunity to teach a student obtaining class feedback.
In the evenings, students were treated to world-class faculty recitals and lectures. There were often three events per night. Lectures, which were usually placed before dinner, included Paul Harris’ presentation on The Art of Practising, a fascinating interview with Paul Lewis, which was hosted by Chetham’s Summer School’s artistic director Murray McLachlan, and Murray also gave an inspiring lecture entitled The Legacy of Legato.
Two recitals per night offered a feast of piano music – there was so much to enjoy, and it was a treat to be able to hear these artists play live in a concert hall, as opposed to being streamed online to which we have all become accustomed over the past eighteen months (although all concerts were live-streamed for online participants).
The opening Gala Concert featured Schubert’s life-affirming Fantasy in F minor D. 940 for piano duet, played by Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page, as well as a group of Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28 performed by Alicja Fiderkiewicz. Stephen Hough’s Sonatina Nostalgica was performed by Philip Fowke, and Peter Donohoe played Haydn’s Sonata in E flat major Hob 52 and a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.
Steven Osborne’s recital included Crumb’s Processional and a blistering account of Tippett’s Piano Sonata No. 2, as well as Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor op. 111. Graham Scott’s concert featured Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles Op. 126, Adam Gorb’s Brahms and Red Wine, and a Chopin selection. Murray McLachlan’s recital was a splendid all-Russian affair; he took us on a trip down memory lane – revisiting much-loved works that he had performed regularly throughout his career; these included Khachaturian’s Toccata, Myaskovsky’s Prelude and Rondo from Sonata Op. 58, Prokofiev’s Sonata in F sharp minor Op. 1, Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand Op. 9 No. 2, and Kabalevsky’s Sonata No. 3.
Peter Donohoe’s evening concert began with Schubert’s Four Impromptus D899 Op. 90, and these were followed by a collection of Mendelssohn’s beautiful Songs Without Words, as well as the Three Capriccios Op. 16, and the Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14. Benjamin Frith offered three Scarlatti Sonatas, as well as works by Albeniz, Mendelssohn, and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 9. Joanna MacGregor’s lively, toe-tapping Argentine programme highlighted the evocative, yet frequently raucous, dances of Ginastera and Piazzolla.
The final day’s performances consisted of a recital by Alicja Fiderkiewicz, who presented a delightful programme of rich Romantic fayre including works by Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. And this concert was followed by a two-piano extravaganza focusing on French music: Milhaud’s effervescent Scaramouche and a group of Poulenc’s sublime works for piano duet and two-pianos, all played superbly by celebrated piano duo Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen.
Numerous young artist recitals peppered each daily programme, and there were also adult amateur concerts, too.
This Summer School is quite simply piano heaven, and it’s easy to see why students return year after year. I left with countless happy memories: working with the teachers on my course, meeting up with old friends and colleagues, and making new acquaintances. I relished the entertaining, musically-charged conversations at meal times – as well, of course, as the outstanding concerts.
If you’re considering taking a piano course, this one should definitely be placed firmly at the top of your list.
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.