Happy World Piano Day!
As we celebrate this wonderful instrument, I’m sure you’ll be aware of the copious online events and articles commemorating the 2022 Piano Day. As part of the celebrations, I have been interviewed for the renowned Twinkl education site, which specialises in offering online educational resources for school children, teachers and parents.
Twinkl: Melanie, you are one of the few female composers to be published in the renowned Edition Schott series and you were also selected as 10 women composers you have to know by Pianist. Much of your work has been included in piano festival syllabuses around the world. What was your first contact with music?
MS: Like many young children, my first real contact with music was through listening to my family’s long playing record collection! We had a great selection from Tchaikovsky through to the Beatles. I think this opportunity made quite an impression, as I vaguely remember dancing around and singing along to the record player. At primary school, we always sung in the music class and in assembly – and I knew, from this experience, that I definitely didn’t want to sing! I started to play the piano when I was about ten years old.
T: How does music make you feel?
MS: This has certainly changed over the years. I’ve always been very drawn to music, not just Classical music, but many other styles and genres, too. There was a time when I couldn’t live without it, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life either, but, over the years, whilst I still love listening to music, it doesn’t play such an all-consuming role now. Hearing familiar works can feel like coming home in a way, and I relish returning to them. However, I prefer discovering new music, as it symbolises new sounds, thoughts, emotions, and possibilities, which is, for me, more interesting.
T: Have you always liked piano? Was there ever a time when you wanted to learn a different instrument?
MS: Yes, I have always liked the piano. I did go through various stages of wanting to play other instruments. I was a church organist for a few years, which I loved, and I did think about this as an option, but only briefly. When I was much younger I wanted to play the violin – I’m not quite sure why! I played the clarinet, too, although only for a short time, but it was good to know the ‘feeling’ of playing a different instrument.
T: Who are your favourite composers to play and why?
MS: This constantly changes! Classical favourites are J S Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók – all the Bs! But then I like a lot of minimalist composers, too. I’m drawn to the piano works of Eric Satie and Federico Mompou, as well as contemporary composers such as Philip Glass, Avro Part, George Crumb, John Tavener, Morton Feldman, Graham Fitkin, Steve Martland, Elena Kats-Chernin, Yoshi Wada, Meredith Monk, and Julia Wolfe.
T: Who else – outside classical music – do you like to listen to?
MS: I love the American Songbook – especially the recordings of Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I also enjoy some pop music – probably because I listened to it as a child – ‘Queen’ is a particular favourite!
T: You have authored many best-selling books on aspects of piano teaching, pedagogy and everything piano. I also heard that you have 5 new books that were recently published? Tell us more about them.
MS: The last few months have been quite prolific. I recently published a three-book series featuring the music of women composers; Women Composers – A Graded Anthology For Piano (published by Schott Music). This series is progressive and graded, in a similar way to the levels found in the UK examinations boards’ syllabuses, and each volume contains a selection of piano pieces by over 50 female composers (spread over three books), taking students from elementary to advanced level. Each piece has detailed biographical and performance notes, the latter of which hopefully offers students useful practice suggestions. Find out more, by clicking here.
My second series published this year is for young beginners; First Repertoire For Little Pianists (published by Willis Music Company). This two-book series contains a selection of 50 pieces, written by me (25 in each volume), and is suitable for virtual beginners. Every piece contains a page of ‘performance notes’ with a collection of illustrations, games and activities, all designed for children. These books are intended to go alongside the traditional piano method books, providing teachers, parents and students with fun repertoire, ideal for teacher’s concerts, festivals, and exams. Find out more by clicking here.
T: What is the driving force behind such a prolific musical career?
MS: A tricky question to answer! I’ve always been a highly motivated person, and I enjoy seeing my work in print; that’s the best part – when a publication finally arrives and you can hold it in your hands, then you do feel as though all the hard work has been worth it.
In order to achieve success (whatever that is), I think one should ideally be very focused. To write and compose, one needs to be able to work well alone. I find this is the most satisfactory way to get results – and I rarely, if ever, listen to, or work with, others. You really have to find your own voice and your own way; have a plan and just go ahead and do it. I’m also lucky enough to have a ‘mentor’ who has coached me for the past ten years, which has been a crucial component in my career.
T: When do you feel most rewarded when teaching, composing, or performing?
MS: I used to enjoy performing, but that isn’t something that I want to do anymore – and I’m delighted when other musicians perform my music. Teaching can be rewarding, although I find it very tiring. Without doubt, the most enjoyable part of my work is writing and composing. I feel this is the most natural thing for me to do.
T: Your blog, The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog, has accrued more than 11.5 million visitors. What made you start this blog and how much work do you put in?
MS: My blog is now over ten years old. I started writing a blog out of necessity because I wanted to write books, so it seemed a logical step towards this goal. Writing a blog is hard work. I usually publish a post every week, and, now, I like to highlight other writers, although it’s still fun to write the odd post myself. I think of a blog as a large marketing tool; blogs don’t earn much (if any) money, but they are a useful way to let readers glimpse your thoughts and activities – and if subscribers enjoy my articles, then that’s a bonus.
T: Any last words you’d like to share with people who want to learn or teach piano
MS: If you have a real desire to play the piano, then just start! It doesn’t matter what age you are – you are never too old to learn. If you are a piano returner, then check out my three-book series, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music), which is intended for those returning to play. Find out more by clicking here. Whether you are just starting out or returning, try to find a sympathetic, experienced teacher, and do join my Facebook Group – Adult Piano Returners, for lots of piano discussion and merriment!
If you want to teach, ensure that you find a very good teacher who can improve your own playing and, through observation of their teaching, you can implement the necessary tools to develop your own teaching style. Useful courses for teachers do exist, and it’s wise to attend as many of these as possible, in order to build a reservoir of technical and musical knowledge. We never stop learning, whether that be discovering beneficial teaching repertoire, assimilating new practice ideas, or just exchanging different teaching concepts.
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.