Middle Eastern Odyssey

I’ve wanted to work in the Middle East for a while and have been busy hatching a suitable plan to present my books and workshops to teachers and students. Most countries in this part of the world are not known for their love of Western music education and it’s this relative indifference that caught my attention as it presented a captivating challenge. I love challenges. Could I feasibly find a way to interest various institutes in my work? Initial enquiries suggested that I could. After investigation, I found three schools prepared to welcome my thoughts about piano teaching and who were also happy to promote and sell my books – all vital factors on my tours.

Once organised and the dates sorted, I realised that there was, in fact, plenty of interest in music education throughout this beautiful, exotic region. So far, the majority of my tours have focused on the Far East mainly because music education, particularly learning the piano, plays an intrinsic role in a child’s development there and, therefore, is considered of great value. It’s a wonderful place to work and I’m looking forward to returning to Hong Kong and Singapore to run piano teacher programmes in July 2023.

Dubai

Dubai was my first port of call. An exciting and vibrant city with a reputation for luxury and wealth, it possesses a fascinating, and, apparently ever-changing, skyline. I loved the high-octane lifestyle, the fabulous weather (I am a fan of hot climates and hope to retire somewhere much warmer than the UK), and the delicious food for which the region is renowned. I was fortunate to rest for a couple of days before starting work which offered the opportunity to become a tourist. Dubai’s buildings are extraordinary and there’s an exciting juxtaposition of the old and the new. An impressive collection of futuristic constructions and affluent, glitzy shopping malls provide a distinct contrast to the old town with its historic low-rise buildings and colourful souk markets. A melting pot of cultures, attracting residents from the world over, it’s this aspect which I find so appealing.

The Centre For Musical Arts, situated in the Al Jalila Cultural Centre For Children in Umm Suqeim, is a music school founded by musician and teacher Tala Badri. A modern, light, and airy building with generous teaching rooms and excellent facilities, the centre provides young students with the chance to develop their skills thanks to a large roster of committed teachers and a forward-thinking attitude towards student and teacher development.

My first class, which took place on a Friday afternoon, intended for piano students at the centre, focused on four intermediate to advanced players who were either working towards an exam or a piano competition; there are several yearly piano competitions in the region. Students were well prepared and what was perhaps surprising was the speed with which they applied my suggestions. It’s never easy implementing new practice ideas on the spot, especially in front of an audience. I concentrated on sound projection, a huge topic and one which, if worked at consistently, can change, sometimes instantly, a student’s playing and their concept of piano technique.

Working on a Schubert Impromptu with a student at the Centre For Musical Arts in Dubai

Saturday consisted of a workshop for piano teachers, which formed a part of their teacher development programme instigated by the Centre For Musical Arts. It was a full six-hour day containing four substantial piano technique workshops. I have given these presentations on many occasions around the world and relish noting the responses from teachers. One might think that these responses would differ depending on which country one visits, but this is not the case. Teachers tend to react in the same manner irrespective of where I am.

I worked with 20 piano teachers and we explored a whole raft of expected technical aspects of playing the piano. However, I do have quite an unusual approach to promoting flexible piano playing free from tension and injury (my students regularly tell me this!) and I appreciate it’s not everyone’s bag. With this in mind, teachers are often sceptical from the outset, and during the first workshop, I work hard to ensure everyone comes to the piano to try out particular suggestions – merely ‘watching’ is not helpful, as one must learn the ‘feeling’ of the movements. This is especially important for teachers so that they can transfer this ‘feeling’ to their students. It’s heartening that the most sceptical of teachers were the most grateful at the end of the day. I find this to almost always be the case. These workshops are a chance to share ideas and teachers frequently propose helpful practice suggestions of their own throughout the day, too.

Working with teachers at the Centre For Musical Arts in Dubai

Next, on Sunday, I visited Dubai College, a leading academic school in the Middle East, and gave a three-hour class to ten students from the thriving music department. I was expecting a high standard and wasn’t disappointed, despite not hearing their most advanced players because this class was intended for Grade 8/diploma level students. Most students were well-prepared, having either taken their piano exam already or they were working towards a competition, and, therefore, could generally circumnavigate the notes in their pieces with ease. We spent time developing sound; working on tone production, colour, and sound projection, as well as effective use of the sustaining pedal.

A bird’s-eye view of my class at Dubai College

Oman

The second part of my trip took place in Muscat, the capital city of Oman. I had previously visited Salalah, a city in the south of the country and the capital city of the Dhofar province, so knew what to expect. A completely different vibe – and a different world – to that found in Dubai, Oman is blessed with a deeply traditional culture, incredible Wadis, elegant low-rise buildings, an even warmer climate than Dubai, and spectacular vistas. It’s well worth a trip if you find the Arabian culture inspiring.

With Students at Tunes Oman

The Classic Music and Arts Centre, a teaching centre and music shop (Tunes) in Ruwi, was the base for my work. I began with two four-hour private teaching sessions followed by an open class where I worked with students, some of who were preparing for their diploma exams and others, their graded exams. British exam boards are popular in the Middle East; preferable choices are Trinity College London, the ABRSM, and Rockschool.

Working on a Mazurka by Chopin with a student in Oman

My final session was a two-hour workshop with 20 piano teachers. In a similar vein to the class in Dubai, teachers were receptive and amenable, and were grateful that I had taken the time to visit and work with them; this class was the first piano teacher workshop in Oman for around 30 years!

A delightful way to begin 2023, I fully appreciated the luxury of touring again after the last few Covid-dogged years. I’m already looking forward to my next visit to Dubai and Oman in January 2024.

My work would not be possible without the constant support of my publisher Schott Music and superb organisation from the Centre For Musical Arts and Dubai College in Dubai, and Phillip Stallwood, who arranged everything so brilliantly in Oman.

Centre For Musical Arts

Dubai College

Classic Music and Arts Centre


Publications

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.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Garreth says:

    This was a fascinating post, thanks very much! I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Thanks so much, Garreth.

  2. Martin Bekaert says:

    It must give you a very pleasant feeling and job satisfaction if you can also pass on your years of musical experience in this part of the world. Congratulations Melanie!!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Martin.

  3. Opoku Boadu says:

    Wow, this is an amazing article. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

    Opoku Boadu

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Opoku. Glad you enjoyed the article.

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