Indonesian Charm

Over the past nine days I have been touring in the Far East. It’s always a pleasure to work with students and teachers in different parts of the world, and fascinating to note the various similarities in teaching styles, despite the cultural differences. I began my trip in Indonesia, a country I visited briefly last year as part of a larger joint Schott Music and G. Henle Verlag book tour.

Indonesia consists of thousands of volcanic islands and is home to hundreds of ethnic groups speaking a variety of different languages (apparently over 700), from Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arab to Indian and European. The capital city, Jakarta, is situated on the northwest coast of the island of Java: over 10 million residents inhabit this sprawling place. It’s noisy, bustling, humid, vibrant, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. A government health warning should perhaps be issued when sampling some of the food; if hot and spicy isn’t your ‘thing’, you may struggle here. Public transport is limited to say the least, which results in serious daily traffic jams, and a substantial health hazard in the form of pollution. But none of this affected my stay, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my hosts and all those with whom I came into contact.

I had been invited to work as one of this year’s ‘Grand Mentors’ for the Cantata for Youth Scheme at the Sekolah Musik Cantata (Cantata Music School) in Kelapa Gading Square, North Jakarta. This school has several large premises across the city, of which the Kelapa Gading branch hosts over 600 weekly students. A range of instruments can be studied alongside music theory, and there are even options to study subjects like classical ballet dancing. Such learning establishments in Indonesia are generally arts based as opposed to solely music.

My task for the week was to work alongside the school’s piano teachers, helping to prepare students for the Sunday concert (see image to the left), and generally suggesting alternative practice ideas as well as offering methods for honing teaching concepts within the school. The Cantata Music School is a Trinity College Examination Centre and a growing number of pupils take these exams every year. Whilst traditional instruments, such as the gamelan, remain popular, there is increasing interest in Western music and Western culture, and, as in the case of other Far Eastern countries, the instant achievement found in certification drives many.

I spent three and a half days working with a complete cross section of diverse students; from elementary through to the associate diploma level. It matters little about where I go to teach in the world, the same elements frequently appear problematic. This may be due to lack of student interest or practice, but, more often than not, it’s sadly due to poor teaching. Becoming a piano teacher in Indonesia is no easy feat. Teachers don’t always have the required opportunities; most haven’t studied to Bachelor degree level, and there seems to be little provision to study Western music at a higher level. Therefore, prospective piano teachers rely on acquiring ABRSM or Trinity College London Grade 8 or diploma exams. Perhaps this may be resolved in coming years, but until that time, it remains for visiting teachers to implement a different approach. And that was my intention.

Students had mostly learned their prepared pieces sufficiently well, but were not always fluent at note-reading or keeping time. These issues were particularly highlighted during the duet playing.

One of the clever concepts of this school, is that they are keen to pair pupils together for duets and also, for trios (6 hands at one keyboard). The Sunday concert featured mostly duet and trio ensembles, and it was heartening that my book of elementary duets and trios, Snapchats (80 days publishing), was used for this purpose.

Snapchats are very short pieces, mostly between 8 and 16 bars in length, for two and three pianists at one piano; they take students from late beginner level to around Grade 4. And they are really beneficial for those just starting to play duets. Several more advanced students also played solo pieces from my new volume, No Words Necessary (Schott Music).

12 Intermediate Piano Pieces for Students from Grade 3 – 6 level, published by Schott Music

Encouraging ensemble work is a marvellous vehicle for overall improvement. I worked with each group (and their teacher), on such aspects as quick note learning, fingering and finger positions, general ensemble, and the importance of rhythm and pulse.

The pulse had been largely side-stepped by the majority of students, which rendered ensemble playing a real challenge. But after some stringent ‘pulse keeping’ in the form of counting out loud (where I found myself either conducting or stamping my foot!), pupils started to place beats more carefully, and were clearly happy to be playing in almost perfect unison alongside their fellow pianists. As a result, the Sunday concert was a resounding success, with some impressive playing (click on the videos below to hear some of the performances, and keep in mind that these children had never played a duet or trio before).

With students and teachers after the concert in Jakarta
With teachers participating in the Play it again workshop, held in Jakarta

My final day in Jakarta was spent working with teachers. I usually offer a teacher’s workshop during my travels. It lasts most of the day and focuses on disparate technical facets. The workshop features a selection of piano exercises, allowing teachers to form a basis for flexible movement with their students; an issue which I perpetually work on with my own students. Teachers responded well to this session, and were asking for more detailed information about flexible, relaxed movement around the keyboard, and therefore a further trip probably beckons at a later date. Many of these exercises are also featured in my course, Play it again (Schott Music).

The final two days of my tour were spent in Johor Bahru (Malaysia), where I gave private lessons at the Forte Academy of Music, and at the Cristofori Academy in Singapore, with a three-hour master class at Bechstein Music World.

At the start of my class at Cristofori held at Bechstein Music World in Singapore

Fearless explorers would relish a trip to Indonesia. I learnt much about the traditional music, responses to Western classical music, and the constantly evolving opportunities for Western musicians to perform on the Indonesian stage. I hope music education continues to thrive and, if so, it will be due to the admirable work done by schools like the Sekolah Musik Cantata.

The following videos were recorded at the Tea for Two (or Three) Concert and feature students from the Sekolah Musik Cantata.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

The Maze of Methods Unpacked

I’m in the Far East at the moment on my second visit this year. I was invited by the I-MEC and CYM in Jakarta (Indonesia) to be the 2019 ‘Grand Mentor’, which involved giving a week of workshops and masterclasses for piano teachers and their students. I’ve also been giving classes in Johor Bahru (at the Forte Academy) and in Singapore, for Cristofori at Bechstein Music World.  This aspect of my work is not only really enjoyable, but it’s a privilege to be in the position to help students and teachers, and work with them on different aspects of their piano playing.

On my return I’m looking forward to being a part of an exciting event to be held at the Schott Music Store in Great Marlborough Street, London (see image to the left).

On November 10th 2019 EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) are hosting a day at the Schott shop, the basement of which houses a small performance space, which will be perfect for this gathering. Intended for EPTA members, it’s free to attend and is designed to introduce piano teachers to a variety of piano method books.

Hosted by writer, teacher and blogger Andrew Eales, the day highlights some of the favourite methods published by the world’s major publishers. Starting at 11.00am, Andrew opens this event, and then I will be speaking about Play it again: PIANO (Schott); you’ll know by now that this is a course for anyone returning to the piano after a break (particularly adult returners).

Author Sharon Goodey will talk about her beginner’s method Playing with Colour (Alfred), and this is followed by a further beginner’s method presentation, the popular series Dogs and Birds, written by Chris and Elza Lusher. Distributed by Alfred, this presentation, will also feature demonstrations by a four year old student, Ling.

After a short break Faber Music’s marketing manager Rachel Topham will offer Information about two publications: Pam Wedgwood’s Piano Basics and Lang Lang’s Piano Method.

Lunchtime will provide ample opportunity to browse the shop, purchase books, and chat to the authors and presenters. And after lunch Alan and Jan Bullard will speak about the PianoWorks series by Pauline Hall (OUP). The final presentation will focus on three methods: John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Method, Faber Piano Adventures, and Rockshool’s new piano methods books, which will be presented by Thomas Lydon and Ollie Winston.

The afternoon will conclude at 3.30pm with an open discussion, chaired by Andrew, with all presenters and the audience. If you would like to attend this event, you can find out much more about it, here. We look forward to meeting you.

www.epta-uk.org


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Painless Piano Playing Part 2

Today’s blog post has been recently published in EPTA’s (or the European Piano Teachers Association) flagship UK publication Piano Professional, for which I write a feature technique article. It’s the second article focusing on developing a pain free, relaxed piano technique. You can read Painless Piano Playing Part 1, here.


In my previous article, Painless Piano Playing Part 1, published in the last edition of Piano Professional, I wrote about the importance of encouraging our students to learn to release physical tension when playing the piano. The first article focused on relaxing and releasing tightness in the back, shoulders, arms, and hands. This article will highlight wrist flexibility and finger independence, featuring wrist exercises as well as those to begin developing firm fingers.

Once students have released any tension, or the building of tension in their shoulders, arms and hands in particular (which can take some time and effort), they are ready to loosen the wrists. These joints are probably the most important in the body in relation to piano playing; if wrists remain tense, then movement generally becomes an issue, making it difficult to circumnavigate the keyboard, and the hand and fingers also tend to become locked. One other complication as a result of wrist tension is the inability to produce a warm tone, as there will be a tendency to ‘hit’ the keys as opposed to ‘stroke’ or ‘caress’ them, which is possible via a flexible wrist and efficient use of the arm.

Let’s start with an exercise to loosen the wrists, which can be done away from the keyboard. Ask students to put their arms in the air in an upright position, keeping the forearm as still as possible, whilst moving the wrists with several different movements or motions. Firstly, move the wrist, and therefore the hand, up and then down several times, aiming to move from the wrist only. Secondly, move the wrists in a motion as if waving goodbye, that is, side to side, from left to right. And finally, move the wrists in a completely ‘circular’ motion, that is, rotating the hand and wrist using a circular movement, all whilst keeping the arm flexible but still. It’s advisable for the wrists to remain very loose and relaxed throughout these exercises. Such movements may seem exaggerated and unnecessary, but they do provide a clear indication to our students how the wrist can move (it’s surprising just how many pupils aren’t aware of this) and the amount of movement required to build flexibility into their technique.

Once this has been assimilated, aim to move onto the next exercise which involves the following simple five finger pattern:

It’s entirely possible to use five finger exercises with semibreves, minims or even crotchets, but the most crucial factor is that there is plenty of time to move between notes. Ask your student to play middle C with their right-hand thumb, and once the key has sounded, encourage them to ‘drop’ their hand, wrist and arm completely whilst still holding down the note. It may be prudent to hold the thumb on middle C (they can do this with their free hand) as they drop their hand (see photo 1, where I am holding my third finger), because the priority is for the note to be played and held as the wrist, hand and arm totally relax.

Photo 1

A dropped hand will probably appear with the hand and wrist in a ‘flopped’ position, below the level of the keyboard. This is NOT a position one would ever use to play the piano, it is merely an exercise to release tension. You may need to work with a student for a while before they get the hang of the necessary ‘relaxed’ feel in their arm and hand; it’s all about the ‘feeling’ of releasing muscles.

The purpose of the exercise being that the pupil’s upper body becomes accustomed to a loose and relaxed stance as they are holding the note. It’s so often the case that students will be completely locked as they play from note to note, usually without even realising that they are doing this. Therefore, one vital aspect of building a flexible approach into technique, is that the tension employed as a note is sounded must immediately ‘released’ afterwards. Such an exercise puts this concept in to action in a fairly straightforward manner, and if practised slowly and regularly, it will eventually become a habit. This exercise can be incorporated easily at the beginning of a practice session.

Students can approach every note of the five-finger exercise in this way, and then work in a similar vein with an exercise for the left hand. Care will be needed with the fourth and fifth fingers, which may ‘fall’ off notes easily at first, if not ‘held’ in place by the other hand. Flatter fingers can be helpful when attempting this exercise, and eventually students will be able to hold the note unaided, and learn to relax their upper body simultaneously.

Once this has been digested, the student should begin to feel more comfortable and suitably ‘relaxed’, so we can move on to the next exercise, which uses the same five finger pattern as printed above. The only difference will be in the approach to playing every note.

Wrist ‘circles’ are a useful technique to help students move from note to note because they generally advocate the ‘dropped’ wrist, and therefore another opportunity to release tension and relax the hand and wrist. They also offer students the chance to learn about circular wrist movement which is a prerequisite in flexible piano playing, whether moving from note to note, or using the movement to incorporate larger groups of notes, or various note patterns. For this exercise, it’s a good idea to ask students to play on their fingertips, as opposed to the flat fingered approach suggested for the earlier exercise.

Fingers occasionally have a tendency to ‘collapse’; to prevent this, ideally focus on employing a ‘hooked’ finger shape, making the sure the first joint (as shown in photo 2 by my index or second finger), is engaged as opposed to collapsing.

Photo 2

I ask students to play middle C, but this time use a complete circular movement before sounding the next note, and as the same C is held in place. To form a rotational or circular motion, as the note is held, the wrist needs to rotate from the neutral position (with the wrist aligned with the keyboard), as in photo 3, through a downward position or motion, as in photo 4, back to the neutral position, and then on to a rising position, with the wrist above the keyboard level, as in photo 5, all before returning to the neutral position and, then finally, on to playing the next note (a D). These movements are all connected via one circular movement, encouraging a loose wrist and arm, between every note, illustrating the importance of the concept of tension (which is required to play a note) and release, or letting go of that tension once the note has been played.

This rotation is quite a straightforward process, as long as the wrist is kept relaxed, and the student’s arm remains flexible. Once grasped, pupils can move through the exercise using both hands, separately.

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5

Once flexibility has been ‘learned’ and fully assimilated, the fingers can begin to sound each note with a deeper touch producing a full tone, playing past the double escapement to the bottom of the key, or the key bed, whilst still keeping the wrist, hand and arm light and loose. This will encourage every finger to work almost alone, that is, without the help of other fingers, but with full use of the arm, hand and wrist behind every note. This in turn, forms the basis for using the arm as a hinge, so that it can provide the appropriate weight, supported by the moveable wrist for powerful arm weight. It’s this motion which can prevent injury whilst at the same time promoting a full sonority.

To do this the wrist circles must offer a ‘swing’ feel to the single notes in the exercise, and as the finger or thumb goes to strike the note, the wrist drops the arm, and therefore the finger, ‘into’ the key, so that instead of ‘hitting’ from above, the finger caresses the note; the finger should ideally be almost resting on the key before it is played, as opposed to being ‘struck’ from above, which tends to make a less than ideal tone. Instead, the movement comes from the downward motion or ‘swing’ of the wrist and arm.

After a while, students will hopefully feel more relaxed and less tense as they move through these exercises. They will subsequently be able to move on to simple Czerny or Cramer exercises, to further develop firm fingers and wrist movement whilst increasing speed over longer phrases and note patterns.

It may take a few months of work to make progress, but it’s worth reminding pupils that it’s all about how they ‘feel’. Such exercises have little to do with piano music, but the truth is that unless pianists can move freely around the keyboard, they will not be able to play the repertoire that they choose with accuracy and confidence.

You can read the published article by clicking on the link below:

Painless Piano Playing Part 2



My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

 

 

Piano Companion

Today’s post has been penned by Sergey Bogdanov, founder and CEO of Songtive. Songtive   publishes Piano Companion, an App for those interested in developing their knowledge of theory and chord progressions. It’s free and can be a most helpful addition to a musician’s tool box. In this post, Sergey explains how to use this app and there’s a link  to download it, too.


Piano Companion is a composing tool, band and social network, which allows you to experiment with arrangements and chord progressions. It helps you to organize your favourite songs and chord charts, and to share them with your friends.

The app can be downloaded on your computer, tablet, or phone. Upon opening the app, you are greeted with a simple menu that allows for all of the features to be easily utilized. Below is a description of the tabs and their respective features.

At the top left, you will find the Chords Dictionary tab. This allows you to hear and visualize more than 1500 chords and chord progressions, as well as to create custom chords. To start, select a key at the top of the screen. You can then scroll through an interactive table of every chord in that key. Pressing on a tab allows you to hear what it sounds like, and underneath you are shown which piano keys are necessary to replicate that chord.

Another feature is the Scales Dictionary. In this tab, you will find a comprehensive list of the names of the scales. At the top is ‘Acoustic’, and it is listed alphabetically through to ‘Zokuso’. You can also sort by key, meaning you can see what the look like in multiple different formats, such as on a keyboard and on sheet music.

The app also features a Circle of Fifths tab. To make use of this, navigate to a designated area and you will see the name of the chord, how to play it, and what it looks like as sheet music throughout all octaves. You can also listen to what the chord sounds like on a keyboard. The outermost layer of the circle lists major scales; for example, navigating to the outermost ‘F’ will give you information about F Major. The middle circle prompts minor chords. For example, if you navigate to ‘f’, you will find all you need to know about F Natural Minor.

The Piano Companion app would not be complete without its virtual piano feature, simply titled Piano. This essentially works like a MIDI keyboard in that many instruments can be played while never leaving the keyboard format. The default is set to Grand Piano, but other instruments include a guitar, cello, two synths, and a few percussion instruments such as the xylophone. Tap on the keys to hear what they sound like, and there is also a useful feature where you can record what you played. This is a great way to practice playing the chords for yourself, as well as for composing music.

There is also a Quiz feature. If you navigate to it, you will be brought to a page to download an app called Sight Reading Trainer: ChordIQ, where you can test the knowledge you learned on the Piano Companion app while also seeing how you performed compared to others.

The User Library tab is completely customizable to best fit your needs. To start, navigate to the plus arrow and enter a name. You are then asked to choose a root. This tab is best used to keep a convenient list of the chords and scales you find most useful.

Toward the bottom of the app, there is a comprehensive Settings page. At the top, you will find ways to connect to the online forum as well as the Facebook and Twitter pages. You then have a chance to change the language from the default of English and to limit what you see in each tab. For example, if you are overwhelmed by the Scales Dictionary, you can opt to ‘Show only popular scales’. Another useful setting is the ability to change the default instrument from Grand Piano to another option. This way, if you tap on a chord, you may hear it as a guitar or synth instead, for example.

Feel free to download the app, here, and try it for yourself!

www.songtive.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

A String of Pearls, the female composer and a special competition

Image: Pianist Magazine

It’s always a happy experience when one’s work is published, irrespective of the publication or publisher. But this new volume (pictured to the left) is a really exciting one for me.

In 2017, pianists and teachers Alla Levit and Antonina Lax invited me to write a piano duet for one of their forthcoming UK tours. Alla (who is Russian) and Antonina (from Bulgaria) are the Darina Piano Duo. They had previously enjoyed using my four- and six- hand music (Snapchats Duets & Trios) with their students, and both had commented on the fact that these short pieces were like little ‘jewels’. This observation provided the catalyst for the title of their new piece, A String of Pearls. Antonina describes how our collaboration transpired:

‘I first came across Melanie through one of her articles published by Pianist magazine about 5 years ago. I was impressed by her articulation of the different challenges in piano teaching – it was obvious that the author was an experienced, knowledgeable and competent piano player. I also found out that Melanie had just published the first edition of her book ”So You Want to Play the Piano” (2013). I ordered the book immediately and I must admit that I still think this is one of the best modern guides written in English.

I later found out that Melanie is also a composer when I met her at a concert in London showcasing modern composers’ piano repertoire. Melanie presented her newly published (at that time) selection of piano duets called ”Snapchats”. The music was so fresh and accessible that it became one of my favourite duet selections. I still teach it to my students in one-to-one sessions and even masterclasses.

I asked Melanie to write some music for me and my piano partner Alla Levit (Darina Piano Duo), as we are currently collecting 4-hand piano pieces by modern composers. Melanie was extremely generous and wrote not just one but five pieces which she joined in a wonderful suite called ”A String of Pearls”. This is programme music depicting different pearls, such as the famous Pearl Maxima, Pearl of Lao Tzu and La Peregrina. Melanie’s pieces are story-driven, picturesque musical descriptions of pearls that are also full of character. Darina Piano Duo has now performed the “String of Pearls” suite many times and in different venues across the UK and this music has always been very well received.

It has been a stroke of luck to meet Melanie and we hope to continue our creative collaboration with her so we can perform many more of her beautiful pieces.’

****

A String of Pearls consists of five movements, each one depicting a different pearl, reflecting the jewel’s characteristics as well as its corresponding symbolism. The movements are fairly short and could be played by a late intermediate or advanced level student. The music is intended for pianists who particularly enjoy playing expressive and evocative music with a hint of minimalism.

1. Pearl Maxima: One of the largest, most majestic pearls in the world, its captivating colours glimmer and sparkle from cream to gold, with a variety of hues in between.

2. Black Pearls: These beautiful serene jewels originate from the black lip oyster, and are tinged with green, pink, blue,silver and yellow.

3. Cave Pearls: Rushing water dances around limestone caves, polishing each glossy pearl.

4. Pearl of Lao Tzu: Sacred connotations have been linked to this large legendary clam pearl.

5. La Peregrina Pearl: Known as the ‘pilgrim’ or ‘wanderer’, this renowned gem has adorned many a colourful character, from royalty to actors, during its reputed 500-year history.

I was delighted when Schott decided to publish this piece in their renowned Edition Schott series. This series has featured some of the world’s greatest composers, many of whom currently publish or have published exclusively with Schott, including Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Carl Orff, György Ligeti, Michael Tippett, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. However, there are few female composers featured in the series, and therefore I feel it’s an honour to be amongst such illustrious company. There has been much discussion recently about the lack of female composers, conductors, and, to some degree, writers (and piano professors) too, in the classical music profession. But as this issue is gradually highlighted, so we can hopefully look forward to a future of equality and inclusion.

A String of Pearls was performed beautifully in a series of four concerts over the Summer given by my friends and colleagues pianists Samantha Ward and Maciej Raginia at the International Piano Festival and Summer School PIANO WEEK. They kindly made the following recordings at Rugby School in August. I hope you enjoy them.
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‘Having performed ‘A String of Pearls’ by Melanie Spanswick four times over the summer at our festival PIANO WEEK, Maciej and I found these pieces energetic, contrasting and very rewarding to perform. Each movement evokes a different mood and as a result, they were interesting to learn, proving very popular with audiences both in the UK and Italy.’ Concert pianist and Artistic Director of PIANO WEEK, Samantha Ward
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You can purchase the score in a digital download or print version, here or here.

This week Pianist Magazine have launched a competition on their facebook page (you can find it here) and the prize is a copy of A String of Pearls. To take part, all you need to do is ‘like’ Pianist’s Facebook page, ‘like’ and share the post, and tag a potential duet partner with whom you would like to play the piece. The competition closes on Monday 14th October. Good luck!

10 Women Composers You Have to Know About

www.pianistmagazine.com

www.pianoweek.com

www.en.schott-music.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Let’s make way for the Ladies!

The latest edition of Pianist Magazine is now available and it’s an ‘all women’ affair. Spotlighting Isata Kanneh-Mason, who appears on the front cover, this issue offers all the usual magazine goodies; ‘how-to-play’ articles by Lucy Parham, Nils Franke and myself, highlighting female composers (Maria Szymanowska, Cécile Chaminade, and Clara Schumann), in-depth masterclasses from Graham Fitch and Mark Tanner, a Piano Teacher Help Desk written by Kathryn Page, a Playing by Ear article from John Geraghty, and articles on female pianists and composers by Jessica Duchen, Peter Quantrill and Inge Kjemtrup.

There’s also a fascinating feature on Clara Schumann by concert pianist Lucy Parham, who is currently touring with her new composer portrait programme I, Clara, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Wieck Schumann. The narrative of I, Clara, drawn from letters and diaries, is interspersed with live performances of Clara’s works, and of music by Robert Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Chopin. The narrator is the acclaimed actress, Dame Harriet Walter. Lucy and Dame Harriet have just released a CD to accompany the tour, and you can find out more about it, here. And you can enjoy a preview of I, Clara by clicking on the link below:

Pianist magazine always contains at least forty pages of sheet music as well as an accompanying CD, all performed and recorded by house pianist Chenyin Li. In this edition, the lion’s share of the sheet music is devoted to female composers, including a charming Mazurka in C by Maria Szymanowska, Bagatelle No. 2 by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, No. 1 from 25 Easy Etudes Op. 50 by Louise Farrenc, Tarentelle Op. 123 No. 10 by Cécile Chaminade, Polka Op. 36 No. 5 by Amy Beach, Méditation by Mel Bonis, and Romance Op. 11 No. 1 by Clara Schumann. I feel most honoured to have one of my educational piano pieces, Kaleidoscope, included amongst this collection.

I wrote Kaleidoscope in a couple of hours on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Set in one of my favourite keys, F minor, it’s an intermediate level piece (intended for pianists of around Grade 5 ABRSM standard), and it contains a wistful melody and accompaniment, which blossoms out into cascading semiquaver passages, with plenty of movement around the keyboard, ideal for showcasing virtuosity. Kaleidoscope has been beautifully recorded by Chenyin Li, and you can hear it by clicking the following link:

If you don’t already subscribe to Pianist, you can do so here.

www.pianistmagazine.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Federico Colli and Fazioli at Eton College

One of the joys of living in Windsor (UK) is the proximity to many excellent artistic events. There are concerts virtually every week at various churches in the town centre, as well as performances at the Windsor Theatre, recitals at Eton College, and the Windsor Festival runs during September every year.  Evensong at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is a treat, and I highly recommend the Sunday services; the choir is superb and there’s often an eclectic selection of music, too.

On Sunday I was invited to witness the unveiling of a new piano at Eton College. The school had recently acquired a Fazioli instrument, which was generously funded through a donation by Professor Christopher Liu OBE and his wife, Vivienne.

To ‘christen’ the new piano, and keep the flag flying for Italy, Italian concert pianist Federico Colli gave a master class followed by an early evening recital. Federico won first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and he continues to enjoy a flourishing career.

The new piano is housed in Eton School Hall (see photo above left), a large palatial building which was seemingly the perfect place to unleash the piano’s full power allowing it to resonate majestically.

The afternoon consisted of a two-hour master class, featuring three Eton College students. Organised and introduced by Head of Keyboard, Gareth Owen, Durness Mackay-Champion opened the proceedings with a fine performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in B Op. 32 No. 1. Colli had much to say about Chopin, particularly regarding sound and tone quality. Comparing Chopin to Liszt, he declared that whilst the latter composer wore his grief in a declamatory fashion, the former always wore it quietly ‘in his heart’. Therefore, the tonal quality must reflect this softer, more sorrowful demeanour. I appreciated the references to ‘spacing’ or leaving time to breathe between certain phrases, and there was also an effective demonstration on how to colour or ‘voice’ particular chords. Federico’s own control of the instrument was impressive, and he was able to produce a rich ‘ringing’ sound on single notes by merely stroking the keys using an upward wrist motion, which offered a searing yet open tone.

Lucas Zhang performed Schumann’s Abegg Variations Op. 1. Federico commented on tempo markings, pointing out that irrespective of the actual speed, a tempo marking should first and foremost reflect the character or mood. Vivace and Animato were used as examples, and Lucas was encouraged to feel the animated spirit of the music and aim to be less concerned with the speed. Colli demonstrated this beautifully, offering several disparate methods for achieving this goal, which Lucas certainly took on-board.

The master class closed with a convincing account of Des Abends and Aufschwung from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12, given by John Gallant.  Des Abends (‘In the Evening’) required a more muted, lighter touch, in keeping with context and meaning behind this piece. Again, there was ample demonstration, and John adjusted his touch, using a very smooth legato for an immediate result. Aufschwung (‘Soaring’ or ‘Upswing’) was played with gusto, and some invaluable advice was offered on slow practice, grouping notes in the middle section by playing them in ‘blocks’ or chunks, whilst employing different rhythmic accentuations. Once mastered, this allowed the top voice to sing clearly above a sotto voce semiquaver accompaniment figure.

An early evening concert provided a real opportunity to hear the piano in its full glory. There’s no doubt that these hand-crafted instruments are capable of infinite tonal possibilities. Federico Colli’s recital contained four Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven’s Sonata in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2, closing with the magnificent Bach-Busoni Chaconne. The school hall was virtually full, with a mixture of students, parents and visiting instrumental teachers. It was heartening to see very young children in the audience, too.

Each work was given a distinct voice and it was clear that Colli (pictured to the right) has worked with these instruments for many years. What I enjoyed most of all was the tremendous dynamic ranges. From the softest pianissimos to grand fortissimos, one was aware of a magnitude of colours and vibrant bold lines, which facilitated intimately expressive phrases. After a rapturous applause, we were treated to an encore of Bach’s Cantata No. 147, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Such an instrument will be of considerable benefit to all those who study the piano at the school as well as to visiting performers, and this special event was a splendid way to celebrate the beginning of its musical life.

I interviewed Federico Colli five years ago at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London as part of my Classical Conversations Series, and you can watch our interview by clicking the link below.

www.fazioli.com/en

www.federicocolli.eu

www.jspianos.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Piano Master Classes with John O’Conor

I’m on my holidays this week, so I’m leaving you with a piano master class. I try to feature such classes regularly here on this blog, mainly because they offer a fascinating glimpse into the teaching world of various renowned teachers and pianists. But they also provide practice inspiration, and much interesting information about the selected repertoire.

Today’s classes have been recorded at the Aspen Music Festival and School, which is held annually in Aspen, Colorado, US. Filmed in 2015, Irish pianist and pedagogue John O’Conor gives us much food for thought when approaching Mozart and Brahms.


www.aspenmusicfestival.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

5 Tips for Secure Coordination and Quick Movement

This month’s 5 tips for Pianist magazine’s newsletter focuses on the issue of moving quickly around the instrument. I hope it’s useful.


Moving quickly and accurately can be tricky. Especially if fast passage work is involved. There are many ways to alleviate this conundrum, but one which can be really beneficial is octave displacement. Yes, you did read that correctly! No-one wants to feel ‘displaced’, but by moving in disparate patterns our brains are unexpectedly taxed, and when we return to playing what is written, the notes should feel more secure.

Start by locating a passage in a piece; one which you feel needs more work. It could involve any type of rapid passage work (in either one or both hands). Now practice the passage hands separately, and then hands together at a slow speed. Ensure you are happy with your chosen fingering.

  1. Let’s assume that your passage is situated within the middle two octaves of the keyboard (if it’s not, you can still apply the following practice technique but you may need to be a little more creative about how you apply it). After playing hands together slowly, repeat with the left-hand part down one octave, keeping the right-hand in the original position. Play through and listen astutely to each line; are you clearly articulating every note? Negotiate any leaps or position changes within the passage with care, watching and feeling every movement.
  2. Now take the left-hand down an octave further, so you are playing with the hands three octaves apart. The lower part of the keyboard often requires a deeper or heavier touch to successfully articulate notes, and fingers will usually accommodate this change.
  3. Once you have assimilated the heavier touch, keep the left-hand where it is and take the right-hand down one, then two, octaves, so that eventually both hands are playing in the lower range of the keyboard; the necessary deeper touch will hopefully encourage clear finger work.
  4. Next, return to play the passage as originally intended. Take the left hand down two octaves (if possible), and the right hand up two octaves. You should now be playing the passage at the extremities of the keyboard. Here, you can articulate note patterns with real clarity, as it’s possible to hear effectively when hands are far apart.
  5. One secure with the hands in this position, gradually increase the speed, and, finally, aim to constantly switch between positions; from one octave apart to two, and then up in the treble and then down in the bass. Aim to play these ever-changing patterns as one continuous phrase. This movement is surprisingly challenging, and necessitates a light arm motion, guided by a loose elbow. You have, in effect, constructed an elaborate ‘study’ or exercise around a demanding passage in your piece.

You might want to employ this practice tool for just four bars at a time or for an entire passage, but the more variety, the easier it will feel on returning to play the original written version. Continual octave displacement demands deft body movement as well as a nimble mind, and the greater the challenge during a practice session, the more comfortable you will feel when you play the piece through.

www.pianistmagazine.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Pro Corda at 50

Turning 50 is a special occasion. I celebrated my 50th birthday earlier this year, and on Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the 50th Birthday of Pro Corda, which was marked with an afternoon concert held at the Purcell Room on the South Bank in London.

Pro Corda Trust is a music and educational charity which was founded by Pamela Spofforth MBE and Elizabeth Hewlins MBE. Its purpose is ‘to provide for and conduct the education of young persons and others in the whole art, philosophy and theory of music, particularly chamber music’. Pro Corda is the largest music organisation of its kind and is recognised as the UK’s centre of excellence for ensemble training.

It is the only youth music organisation in the UK to provide a continuous and progressive programme of education through the medium of chamber music and ensemble training from age 5 to 24.  Home, for the majority of courses, is Leiston Abbey in Suffolk (pictured below). But the organisation also offers national provision and opportunity all around the country, including courses and workshops in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Sussex, Surrey and Kent.

Historic Leiston Abbey, the home of Pro Corda
Image: Geograph

In addition to ‘core’ courses for talented young musicians, which are accessible through audition, Pro Corda has pioneered an innovative course for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, using the power of ensemble training to benefit personal and social progression. This programme serves SEND schools and units across the country.

Pro Corda’s work employs a holistic approach, aiming to benefit the person as a whole, as well as the musician, with the mission to unleash the wider social benefits of chamber music in terms of participation, access and learning. And in addition to the courses for younger musicians, there are adult piano courses too.

At the 50th Birthday concert we were treated to an impressive smorgasbord of all that Pro Corda represents; an eclectic mix of ensemble groups, choirs, and a string orchestra, displaying a high standard of musicianship.

The Pavack Trio. From left to right: Lucas Dick (clarinet), James Murray (violin), and Jonathon Cheng (piano), who won Pro Corda’s National Chamber Music Festival. They are all pupils at King’s College School in Wimbledon (UK)
Image: Amanda Hurton

The afternoon began with a beautifully crafted first movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D956, which was played by students from the Intermediate Course. This was followed by the Pavack Trio (pictured to the left) comprising clarinet, violin and piano. Not a combination commonly heard, however this ensemble had won the 2019 Under 16s ‘Chamber Champions’ award at the Pro Corda National Music Festival (which is held annually), and it was easy to see why. For me, their performance was the highpoint of the afternoon. They romped through the Overture from Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano Op. 157b, the first movement of Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, Poulenc’s L’invitation au château, and a movement from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat.

The Pro Corda choir followed featuring students from Preparatory, Primary and Junior Courses. Singing in harmony and directed by Anna Strevens, they offered a lovely selection: The Salley Gardens (Traditional) and With A Little Help From My Friends (Beatles).

Beethoven’s immense string quartet, the Grosse Fugue in B flat major Op. 133 isn’t an obvious choice for a celebratory Sunday afternoon concert, but that’s exactly what the Senior Course students performed. And they played it superbly, with panache and the necessary intensity required for this fiendishly demanding double fugue.

A lengthy interval provided time to reflect, a chance to catch-up with many of my friends and colleagues, and enjoy the copious champagne.

In the second half, the feast of music making continued, firstly from Pro Corda’s outreach students. These students attend the ‘Activities Unlimited’ weekends, which are sponsored by Suffolk County Council, and by BBC Children in Need for those living in the London boroughs.

The Music Theatre Ensemble Showcase was formed of special educational needs and disabilities students, and together they offered The Greatest Showman, a medley of various current pop and rock tunes which were sung and danced to with the aid of very effective lighting and a lively, energetic, and enthusiastic team of tutors. It was certainly an audience favourite. Such ensemble focused activities seek to develop creative, communicative and confidence skills. I found this segment of the concert particularly moving. It was a joy witnessing the happiness these young people brought to this performance; it clearly offers a wonderful chance to explore stage craft and build necessary life skills.

Pro Corda’s CEO and Artistic Director Andrew Quarterman, who had been piano accompanist for several of the ensembles during the afternoon, spoke eloquently about the birthday celebrations; there had been over 50 events throughout the year, and the organisation were now looking forward to restoration of Leiston Abbey.

The afternoon concluded with the Senior Course Orchestra; a string orchestra directed by violinist and Pro Corda alumni Simon Blendis. Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor Op. 110a was the chosen piece. This dark, reflective work was written after Shostakovich had suffered two traumatic life events; the first was a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a debilitating muscular weakness), and the second, his reluctance to join the Communist Party. Apparently, the composer thought of this work as his epitaph, as he planned to commit suicide around this time. Thankfully, Shostakovich grappled with his demons and survived for many subsequent years. The orchestra captured the dismal character with a bleak, devastating performance, which certainly left myself and my companion in a contemplative state.

Pro Corda endeavours to help a wide cross-section of young musicians which is no easy task here in the UK. They no doubt battle for funding at a time when those in charge of our country repeatedly fail to see the benefits that music education can provide for everyone. Such initiatives should be rolled out across the country (and the world), in order to encourage young people to value, respect and enjoy music and the arts, as well as learn the many skills it bestows. Here’s to Pro Corda’s next 50 years!

www.procorda.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.