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.’

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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.


 

 

 

Piano Workshops and Summer Adventures

I’ve come to the end of a very busy Summer. It has been stimulating and enjoyable on so many levels, and it’s a privilege to travel to interesting parts of the world, meeting and working with different piano students, teachers, music lovers, and (hopefully) spreading the love for the piano.

With fellow faculty members on PIANO WEEK at Moreton Hall. Left to right; Maciej Raginia, Grace Yeo, Vesselina Tchakarova, Madalina Rusu, Mark Nixon, and Samantha Ward.
Image: PIANO WEEK

Music courses, particularly piano courses, are thriving and I’ve written about  them on countless occasions. For teachers, courses can be a great way to connect with both students and fellow teachers, sharing ideas and thoughts about teaching, discovering new repertoire, and discussing various aspects of piano practice and performance.

After nine intense days in Singapore and Malaysia, mainly giving workshops for piano teachers, I spent two weeks on back to back courses serving as a faculty member at PIANO WEEK which is held at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire (UK). This course, lasting seven days, offers piano students comprehensive study with an excellent faculty (usually six or seven tutors: see photo above left).

Working with a student at my composition workshop at the Montecatini Piano Festival
Image: Aisa Ijiri

The next stop on my Summer adventure was to a new festival held in Italy at Montecatini, near Florence in Tuscany. The Montecatini Piano Festival is still in its first year, but has already attracted considerable attention worldwide, with international artists and faculty members, including Hollywood composer and ‘cellist Martin Tillman, pianist and Leeds Piano Competition first-prize winner Sofya Gulyak, concert master and violinist Emanuel Salvador, and the Serbian piano duo, LP Duo.

Organised by Japanese pianist Aisa Ijiri, this festival enjoys an idyllic setting at the Montecatini Terme (or spa, for which the town is famous), and it was a pleasure to work in such surroundings with beautiful Steinway pianos (both PIANO WEEK and the Montecatini Piano Festival are sponsored by Steinway & Sons). At this course and festival, I gave several piano lessons focusing on my music, as well as a new venture for me, a composition workshop for students.

Speaking at the Schott Music Showcase at PIANO WEEK.
Image: Maciej Raginia

Finally, this past week was spent at Rugby School on the last of three PIANO WEEK courses. The course at Moreton Hall consisted of mainly children and teenage students, but Rugby was essentially an all adult course.

A comment reiterated time and again from students, particularly on intensive courses such as PIANO WEEK, is just how much is learnt, digested and, ultimately, improved in a short space of time. Few participants have the luxury of studying with several teachers simultaneously, as well as attending piano seminars, workshops, composition, sight-reading, memorisation, duet classes, and many other musical (as well as non-musical!) activities, which are all included on this course.

My Summer ends this week with two UK workshops. The first takes place on Thursday 29th August at Ackerman’s Music Shop in Hove, near Brighton on the South Coast. I gave a workshop for teachers last year, and in this workshop we will continue exploring flexibility and relaxation in piano technique. The day begins at 10.30am and features several presenters. You can find out more information here.

On Saturday 31st August, Forsyth Music Shop in Manchester will be hosting an afternoon workshop (see image to the right). This is for students and teachers, and I will be continuing with the subject of piano teachnique and flexibility. The afternoon starts at 2.00pm and you can find out more here.

These workshops are both free, and are practically based with plenty auidence participation. I look forward to meeting you.

Participants and faculty members after the final concert at PIANO WEEK held at Rugby School
Image: Maciej Raginia

 


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 Grade 7 Journey

Today’s guest blog post has been penned by my student Becky Flisher. Becky is a typical adult piano student who has a full-time job and many other hobbies and interests. She has been learning the piano for a while and attends several piano courses every year, including my course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust, and PIANO WEEK. I asked Becky (pictured below) to write about her recent experiences whilst preparing for her Grade 7 (ABRSM) exam, as I thought her preparation might inspire other adult learners to step up to the challenge of taking an exam as a mature learner.


My name is Becky and I’m an adult-returner to the piano. I’ve studied with Melanie for 4 years now (I have lessons every other week), and during that time I have learnt an incredible amount; I was around ABRSM Grade 3 level when I picked up the piano again 4 years ago. I’m a typical adult learner; time-short, self-conscious, nervous and not used to performing or playing in front of people. However, I am also academic and like being given certificates that celebrate my progress. This is a diary of my journey towards my Grade 7 exam. For my exam, I prepared the following programme:

  • Clementi, Allegro assai: 2nd movement from Sonata in G, Op. 1 No. 2
  • Backer Grøndahl, Sommervise: No. 3 from Fantasistykker, Op. 45
  • Ravel, No. 5 from Valses nobles et sentimentales

Early September 2018

Steady progress. My scales are starting to come together, I’m able to play them through with the right notes! Now I need to focus on evenness and articulation. I can play the Clementi and Grøndahl through, but not up to speed and there’s certainly no subtlety in them yet, lots of refinement needed. The Ravel I have only hands separately at this stage. Time is already ticking…

Mid-September 2018

Misery – I’ve felt clumsy and uncoordinated all week! I haven’t dare attempt anything too complicated, but have kept myself to slow, deep practice to make sure that I wasn’t getting frustrated and ingraining stupid mistakes. I know that sometimes you must go backwards two steps before you can move forward again so I’m reminding myself of that this week. When I feel sluggish, I do some slow, deep scale practice, relaxing between every note. Then I follow that with some staccato scales, I find that really helps ‘wake up’ the fingers and remind them of that articulated feeling. Over the course of my learning with Melanie, I’ve discovered that frequent practice helps keep that ‘articulated’ feeling closer at hand, (if you’ll pardon the pun) and each practice session it takes less time to get back to that feeling.

October 2018

At last, I’m over the ‘blip’. My fingers feel light and nimble again today after a week of feeling clumsy and un-coordinated. If my lessons with Melanie have taught me one thing, it’s to trust the method. It works. Playing slow and deep when you’re working towards a looming exam deadline might feel scary, but a solid foundation to a piece is key. Today I tried my pieces closer to performance speed and it worked – for a moment. Then I started over-thinking it again and getting stuck on notes. The trick is finding that balance between relaxing and enjoying the music, and not being so relaxed that you lose concentration. For me, I’ve found the best way to do this is to focus on the overall musical line, rather than on individual notes. That way if you slip or stumble on a note, it doesn’t throw off the entire phrase.

Early November 2018

I’ve slowly increased the speed of the Clementi – creeping nearer performance speed – and I’ve lost all ability to play light and nimble again! So frustrating!! Everything is suddenly incredibly uneven at this faster speed and I’m slipping on and off notes. Back to lots of slow deep practice to really get my fingering sure on all these fast passages.

Mid-November 2018

In today’s lesson I tried the Ravel hands together. Lots of scrunched chords with awkward hand positions and I’ve realised I’ve strained my right arm by not fully releasing the tension between notes. Lots of slow practice today dropping and releasing my hand and arm after every chord, and then extending that light, relaxed feeling into my arm and shoulder. Who knew that relaxing could be so difficult? (Perhaps I should get a massage, to help my piano playing…?) After this session I thought I’d have a go at the Clementi and it was super! I was so focused on keeping my arm relaxed I forgot to worry about the notes or how fast it was and inadvertently played it the best ever! From today I’m going to start every practice session with 5 minutes of relaxing and letting my fingers sink down into the notes (while I entertain myself with thinking about the paradox that control comes from letting go…)

December 2018

I’m finally managing to relax more easily, which is getting me closer to performance speed for the Clementi. I’m also getting much better at not thinking about the notes so much and following the melodic phrase instead. It’s not fully accurate yet but a shape is beginning to emerge…

January 2019

I attended one of Melanie’s Masterclasses on ‘Performance Technique’ at Jackdaws Music Education Trust this weekend. This was the perfect platform for me to test the Clementi in front of an informal audience. I put all my tricks into practice, tried to focus on staying relaxed and the phrasing. It highlighted lots of areas for improvement and those ‘problem spots’, but it was invaluable in terms of showing how I might perform in exam conditions. I came away hugely motivated to put in even more effort. If you haven’t been to a piano festival or Masterclass before, do consider one – not only can they really improve your performance playing, but they are great introductions to new repertoire, teachers, courses, techniques, methods, resources, and like-minded amateur pianists.

February 2019

I’m starting to prepare properly for my exam, ramping up my aural practice, practising scales out-of-order (including staccato, hands separately, etc). I’m still doing lots of slow practice in those problem areas, and my fingers are starting to feel stronger. I went around to a friend’s house and played all three pieces for her on her piano. I’m glad to say that they are much improved.

March 2019

I played at two Music Festivals this month, as practice runs for the exam. The first one I rather muddled through, but I managed to keep going at least. The second was vastly better. I felt I managed to give a performance rather than just play the pieces. This was a much more formal environment than the Jackdaws performance, but I felt I did infinitely better. I managed to shut the audience out and just focus on the music and enjoying it. This is the feeling I need to recreate in the exam room.

Late March 2019

Exam day. I did a slow, deep warm-up and ran some practice scales and sight reading, played through my pieces and then stopped. Important not to overdo it. Exam time.

It was over before I knew it. I focused on staying calm and trusted the preparation I had put in. However, I did make some errors in one of the pieces, and I felt the pedal was particularly difficult to control.  It’s incredibly hard to be objective about these things, but I am hopeful I have passed. Regardless, I have learnt some new pieces, improved my technique and learnt to trust in my practice methods. If I feel myself getting frustrated because I’m slipping or uneven, I know it’s time to go back to s l o w  p r a c t i c e! When I’ve done that thoroughly, I know that I can lighten my touch and relax, and it will all be there, securely under my fingers. When you learn to trust the practice you’ve put in, then you can let go and enjoy the music.

For more information about ABRSM exams, click here.

Becky achieved a Merit in her Grade 7 exam, and is now looking forward to exploring more repertoire before focusing on Grade 8.


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 Courses 2019/2020

Tutoring piano courses is certainly a lot of fun.  I’ve been doing more and more of this work, and it’s a great way to connect with a variety of different piano students.

Jackdaws Music Educational Trust offers a wonderful selection of piano courses with superb tutors. You can view them here. My course takes place in January 2020, and I’ll be focusing on piano technique. This is a subject close to my heart, and it’s an element which I truly believe to be vital when learning to play, whether you’re an amateur, student or professional pianist. We will concentrate on developing and maintaining flexibility during practice and performance, and I work with participants both on their selected repertoire and via simple exercises.   The course venue, an attractive house in Somerset near Frome, contains excellent facilities, including a Steinway Model B piano, and several practice rooms. If you decide to take the plunge and book a course, you’ll enjoy the most beautiful countryside, delicious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends. And this year Jackdaws have added a new concert venue, too (see photo below).

For my course, participants are advised to bring two to three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready. I do hope you’ll join us!

Polishing Your Piano Technique: January 17th – 19th 2020

 

Finchcocks Piano Courses are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why. A beautiful setting (see photo to the right, and click here for a review of my last course for information about the venue), coupled with excellent food, an inviting selection of different instruments on which to play and practice, and the prospect of meeting fellow piano-loving course members.

In a similar vein to Jackdaws, Finchcocks offers an impressive roster of teachers, and what is interesting and definitely more helpful is the fact that the courses are categorised in terms of ability. There are courses for beginners (roughly Grade 1 -3 level), intermediate (around Grade 4 – 7 level) and advanced level players (Grade 7 and above), and there are also courses for teachers.

I will be conducting an intermediate and an advanced course this Autumn, and we will be working on a variety of different piano ‘elements’. Starting on a Friday evening with group duets and trios, which provide a fun introduction. On Saturday there will be a brief foray into discussing flexibility at the keyboard in the technique session, plus sessions on memorisation and sight-reading. And it’s a good idea to bring along two or three pieces to play.

You can find out more about these courses, here.

Here are the dates for my Finchcocks courses:

Intermediate Course: October 4th – 6th 2019

Advanced Course: November 15 – 17th 2019

I look forward to meeting you.


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.