New Piano Courses at Finchcocks

I’m very fortunate to love my work, and one particularly enjoyable aspect is the opportunity to direct piano courses and workshops. I’m writing this post whilst relaxing  in my accommodation in Shropshire (just a few miles from the Welsh border), where I’m working for two weeks at PIANO WEEK, an international piano festival and Summer school (more about this wonderful venture in another post). It’s a demanding and packed schedule working with pianists of all ages, but already I have made some firm friends and we have had a lot of fun.

This work is most rewarding and I was delighted to be invited to direct several piano courses at Finchcocks. For those who have yet to discover this innovative selection of piano courses, you can find out much more about them by clicking here.

Finchcocks is a stately manor house (pictured above) in Kent (UK) offering regular piano weekends for pianists of all levels, ages and abilities. The manor house, which has been recently renovated, has been hosting weekend courses throughout the past year (featuring popular tutors such as Graham Fitch, David Hall, and Dr. Mark Polishook). Designed as bespoke weekends, they feature luxurious accommodation, superb cuisine, plenty of friendly, encouraging piano tuition, and excellent practice facilities; in short, a marvellous ‘first piano course’ for those slightly intrepid pianists who fancy taking the plunge but are perhaps a little apprehensive.

My course will be held from December 7th – 9th 2018. It is intended for Intermediate pianists, or those of around Grade 4 – 7 level (ABRSM level). The course commences on Friday evening at 7.00pm, with some helpful tips for improving piano technique. Simple exercises for honing flexibility will be implemented and each course member will have the chance to try them out both at and away from the piano! This class will be followed by dinner.

Saturday will begin with a sight-reading workshop, offering some useful practice ideas, with lots of hands on participation. A master class will provide the opportunity to play your pieces and receive beneficial practice suggestions, and after lunch there will be time for private practice with some individual tuition with me. Before dinner, the group will reconvene for a listening seminar, which might provide food for thought and, hopefully, some interesting dinner conversation!

On Sunday, we’ll begin with a memorisation workshop, followed by a duet session (a highlight, for sure). The weekend closes with casual duet, trio and solo performances from course members. This could be the perfect course for those who want a gentle nudge back into the world of piano playing, but it may also be a useful, instructive performance platform for the more serious student preparing for a piano exam.

You can find out more about the course and book your place, here. Three further courses have been planned for 2019, for those unable to attend in December.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.



Composing: An underrated tool in teacher’s toolkits, by Jenni Pinnock

My guest writer today is British composer and teacher Jenni Pinnock, who is based in Cambridgeshire. Jenni is a busy composer and her works have been performed worldwide. She also runs a private teaching practice, and here, she offers teachers and students a few inspired ideas for incorporating composition into lessons. Over to Jenni…

“There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it.” – Clara Schumann

The above quote is a highly divisive one. For those that aren’t fans of composing it can seem like a rather daunting prospect. Some musicians will admit to dabbling it and maybe even enjoying it. Others go wide-eyed in fear and recant the difficulties of composing pieces for their GCSEs, A levels or even degrees.  To instrumental teachers the idea of encouraging others to compose can seem equally daunting, or even pointless. I’ve approached instrumental teachers before who have talked about how much they hated composing – why should their students like it? Why when they should be working on new notes, expanding their repertoire and taking exams would composition be of benefit to them? It may come as a surprise to some, but composition can actually be a very useful tool to integrate into lessons, especially for certain students.

Let me explain. I’m not suggesting you should take up entire lessons composing (though you may want to!), but it can be a highly effective part of a teaching toolkit. My degrees are in composition, but as many composers do, I teach alongside writing music. I first began using composition as part of my teaching process when working in a special school in London. An autistic student I was working closely with was amazing at improvising, but lacked confidence when it came to using weaker fingers and notation. Through writing and ‘formalising’ some of her improvisations we improved their notation reading (through writing!), got them using all fingers and confidence sky rocketed. All these factors improved their playing tenfold.  When I started my own teaching practice, I was already spending the majority of my time working as a composer, and incorporating composition into teaching seemed natural. It’s worth remembering that as formally trained adults with the history of musical composition on our shoulders we may fuss and worry over every note, wondering how our music will fit into the contemporary world and analysing every note. Students don’t have this fear: They’re writing for them, and for the joy of music. In fact, it can be far more freeing than playing normal pieces, with no rights or wrongs – ultimate freedom to play around and create something that’s theirs!

With younger students and beginners, I find the idea of composing can free them up from the constraints of notation, which can be a source of anxiety or simply involve a lot of brain power! They can play around with their instrument, find patterns and listen to what they’re creating. The process of recording their pieces (even just bits of them!) in a written form can help you identify how they feel most comfortable reading at that stage (note names, fingerings, stave notation) and help you identify weak areas to zone in on later. Some can benefit from writing graphic scores and assigning symbols to notation patterns they know rather than worry about writing it all on a stave, while for others the process of cementing their music on staves makes it feel more ‘real’ whilst simultaneously boosting their notation comprehension skills. Composing can happen with one note or dozens of them – it can be integrated at any stage.

Assigning a composition task to help get to grips with a technical exercise can also be useful for more established students. You can assign something with the challenge of including a current exercises (e.g. a mini chromatic scale or a certain hand position, incorporating alternative fingerings or specific interval jumps), writing in a particular scale or mode or using a particular technique. As musicians we know we often develop a skill faster by processing it in lots of different ways, and the creativity of composition is a way of doing just that.

How do you know if your student will be open to the idea of composing? Well, the easiest way is to ask, or naturally flow into it during the course of a lesson. Rarely do I find I say “Right, let’s start writing a piece” to a student, or present a formal brief – it just happens naturally. I often find that students spend time playing around with favourite phrases or patterns on their instrument while I’m writing notes or switching pieces – this can be an excellent way of getting into it. What do they like about that phrase? Can they play it in another octave? What does it make them think of? How could they follow it, or accompany it? Often when I then suggest expanding it into a few bars (2 or 4 to start with!) they’re often keen on the ‘fun’ homework task – and it goes from there. One particular favourite of mine is to ask piano students to write a piece incorporating whatever their current left hand challenge is, such as fully formed chords, broken chords or Alberti bass. Students sometimes find these tricky to master when it comes to putting both hands together,  but if I suggest them writing a simple tune over the top of it often they practice so much that the left hand becomes second nature.

Some of my instrumental students have recently taken the jump from writing their own mini pieces to submitting compositions into competitions or using them as their third exam piece (where allowed). That’s a phase where you might want to seek support from a composer, but you can use pieces they’ve learnt as references – or introduce pieces they could use as inspiration (for example, exploring different genres, styles, or structures).

The most important thing to remember when introducing composing to students is to remember that, initially at least, nothing is wrong. Self expression is key, and whether there are parallel fifths or constantly changing time signatures, a graphic score or fully realised notation, none of that matters. What matters is that it’s theirs, and has encouraged their musicality to grow and be explored in different ways while helping to develop or cement some technical elements of their performing or theory knowledge too. Make sure students take ownership of their pieces – try to get them to title them, and where possible record them too – even just on a phone or tablet so it can be shared and stored.

As teachers, we all have a toolkit of techniques we use. We have our favourite tutor books, favourite study pieces, improv structures and exercises that we pull out at various times depending on students’ preferences and requirements. Composing can be a useful tool in that collection. It won’t be right for all students, but for some it could be that shining light that helps them unleash their creative potential and connect both to their instrument and the wider musical world.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


Jackdaws Piano Course 2019

The Jackdaws Music Educational Trust instrumental and vocal courses are open for booking today! The 2018/19 programme offers more variety than ever, so there is sure to be something for everyone.

The course venue, an attractive house in Somerset (pictured to the left), 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, scrumptious home cooked food, and plenty of opportunity to hone your piano skills whilst meeting new like-minded friends.

This is the fourth year that I have run a weekend course at Jackdaws, and I’m always delighted to be working amongst such an illustrious cohort of course tutors. This year, I’ll be focusing on piano technique. Throughout this weekend, I hope to illustrate the possibility of improving your skills irrespective of age or ability. Students often complain of tension, pain, and discomfort when they play, which probably stems from moving around the instrument in a less than ideal manner, resulting in many technical issues. During the course, I’ll consider the reasons for tension and examine useful ways of alleviating it, by focusing on establishing freedom and relaxation whilst playing.

Each course member will be given ample opportunity to hone and improve their technique; we will work at rotational wrist motion, strengthening fingers, and developing completely free arm movement; encouraging the use of arm weight, with the aim of producing a warm, pleasing tone.  Technique will also be evaluated and assessed in the context of each student’s chosen repertoire, therefore participants are advised to bring two to three contrasting pieces to the workshops, although these do not have to be performance ready.

Course Name: Polishing Your Piano Technique

Course Dates: 18th – 20th January 2019

I really look forward to meeting you.

For more details and booking information, click here.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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 Piano at the Proms 2018

Summer just wouldn’t be Summer without the BBC Promenade concerts, which begin this evening and run for two months, concluding on September 8th. This year the world’s largest and most famous classical music festival consists of seventy-five evening concerts plus many Prom ‘extras’, including copious free events, workshops, talks and family occasions. The concert series is held at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as Cadogan Hall and the Roundhouse, with talks and presentations at Imperial College. The Proms in the Park concerts run in tandem with the climax of the festival, the Last Night of the Proms (or Prom 75), and are held in Hyde Park, Glasgow, Belfast and Colwyn Bay (Wales); they are a major fixture every year too. If you can’t attend, each concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio Three, and a selection of performances will be televised for BBC 2 and BBC 4.

The Promenade concerts aim to bring classical music to a wide audience, remaining true to its founder’s (the conductor Henry Wood) original vision; the Prom concerts began at The Queen’s Hall in 1895. The Proms are so-called because of the ‘Prommers’; a large group of audience members who stand for the entire concert; a tradition which continues today.

Whilst classical music is to the forefront, there are increasingly varied genres appearing every year; jazz, blues, musical theatre, and world music (Cuban and Jamaican music are featured this year at Prom 23, and Prom 70 is a Tango Prom). There are late night performances, a smorgasbord of concerts spotlighting young musicians, and, for the first time, the BBC Proms highlights the music of female composers – featuring twenty-two in total. There will also be forty-two world premieres.

The piano’s popularity is such that it makes frequent appearances at this colossal festival, and it has been well represented again this year. A variety of renowned international pianists will perform a choice selection of works; a few Proms ‘newcomers’ sit happily alongside those who we have come to know and love.

Mozart’s concertos are arguably amongst the finest of their genre, and there will be two performances: Prom 2 features the composer’s final piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major K595, played by Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi, and the Royal Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Alain Altinoglu. Also, Prom 56, where Piano Concerto No. 21 K467 will be played by British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor (who makes two appearances this year) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Beethoven lovers won’t be disappointed as the composer’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major Op 73 ‘The Emperor’ receives an airing at Prom 15, with British pianist Paul Lewis at the piano alongside the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon.

Mendelssohn is making a welcome return at Prom 8 with an outing of his scintillating Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 played by French pianist Bertrand Chamayou and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. Other romantic favourites include Grieg’s every-popular Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 played by the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili and the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by  Paavo Järvi at Prom 42. The winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition, South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho makes his Proms debut at Prom 49, with Chopin’s beautiful Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 (with the European Union Youth Orchestra and conductor Gianandrea Noseda).

For Liszt lovers, American-Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman will be playing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major S. 125 at Prom 61, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and there will be a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major Op. 44 at Cadogan Hall (Proms at Cadogan Hall on July 16th) played by Spanish pianist Javier Perianes and the Calidore String Quartet.

Gershwin is a popular composer during the 2018 Proms; the Piano Concerto in F major will be played by Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan and the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä at Prom 31. And the Rhapsody in Blue will be performed at a late night Prom (Prom 46) by Benjamin Grosvenor and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra conducted by Mark Armstrong.

Ravel’s demanding Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major appears at Prom 28, played by Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich, with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and conductor Sir George Benjamin. Shostakovich fans will be pleased to hear of a Prom featuring his captivating Second Piano Concerto in F major Op. 102 which will be performed by Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin with the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon (Prom 32).

Much-loved Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt will play Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sakari Oramo at Prom 6. And the notoriously high-heeled Chinese pianist Yuja Wang will circumnavigate Prokofiev’s blistering Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and conductor Kirill Petrenko at Prom 66.

Prom 3 is a rather special event; it’s the fortieth anniversary of the BBC’s Young Musician competition and the entire Prom spotlights an assortment of past winners. Pianists Freddy Kempf, Martin James Bartlett, Lara Melda and the most recent winner (in 2018), Lauren Zhang, will all participate. Works include Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals as well as a collection of Contemporary pieces and specially commissioned works. 

My top choice? Prom 63; a late night concert with Hungarian pianist Sir András Schiff, who will perform Book 2 of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (or Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues), which will no doubt be a thought-provoking and inspiring experience.

Whilst I’ve mentioned the majority of piano events, there is so much more to enjoy at this exceptional festival, so do to take a look. Hope to see you there!

Find out more and book your tickets here:

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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 Tippett Study Day at the City Literary Institute

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Sir Michael Tippett’s death (1905 – 1998). The British composer’s life spans almost the entire Twentieth century, and his music was often ranked alongside that of Sir Benjamin Britten; the pair considered the leading British composers of the day (and of the Twentieth century). Tippett’s talent developed slowly, only reaching prominence just before the Second World War, and after withdrawing all his early compositions, he was thirty before any of his works were published. Despite his fairly prolific output, his music has not always enjoyed the popularity it did during his lifetime.

On Sunday, I had the good fortune to attend a Tippett Study Day held at the City Literary Institute, an adult education college in the heart of London’s West End. The  study day was presented by The Beethoven Piano Society of Europe; an  excellent organisation which strives to spotlight Beethoven’s piano works and arranges many interesting concerts and events throughout the year. This event was primarily intended to be  ‘A celebration of the life and work of Sir Michael Tippett on the 20th anniversary of his death, focusing on the composer’s piano music and his intense relationship to the music of Beethoven‘.

After a brief introduction by the Society’s chairman Julian Jacobson, the day began with a half hour talk about Tippett’s life with writer and broadcaster, Oliver Soden. Oliver is currently writing a Tippett biography (to be published next year), and therefore his knowledge on his subject was exemplary. The presentation, Tippett – The Piano Sonatas in Context, was the highlight of the day for me. Oliver spoke eloquently about all four piano sonatas, carefully plotting the composer’s life and influences alongside his compositional development.

As a student at the Royal College of Music much of Tippett’s early piano writing had been pastiche, rendering it of little interest, and therefore it has remained unpublished. But the piano had been the focus of Tippett’s work; he used it constantly when composing, and had a natural affinity for piano writing, even though, by all accounts, he wasn’t a virtuoso pianist. However, Oliver persuaded us otherwise, siting various complicated piano pieces that Tippett had performed, certainly indicating a proficient level of mastery.

The day continued with a presentation by Christopher Mark, senior lecturer in musicology at the University of Surrey. This talk largely concentrated on the piano sonatas, and looked at their structure, with comparisons to a selection of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Christopher pointed out particular features of Tippett’s style demonstrating Beethovenian influences, but for me the most compelling element was Tippett’s own compositional process.

Tippett employed a Mosaic structure for the Second Piano Sonata. This particular compositional technique consists of repeating certain phrases of music at disparate points, sometimes exactly, but also with subtle differences; the placement of these repetitions being dictated freely by the composer. Christopher offered Tippett’s own construction notes; showing us how he devised the work’s structure. There were three different versions; the first displaying the basic outline, followed by the second and third, which were increasingly detailed. I found this fascinating and it gave us a glimpse into the workings of this fairly unorthodox composer.

After a brief break, the day resumed with a series of open discussions. Firstly, a conversation entitled ‘Reflections on Tippett’s Piano Music‘ with Meirion Bowen, who was Tippett’s artistic and personal manager from 1978 until his death, and Andrew Ball, professor of piano at the Royal College of Music. Andrew studied the sonatas with the composer, performing them frequently as a cycle. Hosted by Julian, Meirion recounted Tippett’s musical experiences, including recurrent difficulties with orchestras and conductors, who were sometimes ill-equipped to deal with such complex scores. Andrew spoke of his copious lessons with the composer; Tippett perpetually emphasized rhythmic precision and character – but, according to Andrew, couldn’t always remember which particular note or notes he had written!

The morning concluded with ‘Tippett, his piano music, and his relationship to Beethoven‘. Andrew Ball, Meirion Bowen, Julian Jacobson, Christopher Mark and Oliver Soden, were joined by professor of composition at the Royal College of Music, William Mival, for more Tippett appraisal. This was a chance for the group to offer personal reflections of how Tippett’s music had influenced their own work, and also evaluate his legacy. Tippett’s music is published exclusively by Schott Music, and Sally Groves, who had worked with him at Schott, also shared some valuable insights.

After lunch, the focus was on performance; four master classes all given by Andrew Ball. Pianist Yuki Negishi played the Second Piano Sonata, which was followed by pianist Julian Trevelyan, who played the First Piano Sonata. Both gave committed accounts and Andrew’s very helpful comments were much appreciated by performers and audience members alike. Andrew’s attention to rhythmic detail provided plenty of food for thought; he was also precise about pedalling and creating a specific sound world – particularly when referring to different structural motifs.

The afternoon concluded with further master classes on the song cycle, The Heart’s Assurance, performed by Ruth Hopkins (soprano) and Duncan Appleby (piano), and finally, Thomas Ang played the Fourth Piano Sonata. Julian gave a closing address to this most enlightening and thought-provoking day. Many thanks to The Beethoven Piano Society of Europe for their superb organisation and hospitality.

Sir Michael Tippett

The Beethoven Piano Society of Europe

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


At the piano with Phyllis Sellick, by Clara Rodriguez

My guest writer today is Venezuelan pianist and teacher Clara Rodriguez. Clara came to the UK as a young student on a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. At the RCM, she studied with eminent professor Phyllis Sellick, who had a profound influence on her development as a pianist and musician. In this post, Clara charts her pianistic journey, and, at the end of the article, you can watch an interview I recorded with Clara a few years ago. Over to Clara…

In Caracas, when I was 16 years of age, together with my mother, we saw a newspaper advert for a competition that would take place a week later. The prize was a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. With my teacher’s support I entered it and went along to the Escuela de Música Superior José Angle Lamas, the oldest of all the music conservatories of Venezuela with a long tradition of producing wonderful composers.

The then directors of the Senior and Junior Departments of The Royal College of Music had been flown in specially to judge the competition. I remember playing J.S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor from Book 2 of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No 1 and Reflets dans l’eau by Debussy. After some theory and aural exams, it was decided that six scholarships would be given to junior musicians: two pianists, one guitarist, one violinist, one recorder and one horn player. This must have been in May, and by the 12th of September we were landing at Heathrow!

I was told on arrival, that Barbara Boissard and Michael Gough Matthews had thought that I should study under Phyllis Sellick, and on the same evening I would be able to see her on TV as she was judging the final of the Leeds Piano Competition.

Phyllis Sellick was stunning! Everybody seemed to know her, even people I talked to in the streets, asking for directions as I got lost a few times in South Kensington-Knightsbridge-High St. Kensington! In a way, to me this was not surprising as I thought: “It’s normal, I am in Europe, here everything has to do with classical music, and the piano” I remember people telling me that she was very good for Mozart and that her husband (Cyril Smith) had been a well-known pianist too, but that she was the most musical of the two. (Sorry Cyril!)

From the very first moment I met her at the RCM, I bathed in a warmth and kindness that never changed in the 28 years I knew her. The first thing that amazed me was her hands, which were so soft, padded, very wide and with a wonderfully lifted little finger knuckle. The perfect hand for the piano.

She patiently, with great care, love, tact and a wonderful insight guided me and taught me the Art of playing the piano. I still go by her teachings, every day! I also do my best to pass on all that knowledge to my pupils. I remember trying to tell myself: “this is it! This will be my profession” as up to then I had thought I would finish my piano degree in Venezuela and I would also go to university to study sociology.

I used to call her Miss Sellick until she told me: “Phyllis, please!”, she used to call me “Little Clara”. Phyllis, would to say to me: “This is a world class conservatory, so you must play like a world class pianist” She would also talk about being a “professional pianist” an important concept that Cyril Smith and herself had with great determination fulfilled during their time.

During the first term with her, one day she asked me “How long do you practice a day?” to which I must have answered trying to be impressive “two hours”, she said “you must do five” so, with a clock in front of me I started doing this, of course! I used to have weekly lessons with her on Wednesdays and Junior Department lessons on Saturdays.

Very early on she entered me for a concerto competition where I played W A Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 595, and before that took place, she kindly organized a concert at her beautiful house in Fife Road, East Sheen, where I met many of my piano classmates hailing from all over the world: Marta from Peru, Eva from Germany, Kim from New Zealand, Noriko from Japan, David from the USA, Karen and James from the UK. Norberto and Héctor, from Argentina, would kindly accompany me on the orchestral reductions and they would come to the teaching room at the end of my lessons to translate to Spanish any important message Phyllis wanted to make sure I understood as my English was non-existent.

Then I made many more friends who also studied with her; Andrew, the Cann sisters, Geofrey, Ann, Liz, Amanda, Adrian, Dominic, Ian…it is impossible to mention them all right now!

Phyllis and co

Amanda Hurton, Phyllis Sellick, Marta Encinas, Clara Rodriguez, Eva Alexander

She had both a practical and a methodical way of living life and being in a “bubble” of love for music; she once told me that she only needed “piano music and coffee to live.”

Once, Phyllis’ car was stolen and her greatest chagrin was that the thief had taken away the whole collection of  “Edition Musica Budapest”  of the Scarlatti Sonatas with it.

She was such a kind teacher, always thinking of how she could help her students solve problems. She would give me a phone call when I least expected it, to tell me something about a particular bar that I should play “pp” or how I should join a yoga class to help relax my shoulders.

One day she arranged for five pupils to come to rmy lesson to sing Bach Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1 (of the 48 Preludes and Fugues) so I could conduct them and listen to all the voices. That was an exhilarating experience!

My studies with her were full of wonderful pianistic revelations, for instance, the idea that the piano is a percussion instrument and that we pianists, must make it “sing” as well as forming long musical lines, connecting every note so that there is coherence in the phrasing, is a challenge. I have to say that I had enjoyed excellent tuition in Venezuela from my first teacher Guiomar Narváez and masterclasses from Regina Smendzianka from Poland, plus my own interest in playing in a way that did not produce unwanted accents, but it was under Phyllis’ light that I went on developing this side of my playing.

Phyllis Sellick was born in Ilford, Essex, and started to play the piano by ear at the age of three. She had her first music lesson on her fifth birthday, and she would say that going up the escalator on the tube (the underground) was the best thing about going to the lessons, plus when the teacher played with her. Four years later she won the Daily Mirror‘s “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” contest for young musicians and was awarded two years’ private tuition with Cuthbert Whitemore, subsequently winning an open scholarship to continue her studies with him at the Royal Academy of Music. Thanks to her mentors, she later studied with Isidor Philipp in Paris, a pupil of George Mathias, who in turn had studied with Frederic Chopin, a fact that always fascinated us, her pupils, who are fifth generation Chopin students!

During her stay in Paris, Phyllis played for Maurice Ravel and studied many of his works with him, making recordings of some of his pieces on 78 RPM. I am very proud to have studied with her some Ravel works including the Concerto in G which she came to hear when I performed it at St. John’s Smith Square.

For us, her students, it was so important that Phyllis and Cyril had enjoyed a formidably close friendship with Sergei Rachmaninoff. I think that Phyllis had a deep affinity with his music and its interpretation. She felt real musical passion and made me try to convey it in performances, all with a “steely” control! Very difficult to manage as sometimes the music moved me so much that I was not capable to produce any sounds from my hands! When I was about 7, I remember telling my mum how a piece from Ana Magdalena Bach’s book had made me cry. So, all these feelings had to be curbed in order to play the piano!

I now realize how hard it must have been for her that at the height of his solo concert career her husband lost the use of the left hand after having had two strokes. How much support she must have given him, so they could start a new career playing the four-hand repertoire with three hands. Arranging many pieces and having many works composed for them.


Cyril and Phyllis on the steps of the Albert Memorial. Kensington Gardens

I immensely enjoyed listening to her stories about their efforts during the war such as their concert tours in Portugal and in India. How uncomfortable many situations were, from insects biting their hands during performances to seeing the most shocking social contrasts in those societies. She braved the air raids, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 near where a bomb fell jerking the piano up and down, ending her story thus: “fortunately I was able to continue playing”.


When Phyllis learnt to drive ambulances, she recalled many amazing stories of her life during The Blitz. When Cyril and her had to go to Broadcasting House to play W A Mozart’s D major Sonata, live,  they had to run through the streets of London under “a good deal of shrapnel” to take the tube, where people were getting ready to sleep on the platforms – all to play the Mozart divinely!

On another occasion she had to go to sleep in the BBC to be woken up at 2.00 am to play the incredibly difficult Ravel Toccata for the World Service, “it felt like death” she said to me.

Phyllis Sellick, Cyril Smith and Brahms

Cyril, Brahms and Phyllis

Another beautiful story featured one of their trips to Ireland; their son, who was accustomed to hearing: “this month we have not got enough money because concerts have been scarce”, was very distressed to see the Irish children wearing no shoes and with anger said: “their parents should play more concerts!”


Graham, Phyllis, Cyril and Claire

Sir Henry Wood insisted that they should play together and they performed at The BBC Proms in 1941, making many international tours and recordings as a duo. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (Introduction and Fugue ‘For Phyllis and Cyril’) and Lennox Berkeley wrote music specially for them. Malcolm Arnold also wrote for them (Concerto for Piano 3 Hands and Orchestra, Op. 104, sometimes known as Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril).

Phyllis and Cyril were awarded the OBE in 1971. Once, I wrote a card to her in which I said that she had the highest standards of piano playing that I have ever known and she replied that she would, “on sad days”, remember that thought.

I used to go to play for her until she was well into her eighties before my recitals or recordings. Her opinion was very significant for me. She went to all my major London concerts and would very sweetly give me a call the next day. Invariably, I would be thinking how many things should have been played better, but she would give me lots of encouragement and often said: “I am your number one fan” in which case I would say that we belonged to the mutual admiration society.

She broke first her thumb and then her wrist, and I remember seeing her trying to train her hand again by doing basic exercises and even playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon successfully, but not many other concerts were possible, as her hand had been badly damaged unfortunately.


Queen Elizabeth being presented a bouquet by Phyllis at the Royal Festival Hall. 1952

In 2002 she appeared on the BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs. One of her choices was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to which she added “I would like Cyril to play it”. I remember the presenter asking her also, “How do you teach?” and she said: “I listen to the students and then tell them what I think” We both laughed when I pointed out how simple she made everything sound.

Phyllis Sellick died in Kingston in 2007.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


Cadenza International Summer Music School

When the academic year ends Summer schools begin, and they now appear to be more popular than ever. Students have so many options to choose from that it must be a challenge deciphering which might offer the most inspirational learning experience. I will be spending two weeks in Shropshire this year (from July 22nd – 5th August) at Moreton Hall enjoying PIANO WEEK, hosted and organised by pianist Samantha Ward. But if you would prefer to stay nearer London, the Cadenza International Summer Music School might be an excellent choice.

Artistic director and pianist, John Thwaites is at the helm, and the school is now in its twenty-sixth year. Based at the Purcell School, near Watford, just outside London, this friendly course provides a very generous array of private lessons, chamber music opportunities and coaching sessions.

The course runs from July 13th – 20th and tuition is offered for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. Students can enjoy a minimum of three individual lessons on their first study instrument during the week, plus chamber music coaching as well as concert and performance platforms. Everyone plays in at least one chamber group which is coached not less than every second day. Repertoire plans can be made in advance, especially for pianists. Groups and partnerships apparently evolve flexibly during the week; the coaching timetable is arranged in two-day cycles. All levels and abilities are encouraged and there is a wide age range from youngsters through to teenagers, as well as undergraduates, postgraduates, professional and amateur pianists.

Teaching faculty:

Piano: John Thwaites, Julian Jacobson, Fali Pavri, William Fong, Pascal Nemirovsk and Victor Sangiorgio

Violin: Krysia Osostowicz, Daniel Rowland, Leland Chen, Maciej Rakowski

Viola: Robin Ireland

Cello: Adrian Brendel, Alexander Baillie, Pierre Doumenge, Louise Hopkins, Ursula Smith

You can find out more information about the Cadenza International Summer Music School, here. Click below to download the brochure:

Cadenza International Summer Music School Full Brochure

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.



Harpsichord basics by Katharine May

Katharine May, who is a British harpsichordist and pianist, is my guest writer today. I asked Katharine (pictured below) for some tips and guidance for those who fancy swapping the piano for the harpsichord, therefore in this post she seeks to explain a few fundamentals. Over to Katharine…

I have often been approached by pianists wishing to try their hand at the harpsichord, needing some starting points on technique and repertoire. Following on from my brief introduction to the instrument posted in 2016 (you can read this post, here), I thought I would outline some of the harpsichord basics from a practical viewpoint to give readers some confidence and knowledge in understanding this wonderful keyboard instrument.

Touch and Technique

The first, most striking aspect one notices when trying a harpsichord for the first time is the action of the quill plucking the string, and it is the control of this action which helps to determine the quality of the sound produced. Tomás de Santa Maria in c1565 wrote `although the hands strike the keys gently, they nevertheless have to strike them with a little impetuosity`. It might take a little getting used to especially if one is more familiar with the action of a piano, and all harpsichords will feel different, but the trick is to be definite with the fingers and keep them close to the keys. In the first instance, and beginning with a single register (or set of strings, which Francois Couperin recommended in his 1716L`Art de Toucher le Clavecin), try pressing a key very slowly so that you consciously feel the moment when the string is plucked. Notice how long the sound lasts when the finger is still depressing the key, and listen carefully to the moment when the tiny damper cuts off the sound as you mindfully release the key. Control and sensitivity of these movements will greatly enhance articulation nuances, and equally can sound clumsy if mismanaged.

Harpsichord technique is essentially a finger technique – the arm and shoulder are used to maintain a good hand position and help it move over the keyboard and, as Rameau advises, `no great movement should be made where a lesser one will suffice`. Pianists will also invariably notice a difference in key width, length, depth and weight as everything is on a smaller scale. For small hands, this is ideal! Octaves and wide leaps (commonplace in Scarlatti) are somewhat easier, as the distance travelled is shorter but it can also make moving in between the naturals and accidentals more fiddly. Practice some familiar scales slowly using conventional fingering to help you feel more familiar, then take this a stage further by trying some (even all!) the scales using 1-2 fingering throughout, then 1-2-3, and so on, playing as legato as possible. You`ll be surprised how different this feels especially when moving between the naturals and accidentals but it will help to make, and keep, the fingers flexible. This exercise was passed on to one of my teachers, originally from Wanda Landowska. J S Bach`s own teaching method was, apart from scale, arpeggio and ornament exercises, based on using simple pieces. Which brings me to my next topic.

Repertoire to get you going

Even if readers are highly accomplished pianists, it is best to begin with the simplest dance pieces such as minuets and gavottes. This will enable the focus to be entirely on mastering, or at least understanding the basic touch. And there are hundreds of such pieces available. Try some of the ABRSM List A choices from Grade 1 upwards until you feel reasonably comfortable with the instrument, then you could move onto the Little Preludes of Bach or a selection from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (the original manuscript of one of the pieces in this popular book is shown above). Taking things a step further, have a look at some of the 2, then 3 part Inventions which after all, Bach wrote specifically to encourage a singing style on the harpsichord. Another composer worth exploring at this stage is Henry Purcell who wrote some exquisite pieces for the keyboard which tend to get overlooked today. His many dance pieces are characterful and evocative of 17th century England, while his 8 Suites explore a variety of harpsichord sonorities, though some movements are not quite so easy to the newcomer.


My concluding section focuses on the art of accompanying since here lies a whole new area to explore with the rewarding benefits of being a more social pastime. Again there is a plethora of music written by a wide range of composers which is very accessible for keyboard players and instrumentalists or singers alike. Originally the accompanist or continuo player would have just a single bass line with figures (or sometimes not!) to read from. This requires a whole new skill which can be daunting for those new to this aspect.

Today, most performing editions come complete with realized keyboard parts, making life perhaps a little easier for some. However, in all my years as a continuo player I have rarely come across a realized part that sounds really stylish, so I`d like to add a few tips and suggestions to the would-be accompanist finding themselves in such a position. Firstly it might be helpful and liberating to know that realized parts usually add far too much in the right hand. As Quantz wrote in 1752 `less is more`. So the most important thing is to follow the bass line and add what you can of the right hand, avoiding playing higher than the melody line, and provide rhythmic support and stability. Adding right hand notes when there is a rest in the left hand is not usually stylish, while adding chords to every bass line note can sound too busy and detract from the solo line. This applies especially to fast movements where there might be numerous passing notes – they certainly don`t all need to be harmonized. If readers are keen to try playing from a figured bass start with a slow sonata movement (to give you more thinking time) by composers whose harmonic language is not too complicated, such as Handel or Vivaldi, and avoid Bach and Purcell until you are more confident. As before, even if you lose your way, just keep the bass line going. While important, the figures are often just giving information rather than instruction and harmony is usually implied by the solo and bass lines combined.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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 Sustaining Pedal

I regularly write feature articles for Piano Professional Magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). The most recent, taken from the Spring 2018 Issue (Issue 47, pages 20 – 21), sheds some light on the sustaining pedal. I hope you find it of interest.

The sustaining or damper pedal is one of the most important assets for a pianist. It adds another dimension to the piano timbre, and can provide a whole variety of sound layers. The most commonly used pedal, being the furthest right of the two or three pedals on a standard upright or grand piano, it’s played by the right foot. When depressed, the sustain pedal literally moves all the dampers away from the strings, which allows them to vibrate with ease, and they will continue vibrating until the sound ceases, or the pedal is released. Look inside the instrument and watch the dampers (on a grand piano) being lifted as the pedal is depressed. Students love to do this, particularly new students, who may be unaware of how the piano works. It is well worth spending part of a lesson explaining the workings of the instrument; a whistle-stop tour, finishing with a pedal overview plus demonstrations!

The sustaining pedal began life as a hand stop, examples of which survive on some of the earliest instruments. Then a knee lever was introduced around 1765 in Germany, and whilst this was more convenient than the hand stop (which was apparently much admired by W A Mozart), the foot pedal is undeniably far easier to operate, and it was introduced sometime during the 1770s by English piano builders.

The right pedal enriches piano tone markedly, allowing a pianist to create many colours, add sonority and resonance to passages, as well as conjure shimmering, atmospheric sounds. Many believe it augments the piano sound and whilst this isn’t strictly true, it does add a fuller, more sonorous tone, which could be described as akin to playing in a church.

The most fundamental technique in good pedalling is good listening. We generally pedal with our ears, and being attentive is key, but there are a few different techniques to employ, which can be used in a whole variety of styles. One basic rule: a little sustaining pedal goes a long way. Too much will seriously ruin an otherwise competent interpretation, generally irrespective of the composer or style, which is why it’s a good idea to practice without using any, particularly when starting to learn a new piece. I encourage students to add pedal only when they have a firm grasp of their new piece and have already established solid legato fingering, joining notes with the fingers wherever possible, as opposed to relying on the sustaining pedal to do this job. Pedalling is also tricky to write in a score, as it varies constantly, depending on the venue, acoustic, piano, composer, and the list goes on.

To use the pedal, rest the heel firmly on the floor, the right foot should be at an angle of around 30 or 35 degrees. When depressing the pedal (and this applies to the other pedals as well), play with the ball of the foot (or perhaps the big toe – everyone has their own preference here) and take it down (to engage the pedal) and up (to release the sound) quietly. The foot should keep contact with the pedal as much as possible because pedal or foot tapping is not a desired effect.

The last paragraph may all seem fairly obvious, but recent adjudicating has revealed (to me at least) that these points often need reiterating. As teachers, I feel it’s our job to ensure that students are well versed in the workings of the pedal, and how it can enhance or detract from a performance. With this in mind, it may be prudent to introduce the sustaining pedal at a fairly early stage, even if just to add resonance to the final note or chord in a piece.

There are several ‘layers’ to the sustaining pedal; perhaps as many as four or five. This might be considered the ‘pedal journey’ as the dampers rise from the strings, a significant portion of this journey includes the area requiring the foot to depress the pedal as little as a quarter of an inch or even less (although this totally depends on the instrument), as the dampers just begin to rise and have ‘cleared’ the surface of the strings. This area is conducive to partial damper release and would be where such techniques as half pedalling, half damping and flutter or surface pedalling occur. When the dampers finally clear the strings completely (and the foot pushes the pedal down as far as possible), which allows a full release of sonority, the resonance grants the pianist the opportunity to use the maximum richness of colour and vibration, as well as retaining sound when fingers leave the keys. Generally, pianists move swiftly from one ‘layer’ of pedalling to another without really noticing any boundaries.

Pedalling techniques can be roughly divided into the following:

Direct pedalling; which enriches the sound in separated chords. Depress the pedal with a chord (or intended passagework) at the same time as the fingers (or a fraction after), and release the pedal with the fingers, producing a clean, clear and sonorous chordal effect, as shown in Ex. 1. Pedal markings are indicated under the score. Take the pedal down (with the Ped. sign), and where the line is broken with an upward marking, take the pedal up. Depress again, if the pedal is to be played continuously (as in Ex. 2), but if the marking stops then pedal playing must cease too. An extension to this pedalling might be rhythmic pedalling, where brief touches of direct pedalling can add rhythmic shape to chords or rapid passagework. This is also true of accents and syncopations.

Ex. 1

Legato pedalling; which is similar to syncopated pedalling, overlapping with the notes being played. This involves depressing the pedal a moment later than finger work. To practice this, play a succession of five notes (perhaps C – G in the right hand, as in Ex. 2). Start by playing middle C with the thumb, and immediately afterwards depress the pedal; now play the D (also with the thumb), and a millisecond after, release the pedal and depress again very quickly, to clear the sound of the C. This should be done quickly and seamlessly, so as to limit smudging. Pedal changes might be quick or slow depending on the speed of the piece and the number of changes needed. As a general rule, in legato or legatissimo pedalling, a new pedal should come just after each harmony change, and it’s advisable to limit the blurred or hazy sound as much as possible.

Ex. 2

Legato should ideally be all about using the fingers, as it’s primarily a finger technique; legato using the pedal is generally for added colour and sonority, or on the occasion where it’s impossible for fingers to join (i.e. in large leaps). It can also be helpful with regard to melodic inflection and projection, phrasing, articulation, and sustaining bass notes in accompaniment figures, as well as allowing unbroken sonority in accompanying figurations or chords.

Half-pedalling; consisting of a quick movement, to lose top harmonies and retain bass notes. The main aim here is to reduce too much blurring or smudging of sound. Start by checking out the instrument to see how long dampers must remain in contact with the keys before the sound stops, then practice by taking the pedal down (and up) varying amounts (but not depressing as far as the foot will go), swiftly ‘brushing’ or ‘skimming’ the dampers on the strings.

Half-damping; without engaging the pedal completely, for a light, veiled effect. Employing almost a surface pedalling, there are many variations of this movement, which will clear the sound but still provide an atmospheric haze. Several degrees of pedal release might be involved in this technique, and different repertoire and styles will determine the amount of damper release required.

Flutter, surface or vibrato pedalling; similar to half-damping, this is based on very quick, light movements, in order to reduce accumulating sound. Such pedalling is based on frequent and sometimes irregular changes, and is applied through fast passages work, scales or runs, providing weight to the sound yet ridding it of the blurring effects. Avoid depressing the pedal completely for this technique. Students might find practising with scales helpful; aim to continually lightly raise or ‘hover’ the foot in an octave scale (as in Ex. 3). As with many pedalling techniques, listening is the most important aspect, but the following pedal markings may be used to denote flutter pedalling:

Ex. 3

Finger Pedalling

This has little to do with actual pedalling, but probably should be mentioned here, due to its title and overall effect. Notes are held with the fingers in place of the pedal; akin to finger legato, but with a ‘holding-over’ effect, keeping the notes depressed with the fingers slightly longer than is usually the case. In this technique, the pedal may be employed for quick changes, however, it’s the fingers creating the illusion of pedalling.

If the foot engages the pedal before notes are played, as opposed to once notes have been played (or at the same time), a much more resonant sound ensues as all the strings resonate fully (and are already in position at the point when the dampers hit the strings), which can be ideal for a full-bodied sonority required in certain repertoire.

Between the point where the foot is completely depressed to the floor and where it first engages the pedal mechanism, there are many assorted subtleties available to pianists. Every piano is different therefore pedals all feel and sound different too. The sustaining pedal can really add dynamics and shape, due to the accumulation of sounds whilst depressed. It’s an integral aspect of piano playing and students are usually very keen to explore its possibilities. If they are encouraged to keep experimenting and they are able to attune their listening skills, they will discover a myriad of ways to enhance their piano playing.

You can read the original article, by clicking on the link below:

The Sustaining Pedal

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.




Weekend Competition: the winners…

Many thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition. There were three books on offer this weekend, all from Faber Music’s immense library: Ultimate Piano Solos, and The Easy Piano Series, Film and Shows.

The winners are:

Miriam wins the Ultimate Piano Solos

Jennifer Foxx wins The Easy Piano Series: Film

Kathy Thompson wins The Easy Piano Series: Shows

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog, and your books will be on their way.

You can purchase the Film volume, here, Shows, here, and the Ultimate Piano Solos, here.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.