A Master Class with Jonathan Biss

It’s time for a master class. I haven’t posted one for a while, but we can learn so much from observing the classes of others, and I enjoy highlighting public lessons for this reason.

To complement his series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 2017, devoted to the late style, Amercian pianist Jonathan Biss gave two public master classes to six young artists on the late solo works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. They took place in February 2017 at the Weill Music Room in New York. The following videos represent three of the classes recorded and I hope you enjoy them.




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.


 

Peaceful Piano Playlist: the winner

Many thanks to those who took part in my weekend competition. The prize is a copy of Faber Music’s latest piano anthology, Peaceful Piano Playlist. You can find out more about this volume, here.

The winner is…

MICHAEL THOMPSON

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page on this blog and your book will be on its way.

More competitions coming soon!


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.

Peaceful Piano Playlist: A Weekend Competition

It’s time for a weekend competition. Faber Music publish some of the most innovative educational piano material on the market. And they offer a wide selection of piano anthologies, providing teachers and their students with the valuable opportunity to access a diverse and vibrant collection of music by numerous composers, all, as it were, ‘under one roof’. Their latest piano volume is a cleverly designed tome catering for those who enjoy their playlists.

Peaceful Piano Playlist is a generous compilation of 35 thoughtfully selected piano pieces from an interesting bevy of composers. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on ‘peaceful’, and it’s clear from the tasteful colour scheme on the front cover that Faber are continuing with their plight to encourage mindfulness: Mindfulness: The Piano Collection was published a few years ago to great success, and this new book represents a similar theme. It will no doubt strike a chord with teachers and students due to the current popularity of this subject, which seems especially significant in our often chaotic world.

Amongst the selected group of popular composers are J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Robert Schumann, Erica Satie and Ludovico Einaudi, who effortlessely rub shoulders with a lesser-known group of Contemporary writers; Max Richter, Chilly Gonzales, Alexis Ffrench, Poppy Ackroyd,  Jessica Curry, George Winston, and Anne Lovett. Faber have also created a spotify playlist to accompany the book, enabling pianists to listen to each work.

I do like this concept, and I’m all for combining old favourites with Contemporary works. Having played through a few pieces in this collection, I particularly enjoyed Flora (by Henrik Lindstrand), Piano Piece, Imperfect Moments Pt. 4 (by Johannes Brecht), and Meeting Points at 2AM (by Ondrej Holý). Mainstream composers are represented by their most well-known, reflective pieces, such as Clair De Lune (Debussy), Prelude in C (J. S . Bach), and the second movement of the Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 (Beethoven).

I have one copy of this book to give away in my competition. To take part, leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winner on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

For an in-depth review of this book, head to Pianodao blog (click here), and to purchase a copy, click here.

www.fabermusic.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.


 

Finchcocks Piano Courses 2019

A weekend spent at the splendid Finchcocks manor house is rather like stepping back into the Eighteenth Century. Situated in Goudhurst, in the South East of England, and set in ample grounds, it’s positioned advantageously for panoramic views of the Kent countryside. This elegant Georgian mansion (see photo above), built in 1725, provides the perfect setting for luxury piano courses. Soft furnishings, tastefully muted colour schemes, original flagstone floors, marble and granite fireplaces, elaborate chandeliers, impossibly high ceilings, and wonderfully creaky staircases, allow a glimpse into what life might have been like nearly 300 years ago.

Accommodation on the third floor of the Finchcocks Mansion.

Last weekend marked my second visit to Finchcocks. On this occasion our accommodation was in the main house, whereas previously, we (myself and course participants) had stayed in the Coach House, a separate building to the right of the manor house. Meals are enjoyed altogether in a palatial dining room, with locally sourced food, all prepared and served by a chef. And for those who like a tipple, there is plenty of wine on offer too!

Courses begin on Friday evening at 7.00pm and end at 3.30 – 4.00pm on Sunday with afternoon tea. And they are fairly intensive affairs, so it really is possible to learn a substantial amount in a short space of time. I tutored an intermediate course; approximately Grade 5 – 7 level of the ABRSM examinations. We began on Friday with a duet session – the ideal ice-breaking introduction. I used my own duets and trios (Snapchats Duets & Trios), which are purposefully simple and tuneful, for a stress-free, friendly, and fun opener.

Duets & trios on two pianos in the crypt.

Saturday started at 9.00am with a two-hour technique session, focusing on straight-forward exercises which are helpful for developing flexibility, and alleviating physical tension. The weekend consisted of several class sessions, with participants playing their prepared repertoire, a memorisation session, a sight-reading session, and individual lessons for each course member. On Saturday evening, before dinner, we enjoyed a piano recital given by pianist Alexander Metcalfe, who played a programme of works by Satie, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt.

Built in 1974, with a powerful sonorous bass and a lyrical mid-range, this model 200 Bosendorfer was manufactured in Vienna, with ivory keys and is used for concerts and recitals in the hall.

A particular highlight at Finchcocks is the tantalizing array of pianos on which to practice. There are ten in total, and the majority are housed in the attractive crypt (see photo, above left); here, the pianos are contained in their own segregated area, allowing for private practice. Finchcocks was a musical instrument museum for forty-five years until it was purchased by current owners Neil and Harriet Nichols. The museum housed a variety of keyboard instruments, and therefore it seems fitting that the current collection also showcases an interesting selection of historical instruments.

The ‘flagship’ Steinway Model B, housed in the recital room.

Alexander gave his recital on a Bosendorfer, which is situated in the main hall on the ground floor (photo above, right). Also on the ground floor, there is a new Steinway Model B (photo, left) in the recital room, and a small Broadwood piano in the entrance hall. This instrument (see photo below) was constructed especially for Bertha Broadwood and it was designed to fit into her living room, therefore it is just 5 feet in length (and it’s nicknamed ‘Bertha’!).

Built in 1900 for Bertha Broadwood, chairman of Broadwood at the time, to fit in a space in her front room.

Most of the remaining instruments are in the crypt, and you can click on the gallery images below for more information about each one.

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Course participants brought a variety of prepared repertoire, including works by J.S. Bach (Prelude No 4 from Six Short Preludes), W. A. Mozart (Sonata in G major K. 283), Friedrich Kuhlau (Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1), C.P.E. Bach (Solfeggietto in C minor H. 220), Frédéric Chopin (Prelude in D flat major ‘Raindrop’ Op. 28 No. 15 and Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6), William Gillock (Holiday in Paris), and Richard Rodney Bennett (Rosemary’s Waltz).

Finchcocks hosts piano courses virtually every weekend, and there is certainly something to suit every level with beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, alongside those for improvisation and even a course for piano teachers. You can choose from a cohort of expert course tutors including Dave Hall, Graham Fitch, Warren Mailley-Smith, Penelope Roskell, and Lucinda Mackworth-Young.

I will be tutoring two further courses this year; an intermediate course from October 4th – 6th and an advanced course from November 15th – 17th. If you are seeking a majestic weekend retreat to hone your piano skills, or you’re returning to the piano after a break, or you simply wish to connect with new piano friends, you will love Finchcocks.

Click here for the list of new courses.

www.finchcocks.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.

Painless Piano Playing Part 1

Today’s post was originally printed in the recent edition of Piano Professional, a magazine for piano teachers published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). It focuses on an aspect of playing which I feel is extremely important: flexibility. This article concentrates on simple exercises which students find helpful as they start their practice sessions.


Playing the piano is a fascinating but complex activity. It can transport human beings to another plane, allowing us to interpret and become close to great master pieces, and it provides a wonderful background for education too, teaching us discipline, mental and physical agility, coordination, and, above all, patience. But it can also cause much pain and discomfort if not approached in a healthy way. Some pianists experience minimal tension as they move around the instrument, but for others, tension issues can go far beyond minimal. Tendonitis, repetitive strain injury and focal dystonia are just some of the physical problems caused by extreme physical tension, or a ‘locking-up’ of the muscles and tendons. As teachers, we need to be able to identify, and have the capacity to help, students who present themselves in this condition.

Physical issues generally form over time, whether a student has studied with a teacher (or several teachers) or has been self-taught, the underlying tightness has taken a while to take hold, and once it has, changing the physical and mental mind set so that a student can begin to unravel themselves, needs patience, great care and understanding.

I have had some experience in this arena, and over the past few years have worked with a cohort of students who have presented various stages of physical discomfort. Alleviating these issues can take much time and effort – often over a period of a few years, so it goes without saying that a healthier approach would be to encourage pupils to move in a relaxed, flexible manner from the outset. But what can we do to change the techniques of those students who have already ceased moving flexibly and are in the grip of pain and discomfort?

One particular mental aspect associated with pain or movement issues of any kind are the feelings of inadequacy or not being able to play the piano in the manner which they believe they should. Students can tend to think that they need to visit physiotherapists, chiropractors or osteopaths and so on. But in my experience, none of this is generally necessary. Once a student knows they have support and guidance, and they learn the following physical exercises, they not only begin to release their physical tensions, but also the associated thought process which might have led to their problems in the first place. Some pupils will need constant and continual reassurance, and therefore it can be beneficial to move through the following exercise suggestions slowly, thoroughly and with humility and sensitivity.

For those who have already manifested physical difficulties, here are a few ideas to hopefully start releasing any tension held in the upper body whilst playing the piano.

Tension issues or a feeling of tightness frequently manifests in the shoulders or back. This might sound far-fetched, but it’s surprising just how many students are able to ‘lock’ their shoulders and their backs as they play, often without even noticing their awkward position. I begin by asking students to sit on the stool in an upright position (with a straight spine), and with their feet firmly on the floor; it might be easier for some to sit on the edge of the stool (nearest the keyboard), so they are fully supported by their feet and legs. They will now be in a solid secure position playing position. I encourage their arms to drop from the shoulder in a completely relaxed manner, so that they are swinging by their side; this should feel akin to having very ‘heavy’ arms, as their muscles completely relax. I refer to this as ‘dead’ arms, which seems to suitably spark their imagination! After a while, it will be relatively easy to spot if a student is still tensing shoulders or other parts of their upper body.

This position can be viewed as ‘a starting point’ or a ‘default’ position during practice; students with issues benefit from returning to this position frequently, and once they have ‘learnt’ the feeling, they start to understand how to release themselves. Much emphasis must be placed on learning the feeling, because this is the most effective way to loosen muscles and tendons. As the arms swing heavily by their side, the back and shoulders will begin to release their tightness, and should return to a more ‘standard’ position, that is, with the shoulders in the expected horizontal position without being raised, and with the back completely relaxed and comfortable. It’s important to do this before any actual playing occurs, so they are free to feel and understand muscle release without the distraction of playing.

Many tension problems stem from pupils not quite grasping the tension and release concept which is so necessary in piano playing, and as teachers, it is up to us to demonstrate how this works, and offer solutions. I will work with a student, sometimes for many lessons, just on the particular exercise mentioned above, until they know how to release themselves.

Now we need to find a way for students to put their hands on the keyboard in the ‘playing’ position without feeling any tightening or ‘locking’ at all. I ask students to lift their forearms up from the elbows, whilst keeping flexible, and rest their entire hand on the keys; they need to be at the correct height sitting at the keyboard, so that they can then release their arms, hands and wrists of any tension as they rest their hands in the correct place (see photo 1).

                                                                                              Photo 1

Many students will feel tight just by putting their hands in the position to play, so the next step has to be to release their muscles and tendons whilst in the playing position. To do this it might be necessary to work separate hands, and hold one hand on the keyboard with the other, or free, hand (see photo 2). The whole arm, hand and wrist must be completely loose and ‘hanging’ down for total relaxation to have occurred. It must be noted that this is NOT a position in which to ever play the piano; it is merely an exercise to loosen muscles and alleviate tension.  Wrists should never appear as low as in my photo, but ‘dropping’ the arm, wrist and hand can be extremely helpful when trying to achieve the task of releasing tight muscles:

Photo 2

With adult students or teenage students, I always help here (with their permission), and often hold their hands in place for them on the keyboard, so they are free to be completely loose and at ease in their upper body. Hands will almost certainly fall off the keyboard without my assistance, although after a period of time, students can learn to hold their hands in position whilst feeling loose in their upper body; again, it’s all about learning the feeling.

Once the back, shoulders and forearms are starting to feel loose, which may take a few weeks of solid work, we can turn our attention to releasing the hand and the muscles/tendons within it. The hand can also be locked especially between each finger (as shown in the photo 3). This is particularly true of the fourth and fifth finger, and it’s this issue that precludes successful octave, chord and finger agility.

Photo 3

Firstly, make sure the hands are ‘loose’, with the fleshy areas feeling relaxed. Secondly, it can help to rest the hand on the top of the keyboard. Now ask your student to open their hand out in a comfortable position, stopping as soon as they feel any tightness (see photo 4).

Photo 4

They may not be able to open their hand very far to begin with, but if they do this exercise, little and often, eventually the hand will be able to open progressively further without feeling any tightness. To achieve this, hold the hand in position using the other free hand (see photo 5), allowing the tendons and muscles within the hand to release; this is challenging to do when the hand has to keep itself in an ‘open’ position, and therefore with the help of the other hand, this exercise is much easier to grasp.

                                                                                               Photo 5

Eventually, the hand starts to feel relaxed in this out-stretched position. Although it can take time, it’s well worth the effort, because it gives pupils the chance to feel comfortable and secure when playing in the position needed for octaves, awkward chords and it can also foster the development of independence within the fingers.

My ideas might seem exaggerated or even counterintuitive; students occasionally find it difficult to comprehend the concept of complete relaxation in the arm, hand and wrist, when they do in fact need to apply a certain amount of tension when playing notes. However, it’s only the fingers and knuckles which must remain firm, with the remaining upper body being totally relaxed, so that they can support the fingers whilst also providing the possibility of allowing the arm to move freely, for arm-weight and a rich, full sound.

Once a student has released their shoulders, back, arms and hands, we can move onto probably the most important joint in the body when it comes to playing the piano: the wrist. My second article in this series will focus on wrist exercises, with the aim of keeping it relaxed and flexible.

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

Painless Piano Playing Part 1


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.


 

Snapchats Duets & Trios

Snapchats was originally a collection of short piano duets which was published a few years ago. This volume has now been republished and updated, with the inclusion of extra duets and some trios too; it’s most definitely bigger and better than ever!

Snapchats are intended for students from late beginner standard to approximately Grade 4 (ABRSM level). There are 19 duets (four hands at one keyboard) and 4 trios (six hands at one keyboard) in this volume, and they are short, succinct pieces for those who want to explore the art of ensemble playing or simply improve sight-reading skills.

Broadly minimalist in style, these pieces are between 8 and 16 bars in length and they offer a wide selection of moods from expressive atmospheric works such as Sutra, Andante, Shanti Shanti and Joyful, to up-beat numbers like Quick Chat, Hopscotch, Samsara and Take Three. It was quite a challenge to write very short engaging pieces, but students and teachers routinely comment on how much they enjoy the brevity these pieces offer, and many end up repeating the piece (some pieces do have repeat signs for this purpose). Both duets and trios become progressively more difficult throughout the book.

I use these duets and trios as the basis for my sight-reading classes. When I work with students (and teachers) in group classes, one element which they all enjoy and which can also be helpful, is to practice reading altogether. In Malaysia last year I had a class of fifteen piano teachers  simultaneously playing the same trio on five pianos!

You might choose to play Snapchats for fun with friends or perform them in a more formal setting at a music festival or recital, and I hope they offer a special and enjoyable experience. You can listen to each piece by clicking on the following sound files below:

Published by 80 days publishing (Christopher Norton’s publishing company), they are available to purchase here.


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 WEEK 2019

It’s always a pleasure highlighting various piano courses, but I particularly enjoy featuring this one. PIANO WEEK has been running for seven years, and since 2018 I have had the good fortune to be a faculty member. It’s a wonderful way to spend a week; you can immerse yourself in piano music and meet many new friends, and that’s just for starters! I invited PIANO WEEK directors, Samantha Ward and Maciej Raginia, to tell us more about this innovative course and piano festival…


If you want to venture away from the ‘tried and tested’ this summer, combine your love of music with travel and new cuisine, read on! The touring aspect of PIANO WEEK and its non-selective character alongside our passion for music, have contributed to creating a steadily growing community of like-minded people, music lovers, concert pianists, authors and world-famous guest artists. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have established long-lasting collaborations with Steinway & Sons (in the UK, Japan & China) and Schott Music, which have allowed us to enhance the quality resources on offer. With PIANO WEEK growing organically over the last seven years, we have ensured that a feeling of family remained at the heart of our operations and the festival’s ethos. You can still pick up the phone and talk to us directly if you want to know more about what we do or if you need help weighing up your options. If you are intrigued, here is what our participants say about us:

Since its humble beginnings in North Wales in 2013, PIANO WEEK has travelled to Weston Rhyn (UK), Rugby (UK), Foligno (Italy), Sankt Goar (Germany), Tokyo (Japan), Beijing (China) and has welcomed major names in the industry such as Stephen Kovacevich, Leon McCawley, Chenyin Li and David Fung alongside our in-house team of international concert pianists. We are particularly excited this year that Leslie Howard will join us at Weston Rhyn (Moreton Hall School) on Saturday, 3rd August 2019 in a performance of works by Percy Grainger for six hands on two pianos (tickets will soon be available for purchase on www.pianoweek.com/whats-on). All of the festival concerts are free to attend for our residential and non-residential participants and form an integral part of the PIANO WEEK experience.

The course part of PIANO WEEK is packed full of a variety of different classes, with a great emphasis placed on the performance aspect of piano playing. We accept entries from participants of all ages and abilities, with an age range spanning eighty-four years so far, from absolute beginners through children of all levels, to conservatoire students and adult amateur pianists. We pride ourselves on our all-round, holistic approach to learning the piano and apart from a generous amount of one-to-one tuition and master classes on offer, the programme boasts duet lessons, multiple participant performances as well as theory, composition, listening, harmony, sight reading and memorisation classes. There is a lot of fun for all involved too, as well as ample amounts of chocolate on offer!

Our courses for the summer of 2019 include a week in Foligno (Scuola Comunale di Musica) between 14th and 21st July, two weeks in Weston Rhyn between 21st July and 4th August (Moreton Hall School) and a week in Rugby (Rugby School) between 18th and 25th August. For those of you looking further afield, PIANO WEEK returns to Tokyo (Symphony Salon) between 30th April and 5th May 2020. In the meantime, here is our personalised mini guide to what’s going on:

PIANO WEEK Foligno

When: 14 – 21 Jul 2019

Where: Scuola Comunale di Musica

Price: £1345 – £2190

About: A beautiful ancient town in Umbria, nearby the famous vineyards of Montefalco. The music school is situated in the heart of the old town, with restaurants and bars serving delicious local cuisine at fair prices, coupled with generous aperitivi and gelato which we simply cannot resist…!

Find out more:

http://pianoweek.com/scuola-comunale-di-musica-di-foligno-it/

PIANO WEEK Weston Rhyn

When: 21 – 28 Jul 2019 &  28 Jul – 4 Aug 2019

Where: Moreton Hall School

Price: £1290 – £2035

About: Here, you can breathe in fresh air and enjoy the English countryside around the extensive, safe grounds encircling Moreton Hall School. Enjoy a state-of-the-art Steinway D concert grand piano during all of your performances. If you join us in the second week (28 Jul – 4 Aug), Leslie Howard will be closing the festival (and you’ll have your complimentary ticket!)

Find out more:

http://pianoweek.com/moreton-hall-school-uk/

PIANO WEEK Rugby

When: 18 – 25 Aug 2019

Where: Rugby School

Price: £1290 – £2035

About: We have a state-of-the-art music school at our disposal with an impressive fleet of concert grand pianos and ample practice facilities. The atmospheric Memorial Chapel as well as a second concert hall in the music school will be used for faculty and participant concerts. Currently, this residency has attracted mostly adult participants. A limited number of single rooms on campus are available.

Find out more:

http://pianoweek.com/rugby-school-uk/

PIANO WEEK Tokyo

When: 30 Apr – 5 May 2020

Where: Symphony Salon

Price: ¥225000 – ¥325000

About: For those of you who love travelling long distances and value top notch Japanese cuisine, this is an easy choice! In Tokyo, we are offering a non-residential course option only, with all classes and concerts taking place at Symphony Salon’s in-house concert hall. With its perfect location in the equivalent of London’s East End, there is a feel of old Tokyo just around the corner. Fantastic restaurants with fair prices in every direction…

Find out more:

http://pianoweek.com/symphony-salon-tokyo-jp/

You can apply for any of the above courses by visiting the PIANO WEEK home page (www.pianoweek.com); click on the APPLY ONLINE button in the upper right hand corner (of your desktop computer) or APPLY ONLINE at the top of the page (for the mobile version).

If you cannot join PIANO WEEK this year, we would love to welcome you at the following locations in 2020:

PIANO WEEK Foligno: 12 – 19 July 2020

PIANO WEEK Weston Rhyn: 19 – 26 July  &  26 July – 2 August 2020

PIANO WEEK Rugby: 16 – 23 August 2020

PIANO WEEK Tokyo: 30 Apr – 5 May 2020


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.


 

10 Tips for Piano Exam Success

I am delighted to have been invited to be an Honorary Master Teacher at the Tom Lee Academy in Hong Kong, and I’m looking forward to visiting the academy every year to work specifically with piano teachers. My first blog post for the Tom Lee website focuses on piano exams. This perennially popular subject is suitably apt just now what with piano exams looming on the horizon at the end of term. I have re-blogged the article here, but if you would prefer to read the original, click here.


In my first guest post for the Tom Lee Academy website, I offer a few suggestions for those preparing for piano exams. Whether you’re a young student taking Grade 1 or a more mature student taking Grade 8, here are a few practice ideas to utilize during the months leading up to the big day.

  1. Implement a piano exam practice schedule. If you can make a promise to yourself to practice little and often, your playing will improve immeasurably. Decide just how much time you can devote to piano playing every day; it might be 30 minutes per day, or 30 minutes twice per day. The regularity of your practice is important, as is mindful concentration. Six days per week is optimum, and it can be useful to work in two sessions as opposed to one.
  2. Include each exam element at every practice session. Piano exams normally consist of three pieces, scales and arpeggios, or technical exercises, sight-reading and aural tests (there are other options too, depending on the exam board). Aim to include at least three of these elements at every practice session, perhaps working with a stop watch or clock, so you don’t spend too much time on one area.
  3. Set a practice routine. During the practice session try to establish a ‘rota’; perhaps start with sight-reading and follow this with scales and technical work at every session. By doing this, you will quickly cover two important parts of your exam whilst you are still fresh and able to fully concentrate. Leave the set pieces until later in the practice session.
  4. Sight-reading. This requires a student’s full attention. Whilst it might seem tedious and onerous, if you can regularly devote time to it, improvement will be significant and will make all other piano endeavours feel easier. Ten minutes at the beginning of every session is ideal, but ensure you have plenty of material.
  5. Moving onto scales, arpeggios and technical work. Take a quick pause between sight-reading and scales; it’s best to take regular breaks. If you’re preparing for a higher grade exam (Grade 6 or above), you might need to practice scales and arpeggios in rotation, as aiming to include all in one session can prove taxing and take too much time. Work out a timetable whereby all technical work is practiced thoroughly, allowing you to concentrate fruitfully on each one.
  6. Set pieces. Pieces may also benefit from a rotational approach, particularly if they are advanced and complicated. It’s a better plan to practice slowly and assiduously as opposed to skimming over lightly, which may necessitate working at a smaller amount of material at each practice session.
  7. Performance goals. Once the pieces are within your grasp, that is, you can play them through slowly, aim to finish the final practice session of the day with a ‘play-through’ of at least one piece. This can be a valuable exercise to gauge your progress, note what has been achieved, and become accustomed to establishing the mental thought process required to think from beginning to end without any breaks or hesitations.
  8. Time keeping. A worthwhile exercise is to play each piece slowly with a metronome. Do this regularly. Set the metronome to a very steady speed and go through your piece, playing along precisely to the ‘tick’. This can highlight any technical problems, as well as instilling accurate pulse-keeping, and it will also consolidate fingerings, notes and rhythms. Many find it beneficial to ‘play through’ a work slowly, devoid of emotional content, proffering the space and time to think about physical movement around the keyboard (that is, how flexible, relaxed and comfortable you feel whilst playing each piece). As a teacher, for me this is a really crucial aspect of piano playing.
  9. Aural. Surprisingly, it is possible to practice parts of this element on your own. Singing can be done at the piano; test yourself on the expected patterns, such as intervals and scalic movement (I provide my students with various intervallic ‘tunes’). You can even play and sing the actual singing tests yourself. This is also true of cadences or any chord progressions; you can ‘learn’ how they sound whilst playing them. More tricky tests such as recognising styles of music should ideally be honed over a period of time; YouTube provides all the music you’ll ever need in order to become familiar with how various genres ‘sound’.
  10. And finally, The Notebook. Not for your teacher, but for you! My students all have their own notepads (some use their phones), and they find it helpful to write notes as the lesson progresses. Detailed notes students write themselves will always be more instructive than those written by the teacher. I ask students to reflect on their notes during their journey home. This way they can start planning their practice productively for the week ahead.

Piano exams can be daunting, but if carefully prepared and not left until the last-minute, they offer much enjoyment and the perfect opportunity to really improve piano playing.


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.


 

Preparing for your piano course: 5 top tips

This month’s five tips for Pianist magazine’s newsletter examines the benefits of piano courses. My first article on this topic was published in the previous newsletter, and you can read it here. This article focuses on how to prepare for your course, with the aim of developing confidence so that you are able to both enjoy it and learn effectively too. I hope you find it helpful.

  1. Select at least one piece from your repertoire that you have played for a while and that you are confident performing. It’s usually a good idea to play works which are slightly less advanced, so you can play them competently and with a feel for the style. Any genre is perfectly acceptable on a course, but pick one with which you feel you resonate, so you are able to show your technical grasp and musicianship with aplomb.
  2. Your second piece (and third, if you need three pieces), should ideally be a totally different style to the first, and one which you might not have learnt securely as yet. Bear in mind that your chosen repertoire doesn’t always need to be ‘ready to perform’. When learning with a different or new teacher, it can be helpful to be able to ‘change’ the way you are preparing, especially with regard to piano technique. You could decide to keep your pieces at a slower tempo, so it’s possible to think about various fingering, pedalling, dynamics, and so on.
  3. Decide what aspects of your playing you would prefer to work on. Perhaps you need to hone your flexibility and movement around the keyboard due to issues with tension, or you may need to think about phrasing and producing a fuller, richer tone. Don’t be afraid to ask your course director or teacher to help you with your particular needs, as that is what they are there to do.
  4. If you are able to book a practice room during the course, then this is the perfect time to work on the elements addressed in your class or private course lessons. If you can make substantial progress between lessons, then your tutor can guide you more productively, usually yielding some impressive results.
  5. Remember to get some rest. Courses are surprisingly demanding both mentally and physically; sleep is sacrosanct – for the students and teachers! Enjoy your course and good luck.

    With course participants on my Jackdaws Music Education Trust course in January 2019

    If you would like to take a piano course, consider joining me on one of my courses:

Finchcocks Music: luxurious weekend courses for intermediate level players mostly with one teacher, offering master classes, solo lessons and workshops.

My courses at Finchcocks Music: 14th – 16th June, 4th – 6th October, and 15th– 17th November 2019. For more information, click here.

PIANO WEEK: a week-long course, with multiple teachers, offering many aspects of musicianship and piano playing, plus copious performing opportunities on a Steinway model D piano. There are faculty recitals every evening and the opportunity to meet many other pianists.

My courses at PIANO WEEK:   22nd – 29th July at Moreton Hall School (Shropshire, UK), 29th July – 5th at Moreton Hall School (Shropshire, UK), August and 18th – 25th August 2019 at Rugby School (Birmingham, UK).  For more information, click here.

Montecatini Piano Festival: this new course and festival takes place in Italy, near Florence from August 16th – 20th 2019, and it focuses on the piano, chamber music, and composition. I will be offering a composition workshop this year. Find out more, here.

Jackdaws Piano Course: Polishing Your Piano Technique. This is the fifth year that I have held a course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust. I host one weekend per year for ten students which focuses on piano technique.

My course at Jackdaws: 17th – 19th January 2020. For more information, click here.


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 visit to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

I recently had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. It was my first visit to the splendid new building situated on Jennens Road, about a 15 minute walk from New Street station. The RBC inhabited this new premises in September 2017.

Image: FBCStudios

Established in 1886 as the Birmingham School of Music, the RBC has an illustrious list of alumni, many of whom are active within the profession. During the move it merged with the Birmingham School of Acting, and was granted its Royal title on September 24th 2017 by Her Majesty, The Queen, (and before this, the RBC announced its first Royal Patron Prince Edward the Earl of Wessex).

The conservatoire now boasts 250 visiting specialist tutors and around 80 full-time staff; these include active professional musicians, internationally renowned performers, composers, conductors, scholars and educators. ‘Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber has been principal since 2015, and has done much to raise the RBC’s profile.

Professor John Thwaites who is Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

My visit was primarily to explore the keyboard department and it was wonderful to meet and chat to Head of Keyboard Studies Professor John Thwaites (you can read our recent interview here). We met in the light and airy foyer; the building, which was designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (see image above), is stunning and gives a real sense of space and tranquility. As I had arrived on a particularly balmy, sunny day, we sat outside for our interview in a stylish seating area near the large cafeteria.

The spacious entrance hall at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Professor Thwaites has been head of the keyboard department for ten years. During this time standards have been continually raised and the department has doubled in size. Many of the current students are already performing professionally.

A recording session taking place at Bradshaw Hall, the larger concert venue at the RBC.

The RBC welcomes talented young players from around the world, with special links to the Far East and Hungary. Other important connections have been made with Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Israel, the U.S.A., Japan and Korea. This international emphasis continues to spread the word about the RBC’s impressive expansion and development.

Recent competition successes include Luigi Carroccia, who was a Quarter-Finalist at the 15th Van Cliburn Competition (held in 2017); Roman Kosyakov, who won the Hastings International Piano Competition, the Sheepdrove Intercollegiate Prize, and has just become a Kirckman Concert Society Young Artist; Daniel Lebhardt, who is a member of the Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) and now has representation by Askonas Holt; and Angus Webster who won the 7th International Jorma Panula Conducting Competition in Finland. And who could forget the brilliant young pianist Lauren Zhang, who, at 16, became 2018 BBC Young Musician. Whilst competition successes aren’t always seen as a positive endorsement, they are an objective test of a department’s credibility.

Lauren Zhang winning BBC Young Musician 2018 (Image: BBC)

Lauren (pictured to the left) studies at the RBC Junior Department, and is a student of Dr. Robert Markham (for the list of all piano professorial staff, click here). Mindful of the importance of pedagogy, Professor Thwaites is currently pursuing a forward-thinking new initiative: the Birmingham Piano Academy. On Sundays local people would be given the opportunity to study with some of the RBC students and teachers. I love this idea. And it would be a very positive development, especially at a time when music in schools has sadly all but disappeared, and there are few quality establishments offering music education for everyone.

The keyboard department is spacious and benefits from copious practice facilities: it’s not difficult to see why students are thriving at this institute. Postgraduate pianists study with two professors simultaneously and there are weekly performance classes for all students conducted by different professors, allowing maximum input from a wide cohort of teachers.

Renowned pianists who have recently given master classes include Peter Donohoe, Imogen Cooper, Andrei Gavrilov, Louis Lortie, Stephen Hough, Paul Badura-Skoda, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, to name a few.

The Lab. A studio designed for a variety of arts performances and experimental music.

Like many music conservatoires, there are regular internal competitions and beneficial performing opportunities, as well as piano festivals highlighting a large selection of composers.

Chamber music forms a vital component for students, and piano trios are currently under the spotlight. A new chamber music festival was inaugurated last year; Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival. The artistic director of this new venture, Daniel Tong, is also Head of Piano Chamber Music Studies at the RBC. The festival consists of concerts, master classes and a chamber music competition, and it takes place in November. Performances were live streamed, and the grand final concert was featured on Classic FM.

I toured the building admiring the concert and recital halls, the lab, the organ department, and I also enjoyed exploring some of the early instruments, such as this beautiful Wieck piano, which was made by one of Clara Schumann’s cousins:

A music college must seek to constantly evolve. And it must also offer students a special experience, so they feel drawn to travel from far and wide knowing that they will emerge equipped to enter this demanding profession, not just as excellent performers, but with a deeper musical understanding and a sense of musical responsibility within the community. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire can clearly offer such an experience in spades.

www.bcu.ac.uk


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.