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.


 

The Primrose Piano Quartet record Brahms Piano Quartets

The Primrose Piano Quartet is widely regarded as one of the U.K.’s leading chamber ensembles. They are named after the great viola player William Primrose, and they enjoy a busy performing schedule worldwide, with regular appearances at London’s major concert halls. The ensemble’s most recent recording focuses on the complete piano quartets of Johannes Brahms. I visited the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire last week to chat to the quartet’s pianist, Professor John Thwaites (who is Head of Keyboard Studies at the RBC), about the history and background surrounding these intimate works.


MS: The Primrose Piano Quartet (pictured above) have performed and recorded a substantial and varied repertoire. How long have you been together, how do you structure your programmes, and what influences your repertoire choices?

Professor John Thwaites

JT: We’ve been together since 2002, and there have been a couple of changes since. Susanne (Susanne Stanzeleit: violin) and I were founder members and we are still there. Dot (Dorothea Vogel: viola) and Andrew (Andrew Fuller: ’cello) are more recent members. We initially made a big focus of British Twentieth Century repertoire, so a lot of our early CD releases and concerts feature this repertoire. For example, we played at the Wigmore Hall for the centenary of William Hurlstone’s birth. Which was a lovely thing to do. We did that linked to the Asthma Society because Hurlstone was asthmatic. One of the reasons he died in his early twenties was that he taught harmony at the Royal College of Music and taught using chalk. The chalk dust affected his lungs and he had to go for frequent long walks in the park! It was all very tragic. But an amazing story. He wrote a very beautiful piano quartet which we’ve played a lot.

One of the interesting things about the British repertoire is trying to popularise it abroad. There are countries, including, for example, Denmark and Germany, where they’ve been very interested to hear our slightly unusual British repertoire. And that’s also linked to my role here, because when we have students coming from abroad, particularly the Far East, they are coming here partly as a European Country, and to learn standard repertoire, but they are also extremely receptive to the British repertoire. They tend to fall in love with it, take it back home and keep playing it. And that’s exciting.

So in our case, we dug out all the more interesting and unusual piano quartets from the early part of the Twentieth Century. The ones that stick in my mind; there’s a beautiful one by Thomas Dunhill (who is known for his educational piano pieces), and we’ve played it many times and recorded it. And then masterpieces like the Herbert Howells Piano Quartet. The Howells is dedicated to the hill at Chosen, now known as Churchdown Hill (a large mound of a hill between Cheltenham and Gloucester offering spectacular views), which was frequented by Herbert Howells and his childhood friend, composer Ivor Gurney. It’s a beautiful hill, which I’ve got to know very well!

We also added to our repertoire by commissioning. The two most famous composers that we’ve commissioned are Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Anthony Payne. Both works by these composers are significant substantial pieces. It was great working with them because it gives you an insight into how they work. And not only how they work, but how one might work with a composer from the past, such as Brahms. The sense of freedom and flexibility you have when working with a living composer perhaps ought to be replicated when we are dealing with someone no longer amongst us.

There are about twelve master pieces for piano quartet and we’ve played them all. Other than that, we are looking at other interesting pieces which go off in Nationalistic avenues. We are also following specialist interests like this Brahms project. Some programmes are specialist and some programmes are just a nice mixture of masterpieces.

MS: Many congratulations on your latest recording. Tell us a little about the history behind these works.

JT: They are all early works in the sense that they were drafted in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but then the case of the one that was the first to be drafted, which was the C minor, (it was originally drafted in C sharp minor), and it didn’t find its finished form until the 1870s, and so therefore came out as Op. 60. That’s the one that’s closest to the Sturm und Drang issue of Brahms living in the Schumann household before Schumann went away to the asylum, and indeed afterwards!

The whole issue of Brahms as a programmatic composer is interesting in that we tend to think of him as an absolute composer in contrast to Liszt or Wagner, but now we know it’s not quite as simple as that. Brahms himself suggested that a picture of Werther could be put on the front cover of this piano quartet. There are other chamber music works, where it seems to me that the biographical element is particularly strong. One would be the horn trio (Horn Trio in E flat major Op. 40), which seems so clearly to be a reference to the death of Brahms’ mother, and it’s around that same time that he wrote the Requiem (German Requiem Op. 45). When you start looking for all these clues, there’s a whole new element of academic thinking now with allusion and referencing, which I’ve enjoyed getting in to.

The Op. 25 (in G minor) and Op. 26 (in A major) quartets were written in what appears to have been quite a happy time for him, living in the suburbs of Hamburg in the early 1860s. Then he took them on tour to Vienna. So they were an important part of him announcing himself in Vienna in 1862. And that led on to him deciding to settle permanently in Vienna in 1868. This links nicely with us. We introduced ourselves to Vienna by turning up as a piano quartet, and also going to one of the halls we know Brahms worked in.

The Primrose Piano Quartet recording at the Ehrbar Hall in Vienna.

MS: You recorded the disc in the Ehrbar Hall (pictured above) on period instruments and I wondered what influenced your decision?

JT: It’s worth mentioning Gert Hecher, who lives in Vienna. It’s an interesting story, how I met him. I was playing in Budapest with the ‘cellist Alexander Baillie, and I’d heard that there was a piano for sale in Vienna which I was initially interested in, but the lady who owned the piano was not around to show it to me, so I was feeling slightly disappointed and disillusioned – in Vienna at a loose end! Alexander looked on the internet and he found that Brahms’ own Streicher piano had been restored by Gert Hecher. So he phoned Gert, and asked if we could see his pianos. We met him and he’s got the most significant collection of Austro-German pianos in the world. He has three large ground floor rooms full of pianos and further showrooms on his first floor too. And he lives with them. He has a separate workshop where they are all taken apart and restored. He’s passionate about these instruments and does a fantastic job of restoring them to playing condition, and that includes taking the pitch to A440. Which is the most practical thing when dealing with chamber music in the modern world.

The Streicher instrument used for the recording of Piano Quartet in G minor Op. 25.

Gert’s collection is pretty extraordinary. He’s got seven Streicher pianos, and they are all so different. He’s got Streichers that are quite bright and would be used perhaps for recording Liszt. And then he’s got this particular Streicher (pictured to the left), an unusual one within his collection, which is more mellow and seems to be quintessentially ‘Brahmsian’. And ironically enough, that piano is the exact same model as the one that Brahms had, which has been restored for the museum. This Streicher is in fantastic working condition and it’s what we used for the recording of the G minor quartet. This piano was apparently very similar to the one that Brahms had. Brahms only had it because he was given it for free! We know that he loved Blüthner and he had a Graf from the Schumann family. We also know that he loved the bigger pianos such as those made by Ehrbar.

With Ehrbar, what’s nice here, is that we recorded in the hall of the manufacturer, similar to the Wigmore Hall (which was once Bechstein Hall). It’s now linked to a conservatoire and they don’t have an Ehrbar piano there at all. We were able to take a piano which would have been in this hall at some point, from Gert’s private collection, back to the hall, and this was a lovely thing to do.

The Blüthner piano used for the recording of Piano Quartet in A major Op. 26.

The last piano was an early Blüthner (pictured to the right), which was classic for Brahms. Actually, it’s slightly classic for our connection to Brahms. We have a festival in Hampshire and we stay with Penny Clive, whose husband owned an 1890s Blüthner; one which Brahms chose for a family member. We use that regularly, and of course we know that Brahms actually played this piano because he chose it!

 

MS: Why did you select these particular instruments for your recordings?

JT: This is a tricky question to answer! One consideration was how to use the piano which is the closest to the modern piano which is definitely the Ehrbar (pictured below). We wanted to record the later of the piano quartets on this piano (the Op. 60). But the irony there is that this was the first piece to have been drafted of the three quartets. It was finally published in the 1870s and the piano is also from the 1870s too. In one sense the pianos go with the timeline of the writing of the pieces. But then beyond that it was quite difficult to decide.

The Ehrbar piano used for the recording of Piano Quartet in C minor Op. 60.

We’ve got the Ehrbar for the Op. 60. That made sense on lots of counts. And then the question was what to do with the other two. The Blüthner isn’t really like one’s modern idea of a Blüthner sound. It’s very bell-like and very pure. It’s straight-strung which gives a greater resonance, and it does also have a visceral brilliance. The A major is such a big piece and it needs a range of sound, but also, the Blüthner has a really beautiful singing sound which I thought would be lovely for the second movement of the A major. However, it could have worked to use the Blüthner for the G minor quartet which has such extrovert qualities, and I think some might say that the mellow Streicher struggles to keep up with the strings in the early movements of the G minor. The pay off in doing what we did is that the Streicher seems to bring something very special to the finale of the G minor quartet. This movement has cimbalom writing and although it’s not a powerful instrument, it somehow does conjure up that gypsy world of Hungarian folk music perfectly. It’s perhaps the only recording of this iconic movement where one can imagine being in a Viennese café (a number of which we enjoyed frequenting after sessions!).

MS: How did you prepare for the recording in terms of becoming accustomed to the different actions?

JT: I’d gone out to Vienna, before the recording sessions, to choose the pianos so that I wasn’t going to face any surprises. That was an interesting process. As I’d mentioned before, Gert had three or four enormous showrooms of pianos and he had been trying to steer me towards his less favoured pianos! Or the ones that had sometimes been neglected.

There was a Swiss manufacturer that I’d never heard of before, and various other pianos there. I can see in retrospect that he wanted more of his collection to be heard – in fact he was very honest about it over dinner! Some of the pianos we used have been recorded previously many times. Some of them would have been much harder work to adjust to. I realised that when I did a previous recording with Gert (of Brahms ‘cello sonatas with Alexander Baillie), we chose the Ehrbar, which is also used on this Brahms recording. But when we arrived to make the recording, there was a different Ehrbar prepared for us to use. The earlier Ehrbar, which we used for the Brahms F major ‘cello sonata, had an incredibly heavy Viennese action which was very tough, especially in that piece. That was all part of Gert getting some of his less favoured pianos their moment in the limelight!

However, I did stick to my guns about the pianos which I thought would be best for our quartet recording. So there wasn’t really anything crazy or any super strange actions. I felt that I’d be OK adjusting. It was quite a big ask as we only had three recording days. So at the beginning of each day we had to change the piano, reestablish the balance, which all takes a while, and then do the piece. And we also had a ‘kick-out time’, which was convenient for getting to our favourite Serbian restaurant on time! But it did mean that we had to be very focused during the day.

MS: How did you adjust to the pedalling and how does it differ from that on modern instruments?

JT: As the sound is slightly less sustained, you can pedal more. Although I don’t think I really did pedal that much more. There was something interesting in the editions which related to pedalling. We did various things to prepare for the recording, one of which was a major symposium of academic experts here in Birmingham at the conservatoire. And another was that we did some workshopping with amateur adults at the Benslow Music Trust.

We handed out some older editions of the quartets and one of the adult players at the workshop asked why I didn’t do a particular pedal marking in her score. At the beginning of the C minor quartet, where the strings enter, I wasn’t supposed to come off (according to this score), I should have kept the pedal depressed for another two bars. She was absolutely right! This was an edition by Hans Gal, which he made in Vienna before he came to Britain, and which is supposed to have been based on all sorts of sources and also on knowledge of musicians playing the repertoire going back to Brahms’ lifetime. Who knows? It may have been a look back to an authentic performing tradition, and it does make sense in some ways. There’s an octave C which you depress and then a diminuendo marking has been written, and you can’t get much diminuendo done in a single bar. But if you keep the sustaining pedal depressed when the strings come in, then you can get a diminuendo. As soon as this was brought to our attention, we thought we should add this to our performance.

The Primrose Piano Quartet during their recording sessions at the Ehrbar Saal.

MS: I enjoyed your dynamic ranges very much. Is this more challenging on period instruments?

JT: Some technical aspects are a little bit more difficult because most of the pianos have a single escapement rather than a double escapement. So we notice that in trills and other elements. But these instruments have been so carefully made and restored by Gert, that generally I find them a complete joy to play. I am a big fan of the modern Steinway (I own them and have bought many of them), and I love them. But I’m also a big fan of all these other instruments, most of whose makers disappeared a long time ago.

I love it when I find a piano with a personality. Not all pianists do. Some prefer a blank canvas so that they can bring their own personality to the instrument. I respect that. But I like to find a piano with a personality and then you can experiment and find things that work well on particular instruments. Perhaps it’s because I am a chamber musician, and I enjoy the whole process of collaboration. In one sense, one is collaborating with these three very different pianos. I find this more inspiring. We had a technician on hand all the time, which was necessary with such instruments, but they were so beautifully set-up that there were very few issues.

MS: What about the Urtext editions?

JT: I recently did the Brahms ‘cello sonata with Christoph Richter and he showed me the manuscript of the end of the finale. Just before the final Vivace, there’s a section where it seems right to just stretch in a meno mosso fashion for a couple of bars, but it’s actually written ritardando. But on the manuscript it says poco sostenuto, over the whole two bars, which is exactly how I’ve always wanted to see it. And then, for whatever reason, Brahms had crossed that out, and later put in the ritardando. So, if you have a strong feeling for how a passage should go, you never know, it might have been the first thought of the composer, as in this case.

In any case, we know that, as Brahms said himself, ‘if you don’t have a feeling for my music, or an understanding for the style, then don’t bother playing it’. It seems, from everything we know, there was a lot of freedom in the interpretation, and that’s the way he conducted, and the way you hear the older generation conductors, such as (Willem) Mengelberg. You can hear all this on Youtube now. It’s not so strange for a modern player, if you’ve been heading in a slightly freer direction anyway. This reinforced my notion of freeing myself up and not being too high bound by what’s in the score.

In the case of the finale of the G minor quartet, there are some places where the Henle edition has put in some obvious suggestions, where the same passage might be played at the same tempo, but actually it’s more fun not to! And when you see the older editions where it’s not so consistent, it inspires you to do something a bit more creative.

MS: Tell us about your forthcoming performances. Where can we hear you play these quartets?

JT: We are going up to Scotland in the Autumn to play them all. And we have our own festival now. It’s been going a while and is in a village called West Meon, and it came out of the connection to the Brahms Blüthner piano and the Clive family. It’s really blossomed and it’s very gratifying how a large number of people have put much time and energy into it, and we are able to invite exciting guests now. Michael Collins has been a couple of time, and we are having Simon Callow this time. He will perform Strauss’ Enoch Arden with me.

MS: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me about this fascinating project, and I wish you every success with the new recording.

JT: Thank you, Melanie.

You can purchase the complete Brahms Piano Quartets recorded by the Primrose Piano Quartet (Meridian), by clicking here, and you can read one of the many recent reviews, here.

www.primrosepianoquartet.org.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.


 

The Montecatini Piano Festival

I’m delighted to be attending the new Montecatini Piano Festival this year. As many will know from reading this blog, I love to travel with my work and consider it a privilege. I feel travelling is one of the best ways to explore a particular place, culture, or country.

This festival is to be held in Montecatini Terme situated in Tuscany, in Italy. The town is within easy reach of the historic art mecca, Florence and fascinating Pisa (both around 40 minutes by car), and the walled city of Lucca, (around 20 minutes by car). Montecatini is located only a 10 minute drive from the city of Pistoia which has been the Italian Capital of Culture since 2017, and it’s approximately an hour’s drive from the medieval heart of Tuscany, Siena.

This area of Tuscany is known for its splendid Italian Art Nouveau architecture. Montecatini is a noted spa resort famed for special therapeutic water, and particularly for the Parco delle Terme spa complex. It became a renowned spot for La Belle Époque and was subsequently visited by great artists and composers such as Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Richard Strauss as well as fashion designer Christian Dior. Other local sites of interest include the Funicolare and the Valdinievole. And for the more active, there are also breath-taking walks, hikes and cycling routes.

The piano festival takes place in several venues across Montecatini, and festival concerts are to be held in the open air theatre of the Terme Tettuccio (see photo above). Participants can take advantage of a series of concerts, individual lessons and chamber music coaching given by musicians and faculty members.

Guests, students, course professors and performers all stay at the festival’s affiliated hotel, the Hotel Arnolfo & Aqua Laetitia. This five-star resort offers luxury accommodation and a host of spa and beauty facilities, including massage, saunas and a variety of beauty treatments, all of which are available to course attendees.

Japanese pianist Aisa Ijiri (pictured to the left), who is artistic director of this festival, (and is also artistic director of TIPA in Japan), makes the comment:

‘Music is a universal language. It is also a beautiful journey into art. I hope our visiting musicians and participants will consider our festival a home in which to feel united with a shared journey of our whole artistic experiences, all in the beauty of Tuscany.’

The 2019 festival will offer an attractive series of concerts, individual lessons, masterclasses and chamber music coaching given by resident artists. In particular, pianist Sofya Gulyak (pictured below), first prize winner at The Leeds International Piano Competition in 2009, and who is now professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, will give a recital and master classes. As will violinist Emanuel Salvador, who is concertmaster of the Baltic Neopolis Orchestra.

This festival also offers performance opportunities for the participants, and a new competition for young musicians to win the chance to give a concert, providing a stepping stone towards a professional concert career. I will give a composition workshop, and I’m looking forward to hearing some of my compositions performed in the opening Gala Concert.

You can find out much more about the festival by visiting the website, and you can secure your place by clicking here.

www.montecatinipianofestival.com


My publications:

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

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


 

A Holiday Competition!

This weekend Pianist magazine and Schott Music are holding a competition which takes place on Pianist’s social media sites. One of five copies of Play it again: PIANO Book 3 are available for five winners. You can enter and find out more about this competition by clicking here. And you can find out more about the whole Play it again series, here.

For regular piano updates subscribe to Pianist’s newsletter, which consists of more practice tips and piano information, here. Good luck!

 

 

I’d like to wish you and your family a very Happy Easter weekend.

www.pianistmagazine.com

www.en.schott-music.com


My publications:

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

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


 

How to Make a Professional Recording: 16 Tips

My guest writer today is American pianist and author Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda’s previous guest post focused on her new novel, The Waco Variations. As she has enjoyed considerable success as a recording artist, I asked Rhonda to write about her experiences in the recording studio.


One of the biggest goals most musicians have is to create a recording. For the professional, it’s a necessary rite of passage and it’s a worthy goal for talented amateurs as well. Thankfully, what was once reserved for record label artists is now open to anyone. But since the process of making a record is neither simple nor inexpensive, it’s important to learn as much as possible about it before you start. These brief tips are some important things I’ve learned through recording my own CDs.

Before you record:

* Be clear about what you want to record and why. It’s much more complicated to create a professional recording than to preserve a few pieces for family and friends. Research saves time, money, and a lot of frustration.

* Know your chosen repertoire very, very well. Perform it anywhere and everywhere for anyone who will listen. Record yourself playing, both to hear yourself clearly and to become comfortable being recorded. Make sure you can play the music flawlessly from beginning to end, in perfect time. Yes, recordings can be edited, but editing is tedious and expensive. You’ll thank yourself later if you do your work before you enter the studio.

* Decide if you wish to record a “live” album or studio recording. Live albums have the advantage of being less expensive than studio recordings, but they’re inherently less perfect because you can’t do things a second time in a concert.

* Research your local recording options. If using a studio, which has the best piano? If recording in a performance hall or church, is it soundproofed? Because the piano has a huge dynamic range, it’s important to find an engineer who has experience recording the instrument, which includes capturing the overtones and the effects of the room.

* Create the cover art. Unless you’re a graphic artist with lots of experience making album covers, hire someone to create it for you. Know (before you start) if you want to make a physical CD, offer the music as digital downloads, or both.

* Hire a tuner/technician to prep the piano for the recording.

During the recording

* Don’t try to record for more than 4 hours a day. Full-length albums will most likely require several 4-hour days to complete, even if you’re perfectly prepared.

* Show up rested. Wear comfortable clothes and bring plenty of water and favourite snacks.

* Take breaks as needed. Move around and stretch.

* Be gentle with yourself; “red light panic” is real, people.

* Wear headphones to hear how the piano sounds through the mics.

* Record several “takes” of each piece so you have choices.

After you record

* Editing. This is where the real work begins. Your first task is to pick the “take” you prefer. If the take contains mistakes, this is your chance to edit them out, usually by re-recording sections. Depending on the number of edits required, this can take hours.

* Mixing. All the mics record different parts of the piano or the room. This phase mixes everything together. This is also where the engineer can “tweak” the sound by changing how “live” the room sounds, or emphasizing one part of the piano over another.

* Mastering. This is the stage where the individual tracks are turned into an album. All the recording levels need to be even. The spacing between the tracks needs to be uniform.

For more information on mixing and mastering, click here.

* If creating physical CDs, be prepared to work through a professional distribution company. I recommend CDBaby. I also recommend using them for distribution of digital tracks as well.

There’s a reason the phrase “art isn’t easy” is a cliché. Making a record is a big commitment of both time and finances, and experience has taught me that doing this sort of thing “on the cheap” usually leads to disappointing results. The more you can afford to pay professionals to record, edit, mix, master, press, and distribute your CD, the easier you’ll find the process. Do your research before you begin the project and commit to giving the process your best playing, time, and financial resources. Your reward? An album you can be proud of for years to come.

 

Rhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com. The Waco Variations, a Novel is available at www.Amazon.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.


 

Play it again workshop at the Frankfurt Music Fair

I’m really looking forward to giving a presentation and workshop at this year’s Frankfurt Music Fair or Musikmesse which takes place from April 2nd – 5th.  My workshop will be held on Thursday April 4th at 2.00pm. This presentation focuses on Play it again: PIANO Book 1, 2 and 3. Book 3 will be officially launched next week at the Fair, after which I’ll add links as to where it can be purchased for those of you who have kindly enquired.

I very much enjoy giving workshops and presentations. They nearly always include references to my books, and this one will be no exception. I’ll start by speaking about all three books within my piano course, which, as many readers know, is intended for those returning to piano playing after a break. The workshop highlights the importance of developing physical flexibility in piano playing, with audience participation and some relaxation exercises too.

The new addition to the Play it again course, Book 3, begins where Book 2 stops. It takes students on a journey from Grade 8 to the Associate Diploma level, via the new Post Grade 8 Diploma. As a quick recap, Play it again Book 1 is approximately Grade 1 – 4 level, and Book 2, Grade 5 – 8. Each book contains a collection of pieces mostly selected from standard repertoire. There are twenty-eight pieces in Book 1, and twenty-one in Book 2.

Book 3 features eleven works by a variety of composers and genres, with copious practice notes for each piece (some pieces have up to 8 pages of notes). It’s possible to form a Post Grade 8 Diploma or Associate Diploma programme from this book. Book 3 will be on sale at the Frankfurt Fair, and I’ll be publishing a much more detailed survey of the book next week.

If you would like to attend my presentation, you can find more information here. I look forward to meeting you.


My publications:

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

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


 

Selecting the piano course for you: 5 top tips

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter focuses on piano courses. Hope you find it of interest.


Piano courses are becoming increasingly popular amongst adults and children learning to play the piano. And to keep abreast of this growing demand, there are significantly more opportunities for this student demographic, with courses for students of all levels, semi-professionals and piano teachers, popping up every year.

My first post offers a few tips for those considering a course, and my second (to be published in Pianist’s next newsletter) will offer suggestions for preparing for such an experience.

  1. When selecting your course, it may be prudent to decide what you would like to achieve. It might be that you want to study with a particular teacher, or perhaps you fancy playing more chamber music or duets with a fellow pianist of a similar standard, or it could be that you need more experience at performing in public. Look for courses with an emphasis on your chosen aspect. Each one will offer something different and unique.
  2. There are piano courses which pride themselves on a really luxurious experience with sumptuous food and beautiful accommodation (although you may pay a premium), whereas others might be held in a school, but offer excellent practice facilities with well-tuned instruments. Offsite B&B accommodation is a prerequisite for some residential courses, which in turn can provide much-needed relaxation and respite from a demanding schedule.
  3. Generally, the larger or longer the course, the more fellow students you will meet. Piano courses can be wonderfully social affairs with the same students returning year after year, forming close friendships. This is the primary reason why adult students stick to the same ones; camaraderie can fuel an optimal study experience.
  4. If you would prefer to be an observer, attending lessons, workshops and classes, but not participating, then this can be a great introduction. Many courses offer this option but always check with the course administrator. ‘Open class’ policies are most helpful for the less experienced student. I encourage my students to attend as many master classes and workshops as they can, because often more can be learnt this way, without nerves and stress intervening; it’s then easier to decide if this course of study is suitable for you.
  5. Some courses are ‘specialist’ with one expert teacher giving master classes for a select group of students (these are usually shorter or weekend courses), whilst others include multiple study options such as theory, aural, composition lessons and sight-reading classes, or the chance to study with more than one faculty member. You may like to take this into consideration, particularly if you are preparing for an examination, diploma or concert performance. For those less confident in their playing ability or skill, there are courses which focus on certain levels; intermediate courses or courses for beginners or elementary players, for example.

The following piano courses are held in the UK and all offer a different experience (they are placed in alphabetical order):

– Benslow Music Courses

– Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists

– Finchcocks Music

– Hindhead Piano Course

– Jackdaws Residential Piano Course

– Piano Week

– Summer School for Pianists

Image: Finchcocks Piano Courses


My publications:

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

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


The Waco Variations: writing about music

My guest writer today is Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda is an American pianist and author, and in the following post, she explains how and why she started writing fiction. Her first novel, The Waco Variations, has been well received, and here, she outlines the plot and offers a few thoughts on writing about music.


“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own–spoken in a language too deep for words.”

–excerpt, The Waco Variations

I planned to be a pianist. I planned to be a piano instructor and part-time university teacher.  I planned to write music articles.  I didn’t plan to write a novel.  When Cassie, the protagonist from The Waco Variations, “showed up” in my imagination and demanded that I write her story, I swatted the idea away.  I’m too busy, I told her.  I’m not a very good fiction writer, I told her.  She kept nagging.  A week later I sat down in a coffee shop and wrote the outline of the book.  Several years and multiple drafts later, I held that book in my hands.

Cassie’s story is an unusual one—the story of a young woman who watches her world burn to the ground in the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas.  She enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality. Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her.

I wrote about music because it’s what I know. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love with Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Readers ask me if it’s autobiographical.  It isn’t.  Yet how could the story not reflect my life’s work of living inside musical lines?  How could my own experience of trying to find “normal” after leaving a rigid Seventh-day Adventist upbringing not work its way into this story?  Bach, Beethoven and Brahms taught me to think.  The piano allowed me to express what I couldn’t say verbally.  Classical music allowed me to play “at the doorstep of eternity”—throwing open the narrow, concrete doors of a closed religious system into a universe of timeless beauty.  It healed me.  Any doubt I feel, any loss I mourn, I know that music not only accompanies me, but it has been there first.  Where words fail, music remains.

The process of writing and releasing this book taught me that I’m not alone.  In my readers I meet others who know the disorientation and depression of loss.  They’ve experienced the highs of a wonderful musical performance and the intimacy of collaborating with others.  Some share my journey out of fundamentalism.  As I hear stories from readers about their own love affairs with music, or their personal tragedies and how music has healed them, I realize one of the unconscious reasons I wrote this book was to start this sort of dialog about music and healing—letting people know that (as one reviewer wrote) “music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more.”

This story—and the experience of writing it—is ultimately about the bedrock truths that connect all of us.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.

The Waco Variations, a Novel is available at www.Amazon.com.

Rhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist, and author.  She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.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.


 

Stars of the Albion Grand Prix 2019

March is one of the busiest months for music adjudicators or music judges. Many British music festivals, and particularly those affiliated to the Federation of Festivals, take place during this time, and therefore adjudicators are buzzing around from one to the next, hearing large quantities of young (and older) players. During this past week I’ve been adjudicating in Bedford, at the Bedfordshire Music Festival (U.K.), and this week I will be in Somerset for the week, enjoying a feast of music at the Highbridge Music Festival, near Bristol.

As an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF), I get to hear a vast number of young and more mature performers. I normally adjudicate the piano classes, but as a generalist adjudicator, it’s not unusual to judge some instrumental classes too. Increasingly, I’m invited to judge competitive festivals which are not affiliated to BIFF. Last Saturday was one such occasion.

The Stars of the Albion Grand Prix is a popular competition organised by founder and executive producer Evgenia Terentieva (pictured to the left). It’s been a great pleasure to be involved with this event for four of its six-year history.

Stars of the Albion is an international performing arts festival & competition. Held annually, it seeks to join talented musicians, dancers, actors and artists from across the world, forming a unique bridge connecting different cultures and in particular, that of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.

The project is organised and promoted by Musica Nova, an International Academy of Music based in London, and a bilingual establishment combining the best of British and Russian teaching principles. It is held under the Patronage of the World Association of Performing Arts (WAPA) and is supported by the Mission of Rossotrudnichestvo Russian Culture Centre in London.

This year’s competition was held from March 1st – 3rd 2019, and it consisted of two rounds; the first was a private video recorded round, and the second was open to the public and held in several venues across London. The final Gala concert took place at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in central London. This year, Stars of the Albion hosted participants from the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Israel, Malta, France, Spain, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Participation is open to artists from six years old, with no age limit, and is divided between five age categories with two participation options; amateur or professional. All styles and genres can be presented for the competition programme. This year the event was held during one of the major Russian traditional festivals called “Maslenitsa”. There were cash prizes for the best performance of music by a Russian composer and for the best vocal performance in Russian language. The adjudication panel comprised a variety of international judges, all known in their field.

I chaired the instrumental jury which was held at Peregrine’s Pianos, situated in Gray’s Inn Road. We totalled four judges; alongside me (from left to right in the photo above) were Rebeka Molly De Gama (U.K.), Snezhana Polshronova Karnolsky (Bulgaria), and Constance An Chi Hsieh (China).  The photo below is a ‘flashback’, or a happy memory of the first time I was on the jury panel at this competition.

Performers were either pianists or violinists, and the categories were all age related. Many of the performances were superb and the overall standard was extremely high.

The selected repertoire, generally a free choice, was mostly standard fare. Whilst it’s always lovely to hear old favourites, for future competitions, I would encourage young players to explore more Contemporary repertoire. Some performers were clearly just beginning their musical journey, and whilst extremely competent and confident, were still in the process of learning to perform, and others were already well established young players; there was also a category for adult amateur musicians too. The overall class winners performed at the final Gala concert.

I really enjoyed working with several jury members because I appreciated the feedback from fellow adjudicators. Whilst we tended to agree on who should win, it’s useful to gain insight into a fellow musician’s thoughts regarding certain aspects of playing and performing. And as I often adjudicate alone, it’s a real pleasure to work closely with others in this respect.

Stars of the Albion Grand Prix provides an important opportunity for young musicians and artists from across the world. All those who took part did so because they valued the chance to be heard and evaluated by a professional jury. Over the past few years, Evgenia Terentieva has organised and developed one of the most vibrant and artistically satisfying competitive events in London for emerging artists, and long may this continue.

www.starsofthealbion.org.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.