The 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival

Returning from my latest trip to Asia this week, I reflected on another thoroughly enjoyable sojourn to my favourite part of the world. I visited Asia twice last year and have a further trip planned later in 2018.

There are so many wonderful facets to my visit that it can be hard to put into words.  Three spring to mind;  kindness, respect and commitment. When it comes to music and the arts, this part of the world must surely lead the way in the Twenty-first century. A voracious capacity to learn, digest, and comprehend, students are attentive and highly motivated, whether they be teachers or pupils. Suffice to say that it’s a way of thinking which completely resonates with my beliefs and my teaching.

During the first three and a half weeks of the trip I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association as an adjudicator (I then gave a series of workshops and master classes for Schott Music). This year marked the 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and therefore many celebrations ensued, not least a bevy of dinners, presentations, gifts, and general merriment. I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association in 2013, doing exactly the same job, so I knew what to expect and was aware of just how gruelling it can be; it’s a baptism of fire for first time adjudicators.

For readers wondering about the job of an adjudicator, it is essentially competition judging. I am an adjudicator affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals in the UK; an organisation to which adjudicators are connected (after a selection process), and where music festivals (there are over 350 in the UK) can approach adjudicators to ‘judge’ their music festivals. We listen to groups of students through various classes, write our comments on mark forms, offer marks to participants, and finally, select a winner of each class. In the UK, these  festivals are fairly understated affairs lasting up to a few days featuring small instrumental classes, both competitive and non-competitive.

However, in Hong Kong, this job is on a completely different scale; classes of fifty instrumentalists lasting for three hours are the norm. Adjudicators will listen to selected pieces, usually three or four set works per exam grade; the festival runs in tandem to the UK graded examination system, plus diploma classes, and we might hear the same class (or set work) five or six times over the course of the festival. I heard a particular Grade 4 class ten times; let’s just say I know William Gillock’s Carnival in Rio rather well! The ability to think and write quickly is of essence; therefore as the student starts to play, one must start writing, and finish writing and marking as the student gets up to bow at the end. When adjudicating short grade one or two pieces, there really isn’t time for more than three or four sentences.

Students tend to make the same errors during the course of a piece, so the challenge becomes how to write eloquently yet with a different inflection for every performance. A divergent selection of classes were on offer to all adjudicators; most days I adjudicated two three hour classes and we worked six days per week, occasionally there were three sessions per day (nine hours of adjudicating), and I heard a large collection of piano music generally taken from standard repertoire. But there were a few Contemporary choices too, and some glorious Chinese works by previously unknown (to me) composers.

I particularly enjoyed the diploma classes; Debussy’s Préludes were on offer here, (for the Debussy celebrations this year; it’s 100 years since the composer’s death in 1918) with a wide-ranging group selected from both books.  Participants could choose two contrasting Préludes for their performance. The Grade 8 classes were also fun; I relished the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1 in E flat major.

For me, the most memorable class was the Junior Scholarship Final held on a Saturday afternoon at the Tom Lee Academy Hall. Three adjudicators worked together for this final, and we heard five outstanding young pianists (aged around 11 – 13 years). Two set works were followed by a piece of the competitor’s choice with each programme lasting around 15 minutes. Exciting and beautifully committed playing emanated from these talented young players, and it was a treat to hear and judge them (I know my colleagues both felt the same too). The winners, placed first, second and third, were awarded trophies (as pictured above) and prize money.

Rules and regulations abound in Hong Kong, and adjudicators and competitors must adhere to strict criteria; there was a whole manual of do’s and don’ts. One, perhaps surprising, rule for all those playing in the piano solo classes, was memorisation. Students had to play their pieces from memory. Some do struggle with this element, but on the whole I found it a remarkable achievement. Whether you agree with memorisation or not, the fact remains that it affords students a much deeper understanding of a piece, and offers a taste of how it feels to be a professional i.e. in an exposed situation, alone on a stage without the score.  I also adjudicated at several duet classes, which were engaging and, again, Debussy was on the menu, alongside a few other favourites. Several competitors chose to play these classes from memory too.

I stayed in a lovely hotel in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, and was fortunate to be treated exceptionally well; for the majority of sessions, adjudicators are chauffeured to venues (although going on the MTR, or underground, to a venue was always an adventure), and we worked alongside a whole team of professionals from the Association.

A fond memory was judging my only non-piano (and non-competitive) class of the festival in Ho Man Tin on Kowloon; a group of special needs students prepared traditional and world music in small ensembles and choirs. Their obvious love for music and desire to communicate was infectious and moving. I concluded that you haven’t lived unless you’ve heard Frere Jacques sung in Chinese!

Some facts and figures: during the 2018 festival, over 131,000 competitors performed. There were fifty-one adjudicators on the Adjudicating Panel (coming from all over the world), working in over fifty venues throughout Hong Kong.

I adjudicated a total of 1549 students over 39 classes during the three and a half week period, and the venues were usually small theatres such as those pictured above. And I met some fascinating new friends. I want to say a huge thank you to all my assistants who made each day a pleasure, and to my fellow adjudicators, who have not only inspired me to be better at the job, but have also become friends.

Whilst this job is hard work, the rewards are immense; staying in a vibrant city with fellow musicians can be a welcome change to working alone  (as many freelancers do) in the UK. I enjoyed the warmer climate, the chance to sample Chinese and Asian cuisine,  several concerts at the Hong Kong Performing Academy of Arts (opposite my hotel!), and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. I loved taking copious Star Ferry trips across the water to Kowloon, offering simply the best view of the city.

Many say that children are forced to play an instrument in the Far East and that may be true (but then I was forced to study maths at school, a subject which I loathed). Maybe these young pupils don’t love practising, playing or performing at all, and they might choose never to play again when they are finally allowed to quit. But, every classical concert I attended was full, (and I went to a variety of professional recitals during the course of the trip) and, contrary to the UK, where classical concerts often suffer sparse audience attendance (and are usually frequented by older people), in Hong Kong the whole family go together, and I witnessed scores of children and young people all enjoying classical music. Surely this is the reason we encourage children to learn about music? So they can enjoy it in all its forms and learn to appreciate live performance. I can’t wait to return to Hong Kong soon.

Hong Kong Schools Music Association


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

 

 

 

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A New Exam Syllabus for Stringbabies

Kay Tucker is founder and director of Stringbabies; a programme enabling young children to learn stringed instruments. I met Kay (pictured below) several years ago and it has been inspiring to observe her continued success, establishing an ever-growing network of teachers and students who are using this increasingly popular programme. Kay has kindly written the following guest post (for my new series), focusing on Stringbabies’ new association with Victoria College Examinations. Over to Kay…


A few years ago I saw a documentary about the well-loved characters Wallace and Gromit, in which their creator, Nick Park, was interviewed. He said that he felt as if the characters he had molded with his own hands had already been in existence and were just waiting to be introduced. I can totally concur with that view. After fourteen years since I first put the Stringbabies ideas down on paper, I find it hard to believe that It started life within my own mind, as it has such a life of its own and like all babies, its ongoing life journey is proving interesting.

Eighteen months ago, I was exhibiting the Stringbabies books at the Music Education Expo in London, thanks to the generous support of the Soundpost Ltd. whilst there, I was approached by the Chief Executive of Victoria College Exams (VCM) and asked if our two organizations might explore ways of working together.

On following this contact up, I was delighted to discover that the team at the exam board had already decided to propose a bespoke qualification for Stringbabies students!

Over the following twelve months I had great fun dreaming up a syllabus and award structure. As composition and sight reading are important components in Stringbabies, I felt that they must form the pillars of any syllabus devised.

Eventually I had a draft of a three-tier award, starting with the first level, which is aimed at the student who has  the most basic grasp of Stringbabies notation and is just beginning to play open strings with controlled bowing.  At level one, the candidate is expected to perform three pieces, two of which are basic first Stringbabies repertoire, and the third being their own composition of no more than sixteen beats using a single line of Stringbabies notation.

As left hand skills may have not been introduced at his stage, the technique and scales requirement is for the candidate to compose a rhythm of no more than six beats and then play it on two strings of their choice. There are simple aural and sight reading tests using Stringbabies notation.

By the intermediate stage (level two) the student will be acquiring some skills in the left hand and  the choice of Stringbabies repertoire reflects this; a composition of no more than 30 seconds duration acts as a third piece, and the sight reading and scales similarly reflect the developing technique.

Level three is the final stage of the Stringbabies award and at this stage a piece is chosen from the advanced Stringbabies repertoire and also a piece in conventional notation chosen from a list of music drawn from well-known beginners’ repertoire. The third piece is as before, a composition provided by the candidate in either conventional or Stringbabies notation. A full one octave scale is required in two keys using a rhythm also composed by the candidate. Two pieces of sight reading are given; one in Stringbabies notation and the other in conventional notation, reflecting the fact that at this stage the student is moving on to reading conventional notes.

Before releasing the syllabus to the public, Stringbabies teaching colleagues were consulted about components of the award and of course the staff at Victoria College Exams had their own input.

It was decided that the awards should be assessed by the teacher, who in turn would be moderated once a term by the exam board. This means that applications can be made at any time of the year and that assessments can take place in lesson time, ruling out the need to travel to an examinations centre. In order to be moderated, the teacher submits a recording of the pupil performing on any device which produces a simple and clear recording. For my first Stringbabies award entrants, I used my mobile phone to record and also to take photos of their compositions.

It was a surreal experience when the first Stringbabies Award certificates arrived and it still seems improbable. How many people have the privilege of seeing a system they have developed being accredited by an examinations body?

It was another landmark moment when VCM notified me of the fact that entries had been submitted by another teacher in a different part of the U.K.

Rolling out the VCM Stringbabies award is still ongoing and it has been wonderful to have a good deal of support in the press and especially from Dame Evelyn Glennie, who kindly passed on the news via her social media accounts.

Another significant development this year is Stringbabies going online! We now have a partnership with Charanga to publish the violin and cello books on their music educational platform and it is hoped that this will be up and running by the end of the year.

As I mentioned earlier, Stringbabies seems to have a life all of its own, so I really have not a clue what is going to happen next but if it continues to have a positive impact on enabling people of all ages to comprehend and engage with music, I, for one, will be content.

For more information on the Stringbabies award please visit www.vcmexams.com and you can find out more about Stringbabies at www.stringbabies.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

The Inception and Development of PIANO WEEK

Today’s guest blog post has been written by British pianist Samantha Ward. Samantha is director and founder of PIANO WEEK, the popular piano Summer school and festival which is now offering students of all ages and abilities the chance to study the piano in various locations around the world. I was keen to ask her how she had developed this concept and why it had become the focal point of her musical activities. Over to Samantha….


When Melanie asked me to write a short article about my experiences with International Festival & Summer School PIANO WEEK since its inception in 2013, I very much enjoyed looking back over the last five years of my professional life.  The fast-paced life of forging a career as a concert pianist, author, self-taught entrepreneur, promoter, fund-raiser and strategist, all of which I had to either develop upon or become in order to make this enterprise work, didn’t allow me to reflect much on the past until now.  Since the very first day of the festival, when it poured with rain one Welsh summer’s day of 2013, my mind has been geared towards the future and to how much I can push PIANO WEEK forward.  So why did I do it?!

The idea of creating my own piano festival and summer course by combining top-notch performances from world-renowned artists alongside the younger generation of concert pianists with exceptional, all-round music education accessible to players of any age and ability was born with the realisation that I was really going to have to become my own agent if I was going to form any kind of career as a concert pianist.  Rather than fighting for the same spot on the stage, already too small to hold the big names and the new arrivals, I ventured to create a new concert platform elsewhere.  Five years on, the results are overwhelming.  PIANO WEEK has transformed into a multicultural and hugely diverse community of music lovers, professional and amateur pianists, world-renowned guest artists, outstanding concert pianists, educators and steadily growing international audiences in the UK, Italy, Germany, China, Thailand and Japan.

The buzz of PIANO WEEK is something which you need to experience first hand as no written word can offer a meaningful substitute.  It’s not just a piano course; some of our returning participants dubbed it a ‘holistic affair’ with music.  Our performance-based programme of master classes, one-to-one and duet lessons, composition, sight reading, memorisation, listening and harmony and theory classes interconnects throughout the week with the expert advice given by all faculty members.  As a participant,  you can choose whether to visit our UK base in the English countryside in Shropshire (Weston Rhyn) or to travel further afield to the picturesque Upper Middle Rhine UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany, sunny Umbria,  or jump on a long-haul flight to Thailand and celebrate Songkran, or China.

I like to think that the development of PIANO WEEK reflects the very essence of music, with no boundaries of age, ability, country or language.  As I am sure every entrepreneur has, I have long dreamed of taking my enterprise global.  With overseas expansion not being the easiest of tasks, it took a lot of determination as well as finding the right partners abroad to make it a reality.  My pianist husband Maciej Raginia came on board as the festival’s creative director when no amount of self-induced lack of sleep was enough to keep things moving! Today, we share responsibility for every aspect of the festival from creating the syllabuses and concert planning to setting up new PIANO WEEK residences abroad.  It’s very much a ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic born out of the decision to forge our own futures as performing artists.

It is wonderful that PIANO WEEK is extremely popular amongst participants. The high rate of those returning every year (or sometimes even twice or three times a year!) is a true testament to the quality of the tuition offered, our expanding faculty of concert pianists and pedagogues as well as concerts given by world-renowned guest artists.  In the last five years, the festival has welcomed Stephen Kovacevich, Leon McCawley, Chenyin Li and David Fung as our guest artists alongside an impressive list of international concert pianists and educators: Alexander Karpeyev (Russia), Annabelle Lawson (UK), Diana Ionescu (Romania), Grace Yeo (South Korea), Madalina Rusu (Romania), Maiko Mori (Japan), Mark Nixon (South Africa), Melanie Spanswick (UK), Nico de Villiers (South Africa), Niel du Preez (South Africa), Olivia Sham (Australia), Roberto Russo (Italy), Sachika Taniyama (Japan), Sam Armstrong (UK), Warren Mailley-Smith (UK), Yuki Negishi (Japan) and Vesselina Tchakarova (Bulgaria).

You can find out much more about PIANO WEEK, here; www.pianoweek.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Honest Insights and Some Forgotten Exercises

British concert pianist Nick van Bloss has written the third guest post in my new series. Technical exercises often receive a bad press by pianists, teachers and students alike, but, practised carefully and diligently, and with the help of a talented teacher, they can be extremely helpful for building various aspects of piano technique. In his post, Nick examines the forgotten exercises by German composer, Louis Plaidy. Over to Nick…


I was fascinated to see Melanie’s recent post (two videos) about the teaching of Rosina Lhévinne, particularly the accounts and anecdotes of her teaching by the late John Browning, who studied with her at the Juilliard School. In both of the videos it would be easy to miss a hidden nugget of information that was imparted about a wonderful book of technical exercises by Louis Plaidy which, in my opinion, puts the likes of Hanon to shame. It’s a book that should really be on the music desk of pianists of any standard.

But what about Hanon? Let’s face it, most pianists know several of his famous and catchy five-finger exercises – from amateurs to professionals, we hear people rattling them off, stuck in a monstrous, never-ending loop of C major, always messing things up halfway through, and playing them with little regard to shape, tone or evenness. Ultimately, Hanon does no good at all unless one diligently plays each exercise in every key – and no one does that. And I wouldn’t recommend anyone to, either, as those obsessive-compulsive little patterns would surely drive any sane person crazy! Like any catchy song, I’m convinced that Hanon is only still played and used today because people like the ‘tune’ of the first three exercises.

Years ago, when I was playing to John Browning in New York, he mentioned the Plaidy exercises to me – and I had no idea what he was talking about. At the time, we were discussing how best to warm up at the piano before actually grinding away at learning and polishing pieces. The answer: Plaidy. Well, actually, a specific exercise from Plaidy’s book, but more on that later. What Browning did say, however, was that the Plaidy exercises focus on a very natural way of playing, incorporating patterns that are found in works throughout the piano repertoire at every level. Unlike, say, Hanon, where the mind-numbing repetitive patterns are wholly unmusical.

So who was Louis Plaidy? I’d certainly never heard of him before Browning spoke of him, and I’ve never heard any pianist mention him since. Plaidy was a  nineteenth century German pedagogue who taught, amongst others, Edvard Grieg, Janáček, Hans von Bülow, Arthur Sullivan, and many other notable musicians. He was clearly a big-wig teacher of the time, was friends with Felix Mendelssohn, and attracted pupils from all over the world. And he became famous for writing his book, ‘Technical Studies for the Piano’, which, in itself, makes him sound like a dull old goat who needed a life, but, in reality, and according to his pupils, he was the kindest soul who cared deeply about all of his students. And, more importantly, he really got results in his teaching.

There is, indeed, a ‘naturalness’ to all of the exercises in Plaidy’s book. Granted, his little essay, along with drawings, at the beginning of the book might seem a little old-fashioned to us now, but it’s all very sound advice. The exercises themselves, though, can certainly benefit pretty much any level of pianist. I’d never urge any pianist to go through a book of exercises from start to finish, working on each one. I recommend Plaidy as a kind of ‘go to’ book if you need a solution for something, if you’re struggling with a certain aspect of playing – rapid finger work, chords, scales, double notes… – then Plaidy has an exercise for you. And the great thing is that none of the exercises will do any damage – quite the contrary – which leads me to a specific exercise in his book, the one mentioned by Mrs Lhévinne and John Browning in the videos.

There’s a lot of performance-related injury going around at the moment. At least, to me, it seems there is. And it’s worrying. Perhaps, in reality, we’re only all becoming so much more aware of these injuries because of people sharing their experiences on-line – and that’s great, as we all learn from listening to others. But not a day goes by where I don’t hear ‘tendonitis, carpal tunnel, focal dystonia’ mentioned somewhere. Is it because people are being taught badly, have been taught badly, or that they’re over-working, or they’re just not in touch with their own bodies and don’t know when to ‘stop’ certain, destructive movements? I don’t know the answer, although suspect it could be a combination of all of the above. Bad teaching, though, has to be high up on the list. A good teacher has to be able to spot signs of potentially calamitous technical issues. That has to be a given.

Hand and wrist freedom, bodily freedom, relaxation, necessary and unnecessary tension, breathing, awareness – all of these must be monitored by a diligent teacher. It’s a crying shame, though, that many teachers are shamefully negligent in this area. I’ve seen some ‘big-name’ teachers produce injured student after injured student – and let’s be real here: historically, some of the most famous teachers have been more into their own egos and fat fees than the well-being of students. A caring and aware teacher is a godsend, a teacher who watches the student as well as just listening and correcting wrong notes.

One thing John Browning inherited from Mrs Lhévinne was an interesting use of the Plaidy exercises to not only prevent injury but also to treat and even cure injuries. One particular exercise, that is – the scales in double sixths. Yes, scales in double sixths! I’ve mentioned this to various pianists over the years and all have baulked at the idea – but, reality check again, many pianists, even top ones, struggle to play a smooth and even scale of any description in isolation, let alone in double notes. But, when I worked with Browning, he was adamant that playing scales in double sixths every day would benefit pianists of all levels, if they only but bothered to learn how to play them with the Plaidy fingering! Browning inherited this from Mrs Lhévinne, who speaks about their value in the video.

The belief with scales in double-sixths, is that they create a concurrent and healthy push and pull on the forearm flexors and tendons, thus strengthening and nurturing them, whilst simultaneously opening the carpal tunnel slightly. Indeed, once the fingering has been learnt, playing them is perhaps one of the most soothing and beneficial things a pianist can do. I begin every day of work at the piano by playing the double-sixth scales in all keys. It was hard going at first, but the benefits were such that I knew Browning was onto something. In my case, he suggested them as a way to warm up – to really render the hand malleable. But he used to use them to treat pianists who had tendonitis and carpal tunnel problems and I believe that most were permanently injury-free after only a few months. And, along with Mrs Lhévinne, he believed that they should be mandatory for everyone learning the piano at whatever stage.

I know that scales in double-sixths might sound out of reach for anyone but the most proficient pianist, but they are not. Give them a go. Whether amateur, professional, for warm up, or to treat injury, I genuinely think they will super-charge your technique, heal issues, and help prevent future problems arising.

As Mrs Lhévinne said: play scales in double-sixths with the Plaidy fingering and you feel like you’ve been playing for hours. In other words, they are powerful things!

You can peruse Louis Plaidy’s Technical Studies for the Piano, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Favourable Fingering

I’m almost half way through my work here in Hong Kong and am having a thoroughly lovely time, enjoying the urban vibe and fast pace of life. I will be giving several book presentations after I finish adjudicating, and some readers have asked where and when these will take place, so here are some details: a workshop for Parsons Music (March 29th), a workshop and master class for MusikWald (March 30th) and two master classes at the Tom Lee Academy (April 2nd). Hope to see you there!

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll probably know that I write a column for Pianist Magazine (a how-to-play article, where I teach a different elementary piece in every edition), and contribute to the bi-monthy newsletter, offering five tips on a particular aspect of piano technique. This month’s topic is a perennial favourite; fingering. Do you write your fingering into the score before you start learning your piece? Or do you let your fingers roam wherever they feel comfortable? Here are a few ideas which I hope might be useful. You can read the original article, here.


Fingering is a perpetual hot topic and we all know that finding the right fingering solution for a particular passage can make a colossal difference, fostering smooth, fluent, and ideally, comfortable playing.There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to fingering as everyone one of us has a different size hand, but hopefully the following suggestions may be helpful.

  1. Aim to know all the standard fingerings for scales (particularly contrary motion), arpeggios, and broken chords. If you know these fingerings, you will have a substantial advantage when learning any repertoire, but especially in Baroque and Classical styles, where scale passages and arpeggios abound. It can be prudent to learn two or three fingerings for chromatic scales and a couple for chromatic thirds as well.
  2. Know where your thumbs are and where they should be! Even when passage work isn’t symmetrical, the thumbs can stabilize the hand and being aware of where they fall in rapid figurations aids the memory, making fingering easier to grasp.
  3. I advise my students to play ‘in position’ as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand or changing hand positions. Many hand turns can easily lead to a bumpy, uneven musical line (this happens when there are too many thumbs on the scene!). If you can use outer parts of the hand (the fourth and fifth finger) as much as the inner part (thumb and second finger), not only will the hand be more balanced, but it will also feel natural to play without so much movement. The fourth and fifth finger will need to be sufficiently strong in order to do this.
  4. Finger substitution and finger sliding both ultimately provide smooth legato. Changing fingers on a note (once you’ve played a note, quickly replace whatever finger you used to play the note with another, whilst keeping the note depressed), or sliding fingers from one note to another, but still keeping the musical line (almost connecting the notes, as much as you can, so the overall impression is one of legato).
  5. Once you’ve decided on your fingering, DO NOT change it! This is a cardinal rule; when you change or substitute fingers after working at the original fingering for a while, the brain has already wired these finger movements and cancelling them will be awkward to say the least. Practice tends to make permanent, so spend some time writing your fingering in the score before you begin studying a piece, and be quite sure your chosen fingerings suit your hand and you are happy with them.

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Intervals – training or teaching?

In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…


It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.

Those which just work

The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!

At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.

Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student

There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.

Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.

Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.

Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]

Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?

And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.

Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?

Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.

Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.

Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.

In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.

www.musicatmonkton.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Best Piano Resource Nomination

Greetings from Hong Kong! I am working here for five weeks, adjudicating and giving some workshops and book presentations. I adjudicated at the Hong Kong Schools Festival (more about this in another post) five years ago, and I’m looking forward to observing the changes and developments during this time. Hong Kong has certainly remained a fun, vibrant place to work, and piano students are dedicated and thorough in their preparation.

I’m delighted that my blog has been selected as one of the best online piano resources by Tutorful.co.uk. Tutorful is a leading online platform which allows you to connect directly with tutors offering a whole range of subjects, and it also provides information relating to each chosen topic. You can find out much more about it here, and view the information about online piano activities, here.

Many thanks to Tutorful for this nomination and to all my readers for their continued support.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

The 1st Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival

Over the next few weeks, I’m looking forward to welcoming a series of guest posts here on my blog. They will be written by a whole array of interesting musicians all with a specific message to convey. Today we begin with British pianist and pedagogue, Daniel Tong. Daniel is Head of Chamber Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and he is also the director of a new chamber music festival and competition. I asked him why he thinks such a venture is important and relevant, and why Birmingham is the ideal place for his new project.


Between 20th and 23rd November this year, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will host the first Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival, incorporating concerts by world-class artists, Conservatoire students, masterclasses and a competition for young ensembles. The Gould Trio, my own London Bridge Trio, Esther Hoppe, Alice Neary, Christoph Richter, Katya Apekisheva, John Thwaites, Robin Ireland and others will rub shoulders with numerous young musicians from across the globe in our stunning new Conservatoire building. For four days Birmingham will be at (or at least close to) the centre of the chamber music world.

I am Head of Piano in Chamber Music at the Conservatoire and director of the festival. I’d like to tell you more about why an event such as this is highly relevant and much-needed.

How do we define chamber music? The Collins Dictionary has ‘classical music written for a small number of instruments’ and this is the music we will be celebrating at our festival. But dig a little deeper and what else lies within the term chamber music?: Music for the home or a small space? Music with a small number of parts? Music of an intimately personal nature? Whichever definition we choose, the piano more or less is chamber music. In the era before radio and CDs, it was the primary way of experiencing music in the home. And many more chambers had pianos for this reason. Even today, a singalong around the piano is more likely than an impromptu string quartet. The battered uprights strewn around London’s train stations and beloved of YouTube are testament to the instrument’s enduring availability and appeal; we all feel a little ownership of its eighty-eight black and white keys. Piano music itself is a kind of chamber music: never just a single note, but a duet, trio, quartet (or more) of interweaving and interacting voices, alive with possibility.

At our festival we feature music where the piano joins forces with a small number of other instruments. Consider the immortal chamber music writers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms… All pianists. This is music born at the keyboard, and these composers’ piano parts are the heart and soul of their chamber music. Of course Mendelssohn was also a fine violinist, Mozart a decent viola player (well, there was little that these two couldn’t do) and all of these geniuses also wrote brilliant string quartets, but the spirit of the piano is at the heart of the chamber music repertoire and embedded in the musical DNA of its composers. There are numerous events, festivals and competitions for the string quartet and solo piano. Our Conservatoire believes that it’s about time that the piano was celebrated in chamber music too.

And why do this in Birmingham? There are several reasons, not least of which is to highlight the work of an ambitious Conservatoire that is committed to the value and contemporary relevance of chamber music, and to invite people from around the world into our magnificent new building and performance spaces. But also Birmingham is bang in the centre of the UK, geographically and in terms of its diversity of people and cultures, reflected in the Conservatoire itself. It is the ideal place from which to reach out with our music and also into which to draw new artists and audiences. Events will be affordable or free. I have never been an advocate of music competitions (those who have read my recent blog may understand why). They are liable to lead everyone in the wrong direction, but there’s another essay in that, and one that I imagine has already been written several times. Competitions, from the heyday of the Leeds Piano Competition and BBC Young Musician of the Year to today’s fascination with the X Factor, have always embodied a broad and inclusive appeal. This essential characteristic seemed to make a competition an ideal component of our festival. Any group within the age limit can apply and via this process we will discover eight wonderful young ensembles to come to Birmingham and be part of our festival. Instinctively this seems a more open approach than asking young artists that I already know, or canvassing for recommendations amongst my circle of musical colleagues.

So how will we attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the competition culture? Chamber music is a multi-layered medium, in the wealth and depth of its repertoire as well as the skills and characteristics required to realise it. It is music for sharing, both with one’s performing colleagues and the audience, and is therefore somewhat confessional. It is open to wide-ranging interpretation, despite often being put together by composers with great intellectual rigour. A competition in this discipline may therefore seem like a paradox. Our festival is as collegiate and inclusive as possible. We will make music together. Each of the eight invited ensembles will give a recital as part of the festival programme and take part in masterclasses. All jury members will also perform in public and will hear the young groups from seats in the audience, rather than an austere desk covered in paper and bottles of mineral water. All applicants will be heard, either in live preliminary audition or by video audition (not the kind where someone sends a DVD which is thrown in the bin, but a video session where the same panel of judges as at the live auditions will sit together and watch on-screen, like a concert). The winning group will receive public engagements including London’s Wigmore Hall, mentorship and a commercial recording with Resonus Classics (whose director, Adam Binks, is part of our competition jury panel). But all of the eight ensembles who travel to Birmingham will play a full part in our festival and have the opportunity to play to a new audience, live-streamed and recorded.

Finally, what advice for young chamber ensembles who would like to apply? The interpretation of music is a subjective thing but what we all know instinctively is that these great works of art have a powerful effect on the listener. Each group will find their own way of elucidating this, but most audiences crave a similar experience: to be moved by the music and allowed to marvel at its intricacies and personal characteristics. They receive this through the performers. Our jury panel will, I imagine, be no different (although I mustn’t pre-judge that either). Most probably they will want to hear strong and lucid interpretations that feel heartfelt and committed. They will want to feel something. I doubt they’ll care if someone splits a note in the coda of Schumann’s D minor trio. And yes, duos are chamber music too.

I feel incredibly excited about this process and the event itself in November, sharing the music I love the most with inspiring colleagues and young musicians, in the true spirit of chamber music. Do join us if you can, for what promises to be a rare and inspiring occasion.

The 1st Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival takes place 20th – 23rd November 2018 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

For further information, email keyboard@bcu.ac.uk

 

www.bcu.ac.uk/pianochamberfest18


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

 

 

Josef and Rosina Lhévinne and the Russian Piano School

One of the joys of having pianist and piano teachers friends are the endless piano talk phone (or Skype) conversations; and by that I usually mean technique chat! There are, inevitably, disagreements; as many will know there are copious ways to play and teach the piano, but these conversations always throw up a myriad of interesting questions. It was during one such discussion that I discovered the following videos which I hope you will find of interest (I certainly did).

Josef and Rosina Lhévinne were a formidable partnership in the piano world. Both renowned teachers, Josef toured and gave many solo recitals (and two piano concerts with his wife), whilst Rosina became a celebrated teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. The two films linked here give a real insight into the Lhévinne method of teaching. In the first film, American concert pianist John Browning demonstrates elements of piano playing synonymous with the Lhévinne’s teaching, and in the second, Mrs. Lhévinne reveals details about her life and her piano teaching.  These include her pedagogical influence and her legacy (according to many of her students). A fascinating glimpse into Twentieth century Russian piano teaching.



My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


 

Stars of the Albion Competition 2018

On Saturday I swapped my teaching for adjudicating, spending a day in London at the Musica Nova International Music Academy situated on Cromer Road, near King’s Cross train station. This busy studio is owned (and was founded) by Russian pianist and singer, Evgenia Terentieva. As well as a music academy, providing one-to-one tuition (for children as young as three, right up to adults), the studio holds many courses (on a wide range of musical subjects, from musical theatre, to a ‘music wonderland’ programme) and a yearly competition; Stars of the Albion, Grand Prix.

The Stars of the Albion international performing arts festival & competition, now in its fifth year, joins gifted musicians and dancers from across the world. The project forms a unique bridge connecting vibrant cultures and, in particular, those of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.  There are many different classes open to competitors, and the event is going from strength to strength with a huge variety of disciplines and participants coming from around the globe to show case their talents.

I’ve been fortunate to be on the panel of judges for the past three years, and during this period I have observed the Stars of the Albion morph from a fairly small-scale competition, with one jury hearing all competitors, into a large-scale affair with two competitions (and two juries) running in tandem. This year I chaired the instrumental panel, working alongside (pictured below from left to right) concert pianist George Harliono (also from the UK), viola player and string teacher, Natalia Varkentin (from Latvia), and pianist and teacher, Nick Sergienko (from Canada).

The standard of playing was high, with most instrumentalists playing a well prepared programme (consisting of two contrasting works) from memory. The youngest performer was just six years old but already very accomplished, presenting Sonatina in A minor Op. 94 No. 4 by Albert Biehl and  a humorous work (Funny Puppy) by Anne Crosby. Her technical control was impressive with musicianship well beyond her years.

One reason I really love adjudicating is the breadth of works and composers offered at this type of competition. When judging festivals, set works frequently govern student (and teacher!) choices; pupils may be gearing up for an exam, so I might hear typical offerings from the ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus.

During this competition, however, we listened to a diverse collection of pieces across several instruments (clarinet, violin, piano and balalaika). The balalaika is a regular fixture in predominantly Russian contests such as this (and during my first year adjudicating at this competition, one such player won the Grand Prix award for the most outstanding performer). It’s a popular instrument and this year’s competitor had studied at the Central School in Moscow and was a touring professional (there were student, amateur and professional classes on offer). He was fantastic, and gave us rousing renditions of Vera Gorodovskaya’s Kalinka and Alexander Zigankov’s Introduction and Chardash.

I played the clarinet whilst a student, so relished hearing the beautiful Clarinet Sonata Op. 167 by Camille Saint-Saëns, having played it myself. The same participant also offered Igor Stravinsky’s exciting Three Solo Pieces (1919). Other repertoire offerings included: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance for violin, Vittorio Monti’s Czardas (violin), Suite italienne  (1932) by Stravinsky (violin), Sonatina in G HWV582 by George Frideric Handel (piano), Chaconne by Tomaso Antonio Vitali (violin), Salut d’amour by Edward Elgar (violin), Take Five by Paul Desmond (violin), Hava Nagila Trad. (violin), Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1 by Friedrich Kuhlau (piano), Romance in F major by Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Sonatina No. 3 in F major by Thomas Attwood (piano), Ragtime and Fantasy, both by Manfred Schmitz (piano duet), Children’s Corner Suite by Claude Debussy (piano) and the Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. Posth. by Fryderyk  Chopin (piano).

Many disagree with the whole ethos behind competitions, but I feel every performer will have really benefitted from playing in this relaxed setting (irrespective of whether they won their class or not), and we hope they continue to enjoy these events, honing their playing and performing skills. A cohort of winners performed at the Gala concert and prizegiving ceremony held yesterday evening (at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre, in London). I wish Musica Nova continued success with the Stars of the Albion and I look forward to next year’s competition.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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