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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Judging the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016

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I’m delighted to announce that  I will be a judge at the 2016 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition. It’s an international competition which will be live streamed in August from the 24th – 27th, 2016.  I’m one of three judges; my colleagues are Russian pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski (in the middle on the image below), and American pianist Adam Neiman, (on the right, below) who is from Chicago.

This competition has already been featured on my blog earlier this year, when committee member Sally Olson wrote a post about her involvement (which you can read here). In addition to judging the competition, each judge will also be giving master classes afterwards, which should be a lot of fun.

Four days of total immersion in the piano world, an opportunity to meet like-minded souls, and a chance to enjoy the sights of Chicago – the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition promises to be a wonderful experience, so if you’re looking to enter a competition next year, then do consider this one. There is also a registration fee discount if you apply before 1 January 2016. Hope to see you there!

You can find out much more about the competition and entry procedure here:
3 Judges


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.


5 Practice Tips To Instantly Improve A Performance

Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around, teaching and adjudicating, providing the opportunity to hear a large and varied smorgasbord of piano playing. Whether pianists are young or old, beginners or very advanced players (and there has been an unusually large cohort of superb playing this year), several issues persist amongst pianists. With this in mind, my post today focuses on a few (hopefully) constructive, yet easily implemented, ways to improve piano playing, based on what I’ve witnessed.

1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining  or right pedal. It’s such a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide all this good work under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy judging acoustics, especially if pianists aren’t used to the hall or piano, however, if in doubt stay away from the sustaining pedal! It can be a good idea to practice your piece completely without pedal (from beginning to end). Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without using the pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.

2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), is often a lack of smooth, legato playing. It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively, when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. You may be pleasantly surprised by the pleasing sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your exam piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.

3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some pupils, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will not only grant time to collect thoughts, but will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, counting two bars before playing, almost as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).

4. Body Movement. As many know, too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity causes a harsh sound and wrong notes (generally). This is a matter which can be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation. In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms in a way so  they transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.

5. Close to the keys. It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but  a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action (this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it). This isn’t to suggest rigidity or keeping hands/fingers ‘in position’, but on the other hand, moving (i.e. being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers) and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.

These points are fairly easy to effectuate; work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines. They will instantly improve piano playing, creating an assured performance.


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.