Play it again: the review

I imagine most writers wait for reviews with bated breath. I certainly do. Writers spend a significant period of time alone. I enjoy the solitude. It offers ample thinking time and space to consider piano practice and performance. But once a book is written and ideas are set in stone, the only option is to hope that it is useful and that the relevant information has been offered in a logical manner so that it can be easily understood.

Play it again: PIANO has been a popular series so far, and Book 1 and 2  have both sold successfully around the world. Adding Book 3 seemed to be the natural progression, however it was a much more complicated book to write than the previous two volumes, mostly due to the complexity of the music and the detail required for advanced learners. You can, therefore, imagine my delight at receiving the following review earlier this week.

Renowned writer and reviewer Andrew Eales runs a successful blog called Pianodao. He regularly features new piano publications on his blog, and has already written a lovely review for the first two books in my series. The following wonderfully positive and detailed article includes information about Book 3, and offers an excellent overview of each book. Over to Andrew…

Melanie Spanswick’s Play it Again: Piano series launched with two books published by Schott Music back in 2017. At the time, I heaped praise on those books, and I have subsequently used them with adult “returners” who have also loved them.

Now, with a third book joining the series, it’s time for another look. This new review covers all three books in the series, so let’s dig in…

Who is it for?

One of the first questions I ask myself whenever looking at a new sheet music product is – “who is this aimed at?”

Popular author, teacher and composer Melanie Spanswick makes her target crystal clear from the outset, with a subtitle, ‘The perfect way to rediscover the piano’, and with a back cover description that reads:

“Aimed at ‘returning’ players who have spent some time away from the keyboard, Play it Again: Piano gives you the confidence to revisit this fulfilling pastime and go beyond what you previously thought you could achieve. Each piece in this two-book course is accompanied by constructive and easy-to-understand practice tips to help get your fingers speeding comfortably across the keys once again! The Piano Technique and Theory sections will help secure a fuller understanding of music and technique.
If you often find yourself saying ‘I used to play the piano…’ but wish you still did, then Play it Again: Piano is the resource for you!”

The first two volumes between them cover the full range of the eight grades offered by leading UK exam boards, meaning that the returning player can either recap from the start, developing good new habits while revising well-loved music and encountering new pieces, or else jump straight in at the level that suits them.

Meanwhile, the newly available third book covers post-Grade 8 and Associate Diploma level, making it ideal for those working towards professional qualifications, as well as those who are simply intent on taking their personal piano journey to the next level.

The Publications

The outstanding quality of these books is immediately apparent. The high gloss card covers contain 116 (Book 1), 120 (Book 2) and in the case of the third book 156 pages, printed on high quality paper with a slight sheen to it. The binding is very good, allowing even the third book to lie flat on the music stand, while also remaining durable.

The design itself is simply beautiful (and I mean seriously very good indeed!), and at a first skim through the books it is clear that they include a wealth of nicely engraved sheet music alongside plentiful text.

Just on the notation, I should mention for fellow purists that pieces from the Baroque and Classical Eras sometimes (including at Diploma level) include editorial dynamics and phrasing rather than taking a clean urtext approach.

There are helpful fingering suggestions throughout, again including in the third book.

In More Detail

Each book starts with a technique primer section, offering a few pages of excellent advice supported with clear black-and-white photographs. These sections cover posture, hand positions, flexibility and alignment, and advice is expanded and developed throughout the three books.

The first two books follow this with a section covering general tips about practice, including some positive suggestions for working on scales, arpeggios, finger warm-ups, and sight-reading.

The first two books each ends with a short section about Music Theory. In the first book this covers basic reminders of note values, time signatures, clefs and pitch, and key signatures, while in the second book the reader is treated to clearly explained information about scales, intervals, the circle of fifths, ornaments, chord progressions and cadences.

In place of this, the third book concludes with a short section about practice warm-ups, and although just a brief two pages, this is useful.

Between these various supports, the bulk of each book is taken up with the pieces at each level, always preceded by (at least) two full pages of advice covering such issues as:

  • Preparation (usually incorporating a suitable scale or short exercise)
  • Practice Techniques (offering invaluable and often creative advice)
  • Interpretation (usually a short suggestion or two about creating the right mood)

In the third book, these playing tips extend up to as long as 12 pages, and the wealth of detail and expertise here might be seen as the book’s key selling point. Spanswick has not only provided superb tips for the included repertoire, but illuminates effective strategies which players might equally adopt and apply in other concert repertoire of their own choosing.

A key question is whether this rich resource provides sufficient information for the adult player to work alone, without the help of a teacher. It does not claim to do so, but some adult returners may approach the course with that in mind.

Personally I believe that the three books provide an outstanding source for independent learning, but without replacing the need for a good teacher’s diagnostic expertise, support and guidance.

The Repertoire

The diversity of music selected across the three books is superb, and covers so many bases that the supporting writing is able to equally deal with a very broad range of piano playing styles, techniques and piano playing issues.

Here, then, is the full list of included pieces:


Elementary (Grades 1-2)

  • Henry Purcell: Air in D minor
  • Christian Petzold: Minuet in G
  • Henri Bertini: Andantino
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Sick Doll
  • Edward Elgar: Salut d’Amour
  • John Kember: Calypso
  • Elena Cobb: Super Duck

Late Elementary (Grades 2-3):

  • Jeremiah Clarke: King William’s March
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Allegro in B-flat major
  • Robert Schumann: Soldier’s March
  • Cornelius Gurlitt: Allegro non troppo Op.82 No.65
  • Ludvig Schytte: Study Op.108 No.25
  • Scot Joplin (arr. Spanswick): Maple Leaf Rag
  • Tim Richards: Jump Shuffle

Early Intermediate (Grades 3-4):

  • J.S. Bach: Prelude in C minor BWV999
  • Henry Lemoine: Study in F major Op.37 No.20
  • Charles Gounod: Les Pifferari (The Italian Pipers)
  • Fryderyk Chopin: Prelude in A major Op.28 No.7
  • Trad. arr. Barrie Carson Turner: The Sailor’s Hornpipe
  • John Kember: Mississippi Rag
  • Bill Readdy: Three ‘Outasight’ Mice

Intermediate (Grades 4-5)

  • Muzio Clementi: Sonatina in G major Op.36 No.2 (first movement)
  • Carl Czerny: Study in C major Op.849 No.29
  • J.F.F. Burgmüller: Ballade Op.100 No.15
  • Mozart, arr. Heumann: A Little Night Music Kv525
  • Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No.1
  • Jürgen Moser: Fried Chicken
  • Melanie Spanswick: Karma


Late Intermediate (Grades 5-6)

  • C.P.E. Bach: Solfeggietto in C minor H.220
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise WoO59
  • Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy: Song Without Words Op.30 No.3
  • Hermann Berens: Study in F major Op.88 No.18
  • Elena Cobb: Lavender Haze
  • Melanie Spanswick: Seahorse Dream

Early Advanced (Grades 6-7):

  • George Frideric Handel: Allegro from Suite in G major HWV441
  • W.A. Mozart: Allegro from Sonata in C major Kv545
  • Beethoven: Adagio Sostenuto from Sonata Op.27/2 “Moonlight”
  • Johann Baptist Cramer: Study in C major Op.50 No.1
  • Johannes Brahms: Waltz in A-flat major Op.39 No.15
  • Sven Hormuth: Sweat Feet Stomp

Advanced (Grades 7-8):

  • Franz Schubert: Impromptu in A flat major D.935 No.2
  • Stephen Heller: Warrior’s Song Op.45 No.15
  • Claude Debussy: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair L.117 No.8
  • Trad. arr. Barrie Carson Turner: Londonderry Air
  • Joaquín Turina: Fiesta Op.52 No.7

Late Advanced (Grade 8+):

  • J.S. Bach: Prelude & Fugue in C minor BWV847
  • Fryderyk Chopin: ”Raindrop” Prelude Op.28 No.15
  • Scott Joplin: The Entertainer
  • Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor Op.3 No.2


Post Grade 8 Diploma

  • Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major K. 215
  • Edvard Grieg: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op. 65 No. 6
  • Claude Debussy: La Puerta del Vino L. 223 No. 3
  • Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No.  6
  • Paul Hindemith: Interludium and Fuga Decima in D flat
  • Melanie Spanswick: Frenzy, Etude for Nimble Fingers

Associate Diploma

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor ‘Pathetique’ Op 13
  • Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major Op. 118 No. 2
  • Edward MacDowall: Wild Jagd from Virtuoso Etudes Op. 46 No. 3
  • Issac Albeniz: Asturias Leyenda Op.  47 No. 5
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12

This is a wonderfully nourishing, enriching and fascinating selection on many counts.

Firstly, the author has made a virtue of selecting contemporary pieces in popular and jazzy styles, as well as pieces equally representing Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century playing and compositional styles. And at almost all levels, there is a technical study.

Secondly, it is refreshing to welcome three of Spanswick’s own compositions here: the minimalistic Karma, more lyrical Seahorse Dream, and the dizzyingly enjoyable Frenzy: Étude for Nimble Fingers. The inclusion of two pieces by Elena Cobb is also most welcome; Lavender Haze has proved hugely popular with my students; it’s a particularly ravishing discovery!

Thirdly, for players looking for a balanced selection of appealing pieces to work on between grades, these are near perfect anthologies, with an ideal mix and juxtaposition of lesser known material and contemporary pieces alongside several of the most evergreen favourites of the traditional repertoire.


There is undoubtedly a significant and growing market of piano players returning to the instrument later in life, having learnt as children, and looking to progress their skills as adults.

Play it Again: Piano in my view exactly hits the spot for these players, and deserves to be a huge success both for Spanswick and for Schott Music.

From retracing the earliest steps in learning, right through to preparation for a professional diploma, Play it Again: Piano furnishes the adult pianist with a wealth of insight, information and inspiration. It is a genuinely useful, groundbreaking and to the best of my knowledge unique course, certainly deserving of a place in every pianist and teacher’s library.

It is abundantly clear that a huge amount of thought, work and expertise has gone into each and every element of these superb books, and it’s all paid off handsomely: Play it Again: Piano is simply one of the most brilliantly conceived and stunningly produced sheet music publications of recent years.

Writing reviews can at times necessitate an element of speculation, but this inspiring series has already passed the ultimate test: my own adult students love and are truly inspired by the first two books; the arrival of the third is welcome news indeed!


You can read the original review,  here. And you find out more, watch my videos, and purchase the series from Schott’s website, here. You can also purchase on Amazon, 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.


Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 is now available, and, as I know some readers have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, today’s post provides some information about this new publication. I’m very excited about the third book in this series. Each book has its own character and unique collection of pieces, but this one is my favourite!

As a recap, Play it again: PIANO Book 1 and 2 were both published in 2017. Play it again is a progressive and graded piano course, published by Schott Music, intended for those who are returning to piano playing after a break. However, this course has also proved popular for students wanting to explore different repertoire between exam grades too. You can find out more about Book 1, here, and Book 2, here.

The course moves happily alongside the U.K. examination board system. Book 1 takes students from Grade 1 -4 and Book 2, from approximately Grade 5 – 8 level. Book 1 features 28 mostly original pieces taken from standard (as well as more unusual) repertoire, and Book 2 contains 21 pieces. Each ‘level’ consists of a group of pieces focusing on different aspects of technique and musicianship.  For many, particularly those learning alone, the most important facet are the copious practice notes and suggestions which accompany every piece. Piano teachers who fancy an anthology of pieces to work through with their pupils may like to explore this course too.

Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Book 3 will take students on from where Book 2 left off; approximately Grade 8 level through to Associate Diploma level. The new book is much larger than Book 1 and 2 (at 156 pages), and the practice notes which accompany each piece are, as may be expected, far more extensive.

What you can expect to find in Book 3

Book 3  consists of 11 piano pieces,  the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works and those suitable for exams). Similar to Book 1 and 2, there is a ‘technique’ section at the beginning of Book 3, with practical exercises and suggestions; these are especially helpful for those with tension issues. In the ‘technique’ section I have included hand flexibility exercises, information on the Bridge position, and exercises for developing finger agility  (especially for the fourth and fifth fingers), as well as thumb exercises. The Warm-Up exercises at the end of the book focus on ways of developing a more holistic approach to pre-practice preparation.

Each piece contains between 3 and 10 pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. The layout is very similar to that of Book 1 and 2. As this is a progressive course, it’s possible to ‘return’ to a level to suit your current standard; some may want to start at the beginning of Book 3,  whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at a later stage.

Book 3 is divided into two parts:

1. Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma

2. Post Grade  8 Diploma –  Associate Diploma

As Book 3 is a much more advanced level than that of Book 1 and 2, the repertoire is classical and the book is geared towards those who want, or are possibly considering, taking post Grade 8 exams. It’s possible to create a suitable post grade 8 diploma (ARSM/DipLCM) or Associate Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, ALCM) programme entirely from this book.  The former section consists of six works, and the latter, five. Each section contains a concert study (in the same manner as Book 1 and 2), alongside a collection of standard, as well as lesser known, pieces.

I hope you like my selection! This choice was based on many factors: the need to include pieces which employ particular techniques, musicianship, and, most importantly, works which display the chosen composer’s overall style effectively, and it was imperative to represent many different styles of music. Each work also had to be enjoyable to play, and, as with most commercial publications, some works simply had to be well-known. Other more practical aspects, such as overall programming of the book and the length of the piece, also came into play.

Book 3 Repertoire

Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma:

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major K. 215
Edvard Grieg: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op. 65 No. 6
Claude Debussy: La Puerta del Vino L. 223 No. 3
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No.  6
Paul Hindemith: Interludium and Fuga Decima in D flat
Melanie Spanswick: Frenzy, Etude for Nimble Fingers

Post Grade 8 Diploma to Associate Diploma Level

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor ‘Pathetique’ Op 13
Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major Op. 118 No. 2
Edward MacDowall: Wild Jagd from Virtuoso Etudes Op. 46 No. 3
Issac Albeniz: Asturias Leyenda Op.  47 No. 5
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12


I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key, where appropriate; or I have linked it to those already featured in Book 1 and 2.  There are warm-up or pre-practice exercises, tailored to every piece. My aim was to highlight a myriad of practice ideas and different methods of breaking pieces down, hopefully re-assembling them with ease and with a greater understanding.

Each piece contains fingering, dynamic suggestions and (where necessary) some pedalling. Although you may choose to ignore this and add your own. All the information provided for every piece is transferable to an infinite number of piano works, therefore building solid practical methods for tackling different styles and genres. There are four videos online already, on Schott’s Youtube channel, and we will add another three teaching videos to this playlist very soon.

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The pages are well laid out and are designed with ‘tip circles’ and ‘technique box-outs’, and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano (see gallery above for an example of the page layouts).

Play it again: PIANO is now sold worldwide and many piano schools are using it as their course of choice for students. Schott Music and I launched Book 3 on April 4th at the Frankfurt Musikmesse (see image at the top; pictured with my editors, Robert Schäfer and Schott Editor-in-chief Rainer Mohrs, and the Cristofori Singapore team).

This year I will be travelling around the U.K. visiting various music stores giving Play it again workshops, so if you would like to find out more about the books, please keep an eye on this blog for updates about my travels. I’ll also be visiting the Far East twice for book tours, as well as Germany and Italy.

You can purchase Book 3, watch my teaching videos, and find out more about the Play it again: PIANO series, by clicking here.

Alternatively, purchase from Amazon, 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.


Basic Tips for Healthy Piano Playing

Earlier this month I presented a workshop for piano teachers at Millers Music in Cambridge. This activity will become increasingly important during 2019; Schott and I have organised several workshops across the country, and I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with teachers and students. The following article was published on Millers Music website earlier this week and it offers basic relaxation ideas, which is why I thought it useful to publish today. Hope it’s of interest.

My workshops for piano teachers offer a few ideas for developing basic flexibility in piano technique, with a view to harbouring positive habits during piano practice and piano performance. It’s a privilege to work with teachers, talking about technique, how to develop it, and more specifically, how to keep students free from pain, discomfort and tension.

The following tips serve as elementary suggestions; some can be done away from the instrument, and, as with piano practice, regularity is the key to success.

Before a practice session begins, sit at the instrument and drop your arms by your side, so that they hang loosely from the shoulders. Ensure your upper torso is really relaxed; it’s sometimes difficult to notice tension – this is why a good teacher can prove crucial. Relax from the shoulders and arms, through to the wrist and hand. The feeling should be one of looseness and ‘heaviness’. Remember this feeling, as it provides a useful reminder of relaxation during practice sessions.

From this relaxed position, swing your arms up (from the elbows), and literally rest the hands on the keyboard or a table top; it’s the ‘feeling’ that you need to cultivate, so it doesn’t matter if there’s no instrument present. Keep your upper body relaxed and loose as your hands rest on the piano keyboard. And don’t worry if you are not in the ‘correct’ playing position (your hands and wrists will probably be in a hanging position). This is not about playing, but rather about understanding the feeling of relaxation required for the concept of ‘tension and release’ necessary in developing technique. Assimilation may take time, especially in older students.

The next step is to use a simple five-finger exercise: try middle C – G with both hands in either minims (half notes) or semibreves (whole notes). Start with the thumb (in the right hand); play and hold the note (middle C) and then drop the hand and wrist afterwards. Keep hold of the note; you may need the other hand to help here, as both the thumb and fingers have a tendency to fall off the keys at first. As you drop your wrist, ensure that it feels loose; the wrist should be relaxed, and will probably be ‘hanging’ down from the key.  It’s not the position you would ever use to play, but it can provide the key to promoting flexibility, fostering relaxation. Work at each note in this way and then try with the left hand.

The final step for basic relaxation, would be to use the five-finger exercise again, but this time introduce a circular wrist motion technique. That is, using the same note pattern, but forming a circular motion with the wrist between every note whilst keeping it depressed.  They key here is to make sure that the whole arm, wrist and hand feel totally loose. If done after every note, this motion can really instigate complete flexibility, both physically and mentally, that is, students learn to remember the feeling and start to implement this into their practice regime. I encourage pupils to play to the bottom of the key bed, or play heavily and powerfully on every note, establishing a firmer touch.

These steps may take a good few weeks to master, after which we move on to little exercises (usually by Czerny, and these are followed by J S Bach’s Two-Part Inventions), implementing wrist motion techniques on extended passagework.

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.


No Words Necessary: 12 Piano Pieces

It’s been a busy year so far, with several publications nearing completion. One new volume, about which I am particularly excited, has been released this week. It marks my debut as a composer for my German publisher, Schott Music. Whilst I already write for Schott as an author, I hadn’t previously published a book of my own compositions. The new collection is called No Words Necessary and it is a selection of twelve piano pieces for intermediate level, or for students of approximately Grades 3 – 6 standard (of ABRSM, Trinity College London or London College of Music exams).

I wrote the pieces earlier this year during my stay in Hong Kong, working as an adjudicator for the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. Adjudicating is a demanding job, but I frequently enjoyed unusually long lunch breaks  of around an hour and a half in length. Adjudicating sessions often took place in splendid theatres with lovely well-tuned grand pianos, so I decided to put this time to good use. Within a few weeks I had written all twelve, albeit scribbled on manuscript paper as opposed to using my Sibelius software.

The pieces are characteristically tonal, with a nod to Minimalism. The title, No Words Necessary, was inspired by German poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856):

‘Where words leave off, music speaks’

Each work is intended to evoke thoughts, emotions or images in the mind. Many are reflective in character, with melodious tunes and poignant harmonies, but there are also more energetic, lively pieces too, for those who want to get their fingers moving. When composing for students, my aim is to write in a tuneful, expressive style, which I hope resonates with pianists of all ages, levels and abilities; these works are equally suited to younger or more mature players. Each one is comfortable to learn and rarely employs large chords or overly elaborate passagework, and they are intended as concert or festival pieces, examination pieces or simply to learn and play for pleasure.

The titles are as follows:

  • Lost in Thought
  • Inflections
  • Voices in My Head
  • Pendulum
  • Phantom Whisperer
  • Dancing Through the Daffodils
  • Walking in the Woods
  • Beneath
  • China Doll
  • Balletic
  • Tinged with Sadness
  • Spiralling

Recorded at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, and at Jaques Samuel pianos in London at the beginning of August, you can hear each piece by clicking on the links below. The book can be purchased as a hard copy or digital download (either the complete book or each piece separately), here: No Words Necessary.

My publications:

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

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




Piano teaching in Asia 2018

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):

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


Hand Flexibility: Piano Professional Article

I’ve written about hand flexibility before here on my blog, but it’s an important topic for piano students and teachers, so I thought I’d publish a more in-depth post on this subject. The following article was first published in the most recent edition of Piano Professional, which is the UK piano teachers magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). I hope you find it of interest.

Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ in our hands necessary to move easily, at the same time as retaining finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if we can’t get around a piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once our students have assimilated the feeling of freedom in their wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto the hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to come across a pupil who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an exception).

To begin with, our students need to know which part of the hand to relax. Photo 1 illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring:

Photo 1.

Photo 1 shows the palm and surrounding areas, especially around the thumb joint; these are normally fleshy and soft when not outstretched or engaged in playing; they need to stay this way as much as possible, as and when a student plays. This does present some challenges, but the main aim is to keep the hand (or the area between the wrist and knuckles) loose and relaxed.

Photo 2.

Photo 2 illustrates the muscles between the finger joints which also have a tendency to tense.

Here are a few ideas to loosen the hand, helping it to feel less restricted during practice and performance.

Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side, allowing them to swing loosely, so they can ‘float’ freely from the shoulder (arms should feel ‘heavy’ and weighty as the muscles relax). Once this has been grasped, encourage pupils to lay their hand flat on a surface (away from the piano), palm facing downwards. Slowly open the hand, determining how far it can reach in an outstretched position without feeling tense or uncomfortable at all. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, pupils should note the feeling of the hand when it is still relaxed and ‘loose’. Do this every day for just a minute or so, until it feels natural.

Now ask a pupil to play both chords in Example 1 (first with their right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with their spare hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel how the muscles in those fleshy areas of the hand, respond. They might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid each hand appears as the chords are depressed.

Example 1.

The trick is to learn to relax the hand whilst it’s playing. It’s paramount to know how our arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they generally have less musical content, allowing us to concentrate on how our upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, we will start to assume a comfortable stance whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be exacting to teach as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands. I constantly work with pupils on this aspect, and find it equally fascinating and rewarding.

A good way to begin is to play a single note (in each hand, separately). As the note is struck, notice how the muscles within the hand react; decide if they are tense or uncomfortable. If they are rigid, as the note is held by the finger, relax the surrounding hand by releasing any tension in the whole arm (students often need help here, both in terms of learning to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and also learning to hold a note in place whilst relaxing). Clenching the hand (this can be done away from the piano) and then swiftly ‘releasing’ the clench can be one way of explaining the feeling of tension and the subsequent ‘release’ of muscles. We need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as we play. It can be beneficial to keep returning to the feeling learnt when the hand was outstretched, but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this sensation time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

The following single note pattern, Example 2 (right hand, followed by the left), opens with notes a sixth apart or an interval of a sixth, moving on to an octave (the interval of a seventh could also be used too, before the octave):

Example 2.

Encourage a student to gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, with the aim of developing wrist and hand flexibility between notes; there are many ways of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist after they have played one note, and before they play the next (whilst still keeping notes depressed), allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion. This motion can be extremely useful, helping students acquire the necessary loose feeling, enabling them to determine the optimum movement needed to release their hand.

Students can check the muscles and tendons in their hand by using the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing, to make sure they feel comfortable and not tight during this exercise. If they don’t feel relaxed, ask them to gradually ‘let go’ of the muscles as they engage their hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation or releasing a tight hand. This is the most challenging part. When we learn how to ‘let go’ as we play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place, the hand starts to release its grip.

Eventually, octave intervals, such as those in Example 2 (second and fourth bar), appear more relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If we can do this with ease already, as we play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax (releasing the hand, wrist and arm), whilst still playing the notes. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape during movement.

If octaves are played slowly, we can watch and feel the hand as we ‘let go’ or relax in the fleshy area, whilst the fingers depress the keys; the flesh should change from being tense to become softer and more malleable. This type of exercise must ideally be done slowly and painlessly, with much focus on physical movement. After a period of time, it’s interesting to note how the hands adapt, and pupils will be increasingly able to cope with being outstretched and ‘open’ with no discomfort, as is required during octaves and chords.

Once octaves have been negotiated (these exercises should be done little and often, and certainly not for long periods of time), students can move onto adding chords to their ‘flexible hand repertoire’ (inserting inner notes after practising the outer parts alone first), and then working at other types of passage work, including double notes and large leaps.

Hand flexibility takes time, but a positive, valuable way to begin is to become more conscious of hand palpation and movement.

You can read the original article, here:

Hand Flexibility (Issue 46, Spring 2018, pg. 16 – 17)

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 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 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.





Presenting at a Piano Pedagogy Conference

Until last week I had only ever attended one piano pedagogy (teaching) conference, and had never participated in such an event; so it was with a spirit of adventure (as well as slight trepidation) that I ventured into the unknown. After a successful trip to the Far East over the Summer (where I gave three weeks of classes, lectures and workshops), I was invited to present at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference 2017, in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse; I’m accustomed to travelling around the world alone (having done so for years as a young pianist), and find the challenge of working in exotic places simply irresistible.

Piano pedagogy conferences appear the world over (with arguably the most well-known being held in the USA and Australia). The UK equivalent is organised by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) and is usually a three-day marathon. Most conferences offer a continuous stream of master classes, workshops, lectures, recitals and presentations given by various expert pedagogues, with the aim of inspiring teachers and students.

By all accounts, they can be somewhat dull, dry affairs (or so I’ve often heard), where groups of teachers might congregate to discuss the benefits of the five-finger position (or not, as seems to be the case these days if you read the raft of comments on the various online piano teaching forums!). Luckily, I have found students and teachers in Malaysia in particular, more open to different ideas and teaching practices. This was bourne out during my Summer trip, where learning and sharing were the order of the day everywhere I worked.

The UCSI University is often considered the number one higher education institute in Malaysia, in terms of music; its Institute of Music is very active, offering its student body recitals, master classes and prominent Malaysian teachers. Headed by Dr. P’ng Tean Hwa (who runs the department;  pictured above, closing the conference in the concert hall), the institute is thriving, with a new concert hall and music building (which had opened only the day before the conference). Assistant Professor Dr. Christine Tan and her team of organisers had paid meticulous attention to every detail, so that both presenter and participator should want for nothing. I stayed in the hotel at the campus; which, rather like the concert hall, had only opened very recently.

This was the university’s first piano pedagogy conference and it featured two action packed days (6th and 7th November). Conference attendees consisted of a mix of teachers and students. The students were primarily drawn from those studying at the university (fortuitous students indeed; I don’t remember anything of this nature being held at the Royal College of Music during my student days), and the teachers were largely local, although there were some from Indonesia and other nearby countries.

The key-note speaker, Professor Dr. Michael Campbell, gave a series of master classes and workshops, including an interesting improvisation lecture, where four students (using two pianos) experimented with ‘group’ improvisation. Dr. Campbell closed the conference with a recital which encompassed a large selection of styles and genres; from Scarlatti and Mendelssohn to Bartók and Fats Waller.

The Plenary speaker, jazz pianist Michael Veerapen, is a renowned figure in the Malaysian jazz scene. Michael gave a master class, several lectures and a jazz concert complete with band. Both speakers also took part in a pre-conference event the day before (5th November), offering further workshops on their specific specialties.

Sandwiched in between the keynote speakers were a group of presenters, including myself. Each presentation lasted 35 – 40 minutes, with a brief Q&A at the end. We spoke on an extensive selection of topics, and those I attended were fascinating. Musicologists picked subjects close to their heart, like Decoding Idiosyncratic Hairpins of Schubert, Chopin and Brahms—Dynamics or Rubato?  (given by Dr. Cheong Yew Choong) and then there were the practical workshops, which sometimes required audience participation, such as Nurturing Musical Abilities: A Creative Movement in Piano Lessons Using Dalcroze Eurhythmics Approach (given by Dr. Onpavee Nitisingkarin; pictured at the piano (above) with a keen group of conference attendees).

Austrian pianist Dr. Andreas Eggertsberger’s lecture was very informative, focusing on a much debated issue, Focal Dystonia. The talk, entitled Focal Dystonia: My Experience with the Injury, highlighted this debilitating physical problem of which many are not even aware. Focal Dystonia is, by all accounts, similar to repetitive strain injury or tendonitis. Dr. Eggertsberger carefully plotted his story, illustrating how he managed to find his way back to relative health, demonstrating  the patience and resilience required to ‘re-learn’ to play by acquiring a more secure, solid technique (technical issues are frequently the cause of physical injury).

I felt fortunate to be able to talk about my new piano course, Play it again: PIANO (it’s often deemed inappropriate to openly ‘advertise’ your own publications at conferences, but such rigid views aren’t upheld in this part of the world). My presentation (pictured to the right), entitled Developing an Effective Programme for Those Returning to Piano Playing, touched on the need for this student demographic to have a progressive, graded collection of pedagogically sound pieces, with plenty of technical help, enabling them to easily re-acquaint themselves with the instrument. My lecture was indeed popular (with around 75 in the audience; as seen in the photo below) and a fair few books were sold too.

We were treated to a splendid array of culinary delights over the two days, with a variety of tasty Malaysian dishes, all included as part of the conference. During these extended breaks, teachers and students could mingle, network and discuss the pleasures and perils of piano teaching. There was also an opportunity to purchase piano music, piano memberships and the instruments too, courtesy of a trade floor in the basement of the building.

I really enjoyed making new friends and acquaintances, and found the whole event a stimulating, worthwhile learning experience. I hope to attend many more piano pedagogy conferences in the future.

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 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition

14159810_10208827420736925_173395617_nLove them or loathe them, piano competitions are more popular than ever before and there are no shortage of entrants, irrespective of standard or ability. And subjective as they are, piano contests can fire the imagination, motivating players to reach new heights in their quest for keyboard perfection.

For a professional pianist a competition has a purpose; the winner (or winners) usually has the opportunity to advance in their career, particularly when the prize consists of many concerts and recordings. However, when a competition is for amateurs, such reasoning is less clear.

Last week I spent an immensely enjoyable and rewarding four days in the US, serving as a jury member of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, proffering the chance to fully observe a cross-section of adult amateur pianists. Presented by PianoForte Foundation, the competition (which runs once every two years) is going from strength to strength since its inception in 2010. This year fifty-five competitors from around the world competed in this well organised event.

Proceedings kicked off on Tuesday night with a ‘Meet the Judges’ session, held at the PianoForte Foundation located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. American pianist and composer Adam Neiman, Russian/American pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, and myself, were interviewed by Thomas Zoells (who founded PianoForte Foundation and is owner of PianoForte Chicago, Inc) about our careers and competition perspectives. This was followed by three and a half days spent in the balcony (with my colleagues) at the main auditorium in the Sherwood School of Music (part of Columbia College), listening to two separate competitions; a two-rounder and a three-rounder.

With a gleaming Yamaha CFX instrument at their disposal, competitors were free to present whatever programme took their fancy; all performances were live streamed. The first two days consisted of hearing fifty-five 12 minute programmes. This was followed (on the third day) by a whole of host of 15 minute recitals (with new repertoire) for the finalists (of the two-round competition) and semi-finalists (of the three-round competition). On the last half day, we heard five three-rounder finalists, who had all prepared a further 30 minutes of music. Many of the players have, by all accounts, demanding careers (including doctors, lawyers, and a whole host of musically unrelated jobs), whilst others were music or piano teachers; the work involved in such preparation by those with relatively little time on their hands, is both impressive and inspiring.


The standard varied considerably; there were those who had never played in public before and were eager to try out a few choice pieces, and then there were the competition past masters, who were visibly confident, self-assured and professional in all but name. It’s no easy task judging such a variety of standards, repertoire, and musical competence. We adjudicated as we might any competition; by choosing those who were interesting musically, had a certain technical grasp, and who literally ‘moved’ us. A strict points system was implemented (taking into account every aspect of a competitor’s performance from musicianship, technique and sound, through to how they presented themselves), and we wrote copious notes accompanying each performance with the aim of providing helpful feedback.

What was really fascinating (for me) was the selected repertoire. As to be expected, many kept to the well-trodden path; Scarlatti (Sonatas), J S Bach (Partitas, Suites, Preludes and Fugues), Mozart (Sonatas and Variations), Beethoven (Sonatas), Schubert (Impromptus and Moment Musicaux), Chopin (Ballades, Scherzi, Preludes, Nocturnes, Waltzes, Polonaises, (and for the brave) the Études), Liszt (Études and showpieces), Brahms (Op. 118, Op. 119 pieces and the Rhapsodies), Schumann (Arabeske and Intermezzi), Debussy (Images, Children’s Corner Suite, and Pour Le Piano), Ravel (Jeux d’eau and Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit)), Rachmaninoff (mainly Preludes and Études-Tableaux) and Scriabin (Preludes). And a smattering of Purcell, Rameau, Moszkowski, Scharwenka, Mompou, Granados, Ginastera, Messiaen, Fauré, Medtner, Godowsky, Prokofiev, Respighi, Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rodrigo, and Kapustin.

But there were also some less familiar names; Takashi Yoshimatsu, Kosaku Yamada, Benjamin Lees, and two Chicago based composers: Margaret Bonds and Leo Sowerby. The addition of lesser known composers and Twenty-first Century music is always a welcome change, and the Japanese pieces by Yoshimatsu resonated with me particularly. They were beautiful and atmospheric, belonging to the Minimalist style which I love.

Consistency across two or three rounds proved challenging for some, and others found the sudden catapult into the spotlight, not surprisingly, a little awkward. Probably around half performed from memory. We deliberated after each round before selecting the semi-finalists, finalists and winners, but the verdict was always unanimous.

The winners, who all won cash prizes (there were three in each round (1st, 2nd & 3rd)), and those who were awarded special prizes (for particular repertoire groups), demonstrated poise and commitment through each stage. Some had studied the piano to degree level (both undergraduate and postgraduate), with one or two attending junior and evening college division music conservatoire classes. This training was certainly evident.

Firm friendships can be formed; a shared love of the piano, classical music, and a wish to develop their playing further, sometimes instigates an intoxicating camaraderie. After the competition was over, everyone I spoke to had found it a wholly memorable, exciting and satisfying experience, and one which they were keen to repeat.

This piano festival ended with three two-hour master classes each given by Adam, Konstantin, and myself, to selected competitors.

Competitions such as this demonstrate the popularity of amateur music making. Most importantly, they provide pianists with an excuse to play to fellow musicians in front of a friendly jury, receive feedback, and hopefully, discover new music and musical companions.

The Chicago Amateur Piano Competition couldn’t have taken place without careful preparation (over a two-year period) by Thomas and Darcy Zoells, Sally Olson, Giovanna Jacques and an army of volunteers. I thank them for arranging such a wonderful four days of music making and wish them luck for 2018.

Top Image © Sally Olson. From left to right: Adam Neiman, Konstantin Soukhovetski, Noah DeGarmo (2nd prize in the three round competition), Michelle Steffers (1st prize),  David Swenson (3rd prize), myself and Thomas Zoells.

Lower Image © Melanie Spanswick: judging from the balcony!

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.


5 reasons to take a piano course


At this time of year, countless piano courses are being held all around the world. The Summer provides the perfect time for such an event; young piano students are generally on school holiday, and older students can finally use that last bit of holiday time from work. There are courses to suit every level and budget. So whether you are serious about your piano playing, or perhaps just want to enjoy some concentrated time with a group of like-minded individuals working at a much-loved past time, here are five reasons why taking a course can be useful:

You will have the opportunity to play to an expert teacher. It’s always a good idea to work with many teachers, because each one will shed new light on different aspects of your playing (many music conservatoires are now making this practice a rule, so advanced students can benefit from the teaching of several professors).

You will have the chance to meet pianists who are in the same situation as yourself, and who will possibly have similar interests. There will be time to chat, establish friendships and even piano playing partnerships.

You’ll hear and become acquainted with an assortment of repertoire, as participants will probably all play different pieces from various historical periods, providing inspiration for future practice.

One of the most important elements when attending a course, is learning from other players. As your fellow course participants take their turn to play, you can really ingest what the teacher is saying, and you can also ask them to show or help you with those particular elements too.

Piano courses are great for performance practice. It can be a challenge to play for others, but particularly in front of classmates, so such an opportunity will definitely encourage more confidence and help your overall development as a pianist.

Piano Courses don’t always take place in the Summer! They happen throughout the year. You  can read more about my forthcoming course at Jackdaws Music Education Trust, which takes place in October (23rd – 25th).

For readers based in Germany, I’m also holding a course at the IKM Gelsenkirchen (in Gelsenkirchen, near Düsseldorf) on the 3rd & 4th October (the photo above is from one of my German courses). It’s a bilingual course (in English), which runs over the weekend; consisting of a two-day workshop, which will be held at the historic IKM practice centre (which is an old  mine), on a beautiful Bechstein grand piano. The course always includes a Sunday afternoon concert for all participants. Both workshop and concert are open to the public. For more information, please send me an e-mail via the contact form on this blog.

Image: Kery Felske

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.