International Women’s Day 2019: The Pianist as Composer

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to share this lovely performance of one of my piano pieces, recorded by American pianist and writer, Rhonda Rizzo. Rhonda, who lives in Wisconsin, has made several CD recordings and has just written and published her first novel, The Waco Variations (more about this publication soon on my blog). She chose to record Inflections which is featured in my latest collection, No Words Necessary, a group of twelve intermediate piano pieces intended for students.

Rhonda also writes an excellent blog, No Dead Guys (what a great title!), which focuses on living composers, and she kindly asked to interview me about my work as a composer and a writer. You can read the interview by clicking on the link below:

The Pianist as Composer: An Interview with Melanie Spanswick.

You can purchase Inflections (as a separate download) or No Words Necessary, here.

My publications:

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

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


A few thoughts on demonstration

Interviews with great pianists are always interesting (this I know first hand, after speaking to forty concert pianists in my series Classical Conversations), but one particularly fascinating interview popped into my timeline recently; Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin spoke to Frederic Gaussin about his life and work. You can read the complete interview here. Detailed, in-depth and searingly honest, Kissin reveals his love for poetry, various composers, and admiration for his teacher Anna Kantor. Amongst many comments about her teaching, Kissin makes this statement:

‘Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.’

And it got me thinking; do we rely too much on demonstration during piano lessons? Just how easy is it to verbalise all instruction? Surely, showing students is far more productive? But Mrs. Kantor makes a very valid point, of course, by demonstrating we are subconsciously influencing our pupils’ interpretations.

After writing many articles on piano playing and providing written ‘lessons’ on piano works for various magazines, I’m aware just how tricky it can be to teach via speech or written ‘speech’ at least. Finding the right expressions, phrases or words isn’t easy, and can be  quite cumbersome. Lessons provide the opportunity to really show how to do it. But then, teaching young, very gifted students (such as those who would have frequented Anna Kantor’s class) is quite different from working with those wanting to pass a few exams, play for pleasure or even take a diploma.

Nevertheless, I decided to give this concept a chance. I asked a student to  participate in  my experiment, and I  conducted a thirty minute lesson without touching the keyboard. We worked on a few scales, arpeggios, and a Grade 7 exam piece.

Teaching scales might seem easy without demonstrating, but at the start of the lesson my student wasn’t moving as flexibly as she might, and rather than show the necessary finger movement in slow motion (as I normally would) followed by the rotational hand/wrist motion needed between notes and/or groups of notes, I’m left trying to describe it, which takes twice as long (and isn’t really as effective). Testing knowledge of keys/key signatures and pin pointing fingering is simple, but we then talk about accentuation and touch, which posses a few problems for the ‘verbalist’ (i.e. me!). I end up singing where accents might be placed or at least practised, and using my voice to show how to work in various rhythms in order to strengthen fingers, especially those in the left hand.

On discussing finger staccato, I’m left demonstrating again, but in the air! Having said this, my student understands immediately, and doesn’t appear bothered by my lack of participation.

Arpeggios prove equally awkward, but I manage to show the swivel movement required for security, again, in the air, which works to a degree. One element which comes to light as a result of not touching the piano, is the importance of listening, especially with regard to coordination. We all know the benefits of listening carefully to our playing (or a student’s playing), but whilst explaining how to practice when aiming for complete unison between hands, I calmly talk the student through the usual practice techniques which, for me at least, demand more concentration than usual (it’s definitely an added challenge to describe as opposed to demonstrate). If I had been showing in the normal way (i.e. playing myself), I perhaps wouldn’t have been so attentive in terms of totally focused on my student’s efforts.

As we move on to the exam piece, technical aspects are becoming less difficult to explain (you can certainly get used to this way of teaching fairly quickly) but what is rather arduous, is to verbalise the required sound. Talking about tone, variations of tone and a rich or Cantabile sound, doesn’t seem to quite work with a Grade 7 pupil, and I’m accustomed to either illustrating wrist movement, finger motion or necessary arm-weight, or helping students with their movements whilst they play in order to change or vary the tone. Many facets of interpretation can be talked about or ‘described’ with ease, but teaching any kind of voicing, variation in texture, phrasing or colouring seems to be more effective when demonstrated.

As the lesson ended, my pupil said she had still learnt a lot via this method, but I’m not sure this is the case, especially with regard to alleviating tension, which is still best illustrated (in my opinion).

I know from my own piano lessons, that by hearing piano sonority and aspects of interpretation from my teachers, I carried their playing in my mind, and used it as a  beacon for what I was trying to achieve (this could be cited as ‘copying’, of course, but the majority of pupils do need guidance up to a certain point).

Another positive aspect of demonstration is inspiration. Talking about playing, practising and discussing interpretation can provide plenty of food for thought, but if a passage or a section of a work is played reasonably well by the teacher, this can help the student to overcome various difficulties purely by watching and observing.

I enjoyed the experiment and have complete admiration for Mrs. Kantor’s style of teaching, but I’ll be sticking to a healthy mix of demonstration and verbalization in future.

Demonstrating at a recent workshop at Yamaha Music London, with piano enthusiast, Roger Toye.

Working with Roger Toye, at a recent workshop (at Yamaha Music London).

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.

Federico Colli in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the twenty-eighth interview in my series and today my guest is Italian concert pianist Federico Colli. Federico is the most recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition held in 2012, and I chatted to him at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London.

 “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving that wonderful memorable recital in Leeds. You were a great success and a great sensation from every point of view. Your playing was magisterial and you have the flair for communicating with your audience because you have charisma.” (Dame Fanny Waterman – University of Leeds Concert Hall, April 14th 2013).

After the First Prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition 2011 (playing with the Camerata Salzburg conducted by D. Russell Davies) and the winning with Gold Medal “Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi” at The Leeds International Piano Competition 2012 (playing with the Hallé Manchester Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir M. Elder), Federico Colli embarked on a series of prestigious concerts all over the world, achieving great success from audiences and critics.

“With Federico Colli, Italy has again, after long time, a young pianist who has every chance to reconnect with the great tradition of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Maurizio Pollini… His sense for the strong contrasts, for a brilliant and resolute sound aims to the passion. His dizzying coherence in the interpretation and his focus on the changing lights are not exhausted in a virtuosic performance, but they serve to the structural explanation of the work.” (Ruhr Revierpassagen, Germany – June 12th, 2013 by W. Haussner).

His interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with Y. Temirkanov and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra was particularly appreciated in Milan, Teatro degli Arcimboldi, and in Turin, Auditorium Lingotto, for the MiTo International Festival 2013.

“With clear and shrill sound, Federico Colli not only conquers the goal- showing a technique of extreme virtuosity- but also manages to conquer a his personal reading of the demoniac Rach 3.

He reveals the nature “liberty”, decorative and insinuating of the concerto, more American than Russian, more silk than fur. Very well.” (Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy – September 15th, 2013 by C. Moreni).

Highly acclaimed have been his performances held in a German concert tour with the Klassische Philharmonie Bonn conducted by H. Beissel at the Konzerthaus in Berlin, at the Beethovensalle in Stuttgart and Bonn, at the Herkulessaal in Munich and at the Laeiszhalle in  Hamburg, at the Musikverein in Vienna, at the Nikkei Hall and at the Musashino Cultural Hall in Tokyo, at the ITAIM Theatre in Sao Paulo do Brasil, at the Sala Nezahualcoyotl in Mexico City with the Orquesta Filarmonica de la UNAM conducted by P. C. Orizio, at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, at the Amphi Saal in Dortmund for the Piano Festival Ruhr, at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford with M. Papadopoulos and the Oxford’s Symphony Orchestra, at the Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff for The Steinway International Piano Series, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg with the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra conducted by D. Botinis for The Musical Olympus Foundation International Festival. For the Chopin and his Europe International Music Festival, he also played the Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto at the Philharmonic Concert Hall in Warsaw with J. Kaspszyk and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, in a thrilling concert with Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.

Born in Brescia in 1988, he studied at the Milan Conservatory, at the Imola International Piano Academy and at the Salzburg Mozarteum under the guidance of  S. Marengoni, K. Bogino, B. Petrushansky and P. Gililov, also taking part in Masterclasses with M. Rybicki, E. Virsaladze, J. O’Conor, F. Scala, A. Lonquich and J. Soriano.

In the Concert Season 2013-2014, he is expected in a Japanese concert tour with Y. Miyagi, at the Herkulessaal in Munich for the Winderstein Konzerte Klassik Vor Acht, at the Konzerthaus in Vienna with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra conducted by J. Hattori, at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool with V. Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Salle Cortot in Paris, at the Teatro Manzoni in Bologna and at the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven.

To coincide with his debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the International Piano Series the next April 2014, it will be launched a solo CD produced by Champs Hill Records – England, with works by Beethoven, Scriabin and Mussorgsky.

Federico in action…..


And the transcript for those who prefer to read the interview:

Melanie :    Italian concert pianist, Federico Colli is the most recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012 and he also won the Salzburg Mozart Competition in 2011, so he’s now in demand all over the world and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time today to join me here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a classical conversation. Welcome.

Federico Colli:     Pleasure.

Melanie:     Lovely to be here today.

Federico Colli:     My pleasure.

Melanie:  I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started to play, what was the catalyst and whether you come from a musical family?

Federico Colli:   You know, I always say that I am, I am the black sheep of my family because my father is a doctor, a pathologist and my mummy is a biologist and at the moment she’s teaching in high school, maths and science. I have a sister now who’s 20, so she’s littler than me and she started to take part in university and she’s studying chemistry. So, nothing about art.

Melanie:    Not musical at all?

Federico Colli:    No, nothing about art. So I don’t know why.

Federico Colli:    Just for fun my daddy used to play guitar just for music, just for fun. And my mum, adored – she’s in love with opera. You know, Verdi, Bellini, typical Italian opera, you know. And my grandpa also, he started to play piano when he was young. Unfortunately with the Second World War he needed to stop because other things more important contrary to playing the piano. I don’t why but maybe if I have to think in my family, the other side, this is rational, the rationality of culture and situations of “doctor” and “mother,” we could find a little love with art, you know my grandpa and my daddy.

Federico Colli:    So but I started to play the piano just for a joke you know. I was allowed to sit down, you know.

Melanie:  You were quite small?

Federico Colli:   Yea, three, four years old. The piano was really bigger than me. But just for joke you know. I was in love to sit down in front of the keyboard and play and discover myself and the music and the keyboards. The opposite to play football or to play with games, video games, I was in love to stay in front of the piano. Just for joke you know. My parents told me, “Why not? Just try it. You know. Try to do something you like.”

Melanie:   So which teacher then do you think was crucial in your development?

Federico Colli:    I started with very, a very strong Italian lady. She was very powerful for very little children. And I studied with her until eight. You know in this way with colour notes. I printed them into the scores. A lot of games you know. After eight something changed in my life because I started to follow the lesson of Sergio Marengoni. He’s very important in Italy and he was a formal professor in Milan Conservatory and I studied with him private lessons until 16 when I did my diploma in Milan. So the formal student career finished with a diploma in Italy because we don’t have nothing after. It’s not like another country of the world where after Bachelor you can Master and after Master you can find, a consecutive exam. In Italy, it’s not like this. I don’t know now because now I’m quite away from this world because I just finished my practice, my starting time. But after the age of 16 I formally finished my formal study, you know what I mean. I am very grateful to Sergio Marengoni because with him I understood a lot of the, what is necessary to…what is the base to play piano.

Melanie:  Yes. I was going to ask you, how did you develop your technique?

Federico Colli:  Yea. And I am very different because a lot of the personality and the technique I have on the piano, Sergio Marangoni gave to me. This is crucial, you know.

Melanie:  Yes and what did you do? Did you practice studies? Or how did you develop it? What did you focus on?

Federico Colli:  We studied a lot of Bach and classical repertoire and Mozart, [and] Beethoven. And in that years, I started to think of Mozart, would be, could be one of my favourite composer. And also a little of Romantic period. Focus on Schuman, Chopin- we studied a lot of Chopin. Pieces that is necessary for a young pianist to study. Pieces that is very necessary. And we did a lot of technique together.  

Federico Colli:    We practice a lot of about Hanon, Czerny Etude and Cramer Etude. So it was crucial. I mean I stayed a lot of time in front of keyboard to study, to improve my fingers. This is bad kitchen job, but it’s necessary. And after 16, I followed the lesson of Konstantin Bogino. And I always say that after 16, I started to follow the lesson of Russian teachers – Konstantin Bogino, Boris Petrushansky, and after Leeds, Pavel Gililov, so the Russian side of my life. I always say that my character is middle Italian, middle Russian. And with Bogino, I understood that he’s a pianist of Tchaikovsky Trio. He’s teaching a lot. He’s a wonderful, really wonderful teacher and his father was a legend about teaching in Russia. His father wrote a lot of books about how to play piano. And with Bogino, I understood, really the job of a concert pianist. That it is necessary to spend your life in front of the piano.

And the best time to play in the day is from 2 a.m. until midnight. So all the time is good for play piano. And the piece of music we are going to play is not outside of us, but they have to became part of our life, part of our destiny. And this situation, I started to take part in competition and I wanted to improve myself and to see what is this world, you know, this crazy world of competition. And 16 was a life changing experience. And another life changing experience in my life was when I met Boris Petrushansky when I was 20. And fortunately Bogino and Petrushanksy are in very good relationship. They studied together in a central school of Moscow. You know, this big Russian situation. Petrushansky, I’d like to say that it is impossible for him to teach how to play the piano because you have to arrive at Petrushansky that you are able.

Melanie:  Ah yes, sure.

Federico Colli:   And if he wants he is able to give to you one idea. “This is my idea, this is my personal view of the opera. Why not, you could choose, this goes together.” But, just idea. Just idea of music. Not the way to play this idea on the piano. Just idea. And this philosophical situation in my life was extremely important. After this, a young man is able to play piano, it seems of culture and philosophical expression is important to grow up more and more.

Melanie:  You won the Leeds. What impact has this had on your career?

Federico Colli:  It was maybe the most important point in my life. You know, immediately, a lot of popularity and immediately maybe everybody knows about you and the most important that I feel now is the responsibility that I have around my neck, you know. Because it’s not easy to win a big competition. Immediately when you are on the top of the mountain, it’s difficult to reach the top of the mountain, even it’s difficult to stay at the top of the mountain. But when you could see the world from up there, you cannot compare yourself with the other pianists but you have to compare yourself with the legend of the piano.

Federico Colli:  And Dame Fanny Waterman told me just after the final Leeds competition, “Be careful. You have a lot of celebrity. Now your “enemies” are not your young colleagues but it is always Michelangeli and Richter”. A little bit impressive, but I always try to do my best. In this way I am looking to put myself and my soul in the music. This greater possibility that I have.

Melanie:  Which composers do you really love to play?

Federico Colli:    Mozart for sure. But in general all the classic repertory. I mean Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn. I discovered Schubert when I was younger. I was worried about Schubert because I consider Schubert and Brahms the most difficult composers in all the history you know. But in general when you find, not altruistic music over there you can find the most difficult music.

Melanie:  I was going to ask you. You chose to play Beethoven, Emperor Concerto in the final. Why did you select that?

Federico Colli:   You know the fact of the competition is that you have to arrive at the final with a piece that is very sure and that you’ve played a lot before, Emperor Concerto. So I was very sure on the stage and it was easy for me to believe my interpretation and I know it was very relaxing and comfortable to play with Halle and Sir Mark Elder. Fabulous musician. It was only pleasure, no stress, not at all. Only pleasure. You can find a lot from music, inside. Beethoven. Even in Rachmaninov concerto, or Prokofiev concerto. But in Beethoven you are like, naked you know, naked. If your soul is not so pure, this music is broken off, so it fell down immediately.  

Federico Colli:    So in this meaning I chose Emperor and I’m trying to focus myself in that kind of music, very deep, very philosophical with a lot of meaning inside. And I discovered Schubert for example and I played a lot, D. 142 from the last cycle of impromptus from Schubert and I tried to find my own things on this piece. And that I say to you that I am middle Italian, mid Russian- I am in love with Russia actually, with all the 20th century music – Russian, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and so on. By the way, I cannot forgotten that I am a young pianist and young pianist have to play some crucial piece of repertory…. like very big concerto Rachmaninov No. 3,Prokofiev Second, Beethoven Sonata Op. 111 and a big cycle of romantic pieces like Schuman First Sonata, Schuman Carnival, the big sonatas of Chopin. So it’s important. It’s necessary. Because I am in the moment that I have to explain and to show all my personality from all the sides of the personality from the deep joy to altruistic situations. Everything, everything. I could prefer Mozart and classical music. But at the moment it’s better that I show a lot.

Melanie:  Do you have a particular practice regime?

Federico Colli:   All the day.

Melanie:  Oh just all day?

Federico Colli:  Yes. All the day, it’s good to improve yourself in front of keyboard. I am very lucky because I am living in Brescia, in the north of Italy and my parents have, my grandparents actually, have a very big home near Garda Lake and over that I put my big piano and I am completely alone. I could practice all day, all night, Christmas Eve, Easter and then finish to practice and work in the middle of the wood, forest and near the lake and think about music that is always important you know. And spend a lot of time in front of keyboard because it is necessary because I am at the early stage of my career so my fingers, you know, they [get] strong…stronger and stronger.

But it is always necessary to improve your mind. So, go out from your study from your apartment and walk in the middle of nature and think about music and think about this very important meaning of life. Now, for example I’m practising Schumann’s Sonata No. 1, F sharp minor and the beginning, the introduction for the sonata is not difficult, not at first reading, but how many meaning you could find into this music. It is necessary only to think about what Schumann wanted to say with this piece of music and why he put an introduction before the Allegro and you have to try to find your answer to this very big question. And when you find and you believe in your answer, everything is easier. To do this, it is necessary to think and I am very happy to have this opportunity to improve myself.

Melanie: Tell us about your exciting, forthcoming projects. I know you’re playing in London fairly soon.

Federico Colli:  Really. It will be a very big debut, Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank Centre and such.

Melanie: And what date is that?

Federico Colli:  The 22nd of April for the International Piano Series. I chose a typical programme. Everything about sonatas. I started with Mozart Sonata G major K. 283 and then move to the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata for ____ and then Schumann Sonata No. 1, so that you could find the develop of sonata from the classical sonata, Beethoven sonata and Schumann – the construction of the form of sonata and all the continuities. The most important is the continuity, not the form. It will be a very big appointment, a very big engagement. Just the day before yesterday I was in Paris in and I will be in Bologna, Italy for a very big festival in Teatro Manzoni in Bologna and I will play the same recital in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And then I will be in Serbia with Rachmaninov No. 3, with the National Orchestra of Serbia. I will play for my first time in October in Kiev, Brahms’ First Concerto and then I decided because I was worried, because Brahms’ is very big music and it’s necessary to have a lot of energy and so I’m really looking forward.

Melanie:   What does playing the piano mean to you?

Federico Colli:    Life. What is…Life. Pianissimo, fortissimo, crescendi, dimuendi. These are life. In one crescendo you could find your destiny. The meaning, why, this composer put Forte here and not Piano. Why, you know. This is our life, this is our destiny. This is not a situation outside of our soul. This is our soul.

Melanie:   Thank you so much for joining me today.

Federico Colli:  Pleasure. My pleasure.

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.