A New Exam Syllabus for Stringbabies

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my 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.


 

Recommended Piano Resources for November 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3In the run up to Christmas, many of us are on the lookout for gift ideas for friends, family, piano teachers, students and piano lovers everywhere. I hope this fairly substantial selection will inspire a host of piano related shopping. As usual, there’s something to interest all levels. I’ve made a few exciting composer discoveries (which is always fun); today’s list features a historical novel, a new piano method, a practice notebook, a Children’s piano concerto, and new compilations, as well as publications from our favourite publishers. Enjoy!

Beginners/Elementary

Piano Junior

ed_13801-heumann_648_This new method published by Schott Music consists of a series of books (8 books in total) and has been written by German pedagogue and composer, Hans-Günter Heumann. I was a consultant on this method, and it has been exciting to see the finished product. PJ is a robot who is the main ‘character’ (he has a friend called ‘Mozart’ the dog too!) in this tutor series for youngsters (age 6 and above). Piano Junior is designed as a ‘fun and interactive’ piano method, starting with black notes, employing innovative, user-friendly graphic notation before introducing white notes, traditional staves, clefs and time signatures. In addition to each book, there is also extra material on the website, which includes videos, audio demos and play-alongs for all the pieces, as well as downloadable rhythm checks, workouts, sight-reading exercises and other resources. Find out much more here.

My Practice Palette

my-practice-palette-coverWritten by British teacher Roberta Wolff, this book can be enjoyed in paperback or e-book version and is designed to assist students and teachers in their quest for effective practising. My Practice Palette  is essentially a notebook which aims to educate parents, teaches, and students about how to practise while eliminating the need for teachers to write practice notes. This is done by teaching practice methodology and metacognition. Roberta recommends using My Practice Palette from grades 1-5. Teachers can also work through the Practice Palette during lesson time. The benefits of this are, no extra time is required for planning, and teachers can be spontaneous yet easily keep track of a student’s progress. It’s certainly a colourful volume and would no doubt encourage those who might otherwise find practising dull. Find out more and get your copy here.

14 Easy Pieces for Piano

lane_richard_14_easy_pieces_for_piano_pno73American composer Richard Lane (1933 – 2014) has written a group of charming little pieces for those of around Grade 1 level (ABRSM). I discovered Richard’s music through the ABRSM list C pieces (for 2017/8), whilst writing the Piano Notes series (due to be published by Rhinegold in January). These works, which are published by Swiss publisher BIM Editions, are tuneful, attractive and all feature particular technical elements (important for teaching repertoire). Duets, an arrangement and original pieces all feature in this volume. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Star

9781848499249This is a new series published by the British examination board, ABRSM, for beginners (or for those up to prep test level). There are three books in the series, each containing new arrangements and original pieces written by a host of different composers and teachers, all associated with the popular British exam board. The volumes include solo pieces and duets, offer a mix of styles, plus fun extension activities and plenty of illustrations. There are 74 pieces in total, written by 20 composers including Christopher Norton, Paul Harris, Mark Tanner and Mike Cornick, and children will love the tuneful simplicity of the pieces; this is certainly useful teaching material. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate

Piano Concerto No. 1 For Children

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An interesting discovery, written in 1993 by Russian composer Ilia Chkolnik and published by BIM Editions, in their Junior Series. Piano concertos written solely for children are becoming increasingly popular, with many, particularly Russian composers, highlighting this potential gap in the market. This score has an orchestral reduction (or second piano part), and at first glance, could be mistaken for advanced level. However, it consists of idiomatic, essentially tonal writing and lasts just 11 minutes. There are three movements, two fast outer sections, and a beautiful slow movement, which reminds me of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto in F major Op. 102. Teachers looking for varied contemporary repertoire will enjoy this piece. To hear, find out more and purchase, click here.

Intermediate to Advanced

My First Chopin

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A new publication from Schott Music, compiled by German pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Ohman. This collection of 20 pieces lies well within the capabilities of the advanced player, and contains some of Chopin’s best-loved works including a group of Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. These genres are popular amongst students, and with the Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, Waltz in B minor Op. posth. 69 No. 2, Mazurka in B flat major Op. 7 No. 1, Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. posth., Funeral March (from Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35), to name a few favourites. An excellent addition to any student’s library. Find out more and purchase here.

The Piano Playlist

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A large selection of 50 popular classical pieces arranged by British arranger and editor Barrie Carson Turner, and published by Schott Music. Arrangements have always been a favourite with pianists, and this offers a comprehensive list of music across several centuries, all transcribed for intermediate up to advanced players. From opera arias (Habanera from Carmen by Bizet, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi both by Puccini), to ballet numbers, famous gems from orchestral works (Ode to Joy (Beethoven), The Swan (Saint-Saëns), Adagietto (Mahler’s 4th Symphony)), to piano concertos, instrumental music and  arrangements of piano pieces. My choice piece is When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. This is a beneficial volume for those wanting to discover some of the best-loved works in the Classical repertoire. It would also serve as excellent sight-reading material. Find out more and purchase here.

The Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist

e20016ac-d186-4c15-a350-c7c3873fd590A new publication from Faber Music. Containing 45 arrangements of best selling songs, this will please those who enjoy a wide variety of pop and easy listening music. Numbers from artists such as Adele, Cilla Black, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Rea, Michael Buble, Eagles, One Direction, Wham!, Nina Simone, Muse, Vera Lynn, David Bowie, Justin Beiber, Jamie Cullum, and Radiohead, to name a few. This is designated ‘Easy Piano’ but few elementary pianists will manage these arrangements; I would suggest intermediate level as minimum. Complete with lyrics and chord indications, this is a lovely volume, and would make a perfect stocking filler! Find out more and purchase here.

Online

Flowkey

flowkeyFlowkey is a piano learning-app geared for all levels, whether beginner or advanced. It’s also a useful music education tool for parents, teachers, and adult learners, as it’s easy to get started. A wide spectrum of music is covered, from classical music to pop songs. You can apparently practice interactively and receive instant feedback; progress can be tracked and piano lessons are also on offer, in the form of various courses. Flowkey is partnered with Yamaha, and can be easily connected to digital pianos. Find out much more here.

Books

Ghost Variations

getattachmentthumbnailThis is the latest novel by British author, writer, and critic Jessica Duchen. Whilst not strictly focused on the piano, it is a very interesting musical tale. Jessica tells the true story of Hungarian-born violinist Jelly D’Aranyi’s quest to recover Robert Schumann’s forgotten violin concerto. It’s also the story of an aging woman in a world which is becoming progressively more hostile. Jelly negotiates her way through the changing world of 1930s London. War is ever-present, and the heroine has to come to terms with her fading powers and upcoming young stars such as Yehudi Menuhin. As a woman, she faces the ultimate decision, choosing between music or love.  Find out more here and buy your copy 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.

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The Faber Music Piano Anthology

piano-anthology-023I’m extremely honoured to have been invited to compile a new anthology for leading UK music publisher, Faber Music. This hefty volume is designed to be a gift book for anyone who enjoys playing (or who fancies exploring) a large and varied collection of piano works. A luxury hardback edition featuring high-quality premium paper, page finder ribbon and ‘The Concerto’ linocut cover image by Cyril Edward Power, this book would make a great Christmas gift for that ‘difficult to buy for’ amateur pianist relative! On a lighter note, it would also morph into a wonderful coffee table book.

Piano teachers and students requiring extra or alternative repertoire (post exams!), or sight-reading material, will enjoy the broad range on offer here, and many teachers have already remarked that they intend to use the book as part of the now famous 40 Piece Challenge devised by Australian composer and writer Elissa Milne.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology provides a musical journey through the history of piano music (almost!), starting with the late-Renaissance era, finishing in the mid to late Twentieth Century. It takes pianists from elementary (around Grade 2 ABRSM level) to advanced (Grade 8), and there are 78 original pieces in total, which I selected from Faber’s large catalogue of publications (containing around 400 works).

Well-known and favourite pieces rub shoulders with less familiar works, providing an interesting and eclectic mix. Here’s the content list (although the pieces don’t appear in this order in the book):

  1. Air (Water Music) (Handel)
  2. Alla Siciliana (Guilmant)
  3. Allegro (from Sonata in C major K545 – 1st movement) (Mozart)
  4. Andante (from Sonata in G K283) (Mozart)
  5. Arabesque (Op.100 No.2)(Burgmüller)
  6. Bagatelle (Diabelli)
  7. Berceuse (Op.13 No.7) (Ilyinsky)
  8. Chanson Triste (Tchaikovsky)
  9. Come With Us! (from On An Overgrown Path)(Janáĉek)
  10. Consolation (Op.30 No.3)(Mendelssohn)
  11. Consolations (S172 No.1, Andante)(Liszt)
  12. Danse Lente (Franck)
  13. The Fall of the Leafe (Peerson)
  14. Fantasia in D minor (K397) (Mozart)
  15. Fröhlicher Landmann (The Merry Peasant)(Schumann)
  16. Für Elise (Bagatelle in A minor, Wo059) (Beethoven)
  17. Gnossienne No. 1(Satie)
  18. Gymnopédie No.1 (Satie)
  19. Gypsy Dance (Haydn)
  20. Honey Humoresque (Dett)
  21. Interlude (Franck)
  22. Invocation à Schumann (Déodat de Séverac)
  23. La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)(Debussy)
  24. La Vision (Op.63 No.1) (Alkan)
  25. L’Avalanche (Heller)
  26. Le Petit Negre (Debussy)
  27. Lento (Op.16 No.4 from 5 Preludes) (Scriabin)
  28. Les pifferari (Gounod)
  29. L’harmonie des Anges (Op.100 No.21) (Burgmüller)
  30. Little Prelude in C (BWV 939) (Bach)
  31. Malagueña de España (Albéniz)
  32. Mazurka in C (Glinka)
  33. Mélodie (Op.10 No.5 (Massenet)
  34. Melody in F (Rubenstein)
  35. Minuet in G (Bach)
  36. Minuet in C (Scarlatti)
  37. ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (No.14 in C sharp minor) (Beethoven)
  38. Nocturne (from Sonata Romantica) (Britten)
  39. Old French Song (Tchaikovsky)
  40. Passepied (Delibes)
  41. ‘Pathétique’ Sonata (Op.13 No.8 – 2nd movement) (Beethoven)
  42. Piano Sonatina in G (Beethoven)
  43. Prayer (Op.43 No.2) (Glière)
  44. Prelude in C major (Bach)
  45. Prelude from Suite No.5 in C (Z666) (Purcell)
  46. Prelude in A major (Op.28 No.7) (Chopin)
  47. Prelude in B minor (Op.28 No.6) (Chopin)
  48. Prelude in B (Op.2 No.2) (Scriabin)
  49. Prelude in E minor (Op.28 No.4) (Chopin)
  50. Prelude (Op.36 No.3) (Lyadov)
  51. Rêverie (Borodin)
  52. Romance in G (Op.52 No.4) (Hummel)
  53. Romance sans Paroles (Op.17 No.3) (Fauré)
  54. Rondo alla Turca (from Sonata No.11 K331) (Mozart)
  55. Sarabande (from Suite in D minor) (Handel)
  56. Scherzo in B flat (D.593) (Schubert)
  57. Scherzo No. 2 (from Aquarelles Op.19) (Gade)
  58. Snuffbox Waltz (Dargomyzhsky)
  59. Soldatenmarsch (Soldier’s March) (Schumann)
  60. Solfeggietto (C.P.E. Bach)
  61. Sonatina No.3 (Clementi)
  62. Song (Reinecke)
  63. Study in A flat (Heller)
  64. Study in B minor (Op.139 No.98) (Czerny)
  65. Study in C (Op.17 No.6) (Le Couppey)
  66. Study in C (Op.63 No.1) (Köhler)
  67. Study in F (Op.65 No.25) (Loeschhorn)
  68. Sweet Dreams (Tchaikovsky)
  69. To A Wild Rose (MacDowell)
  70. To Alexis (Hummel)
  71. Toccatina in C major (Op.8 No.1) (Maykapar)
  72. The Top (from Humorous Bagatelles Op.11) (Nielsen)
  73. Träumerei (from Kinderszenen Op.15) (Schumann)
  74. Two-part invention No.8 in F major (Bach)
  75. Une Larme (A Tear) (Mussorgsky)
  76. Valse (Waltz) in A minor (B.150) (Chopin)
  77. Waltz in A flat major (Op.39 No.15) (Brahms)
  78. Waltz in A minor (from Lyric Pieces Op.12 No.2) (Grieg)

‘Melanie Spanswick brings together a delicious collection of short pieces carefully chosen according to progressive level, variety and concision, but happily non-dependent on exam syllabuses. For those who need new choices for practising and sometimes feel a bit daunted by the quantity of options, and unsure of their difficulty, it helps to solve the problem in one easy package.’

Jessica Duchen, Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music Blog (recommended as one of the Top 12 Books for Music Lovers 2016)

‘Overall, this is definitely a collection to cherish! The Faber Music Piano Anthology contains a fabulous variety of great music, beautifully presented. It not only represents a rather wonderful Christmas gift, but will surely stand the test of time to become a treasured source of pleasure and piano-playing enrichment. A truely outstanding publication!’

Andrew Eales, Pianodao Blog

Released just In October 2016, you can order your copy here, as well as on Amazon worldwide.

www.fabermusic.co.uk

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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 master class with Nikolai Lugansky

This short but interesting master class given by Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was published just last month and recorded in October 2015. Whilst giving concerts with the Czech Philharmonic, this acclaimed virtuoso pianist gave a master class for piano students at the Rudolfinum in Prague. I feel there is so much to learn and savour from watching workshops such as these. The second video features Lugansky’s reading of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 36, which is one of the works studied in the master class. I hope you enjoy it!



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.

 


 

You Can Read Music; the winner

You can read musicMany thanks to all those who took part in my weekend competition to win Paul Harris’ book, You Can Read Music. I have just one book to giveaway, and the lucky winner is:

Lavinia Livingston

Congratulations! Please send your address via the contact page on my blog, and your copy will be on its way.

Watch out for next weekend’s competition, which will consist of two exciting prizes.

If you wish to purchase a copy of You Can Read Music, click here.


My publications:

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

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


 

Weekend Competition! You can read music by Paul Harris

You can read musicToday’s weekend competition offers a chance to win a copy of Paul Harris’ extremely useful guide entitled You Can Read Music. This practical little book, published by Faber Music, is part of the very popular Simultaneous Learning series, and aims to teach students to read music without an instrument.  A very beneficial publication for anyone wanting to learn from scratch or for those wanting to brush up their reading skills. The book also contains an audio CD.

I have a copy to giveaway, so please leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will announce the winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

If you wish to purchase this book, you can do so 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.


 

The New Steinway Spirio and Daily Telegraph Article

Two blog posts rolled into one today! Firstly, I was delighted to be invited to write an article for the Daily Telegraph, commenting on concert violinist Nicola Benedetti’s recent article about whether children should be made to play an instrument or not. Benedetti is a wonderful advocate for music education, and works tirelessly for the social music programme Sistema England, I nearly always agree with her hard-line (but necessary) ethos on music study, but in this case, perhaps children shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to play music or have instrumental lessons, but rather ‘motivated’ to play. See if you agree with my opinion here!

Last night, I attended an exciting landmark in the history of Steinway pianos; the unveiling of a new instrument. Held at the beautiful Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Hyde Park, London, with its breath-taking and unique modern art, providing the perfect back drop for this new venture. The first new Steinway instrument for over seventy years, the  Spirio is essentially a player piano (pictured below).

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Using the finest technology, the new instrument is controlled via an iPad (provided with the piano),  and it’s possible to play back performances. So whether you fancy recording yourself playing, or whether you want to hear a performance of a particular concert artist, this is sure to appeal to those who perhaps enjoy playing as a hobby and aspire to hear great players ‘performing’ on their instrument at home. Apparently, some concerts will be made available for purchasers to download and enjoy; namely those by Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, who will be recording his next Carnegie Hall recital using this instrument.

The Spirio is available on two models; the model O and B, and last night we savoured performances on model Bs. Once the electronic device is switched off, the splendid Steinway instrument reverts to its acoustic self.

The evening kicked off (after copious, wonderfully extravagant cocktails and canapés), with a performance by British pianist Simon Mulligan (pictured playing below), who delivered two pieces; Chopin’s Grande Waltz Brillante in E flat major Op. 18, followed by a suitably jazzy, effervescent arrangement of Fly Me To The Moon by Bart Howard. After the performance took place, Simon left the stage, and we listened to a second ‘performance’ of Fly Me To The Moon, which had been recorded and was now being played back.

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I find piano keys moving up and down on their own a bit unsettling and even creepy (always have), but this idea, whilst not a new one, will no doubt prove popular with Steinway lovers. The final flourish appeared on the big plasma screens erected behind the piano. A film of George Gershwin playing I Got Rhythm was synchronously played with the Spirio. The great composer’s ghostly (but great) performance rang out and the piano keys danced tumultuously, receiving a rapturous applause!

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Another Spirio model B, was placed in a different area of the gallery, which guests could hear whilst admiring the modern art. The Spirio is certainly a beauty. I like the fact you could ostensibly record the secondo part of a piano duet and play it back, whilst playing the primo part. This device may also be useful for singers or instrumentalists who could play back piano parts during rehearsals.

www.steinway.co.uk


My publications:

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

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

Warm-ups

A couple of days ago, I was discussing ‘warm-ups’ with a colleague. We talked for well over an hour, not all about warming up admittedly, but it is possible to chat about this subject endlessly. After all, everybody’s regime is different. If you’re just starting to learn the piano (or any instrument for that matter) you may not have even considered this area of your practice session as yet. Some musicians don’t believe in warming up before they start practising; they just launch straight into their work. However, if you are cold or stiff and your arms, wrists and hands aren’t ‘in gear’ as such, then running your hands across the keys, albeit quickly, can do wonders for your joints and muscles.

I have to admit that I haven’t always warmed-up. I’ve often (especially when I was a student) launched straight into my practice session not really thinking or using my brain at all sadly. Warm-ups can be just as essential for your mind as for your body. Many of us dash to do our daily practice and our minds are not focused. We start working and not only are we not really thinking about our fingers, but we haven’t engaged our minds either. So a short regime consisting of a few exercises can be very useful.

You don’t need to do anything complex either. Some prefer playing scales, others will charge through a few studies and there are those (like my colleague) who enjoy stretching exercises, reminiscent of Pilates, or Yoga (or simply using elements of the Alexander Technique) away from the keyboard which they find very beneficial. I have yet to employ this method although I am keen to try. I’m not a real Yoga enthusiast but I will admit to feeling very relaxed when I recently attended a Piano-Yoga session.

My own warm-ups have always been a mixture of piano exercises and movement. I start by playing diminished chords (I have no idea way I choose these particular chords but it must be something to do with their convenient shape) from the bottom to the top of the keyboard. This seems to encourage my torso to move freely from one side of the keyboard to the other, allowing my arms and wrists to start working flexibly. The shoulders also like the feeling of ‘opening-up’ too. After doing this (for a very short time incidentally), I will play a few Hanon exercises. I haven’t always been a Hanon fan at all but more recently I have found them useful if practised in a certain way, they really can help to loosen up the joints.

Here’s the opening of a typical exercise taken from The Virtuoso Pianist:

piano sheet music of The Virtuoso Pianist Part 1 (1-20)

I find it beneficial to work at these slowly and in a very focused way; using full weight from the arms behind each finger especially on the fourth and fifth fingers, building up their strength. So in the above exercise, I would concentrate specifically on the first and second note at the beginning of each bar in the left hand, making a special effort to put my weight on the fourth and fifth fingers as they appear each time. I would also play extra accents on the fourth (and probably on the fifth) finger every time in the right hand too, encouraging the fingers to work properly. The more arm weight you use then the more your finger will spring into action (it’s best to make sure your finger is really playing on its tip and your knuckles are engaged properly too), you will also produce a much fuller richer tone as well when you practice in this way. I like to add extra accents when playing these exercises, almost displacing the rhythmic pulse; this can help with coordination as well.

It’s not necessary to do many of these exercises and you don’t need to play them for very long either, maybe five or ten minutes, but I find that it’s a surprisingly helpful way to begin a practice session. What is your warm-up regime? If you don’t yet have one perhaps it’s time to introduce one in to your daily practice session.


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.


 

Perfect Piano Posture

Some of the most important elements in piano playing are acquired during the first few lessons. These elements often remain with us for life which is why it is crucial to start in the correct way. Bad habits are indeed very difficult to eradicate! It’s much better not to start at all than to do it inappropriately, because re-learning can become very problematic especially as we have already trained our brains to think and act (or play) in a certain way so changing feels  very unnatural.

How we sit at the piano can mean the difference between playing easily with freedom of movement or not, yet many pay scant attention to this vital element. When sitting at the piano for the first time, always make sure your stool is at the perfect height for you. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? However, it’s surprising how many pupils don’t adhere to this simple rule.

An adjustable stool is ideal because everyone will need to sit at a different height.  If you don’t have one, either use cushions or telephone directories to raise you up or consider cutting an inch or two off the legs of your stool if you are too high (yes I am serious, because if you sit at the wrong height you will never be comfortable at the keyboard).

The ‘perfect’ position (if there is such a thing as perfection!), is when your whole body feels relaxed and comfortable (with your shoulders down i.e. not raised) so when you rest your hands on the keyboard your forearms are roughly parallel with the floor. If they are too high you will feel as though you are literally on top of the keyboard, and conversely, too low will induce all sorts of technical problems as you struggle to find a natural hand and wrist position. It is also vital to sit up straight when you play; slouching will only encourage bad posture, possible tension problems and can create a thin, weak piano sound too.

Another tip is to sit at a suitable distance from the keyboard. If you are too close then again, you will feel on top of the keyboard and your arms will be unable to move freely and equally,  too far away will make smooth playing almost impossible. I encourage students to sit towards the front of the stool (nearest the keyboard) so they transfer some body weight to their feet (which should be flat on the floor) with ease and are then able balance firmly. This way, pedal control is easily grasped (always use the pedals with your heels positioned on the floor as you will have much more control) and the body can move freely in a sideways motion from the hips, making it possible for the arms (and hands) to run up and down the keyboard effectively and smoothly. This allows the student to cover the entire keyboard at speed with ease and makes for flexible, free playing.

If you are able to implement these suggestions, you will be on the way to playing accurately and most importantly, producing a beautiful sound.

For more information on posture see my short video-blogs below and you can also read these excellent and very interesting blog posts about how to achieve the perfect sitting position by GéNIA which appear on her Piano-Yoga blog site: Part 1 here and Part 2 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.


 

6 reasons why selecting a good piano teacher is vital

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The piano is a complex instrument to learn because there are so many aspects to think about from the beginning. A good teacher will make or break your experience but unfortunately many prospective students don’t often take the time to select a suitable tutor; many seem to sign up for lessons with the first one they stumble upon. This doesn’t bode well for successful study.

So why is it crucial to select a teacher who is well qualified and experienced? There are many who believe these facets to be totally unnecessary when teaching a musical instrument; there are also those who think music qualifications are worthless (I’ve heard this comment many times incidentally!). So here are a few reasons why it’s crucial to find someone who knows what they are doing:

1.   Many basic technical aspects of piano playing are set in stone from the first few lessons; these include basic posture at the piano, hand and finger positions, and general movement around the keyboard. If these aspects are not addressed from the outset then piano playing will eventually become uncomfortable and difficult.

2. Note reading needs to be guided correctly from the beginning too especially with regard to the left hand. Many students aren’t taught to read the Bass and Treble Clefs (right and left hand lines of music) concurrently. If both lines of music are not learnt together and one subsequently gets left behind, then this becomes a problem later on and many never learn to read the bass clef correctly as a result.

3. Basic rhythmic grasp has to be understood from the outset. The rhythmic pulse can be a taxing element for some students to comprehend. Whether a student is guided to count whilst learning to keep time or use a metronome (or both!), this is fundamental to good playing and is much easier when coached and encouraged correctly from the first few lessons.

4. The quicker a pupil learns how to play both hands at the same time the better, and a good teacher will have many different methods or ways of encouraging students to grasp this multitasking and often quite demanding element in piano playing. It needs to be done carefully and slowly from the beginning.

5. Tension can be a real problem when learning to play the piano and the higher the grade or level a student achieves, the more likely they are to have some tension problems. The wrong kind of tension kills piano playing completely making it impossible to play fast or with a proper sound, so a good teacher will address these issues early on. Hopefully they will encourage excellent hand movements and proper use of the arm to enable excellent tone production and finger movement. If this element isn’t addressed then the pupil could potentially experience pain or repetitive strain injury too.

6. Most importantly, a good teacher will not only spark a real interest and love of music, but they will also be able to incite interpretative qualities too. Interpretation (the way a work is played) is a vital aspect of piano playing and all pupils need to master how to play musically or expressively.

So here are a few fundamental reasons why you do need a good piano teacher. Patience and kindness are not enough (although they are important too!). Your teacher needs to really know the best ways to get you or your child to make good progress. Take time and select a well qualified, experienced tutor. If you don’t know what to look out for, I have dedicated two chapters to this topic in my book So You Want To Play The Piano? which has been revised and republished in a second edition by Alfred Music.

 Image courtesy of www.teachpianotoday.com


My publications:

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

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