PIANO WEEK at Rugby School

If you are a regular visitor to piano summer schools but haven’t yet discovered PIANO WEEK, it might be time to explore this rapidly expanding piano course and festival. With seven international residencies during 2017, you will certainly be spoilt for choice.

Established by pianist Samantha Ward, this impressive touring piano festival and summer school moves around the world. Samantha (you can watch a video with much more information about PIANO WEEK here), and her pianist husband Maciej Raginia, has designed a bespoke musical performance experience for pianists of all ages and abilities. Here, you can expect to find a five-year old beginner alongside an adult amateur, a professional concert pianist or a world-renowned artist all engaged in music making together – on stage, in public master classes, playing duets or composing.

The concept of a piano festival and summer course without boundaries, whether that be age, ability or location, has generated unique concert platforms, whilst engaging new audiences, as well as offering a confidence boost to all participating pianists.

A tempting choice of venue and country (or continent!) is on offer; Sankt Goar in Germany, Foligno in Italy, Beijing in China or any of three residencies in the UK. These include two at Moreton Hall School and one at Rugby School. The latter, which is UK’s newest addition to the festival, is being held between the 13th and 20th August 2017.

PIANO WEEK at Rugby coincides with the 450th anniversary of the school’s foundation. Based at the well equipped music school, with concerts held in the Memorial Chapel and the Temple Speech Room, this week-long residency offers participants an opportunity to study with distinguished concert pianists in a stimulating environment.

Samantha (Artistic Director) heads the piano team, and will work alongside Maciej (Creative Director), Alexander Karpeyev and Mark Nixon. Apart from daily recitals given by all the faculty members, the closing concert will feature a two piano recital; internationally celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich will perform works by Debussy and Rachmaninoff with Samantha, as well as Schubert’s final Sonata D960. It’s Stephen Kovacevich’s third consecutive year performing at the festival, which is a tribute to its cultural wealth and success.

The content of this intensive piano course consists of a long list of individual one-to-one lessons, master classes, duet lessons, listening and harmony, memorisation, composition, theory and sight-reading sessions to name but a few. All this is delivered on excellent instruments with copious practice facilities. For those keen on physical activities, there is a gym, two sports halls, tennis, hockey, netball, squash or badminton (all subject to availability), provided free of charge throughout the duration of the festival. Participants can also benefit from using the 25-meter swimming pool for a small fee.

Whether you live near the school campus or come from further afield, both non-residential and fully catered residential options are available for participants at PIANO WEEK | Rugby. You can apply for your place or buy tickets for all the concerts online. Click here for more information and here to buy tickets.

Contemporary Music Festival Repertoire

I enjoyed an interesting and fun couple of days at the Music & Drama Education Expo at Olympia in London at the end of last week. My music publisher, EVC Music Publications Ltd, hosted a vibrant and busy stand at this event, and some composers (including myself) gave several presentations, enabling us to meet and chat to teachers whose students play our music, which was a real pleasure.

elena-cobb-star-prizeA particular highlight this year for me, is the inclusion of some of my pieces in the Elena Cobb Star prize, which is available to music festivals affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals.

Music festivals are essentially mini competitions for students of the arts (whether that be music, dance or speech). The Star prize can be implemented by any festival; there is a £50 prize for the winner of the class (as well as a Star Prize badge and certificate). This prize aims to encourage students to play music by living composers and there’s a whole syllabus of pieces from which teachers and pupils can choose (for beginners up to advanced level). You can view the complete syllabus here, which includes works by all EVC Music composers.

My compositions are featured in Grade 1 (Witch Cackle from Piano Magic), Grade 2 (Fairy Dust from Piano Magic), Grade 5 (Waltz on a Sunken Ship from Piano Waves), and Grade 7 (Digression from Digressions). My book of duets, Snapchats, can also be played in the duet classes.

Snapchats have proved popular with students and teachers around the world; these 11 duets are short (8 -10 bars), succinct, and use a variety of piano techniques which may be new to pupils of this level (written for those between grades 1 – 3 (ABRSM level)). Whilst the title, Snapchats has been inspired by the social media platform, the pieces themselves have been influenced by meditation and Taoism, and are therefore rather ‘atmospheric’, creating various moods, The primo and secondo parts are of similar standard, therefore they can be played by two students, teacher and student, or parent and student, and are therefore a useful addition to any studio recital or school concert programme.

I was recently sent three performances; Shanti Shanti, Light and Sutra (all from Snapchats) played by very talented brothers Arthur and Alex Anderson, who performed them in a concert in York (UK). I hope you enjoy these recordings. Find out more about Snapchats here, and you can hear all the pieces in the set here.

From the Adjudicator’s Chair……..

This week several of my readers have contacted me asking whether I could write a blog post on the subject of what adjudicators or jury members are looking for in a competition performance (I’m always pleased to hear from anyone with blog post ideas). It’s wonderful that so many of you are preparing for amateur piano competitions all around the world. The main concern or question seemed to be ‘is the visual aspect of performance important and do adjudicators take note of how a performer looks whilst playing?’ This happens to be quite a topical question at the moment, as it has been the subject of much scrutiny in the newspapers here in the UK this week.

When judging any competition, it’s impossible to ignore an artist’s appearance completely. To do this, we would need to erect a screen and not see the musician at all, in order to only listen to the sound produced. This may be an effective option and many orchestral auditions are conducted in this fashion. Certainly it’s a more impartial way of listening to classical artists, but are we not missing the point by doing this? It is definitely easier to focus on the sound produced without looking at musicians, but isn’t the whole purpose of a performance just that? The sound and the visual? Otherwise why not listen to a recording as opposed to attending a live concert?

It may, on the face of it, appear to be advantageous only to more attractive performers, but a proportion (albeit small) of a performer’s ability to convey a piece of music successfully does, in fact, come from the whole package; watching every arm, hand or finger movement and enjoying the spectacle or mystic some performer’s definitely create whilst on stage. This shouldn’t be confused however, with their sexual allure (it all seems to boil down to this doesn’t it? After all, sex sells). Many fantastic musicians bring a theatrical quality to their performances which would certainly be lost if we only ‘heard’ them and this particular characteristic is significant in a live concert. It contributes to the atmosphere of a recital. Of course, many will disagree here and will wager that the ‘sound’ is the most crucial factor, but whether we enjoy the ‘theatrics’ of a performance or not, this argument has virtually nothing to do with an artist being attractive which is a different type of ‘adulation’ completely, and one which sadly appears to be more and more commonplace in the world of classical music.

Many adjudicators and jury members probably do take note of the visual aspect of a competitor’s performance. They would be inhuman if they didn’t do this. I can only speak for myself, but, when adjudicating, I’m usually quite pre-occupied with writing reports so spend little time actually looking at competitors; I prefer to listen as I write.

I do make a point of watching pianists at the beginning of their recital. It’s good to make eye contact and give, young pianists particularly, confidence, but it’s especially interesting to note how pianists approach the instrument. Whilst examining, I could always tell if a candidate was going to give a distinction worthy performance or not, by the way they merely walked into the room. It’s all a matter of confidence. Generally, features such as posture, poise and a convincing opening are crucial and all make a good impression. The opening of a performance does tend to ‘set the scene’ for what’s to come, so young and amateur pianists should perhaps bear this in mind. It’s just as important as the big finish! Concentration, intensity and a good sound are also vital attributes in my opinion. A pianist who is totally engrossed in the music is a joy to behold.

Facial expressions are another moot point. Are they necessary? Some think they enhance but others find them atrocious. It doesn’t bother me specifically, and it usually doesn’t detract from a performance either. On the contrary, sometimes it can enhance if done in a convincing way, but as with anything, exaggerated, outrageous facial expressions do disturb and may result in a second place.

Most adjudicators or jury members are hoping for the same outcome; an accurate performance with plenty of colour, variety, adherence to the score and awareness of style, as well as a captivating quality that ‘screams’ first place. Competitions aren’t for the faint-hearted, but they do instil confidence and can improve your playing, so good luck to you all.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.


Photo courtesy of www.poland.travel.en

Appreciating Your Piano Teacher!

I had a wonderful time last weekend adjudicating piano classes for the Leamington Spa Music Festival.  I have written about music festivals before on my blog explaining the format and concept.  For the competitors, they are both great fun and instructive; allowing the (generally) young performers to enjoy their music making in a supportive atmosphere as well as receiving constructive criticisms about their playing.  During the classes there were three or four piano teachers who were perpetually around; listening to their students, encouraging them and playing duets with them (particularly during the very popular teacher and pupil duet classes). It was inspiring to observe the effort and care they lavished on their pupils and it made me realize yet again, the importance of selecting the right piano teacher from the outset.

I have spoken many times about the influence a piano teacher can have on a student. They are the single most important factor in a piano student’s success or failure. A pupil will see their teacher every week, be guided by them musically and often emotionally too, which is quite a responsibility, so any teacher must be really up to the job otherwise very little will be achieved. They are essentially a coach, a motivator and a friend.

When selecting a teacher always check them out first. You can probably find their details online via their website. There are several elements to bear in mind. The first is a teacher’s résumé. What have they done? Where have they studied? What have they achieved? This might seem irrelevant and many argue a good teacher doesn’t need to have been a performer or have studied anywhere, but I don’t subscribe to this belief. Your prospective teacher should ideally have been formally trained at a good music conservatoire or university. Teachers are more effective when they have performed and know how it feels; a teacher who has played in public will know how to prepare pupils for the difficulties they face when taking a music exam or playing at a festival. They will also know the standards required to pass exams too.

Check out a teacher’s qualifications. Do they have the relevant performing and teaching diplomas? They do count and they demonstrate that a teacher has been trained to a level sufficient for them to coach way beyond Grade 8 (the final amateur exam offered by music exam boards).  In my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, I list the relevant qualifications required for a piano teacher. When I say ‘required’ there are actually no qualifications required to be a teacher and therein lies the problem. It’s a completely unregulated profession and many teachers are not qualified at all, which means you need to be extra careful when selecting your tutor.

A good teacher will also have plenty of experience and hopefully a track record. They will be kind yet fairly strict and will have endless patience. Make sure you have a trial lesson with your new teacher and always meet them before commencing lessons. A good teacher will be able to teach piano technique properly, they will be adept at explaining all aspects of piano playing and learning from the beginning (and they won’t mind explaining it all a hundred times either!), they will instil a love of music in every student and will encourage pupils to think for themselves too.

They should be able to be flexible enough to devise many ways of helping students depending on the pupil’s ability and also introduce diverse styles of piano music; from classical to pop.  Music theory should not be neglected and it’s a good idea to work at this from the start. A good piano teacher will also arrange concerts for their students, enter them for festivals or perhaps arrange other musical trips and outings too. And they will always  be able to boost and inspire a student’s spirit.

It’s a tough job being a piano teacher isn’t it? I do hope those who have found the ideal teacher really are thankful and acknowledge their skills. There are many superb piano teachers working all over the world, something that is very evident when I adjudicate at festivals. They all do a wonderful job, let’s applaud each and every one. The teachers at the Leamington Spa festival were shinning examples, and I do hope they are appreciated too. A good piano teacher will work for hours helping a pupil to grasp the many complexities of playing the piano and they are worth their weight in gold, so do take time selecting someone suitable.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.

Photo courtesy of www.pianoorgandepot.com

Music Festivals – A platform for your child

I spent a few hours listening to vocal classes at the Chesham Arts Festival this evening. As I live a stone’s throw from The Elgiva Theatre it seemed a good idea to support my local festival. I thoroughly enjoyed it and all the young singers (mostly girls) gave their best, some producing admirable performances. Sadly though, there were about twenty people in the audience (most of them competitors).

Music Festivals are an ideal platform for young musicians to learn their trade. There are hundreds around the UK – so there is bound to be one near you. If you have a child who is preparing to take a music exam then a music festival is the best place for them to get used to giving a performance in public. Performing is a stressful business and everyone who does it needs practice especially when they are just starting out.

If you enter your child for a festival, they will usually be placed in a class of similar age and ability (you can choose which class on the entry form). All competitors will be invited to perform their piece or pieces to a small audience and an adjudicator. At the end of the class, after everyone has played, the adjudicator will give comments and feedback on every performance and then announce a winner. The atmosphere at these events is both friendly and relaxed, quite different from an examination.

The old adage is true here; it really isn’t the winning, its the taking part that counts. The one major benefit of performing in public is to build confidence. The more confidence a person has the better they will act under pressure. Learning to perform really is a useful tool for so many situations in life. Its the reason why I feel that every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument (more on this subject in future blogs!).

If you wish to investigate Music Festivals as a possible activity for you (if you are learning an instrument – there are many adult classes too!) or your child, here are a few suggestions:

Make sure your child really knows the piece they are going to perform (its a good idea to get them to play it through to a few relatives first before the big day). If a competitor is unprepared it could knock their confidence and stop them trying to play in public ever again. Preparation is the key to success.

Make sure your child has plenty of family support on the day (its a good idea to watch the whole event).

Always give your child plenty of praise afterwards – you have no idea how difficult it is to get up and perform in public.

You can get lots of information about Music Festivals all over the UK (and abroad) from the following website:


Some competitors in Scotland:

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and useful information, here.