Stars of the Albion Grand Prix 2019

March is one of the busiest months for music adjudicators or music judges. Many British music festivals, and particularly those affiliated to the Federation of Festivals, take place during this time, and therefore adjudicators are buzzing around from one to the next, hearing large quantities of young (and older) players. During this past week I’ve been adjudicating in Bedford, at the Bedfordshire Music Festival (U.K.), and this week I will be in Somerset for the week, enjoying a feast of music at the Highbridge Music Festival, near Bristol.

As an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF), I get to hear a vast number of young and more mature performers. I normally adjudicate the piano classes, but as a generalist adjudicator, it’s not unusual to judge some instrumental classes too. Increasingly, I’m invited to judge competitive festivals which are not affiliated to BIFF. Last Saturday was one such occasion.

The Stars of the Albion Grand Prix is a popular competition organised by founder and executive producer Evgenia Terentieva (pictured to the left). It’s been a great pleasure to be involved with this event for four of its six-year history.

Stars of the Albion is an international performing arts festival & competition. Held annually, it seeks to join talented musicians, dancers, actors and artists from across the world, forming a unique bridge connecting different cultures and in particular, that of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.

The project is organised and promoted by Musica Nova, an International Academy of Music based in London, and a bilingual establishment combining the best of British and Russian teaching principles. It is held under the Patronage of the World Association of Performing Arts (WAPA) and is supported by the Mission of Rossotrudnichestvo Russian Culture Centre in London.

This year’s competition was held from March 1st – 3rd 2019, and it consisted of two rounds; the first was a private video recorded round, and the second was open to the public and held in several venues across London. The final Gala concert took place at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in central London. This year, Stars of the Albion hosted participants from the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Israel, Malta, France, Spain, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Participation is open to artists from six years old, with no age limit, and is divided between five age categories with two participation options; amateur or professional. All styles and genres can be presented for the competition programme. This year the event was held during one of the major Russian traditional festivals called “Maslenitsa”. There were cash prizes for the best performance of music by a Russian composer and for the best vocal performance in Russian language. The adjudication panel comprised a variety of international judges, all known in their field.

I chaired the instrumental jury which was held at Peregrine’s Pianos, situated in Gray’s Inn Road. We totalled four judges; alongside me (from left to right in the photo above) were Rebeka Molly De Gama (U.K.), Snezhana Polshronova Karnolsky (Bulgaria), and Constance An Chi Hsieh (China).  The photo below is a ‘flashback’, or a happy memory of the first time I was on the jury panel at this competition.

Performers were either pianists or violinists, and the categories were all age related. Many of the performances were superb and the overall standard was extremely high.

The selected repertoire, generally a free choice, was mostly standard fare. Whilst it’s always lovely to hear old favourites, for future competitions, I would encourage young players to explore more Contemporary repertoire. Some performers were clearly just beginning their musical journey, and whilst extremely competent and confident, were still in the process of learning to perform, and others were already well established young players; there was also a category for adult amateur musicians too. The overall class winners performed at the final Gala concert.

I really enjoyed working with several jury members because I appreciated the feedback from fellow adjudicators. Whilst we tended to agree on who should win, it’s useful to gain insight into a fellow musician’s thoughts regarding certain aspects of playing and performing. And as I often adjudicate alone, it’s a real pleasure to work closely with others in this respect.

Stars of the Albion Grand Prix provides an important opportunity for young musicians and artists from across the world. All those who took part did so because they valued the chance to be heard and evaluated by a professional jury. Over the past few years, Evgenia Terentieva has organised and developed one of the most vibrant and artistically satisfying competitive events in London for emerging artists, and long may this continue.

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.


Intervals – training or teaching?

In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…

It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.

Those which just work

The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!

At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.

Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student

There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.

Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.

Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.

Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]

Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?

And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.

Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?

Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.

Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.

Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.

In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.

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.