The 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival

Returning from my latest trip to Asia this week, I reflected on another thoroughly enjoyable sojourn to my favourite part of the world. I visited Asia twice last year and have a further trip planned later in 2018.

There are so many wonderful facets to my visit that it can be hard to put into words.  Three spring to mind;  kindness, respect and commitment. When it comes to music and the arts, this part of the world must surely lead the way in the Twenty-first century. A voracious capacity to learn, digest, and comprehend, students are attentive and highly motivated, whether they be teachers or pupils. Suffice to say that it’s a way of thinking which completely resonates with my beliefs and my teaching.

During the first three and a half weeks of the trip I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association as an adjudicator (I then gave a series of workshops and master classes for Schott Music). This year marked the 70th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and therefore many celebrations ensued, not least a bevy of dinners, presentations, gifts, and general merriment. I worked for the Hong Kong Schools Music Association in 2013, doing exactly the same job, so I knew what to expect and was aware of just how gruelling it can be; it’s a baptism of fire for first time adjudicators.

For readers wondering about the job of an adjudicator, it is essentially competition judging. I am an adjudicator affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals in the UK; an organisation to which adjudicators are connected (after a selection process), and where music festivals (there are over 350 in the UK) can approach adjudicators to ‘judge’ their music festivals. We listen to groups of students through various classes, write our comments on mark forms, offer marks to participants, and finally, select a winner of each class. In the UK, these  festivals are fairly understated affairs lasting up to a few days featuring small instrumental classes, both competitive and non-competitive.

However, in Hong Kong, this job is on a completely different scale; classes of fifty instrumentalists lasting for three hours are the norm. Adjudicators will listen to selected pieces, usually three or four set works per exam grade; the festival runs in tandem to the UK graded examination system, plus diploma classes, and we might hear the same class (or set work) five or six times over the course of the festival. I heard a particular Grade 4 class ten times; let’s just say I know William Gillock’s Carnival in Rio rather well! The ability to think and write quickly is of essence; therefore as the student starts to play, one must start writing, and finish writing and marking as the student gets up to bow at the end. When adjudicating short grade one or two pieces, there really isn’t time for more than three or four sentences.

Students tend to make the same errors during the course of a piece, so the challenge becomes how to write eloquently yet with a different inflection for every performance. A divergent selection of classes were on offer to all adjudicators; most days I adjudicated two three hour classes and we worked six days per week, occasionally there were three sessions per day (nine hours of adjudicating), and I heard a large collection of piano music generally taken from standard repertoire. But there were a few Contemporary choices too, and some glorious Chinese works by previously unknown (to me) composers.

I particularly enjoyed the diploma classes; Debussy’s Préludes were on offer here, (for the Debussy celebrations this year; it’s 100 years since the composer’s death in 1918) with a wide-ranging group selected from both books.  Participants could choose two contrasting Préludes for their performance. The Grade 8 classes were also fun; I relished the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1 in E flat major.

For me, the most memorable class was the Junior Scholarship Final held on a Saturday afternoon at the Tom Lee Academy Hall. Three adjudicators worked together for this final, and we heard five outstanding young pianists (aged around 11 – 13 years). Two set works were followed by a piece of the competitor’s choice with each programme lasting around 15 minutes. Exciting and beautifully committed playing emanated from these talented young players, and it was a treat to hear and judge them (I know my colleagues both felt the same too). The winners, placed first, second and third, were awarded trophies (as pictured above) and prize money.

Rules and regulations abound in Hong Kong, and adjudicators and competitors must adhere to strict criteria; there was a whole manual of do’s and don’ts. One, perhaps surprising, rule for all those playing in the piano solo classes, was memorisation. Students had to play their pieces from memory. Some do struggle with this element, but on the whole I found it a remarkable achievement. Whether you agree with memorisation or not, the fact remains that it affords students a much deeper understanding of a piece, and offers a taste of how it feels to be a professional i.e. in an exposed situation, alone on a stage without the score.  I also adjudicated at several duet classes, which were engaging and, again, Debussy was on the menu, alongside a few other favourites. Several competitors chose to play these classes from memory too.

I stayed in a lovely hotel in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, and was fortunate to be treated exceptionally well; for the majority of sessions, adjudicators are chauffeured to venues (although going on the MTR, or underground, to a venue was always an adventure), and we worked alongside a whole team of professionals from the Association.

A fond memory was judging my only non-piano (and non-competitive) class of the festival in Ho Man Tin on Kowloon; a group of special needs students prepared traditional and world music in small ensembles and choirs. Their obvious love for music and desire to communicate was infectious and moving. I concluded that you haven’t lived unless you’ve heard Frere Jacques sung in Chinese!

Some facts and figures: during the 2018 festival, over 131,000 competitors performed. There were fifty-one adjudicators on the Adjudicating Panel (coming from all over the world), working in over fifty venues throughout Hong Kong.

I adjudicated a total of 1549 students over 39 classes during the three and a half week period, and the venues were usually small theatres such as those pictured above. And I met some fascinating new friends. I want to say a huge thank you to all my assistants who made each day a pleasure, and to my fellow adjudicators, who have not only inspired me to be better at the job, but have also become friends.

Whilst this job is hard work, the rewards are immense; staying in a vibrant city with fellow musicians can be a welcome change to working alone  (as many freelancers do) in the UK. I enjoyed the warmer climate, the chance to sample Chinese and Asian cuisine,  several concerts at the Hong Kong Performing Academy of Arts (opposite my hotel!), and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. I loved taking copious Star Ferry trips across the water to Kowloon, offering simply the best view of the city.

Many say that children are forced to play an instrument in the Far East and that may be true (but then I was forced to study maths at school, a subject which I loathed). Maybe these young pupils don’t love practising, playing or performing at all, and they might choose never to play again when they are finally allowed to quit. But, every classical concert I attended was full, (and I went to a variety of professional recitals during the course of the trip) and, contrary to the UK, where classical concerts often suffer sparse audience attendance (and are usually frequented by older people), in Hong Kong the whole family go together, and I witnessed scores of children and young people all enjoying classical music. Surely this is the reason we encourage children to learn about music? So they can enjoy it in all its forms and learn to appreciate live performance. I can’t wait to return to Hong Kong soon.

Hong Kong Schools Music Association


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

 

 

 

Why take part in an Amateur Competition? Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Lower Image © Melanie Spanswick: judging from the balcony!


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

10 Top Recommended Piano Resources for July 2016

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Summer is upon us and this month’s selection of piano resources features a new online method, an exam syllabus, a useful App, and a new edition of an educational masterpiece. Hope you find them helpful.


Beginners and Elementary

Interactive Piano Method®

13575745_1648752375446722_3149223656312773678_oAmerican teacher, composer and arranger Carol Matz, has written an Interactive Piano Method®. It is a new and unique method which includes Lesson Books with directly corresponding online materials. Students can access the online activities on their own and get instant feedback on their answers. Each level includes a Lesson Book, Online Activities, PDF Downloads (Performance Pieces, Activity Sheets, Sight-Reading, etc.), as well as MP3 teacher duet accompaniments. The Lesson Book is also provided as a downloadable PDF which can be printed and/or used on a tablet (such as an iPad, etc.). The online activities can all be done on a computer or tablet and include ear training, theory, virtual flashcards, note spelling, and more. For a limited time, teachers can submit a request for a free level here, and you can find out more here.

Video Lessons from Hal Leonard

indexThe Hal Leonard video lessons are intended to complement the Hal Leonard student piano library. They are free and introduce pupils and teachers to the All-in-one piano lessons book. American Author Barbara Kreader (one of four authors who co-wrote this series of books) presents each video, often working with one of her students. There are twelve videos in this mini series, lasting around 5 minutes each. They are correlated to specific pages and pieces within the first book and will no doubt be very beneficial to all those who use or are considering using this method. Watch here.

Technical Exercises and Rote Pieces

Tech-Rote-Book-Cover-1024x796The Technical Exercises & Rote Pieces book, published as part of the Piano Safari method series written by Katherine Fisher and Dr. Julie Knerr, is designed to supplement any standard piano method. It contains pattern-based pieces and exercises designed to be taught by rote. Students are encouraged to regularly listen to the audio recording of each piece as they work through the book. As a result, their ears will already be accustomed to the style, articulation, tempo, phrasing, and dynamics necessary for musical performance. The audio recording is available as a CD or Digital Download. Find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate Level

Rock & Pop Studies

RockThis volume includes 80 progressive piano studies and exercises for all those interested in learning to play rock and pop. Published by Faber, and written by British authors Lucy Holliday and Oliver Weeks, each study within this book focuses on particular styles, exploring the various technical elements associated with them; syncopation, varying bass lines, gospel chord progressions, classic rock arpeggios, and twelve-bar blues are all featured. The styles covered include Motown, metal, the blues, soul, funk, ska, reggae, disco, country, indie, dance, classic rock, and synth pop. There are practice tips for every exercise with many suggested further listening ideas too. This publication would suit a pianist approaching intermediate level (Grade 4-5). Find out much more here.

Sheets Zwei

005007d2-62b1-473e-9821-88c5c341d756Sheets Zwei is the second in a series of bespoke art music books by the German composer and performer, Nils Frahm, published just this week by Manners McDade. Featured artwork, by his father Klaus Frahm, comes from a series of photographs of barns, abandoned buildings and other rural artifacts taken in Portugal during Nils’ childhood. Containing ten of Nils’ piano works, the volume also includes some simple ideas to transform any piano into a Una Corda (similar to a prepared piano), the piano commissioned by Nils from master piano builder, David Klavins. An easy listening, Minimalist style which is sure to appeal intermediate level players everywhere. Find out much more here.

From Elementary to Advanced

ABRSM New Piano Syllabus

Piano Exam Pieces 2017 & 2018, non-CD editionThe ABSRM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), the British music examination board, have just published their new piano exam syllabus for 2017-2018. Released just this weekend, the books (8 in all) each contain a selection of nine pieces from Grades 1 to 7 and 12 pieces at Grade 8, covering lists A, B & C. Meticulously edited and presented, these volumes comprise a rich and very varied repertoire from which to create an interesting, diverse programme for an exam or concert. Each volume includes helpful footnotes and syllabus information, and can be purchased as a book only or a book & CD package. The recordings are also available as downloads here.  Even if you’re not planning to take an ABRSM piano exam, the selected repertoire can be a great way to get to know new repertoire. Find out more here.

Mikrokosmos

ut50411.141030As a committed Bartók lover, I’m a huge fan of this wonderful pedagogical masterpiece which has just been republished in a new edition. Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is available in three volumes published by Wiener Urtext. Together these volumes cover all the ABRSM graded levels (from grade 1 to grade 8) and this makes them indispensable for piano students. They give an all rounded technique for players of virtually any standard. They also contain several additional pieces published for the first time, and include useful notes on study and interpretation, with a glossary of expression markings in several languages. For further information and a video please click here.

Online

Newzik

GetAttachmentThumbnailNewzik is a universal sheet music reader app available for the iPad & iPhone.  It allows musicians to manage, read and annotate all musical scores with ease. All the sheets, tabs, chords, audio & midi files or videos can be accumulated, stored and organized in a single tablet. You can turn pages automatically with a hands free Bluetooth foot pedal too. For more information click here. Watch the demo video here, or try it for free here.

Festivals

Around the Globe Piano Music Festival

GlobeAround the Globe Piano Festival is a competitive festival held in London in November 2016, aspiring to promote worldwide classical and contemporary music. The aim is to encourage students of all ages to learn new repertoire in various styles including contemporary and jazz music. Selected works include a wide range of piano music from around the world, much of which is not regularly performed, contributing to our multicultural British society. To obtain a brochure, enter the festival and find out more, click here.

Competitions

NTD International piano competition

10557537_306949402817928_459061284752850702_oFor piano competition lovers, the 4th NTD International Piano Competition will be taking place from Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2016 in New York. The Competition will consist of one qualification round and three live competition rounds: Preliminary, Semifinal, and Final. Pianists aged between 16 to 48 are encouraged to apply. Gold, Silver, and Bronze prize winners (maximum prize $10,000) will also receive professional recording and concert opportunities. The event will be broadcast on television and online, hosted by New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television. You can apply Online by July 31, 2016. Find out more here, or e-mail for more information here: piano@globalcompetitions.org


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

So You Want To Organize A Piano Competition? Part II

Amateur pianist and competition planner, Sally Olson, lives in Chicago (US) and is on the committee of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016. This competition, which began in 2010, is steadily growing in popularity, with entrants hailing from many countries (the 2014 winner came from Glasgow).

Few realise the tremendous amount of planning, fund-raising and marketing behind such an enterprise. Last year Sally wrote her first post for my blog about the competition (you can read it here), and in today’s post, she discusses the marketing campaign. Over to Sally…


Comp 1

Marketing your competition.

In September 2015 I wrote about the necessary first steps when planning a piano competition.  I fully anticipated that I would write Part II a couple of months later, but this didn’t quite run to plan.

So what happened?  After the venue was set and the judges selected, we focused on a marketing plan to attract competitors.  It consisted of placing advertisements in music or piano based magazines, diligently posting information on our Facebook page, and writing blogs on our website.  What I didn’t expect was those wanting to apply for our competition would not do so for months.  By February we had about 12 applicants and we needed 60!  With this level of interest, would there be a competition at all?  People were most definitely noticing us because our website averaged 100 hits per day.  With that in mind, we kept our fingers crossed, and moved on to planning an “Event Calendar” which was designed to create interest and anticipation for those considering applying; these attractions, which are essentially a mixture of festival and competition events, certainly caused a buzz.

When May 1st arrived (our deadline for applications) we were inundated with over 70 applicants, and by this time, had also achieved 1,413 hits on our website!  Much to our surprise, the two-round competition (intended for 20 competitors) had as many applications as the three-round.  So we expanded the two-round event to accommodate 29 competitors.

The advertising campaign had been a great success, with two out of three applications coming from pianists who had never previously attended the competition.

Statistics about our competitors:

  1. We attracted people from 9 countries (Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Russia, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Canada and USA)
  2. We have an almost equal number of men and women competing
  3. Those competing have already competed in over 150 other competitions – so they are a very talented and seasoned group of competitors.
  4. Over ½ of the applicants requested master classes.

Our conclusions at the end of the marketing campaign? Both printed publications and social networking (including a website) have proved crucial. The organisation of other ‘extra’ events has also helped to cultivate greater interest, readership and create a following too.


In her next article, Sally focuses on the planning of extra events and customer relations. You can find out lots more about the competition, which takes place at the end of August, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Judging the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016

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I’m delighted to announce that  I will be a judge at the 2016 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition. It’s an international competition which will be live streamed in August from the 24th – 27th, 2016.  I’m one of three judges; my colleagues are Russian pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski (in the middle on the image below), and American pianist Adam Neiman, (on the right, below) who is from Chicago.

This competition has already been featured on my blog earlier this year, when committee member Sally Olson wrote a post about her involvement (which you can read here). In addition to judging the competition, each judge will also be giving master classes afterwards, which should be a lot of fun.

Four days of total immersion in the piano world, an opportunity to meet like-minded souls, and a chance to enjoy the sights of Chicago – the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition promises to be a wonderful experience, so if you’re looking to enter a competition next year, then do consider this one. There is also a registration fee discount if you apply before 1 January 2016. Hope to see you there!

You can find out much more about the competition and entry procedure here:
3 Judges


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


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.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


Piano Competitions – how important are they?

The debate about whether piano competitions are still important continues. It’s an age old topic and now a pianist who is herself preparing for a competition speaks out. Aura Go has written an excellent article for an online classical music and arts website called Limelight. You can read her article here. She writes her musings to the backdrop of the Sydney International Piano Competition and highlights the limitations which competitions impose upon young pianists including strict and often mundane repertoire critieria and limited exposure afterwards.

Aura Go remarks:

‘The world is teeming with brilliant, impeccably-equipped pianists hungry for concert careers, many of whom make it something of a full-time profession to jet from one international competition to the next in search of that “big win” which will kick-start their international careers. But it is becoming a well-known fact that even the most prestigious win today does not have the same outcome that was ensured even just a couple of decades ago’.

Quite. I couldn’t agree more. It has been many years since a competition win will really do much to help a pianist’s career. It seems an almost outdated way of ‘getting noticed’ now especially with the rise of social media which encourages artists to attend to their own publicity. Bartok famously remarked ‘competitions are for horses, not artists’ and this isn’t far off the mark. However they do ensure technical competance from their participants and exhibit some benefits.

Participation encourages the artist to develop a larger repertoire, as Go points out, and because the preparation for a competition is a mamouth task, they generally make a pianist a better musician. Coping with the added stress of performing under such conditions is an endurance test in itself too. The lucky few will receive some exposure and engagements although these benefits rarely seem to last beyond a year or two.

Aura Go also points to the limitations set by both the time constraints (the first few rounds usually require a maximum of 20 minutes playing time) and repertoire rules. She argues that this really does stiffle artistry and creativity because the competitior is virtually ‘told’ what to play or certainly which style is expected.

So is this relevant anymore? When we go to hear a pianist do we care if they have won an important competition? Or is it just another impressive addition to their already extensive biography. Competitions do seem to attract those who excel in technical fireworks and who champion the romantic, virtuosic works. Introspective and possibily more interesting players will often fall under a competition radar. So perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere when building a career as a pianist and use competitions as merely a way of building repertoire and endurance. What do you think?

Here is Nikolay Khozyainov who won first prize in the International Dublin Piano Competition earlier this year……..


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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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