A String of Pearls, the female composer and a special competition

Image: Pianist Magazine

It’s always a happy experience when one’s work is published, irrespective of the publication or publisher. But this new volume (pictured to the left) is a really exciting one for me.

In 2017, pianists and teachers Alla Levit and Antonina Lax invited me to write a piano duet for one of their forthcoming UK tours. Alla (who is Russian) and Antonina (from Bulgaria) are the Darina Piano Duo. They had previously enjoyed using my four- and six- hand music (Snapchats Duets & Trios) with their students, and both had commented on the fact that these short pieces were like little ‘jewels’. This observation provided the catalyst for the title of their new piece, A String of Pearls. Antonina describes how our collaboration transpired:

‘I first came across Melanie through one of her articles published by Pianist magazine about 5 years ago. I was impressed by her articulation of the different challenges in piano teaching – it was obvious that the author was an experienced, knowledgeable and competent piano player. I also found out that Melanie had just published the first edition of her book ”So You Want to Play the Piano” (2013). I ordered the book immediately and I must admit that I still think this is one of the best modern guides written in English.

I later found out that Melanie is also a composer when I met her at a concert in London showcasing modern composers’ piano repertoire. Melanie presented her newly published (at that time) selection of piano duets called ”Snapchats”. The music was so fresh and accessible that it became one of my favourite duet selections. I still teach it to my students in one-to-one sessions and even masterclasses.

I asked Melanie to write some music for me and my piano partner Alla Levit (Darina Piano Duo), as we are currently collecting 4-hand piano pieces by modern composers. Melanie was extremely generous and wrote not just one but five pieces which she joined in a wonderful suite called ”A String of Pearls”. This is programme music depicting different pearls, such as the famous Pearl Maxima, Pearl of Lao Tzu and La Peregrina. Melanie’s pieces are story-driven, picturesque musical descriptions of pearls that are also full of character. Darina Piano Duo has now performed the “String of Pearls” suite many times and in different venues across the UK and this music has always been very well received.

It has been a stroke of luck to meet Melanie and we hope to continue our creative collaboration with her so we can perform many more of her beautiful pieces.’

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A String of Pearls consists of five movements, each one depicting a different pearl, reflecting the jewel’s characteristics as well as its corresponding symbolism. The movements are fairly short and could be played by a late intermediate or advanced level student. The music is intended for pianists who particularly enjoy playing expressive and evocative music with a hint of minimalism.

1. Pearl Maxima: One of the largest, most majestic pearls in the world, its captivating colours glimmer and sparkle from cream to gold, with a variety of hues in between.

2. Black Pearls: These beautiful serene jewels originate from the black lip oyster, and are tinged with green, pink, blue,silver and yellow.

3. Cave Pearls: Rushing water dances around limestone caves, polishing each glossy pearl.

4. Pearl of Lao Tzu: Sacred connotations have been linked to this large legendary clam pearl.

5. La Peregrina Pearl: Known as the ‘pilgrim’ or ‘wanderer’, this renowned gem has adorned many a colourful character, from royalty to actors, during its reputed 500-year history.

I was delighted when Schott decided to publish this piece in their renowned Edition Schott series. This series has featured some of the world’s greatest composers, many of whom currently publish or have published exclusively with Schott, including Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Carl Orff, György Ligeti, Michael Tippett, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. However, there are few female composers featured in the series, and therefore I feel it’s an honour to be amongst such illustrious company. There has been much discussion recently about the lack of female composers, conductors, and, to some degree, writers (and piano professors) too, in the classical music profession. But as this issue is gradually highlighted, so we can hopefully look forward to a future of equality and inclusion.

A String of Pearls was performed beautifully in a series of four concerts over the Summer given by my friends and colleagues pianists Samantha Ward and Maciej Raginia at the International Piano Festival and Summer School PIANO WEEK. They kindly made the following recordings at Rugby School in August. I hope you enjoy them.
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‘Having performed ‘A String of Pearls’ by Melanie Spanswick four times over the summer at our festival PIANO WEEK, Maciej and I found these pieces energetic, contrasting and very rewarding to perform. Each movement evokes a different mood and as a result, they were interesting to learn, proving very popular with audiences both in the UK and Italy.’ Concert pianist and Artistic Director of PIANO WEEK, Samantha Ward
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You can purchase the score in a digital download or print version, here or here.

This week Pianist Magazine have launched a competition on their facebook page (you can find it here) and the prize is a copy of A String of Pearls. To take part, all you need to do is ‘like’ Pianist’s Facebook page, ‘like’ and share the post, and tag a potential duet partner with whom you would like to play the piece. The competition closes on Monday 14th October. Good luck!

10 Women Composers You Have to Know About

www.pianistmagazine.com

www.pianoweek.com

www.en.schott-music.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.


The Joy of Duets: a guest post by Eleonor Bindman

I’ve been teaching at PIANO WEEK for the past two weeks. Held at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire (UK), it’s been a rewarding experience and a lot of fun, but also very hard work, involving six hours of teaching and coaching per day over a six day week. Therefore, today I’m handing over the ‘blog reins’ to pianist, chamber musician, arranger and writer Eleonor Bindman (pictured below).

Eleonor has, amongst many other projects, composed a new arrangement of the six Brandenburg Concertos for Piano-four-hands. Eleonor’s Brandenburg Duets were completed and recorded in 2017, released by Naxos Records on their Grand Piano label in March 2018, published by Naxos Publishing in 2019 and was Grand Piano’s best-selling album of 2018. In this post, she explains the inspiration behind her love for duets and how it has influenced her work.


For as long as I remember playing the piano, I remember playing piano duets.  “The Russian School of Piano Playing,” the method book “officially recommended for use in Children’s Music Schools throughout the Soviet Union,” was full of them  (images to the left, and below).  In the Soviet Union, official recommendations were not to be taken lightly. But this was one of those rare official recommendations which actually made sense. The first duets were 8-measure folk songs with names such as “The Young Girl Walked in the Pine Forest” but for me they were leaps into a different dimension.  Here I was, a struggling beginner, meekly navigating an ocean of black and white keys while trying to dutifully count 1-2-3-4 and keep track of the tiny fingering numbers on the page.  Then suddenly my teacher would get up from her chair, come over to the left of the keyboard and play along with me.  Those moments were magical: new sounds were added to mine and everything seemed in perfect order. I was making music.

Over the years, my appreciation for playing the piano with a partner has become a lot more informed. I came to the U.S. as a teenager and started teaching piano when I was in college. Piano duets were an important part of my tool kit from the start.  I would make up simple accompaniments for my students’ beginner pieces and play along.  If I taught siblings, they always had a duet assigned. Adult students, some of whom were actually unaware of the 4-hands possibility, were thrilled to discover it, reading through the uncomplicated works like Schubert’s dances, Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” Faure’s “Dolly” along with pieces from piano-duet anthologies that I always had in my teaching library. While working on my Master’s degree and attending Vladimir Feltsman’s master classes, I met Susan Sobolewski who became a wonderful piano partner and a dear friend.  After decades of hand-crossing and elbow-poking, a few arrangements and some recordings, 4-hand playing still feels like the best way of sharing what I love most.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, piano duets provided an overwhelmingly popular and sociable medium of domestic music-making. Playing duets was the best way to bring popular orchestral and operatic works into the home, since radio wasn’t yet invented.  Many 4-hand transcriptions of orchestral works were made during that time since most city homes had a piano and a few people who played it.  And for some visitors, 4-hand playing provided a sanctioned opportunity for courtship; two bodies seated at extremely close proximity, inviting an occasional touch of hand and perhaps a slight electric shock, were however engaged in something quite wholesome.  Of course, there was the didactic use, when the teacher (the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert) would come to a student’s house and play along, often composing pieces for the occasion.  Those composers well understood that their pupils should learn about steady rhythm, modulations, balance and interpretation not only intellectually but through imitation.

Unfortunately, the piano duet genre doesn’t enjoy as much popularity today.  Our entertainment and leisure pastimes have devolved into those not requiring much skill or effort.  TVs and other screens outnumber pianos in our households by a staggering ratio.  Active amateur pianists of child-bearing age are rare these days since we are all so busy; most children who take lessons will quit somewhere around the age of 12 and then will maybe start up again as adults when they are close to retirement.  On the professional classical music side, where star pianists must perform virtuosic repertoire to keep their reign, 4-hand repertoire is essentially dismissed.  Why would a star want to share a stage with someone instead of brightly shining alone, unless that someone is a sibling, a spouse or – as in our social-media dominated times – a commercially viable collaborator?  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: some eminent performers do play duets together sometimes, and there are well-known piano duos, of which most of us can probably readily name 3 or 4. Other than that, in my humble opinion, the piano duet scene is in great need of revival.

Three years ago I decided to make a new piano duet arrangement of Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos, to replace the existing one by Max Reger. Over the years, I tried to play through the Reger with my partner several times and it always seemed awkwardly done: the Primo part was hard to read with clusters of chords and little visual trace of the actual counterpoint whereas the Secondo mostly consisted of the low string parts in octaves.  I looked for performance evidence and found only a couple of YouTube videos of separate movements and only one complete although painfully ponderous version in a dark church. So I set out to suitably edit the old version but ended up starting from scratch with an orchestral score. You can read more about the process, here.

Upon hearing the news of my project, many people would ask: “Why not for 2 pianos?” Certainly two pianos would be much easier to arrange for.  No need to decide which string parts to omit completely, no need to transpose up or down an octave, no need to worry about density of texture in the middle register or about dividing a harpsichord cadenza between two players.  It would have also been easier to have an entire keyboard for each pianist: no feeling crowded, no deciding whose hand goes into an awkwardly high or low position, no issues of balancing different registers or exact sound/touch matching when sharing the same theme.  Yet needing a second piano is a huge logistical problem, in the home as well as in a concert or recording setting whereas as a 4-hand version, this music can be enjoyed at home with a friend whenever you are both available.  My goal, after all, was to replace the Reger version, finally giving piano partners a significant body of work besides those of Mozart and Schubert.

After nearly 2 years of work, the new “Brandenburg Duets” were finished and recorded in 2018. I am hoping that these gems – a total of 18 movements of the most wonderful and varied set of orchestral pieces ever transcribed for piano-4-hands – can become a new source of learning and enjoyment. The single-keyboard format dictates a thinner texture and therefore simpler parts for both pianists, suitable for intermediate/advanced levels.  Some slow movements are very easy to coordinate, some fast ones are quite difficult and there are many in between.  Many faster movements sound equally good at a slower tempo and may be used for exercises in finger dexterity and coordination. These pieces are a perfect reason for two pianists to come together at home or in a music school classroom and to spend a little time advancing the cause of the piano duet.   Playing in close proximity is such a joyful feeling!  And after all, we pianists are entitled to a little fun, aren’t we?

www.eleonorbindman.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.


 

Practising Duets

This is the first of two posts addressing piano duet practice. Most students love to play duets, after all it’s one of the few times they get to work with a fellow pianist. It can be helpful for pupils to work in pairs for many aspects of piano playing – from practising scales and arpeggios, to testing each other on sight-reading, and for me, duets are an extension of this important work.

Playing with another pianist (i.e. four hands) can make the overall piano timbre feel much grander and fuller than when playing solo. And with this in mind, beginners and less experienced players can really benefit from playing four and six handed music (at one keyboard).

As a young pianist, I played a large array of duets (at every level), and had lessons as a teenager at music college in this discipline. In my twenties, I established a piano duo with a Russian friend and colleague; we played both two piano and duet repertoire; everything from Schubert’s glorious Fantasie in F minor (for duet) to Liszt’s dramatic Reminiscences de Don Juan (for two pianos). Particular repertoire favourites included Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major and Poulenc’s superb Two Piano Concerto. We had great fun with these masterpieces. Working at two piano repertoire feels very different to playing with four hands at one piano, and it’s preferable to start with one keyboard; playing trios is becoming increasingly popular too, and is a great way to incorporate beginners into ensemble playing.

When young students (and older students!) play together for the first time, there will be a number of issues requiring careful work and preparation. From rhythm, sound and precise ensemble to pedalling (it feels so different from pedalling for one), balance and articulation. This post hopes to address a few of these concerns, arming potential duettists with various methods to practise different technical and musical elements.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, it can help to begin by warming up with a few exercises together, as a duo: these exercises can help with sound production, finger and wrist flexibility and mostly importantly, will foster precise ensemble playing. They will also attune listening skills; a facet which can take time to develop. Once each pianist has learnt their own part, the work starts – playing with another certainly adds a new musical dimension, especially for the less experienced player.

Here are a few exercises for the beginning of a practice session:

The first consists of slow semibreves; play very steadily, focusing on producing a warm, full sound, using the wrist in a very flexible, loose manner, whilst keeping arms and elbows relaxed:

duet-exercise-1The Secondo (bass) or second part is just as essential as the Primo (treble) or first part; both parts  must be considered equal. Starting pianissimo, experiment with plenty of different tonal colours (an enjoyable part of the process during this first exercise). It will help you to listen to the sound produced, and learn to place the notes together at the same moment (quite a challenge!). Aim  to observe each other’s hands at the vital moment just before playing each note, and learn to place trust in one another’s physical gestures too. If you can also keep to a strict pulse (break this down into small sub-divisions i.e. try counting aloud together in quavers, for example), this will instigate precision when placing each semibreve.

The second exercise (below) focuses on prompt placing of crotchets a third apart, which will again encourage listening skills whilst building on the first exercise. It’s in the five-finger position, so is convenient and easy for beginners, but could be used for up to and including intermediate to advanced players.

duet-exercise-2The final exercise is faster and needs firmer finger technique. However, finger technique will hopefully improve when practising this seemingly never-ending pattern. Be sure to use the suggested fingering, which follows the five-finger position, and remember to decide on a place to stop too! You could also play this exercise in reverse, coming down the keyboard following a similar pattern.

duet-exercise-3Play the exercise slowly to begin with then gradually build speed when secure. Clear articulation, and completely rhythmical quavers should ideally be the primary concern.

Once assimilated these exercises can be practised using various rhythms and touches (legato, non-legato, staccato, tenuto). I hope they help pupils of all levels to focus on ensemble skills, before negotiating their duet pieces.

Other useful exercises include the 28 Melodious Studies Op. 149 by Diabelli. They offer a wealth of study material for duettists, from around Grade 2 onwards.


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.


Christmas Cool Piano Duets; the winner is…

Many thanks to everyone who took part in this weekend’s competition. Heather Hammond’s music is always very popular, and I enjoyed reading all your comments. Only one winner today, but there will be lots more competitions and giveaways coming soon.

FPS Resources (Jennifer Foxx) is today’s winner. Congratulations!

Please send your address via my contact page, and the music and practice notebooks will be on their way to you very soon.

If you would like to purchase Heather’s Cool Christmas Piano Duets, 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.