Teaching the tricky intermediate stages, by Karen Marshall

My guest post this week has been written by piano teacher and author Karen Marshall. Karen feels passionately about keeping students engaged in their piano studies, with emphasis on enjoyment, so they want to continue their piano playing. I asked her what elements she considered most important when teaching at the intermediate level (approximately Grade 3 – 5). Over to Karen…


The intermediate stage of learning the piano – and indeed any instrument – is a notoriously tricky period. Many teachers may find students dropping off, losing interest and quitting lessons. I’ve been teaching now for over 25 years and it could not fail to come to my attention that these stages of learning were some of the most difficult to progress through.

There are multiple reasons for this, but I believe it is often at least partly due to increased school work (leaving less time to practise), at the same time as music becoming considerably more complex.  Students who have a good ear and have previously been able to memorise music will start to struggle to do this with the longer repertoire.  Added to that, frustrations mount as music becomes more technically and musically demanding, resulting in slower progress.

My solution to these problems was to come up with an intermediate curriculum for my students that would help to develop their musical understanding and provide a holistic learning experience. But I also realised that my students required variety, the opportunity to be creative, and a continual sense of achievement. If these elements are combined with key theory, technical development, and carefully chosen repertoire, I found that note-reading will be improved, technique and musicality developed and students will gain a greater understanding of what they are learning.

The Intermediate Pianist is an amalgamation of my life’s work, tailoring this holistic approach for use with Grade 3 to 5 level students. It is a series of three books that has emerged from years of working with these students, aided by many attractive compositions by Heather Hammond.  It is, in essence, a music curriculum that piano teachers can use to fit their teaching style, either by working through each chapter in lessons, or by getting students to use it at home.

Co-author Heather Hammond and I have paced the books to take into account varying time students have to practise. We made sure that the music deliberately spanned a range of difficulty levels and styles, so some pieces can be learnt in just one or two weeks, whilst others are more challenging. This approach has been highly successful in ensuring my students didn’t give up the piano, and very luckily I was able to get this curriculum published. Here’s a quick look at the different elements:

To provide variety and understanding

25 Styles of music explained with definitions and activities over three books.  Including March and Lullabies, Swing and Boogies; Polka and Baroque Dance Suits, Four chord Pop and Reggae; Latin and Theme and Variations, Impressionism and Minimalism.

To provide opportunities for creativity and understanding

Musicianship activities included throughout from playing by ear to transposition, listening activities to recognising cadences.  Theory is included in a creative and attractive way with word searches and quiz activities.

To provide pace and ‘quick wins’

Quick learn material for sight reading – lots of easier material is included so students will have enough time to complete the whole book and experience lots of styles, keys and improve their sight reading.  Pieces move forward and backwards in levels for consolidation.

To provide understanding

Technique – All keys’ scales and arpeggios are covered up to five flats and five sharps along with carefully selected technical exercises or repertoire to develop key technique.

To keep students inspire using the repertoire of great composers

Repertoire – Core repertoire has been selected from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Note book and his Two Part Inventions, Schumann’s Album for the Young, Tchaikovsky’s Children Album, Clementi Sonatinas Opus 36, Burgmuller’s Opus 100, Chopin’s Preludes and Bartok’s For Children.  This is combined with new composition and arrangements or famous classical music from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to the Flower Duet by Delibes, Howard Goodhall’s QI theme and Por Una Cabeza Tango.

You can purchase The Intermediate Pianist from all good retailers, or from Faber’s website, 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.


 

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A Royal Double Bill

I live in Windsor, which is situated in Berkshire, around 20 miles to the west of London. I settled here four years ago and it’s a delightful place. However, this week my small town has become the centre of the universe (or so it seems), and it’s been almost impossible to walk out of the front door without bumping into a camera crew. The impending Royal Wedding is certainly a much-anticipated event, and I wish the royal couple every success for their future married life. But if your interest in this regal occasion has already waned somewhat, you might like to take a look at this concert, to be held on the same day at 7.00pm in London.

The Around the Globe Piano Festival, organised by Marina Petrov and Maya Jordan, is a wonderful music festival and concert series which fervently supports Contemporary composers.

The Festival is held in the Autumn every year and is open to all levels and abilities. I adjudicated at the 2017 festival and thoroughly appreciated the wide variety of repertoire on offer. The standard of performance was also extremely high, and winners are invited to perform at various concerts arranged throughout the year.  I’m honoured to be amongst the group of Contemporary composers whose music features on the syllabus.

The piano recital on Saturday showcases winners from last year’s festival, including children, adult amateurs and professional pianists. A diversity of styles pervades, from classics to modern, including compositions written by a host of innovative composers including Lola Perrin, Lindsey Berwin, Vera Milanković and myself. Guest pianist Olga Dudnik will perform the captivating “Jewish Suite” written by prominent Serbian composer, Aleksandar Vujić. You can book your tickets via the Around the Globe Piano Festival’s  website, or alternatively you can purchase them at the door. Hope to see you there!


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.


 

My Journey as a Composer by Lindsey Berwin

British teacher and composer Lindsey Berwin is my guest writer today. She has written several pedagogical publications for teachers and students. I asked Lindsey about her work as a composer, and why composing has become an increasingly important element in her life. Over to Lindsey…


My journey as a composer began some thirty years ago, primarily in response to my pupils’ pedagogical needs and their requests for specific repertoire. Little could I have known then that I was embarking on a voyage which would blossom into a passion, providing me with a wonderful means of self-expression as a musician, and of self-discovery as a person.

I was privileged to have spent four invaluable years studying at The Royal Academy of Music, but I never received any instruction in composition. Thus, I was left to rely on my experience, knowledge and instincts as a pianist and teacher, to guide me through this unfamiliar territory! My first works included a sight-reading series, subsequently entitled ‘FunKey!’, a number of bespoke duets, a set of jazz-style technical exercises and a piano course for pre-school children.

A significant turning point for me was the discovery of The EPTA annual composers’ competition. This opportunity provided the catalyst for me to broaden my compositional horizons. In addition, it spurred me on to incorporate this creative element of music into my teaching, resulting in many years of enjoyment and satisfaction for both myself and my pupils.

In terms of my own development as a composer, having begun to explore a freer range of writing, the creative process gradually gathered momentum. I revelled in the technical challenges of wrestling with toccatas, fugues and studies, and in the chance to explore both the field of tonalities and the world of the subconscious. The latter resulted in works of a somewhat philosophical nature, such as Chromatic Fantasy, Enigma and Tunnel Vision, and, influenced by the jazz idiom, Introspection.

Opening out the parameters of composition meant the need to adopt diverse approaches. The above mentioned FunKey!, and its flute counterpart Jazz Keys, both later published by Kevin Mayhew, were written very much as teaching aids, intended to improve students’ reading and transposition skills. I created most of the material away from the instrument, relying on my inner hearing, and the process felt predominantly cerebral in its nature.

In order to compose more complex repertoire, working at the piano was, and remains, a necessity. Pieces with a specific structure, and those with a technical purpose again have their roots in a cerebral process. Fugal writing, in particular, has a methodical, almost mechanical aspect to its construction, and I find composing music of this type immensely rewarding intellectually. By contrast, compositions of the more philosophical nature emanate from my emotions (although edited by my intellect!), often providing a cathartic experience and an outlet for life’s complexities.

‘All The Fun Of The Fair’, published recently by EVC music, was my first substantial collection of pieces, and my inaugural venture into the realms of programme music. The suite consists of ten pieces representing different fairground rides, and I wanted to produce a sound-world which suitably described each. For this task I turned to my imagination for inspiration. Coming full circle, and returning to my metaphor of a journey, I hope that the following whistle-stop tour of the fairground will show how I set about achieving my aim, and provide an entertaining conclusion to this blog

The Ghost Train

An eerie, rubato introduction sets the scene. A left-hand ostinato based on augmented 4ths represents the movement of the train, while the right-hand mimics the sound of its whistle. Tension builds, until fortissimo chords herald the appearance of a frightening apparition. The train restarts twice more, the last time accelerating, until octaves, played presto, lead into a final terrifying encounter!

The Lotus Flower Ferris Wheel

The movement of a slowly turning Ferris Wheel is captured by fluid writing and gently rising and falling phrases. To add to the feeling of tranquillity, parallel 4ths are employed, transporting the performer and listener to the beauty of the Orient.

The Roller Coaster

An atmosphere of excitement tinged with fear is set from the start! The whole-tone scale rises, as the passengers are slowly carried to the summit. The cars descend dramatically, represented by vivace chromatic semiquavers, becoming dissonant along the way to reflect the cries of the riders. Twice more this scene is repeated, and the final descent builds in contrary motion to a fortissimo climax.

The UFO

Slow, dissonant chords create a feeling of outer-space, leading into an appassionato section which gradually rises to a soaring fortissimo. The music then slowly dies away, with descending sequential imitation. A return to the opening style follows, but this time, almost like gravity, the harmony pulls us away from uncertainty (dissonance) to end with a feeling of peace (consonance).

The Mechanical Bull

A Latin style, characteristic rhythms and ornamentation carry us to the world of the Spanish matador. The 5/4 time signature at the start, and the later insistent ostinato add humour, as the rider attempts to stay mounted. As the ending approaches, a repeated pattern rises from the depths of the piano. It culminates in a fortissimo descending glissando, as the jockey finally admits defeat!

The Coconut Shy

Each hand represents a person competing to win the prize in this final piece. Acciaccaturas, imitation and changing time signatures, combined with considerable dissonance including bitonality, bring All The Fun Of The Fair to a suitably quirky and light-hearted ending!

You can purchase Funkey! and Jazz Keys, here and All the Fun of the Fair, 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.


 

Are you all Fingers and Thumbs?

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s e-newsletter (you can read it here) focuses on the thumb. As always, my intention is to draw attention to an area of piano playing which may benefit from concentrated practice. I notice in my own teaching that students perpetually work to achieve and maintain finger strength, but then leave the poor old thumb to its own devices. Here are five practice suggestions.


Thumbs. They might just be appendages stuck on the side of our hands, but for any pianist, they are important additions to our armoury of articulation. If used optimally, the thumb can enable easy turning (both under and over the hand) for smooth passagework, and can take the lead during chords and octave passagework, creating assured playing. Here are a few practice ideas to strengthen our thumbs.

  1. Start with a thumb exercise away from the keyboard; I like to use a circular motion exercise. Observe the three thumb joints; the first at the bottom of the thumb, next to the wrist, the second, at the thumb base, and the third, in the middle of the thumb. By moving the whole thumb in an upward (almost above the hand) then downward motion, so that the movement finishes with the thumb under the hand, whilst keeping the arm relaxed but still, you can start to loosen the fleshy areas, so that they feel pliable and soft. Aim to keep the movement flexible and free of any tension.
  2. Observe your thumb position on the keys. The thumb is naturally lower than the other fingers, and it should ideally make contact with the keys on the tip of the thumb nail; at the left tip for the right hand, and right tip, for the left hand. The nail just touching the keys. Try to avoid the whole side of the thumb flopping down on the keys, as this position makes thumb control challenging.
  3. To practice thumb positions and get the thumb moving, play a one octave C major scale ascending with the following fingering: 12121212 (right hand), 21212121 (left hand), you can then switch fingers starting with 21 in the right hand, and 12 in the left. Practising with 13131313 (right hand) can be helpful too. Ensure a flexible thumb movement every time the thumb moves over or under the hand.
  4. Now try a one octave chromatic scale using the same fingering; when you move to the black notes, try to ‘place’ the thumb tip with care as these notes are narrower therefore demanding greater accuracy. Thumbs will also need to employ a larger movement in order to negotiate these notes.
  5. Finally, practise intervals i.e. a C and E in the right hand using the third finger on the C and thumb on the E, and in the left hand, the thumb playing the C and third finger, the E. This seemingly unnatural position (practising the turning motion) will require a tension free hand so ensure the ‘fleshy’ part of your hand is relaxed as opposed to taut and ‘locked up’. When playing these intervals, sound them together as chords, and keep both notes in place whilst relaxing your hand; this is a useful preparation exercise for arpeggios. When comfortable, move on to larger intervals such as a C (played with a third finger) and an F (thumb) in the right hand.

You can sign up for Pianist’s e-newsletter, 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.


 

Hand Flexibility: Piano Professional Article

I’ve written about hand flexibility before here on my blog, but it’s an important topic for piano students and teachers, so I thought I’d publish a more in-depth post on this subject. The following article was first published in the most recent edition of Piano Professional, which is the UK piano teachers magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). I hope you find it of interest.


Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ in our hands necessary to move easily, at the same time as retaining finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if we can’t get around a piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once our students have assimilated the feeling of freedom in their wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto the hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to come across a pupil who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an exception).

To begin with, our students need to know which part of the hand to relax. Photo 1 illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring:

Photo 1.

Photo 1 shows the palm and surrounding areas, especially around the thumb joint; these are normally fleshy and soft when not outstretched or engaged in playing; they need to stay this way as much as possible, as and when a student plays. This does present some challenges, but the main aim is to keep the hand (or the area between the wrist and knuckles) loose and relaxed.

Photo 2.

Photo 2 illustrates the muscles between the finger joints which also have a tendency to tense.

Here are a few ideas to loosen the hand, helping it to feel less restricted during practice and performance.

Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side, allowing them to swing loosely, so they can ‘float’ freely from the shoulder (arms should feel ‘heavy’ and weighty as the muscles relax). Once this has been grasped, encourage pupils to lay their hand flat on a surface (away from the piano), palm facing downwards. Slowly open the hand, determining how far it can reach in an outstretched position without feeling tense or uncomfortable at all. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, pupils should note the feeling of the hand when it is still relaxed and ‘loose’. Do this every day for just a minute or so, until it feels natural.

Now ask a pupil to play both chords in Example 1 (first with their right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with their spare hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel how the muscles in those fleshy areas of the hand, respond. They might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid each hand appears as the chords are depressed.

Example 1.

The trick is to learn to relax the hand whilst it’s playing. It’s paramount to know how our arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they generally have less musical content, allowing us to concentrate on how our upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, we will start to assume a comfortable stance whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be exacting to teach as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands. I constantly work with pupils on this aspect, and find it equally fascinating and rewarding.

A good way to begin is to play a single note (in each hand, separately). As the note is struck, notice how the muscles within the hand react; decide if they are tense or uncomfortable. If they are rigid, as the note is held by the finger, relax the surrounding hand by releasing any tension in the whole arm (students often need help here, both in terms of learning to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and also learning to hold a note in place whilst relaxing). Clenching the hand (this can be done away from the piano) and then swiftly ‘releasing’ the clench can be one way of explaining the feeling of tension and the subsequent ‘release’ of muscles. We need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as we play. It can be beneficial to keep returning to the feeling learnt when the hand was outstretched, but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this sensation time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

The following single note pattern, Example 2 (right hand, followed by the left), opens with notes a sixth apart or an interval of a sixth, moving on to an octave (the interval of a seventh could also be used too, before the octave):

Example 2.

Encourage a student to gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, with the aim of developing wrist and hand flexibility between notes; there are many ways of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist after they have played one note, and before they play the next (whilst still keeping notes depressed), allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion. This motion can be extremely useful, helping students acquire the necessary loose feeling, enabling them to determine the optimum movement needed to release their hand.

Students can check the muscles and tendons in their hand by using the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing, to make sure they feel comfortable and not tight during this exercise. If they don’t feel relaxed, ask them to gradually ‘let go’ of the muscles as they engage their hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation or releasing a tight hand. This is the most challenging part. When we learn how to ‘let go’ as we play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place, the hand starts to release its grip.

Eventually, octave intervals, such as those in Example 2 (second and fourth bar), appear more relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If we can do this with ease already, as we play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax (releasing the hand, wrist and arm), whilst still playing the notes. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape during movement.

If octaves are played slowly, we can watch and feel the hand as we ‘let go’ or relax in the fleshy area, whilst the fingers depress the keys; the flesh should change from being tense to become softer and more malleable. This type of exercise must ideally be done slowly and painlessly, with much focus on physical movement. After a period of time, it’s interesting to note how the hands adapt, and pupils will be increasingly able to cope with being outstretched and ‘open’ with no discomfort, as is required during octaves and chords.

Once octaves have been negotiated (these exercises should be done little and often, and certainly not for long periods of time), students can move onto adding chords to their ‘flexible hand repertoire’ (inserting inner notes after practising the outer parts alone first), and then working at other types of passage work, including double notes and large leaps.

Hand flexibility takes time, but a positive, valuable way to begin is to become more conscious of hand palpation and movement.

You can read the original article, here:

Hand Flexibility (Issue 46, Spring 2018, pg. 16 – 17)


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.


 

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.


 

 

 

 

The Inception and Development of PIANO WEEK

Today’s guest blog post has been written by British pianist Samantha Ward. Samantha is director and founder of PIANO WEEK, the popular piano Summer school and festival which is now offering students of all ages and abilities the chance to study the piano in various locations around the world. I was keen to ask her how she had developed this concept and why it had become the focal point of her musical activities. Over to Samantha….


When Melanie asked me to write a short article about my experiences with International Festival & Summer School PIANO WEEK since its inception in 2013, I very much enjoyed looking back over the last five years of my professional life.  The fast-paced life of forging a career as a concert pianist, author, self-taught entrepreneur, promoter, fund-raiser and strategist, all of which I had to either develop upon or become in order to make this enterprise work, didn’t allow me to reflect much on the past until now.  Since the very first day of the festival, when it poured with rain one Welsh summer’s day of 2013, my mind has been geared towards the future and to how much I can push PIANO WEEK forward.  So why did I do it?!

The idea of creating my own piano festival and summer course by combining top-notch performances from world-renowned artists alongside the younger generation of concert pianists with exceptional, all-round music education accessible to players of any age and ability was born with the realisation that I was really going to have to become my own agent if I was going to form any kind of career as a concert pianist.  Rather than fighting for the same spot on the stage, already too small to hold the big names and the new arrivals, I ventured to create a new concert platform elsewhere.  Five years on, the results are overwhelming.  PIANO WEEK has transformed into a multicultural and hugely diverse community of music lovers, professional and amateur pianists, world-renowned guest artists, outstanding concert pianists, educators and steadily growing international audiences in the UK, Italy, Germany, China, Thailand and Japan.

The buzz of PIANO WEEK is something which you need to experience first hand as no written word can offer a meaningful substitute.  It’s not just a piano course; some of our returning participants dubbed it a ‘holistic affair’ with music.  Our performance-based programme of master classes, one-to-one and duet lessons, composition, sight reading, memorisation, listening and harmony and theory classes interconnects throughout the week with the expert advice given by all faculty members.  As a participant,  you can choose whether to visit our UK base in the English countryside in Shropshire (Weston Rhyn) or to travel further afield to the picturesque Upper Middle Rhine UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany, sunny Umbria,  or jump on a long-haul flight to Thailand and celebrate Songkran, or China.

I like to think that the development of PIANO WEEK reflects the very essence of music, with no boundaries of age, ability, country or language.  As I am sure every entrepreneur has, I have long dreamed of taking my enterprise global.  With overseas expansion not being the easiest of tasks, it took a lot of determination as well as finding the right partners abroad to make it a reality.  My pianist husband Maciej Raginia came on board as the festival’s creative director when no amount of self-induced lack of sleep was enough to keep things moving! Today, we share responsibility for every aspect of the festival from creating the syllabuses and concert planning to setting up new PIANO WEEK residences abroad.  It’s very much a ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic born out of the decision to forge our own futures as performing artists.

It is wonderful that PIANO WEEK is extremely popular amongst participants. The high rate of those returning every year (or sometimes even twice or three times a year!) is a true testament to the quality of the tuition offered, our expanding faculty of concert pianists and pedagogues as well as concerts given by world-renowned guest artists.  In the last five years, the festival has welcomed Stephen Kovacevich, Leon McCawley, Chenyin Li and David Fung as our guest artists alongside an impressive list of international concert pianists and educators: Alexander Karpeyev (Russia), Annabelle Lawson (UK), Diana Ionescu (Romania), Grace Yeo (South Korea), Madalina Rusu (Romania), Maiko Mori (Japan), Mark Nixon (South Africa), Melanie Spanswick (UK), Nico de Villiers (South Africa), Niel du Preez (South Africa), Olivia Sham (Australia), Roberto Russo (Italy), Sachika Taniyama (Japan), Sam Armstrong (UK), Warren Mailley-Smith (UK), Yuki Negishi (Japan) and Vesselina Tchakarova (Bulgaria).

You can find out much more about PIANO WEEK, here; www.pianoweek.com


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.


 

Favourable Fingering

I’m almost half way through my work here in Hong Kong and am having a thoroughly lovely time, enjoying the urban vibe and fast pace of life. I will be giving several book presentations after I finish adjudicating, and some readers have asked where and when these will take place, so here are some details: a workshop for Parsons Music (March 29th), a workshop and master class for MusikWald (March 30th) and two master classes at the Tom Lee Academy (April 2nd). Hope to see you there!

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll probably know that I write a column for Pianist Magazine (a how-to-play article, where I teach a different elementary piece in every edition), and contribute to the bi-monthy newsletter, offering five tips on a particular aspect of piano technique. This month’s topic is a perennial favourite; fingering. Do you write your fingering into the score before you start learning your piece? Or do you let your fingers roam wherever they feel comfortable? Here are a few ideas which I hope might be useful. You can read the original article, here.


Fingering is a perpetual hot topic and we all know that finding the right fingering solution for a particular passage can make a colossal difference, fostering smooth, fluent, and ideally, comfortable playing.There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to fingering as everyone one of us has a different size hand, but hopefully the following suggestions may be helpful.

  1. Aim to know all the standard fingerings for scales (particularly contrary motion), arpeggios, and broken chords. If you know these fingerings, you will have a substantial advantage when learning any repertoire, but especially in Baroque and Classical styles, where scale passages and arpeggios abound. It can be prudent to learn two or three fingerings for chromatic scales and a couple for chromatic thirds as well.
  2. Know where your thumbs are and where they should be! Even when passage work isn’t symmetrical, the thumbs can stabilize the hand and being aware of where they fall in rapid figurations aids the memory, making fingering easier to grasp.
  3. I advise my students to play ‘in position’ as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand or changing hand positions. Many hand turns can easily lead to a bumpy, uneven musical line (this happens when there are too many thumbs on the scene!). If you can use outer parts of the hand (the fourth and fifth finger) as much as the inner part (thumb and second finger), not only will the hand be more balanced, but it will also feel natural to play without so much movement. The fourth and fifth finger will need to be sufficiently strong in order to do this.
  4. Finger substitution and finger sliding both ultimately provide smooth legato. Changing fingers on a note (once you’ve played a note, quickly replace whatever finger you used to play the note with another, whilst keeping the note depressed), or sliding fingers from one note to another, but still keeping the musical line (almost connecting the notes, as much as you can, so the overall impression is one of legato).
  5. Once you’ve decided on your fingering, DO NOT change it! This is a cardinal rule; when you change or substitute fingers after working at the original fingering for a while, the brain has already wired these finger movements and cancelling them will be awkward to say the least. Practice tends to make permanent, so spend some time writing your fingering in the score before you begin studying a piece, and be quite sure your chosen fingerings suit your hand and you are happy with them.

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.


 

Josef and Rosina Lhévinne and the Russian Piano School

One of the joys of having pianist and piano teachers friends are the endless piano talk phone (or Skype) conversations; and by that I usually mean technique chat! There are, inevitably, disagreements; as many will know there are copious ways to play and teach the piano, but these conversations always throw up a myriad of interesting questions. It was during one such discussion that I discovered the following videos which I hope you will find of interest (I certainly did).

Josef and Rosina Lhévinne were a formidable partnership in the piano world. Both renowned teachers, Josef toured and gave many solo recitals (and two piano concerts with his wife), whilst Rosina became a celebrated teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. The two films linked here give a real insight into the Lhévinne method of teaching. In the first film, American concert pianist John Browning demonstrates elements of piano playing synonymous with the Lhévinne’s teaching, and in the second, Mrs. Lhévinne reveals details about her life and her piano teaching.  These include her pedagogical influence and her legacy (according to many of her students). A fascinating glimpse into Twentieth century Russian piano teaching.



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.


 

Stars of the Albion Competition 2018

On Saturday I swapped my teaching for adjudicating, spending a day in London at the Musica Nova International Music Academy situated on Cromer Road, near King’s Cross train station. This busy studio is owned (and was founded) by Russian pianist and singer, Evgenia Terentieva. As well as a music academy, providing one-to-one tuition (for children as young as three, right up to adults), the studio holds many courses (on a wide range of musical subjects, from musical theatre, to a ‘music wonderland’ programme) and a yearly competition; Stars of the Albion, Grand Prix.

The Stars of the Albion international performing arts festival & competition, now in its fifth year, joins gifted musicians and dancers from across the world. The project forms a unique bridge connecting vibrant cultures and, in particular, those of Russia and Great Britain. It aims to provide valuable opportunities for young emerging artists to perform, learn, communicate and develop.  There are many different classes open to competitors, and the event is going from strength to strength with a huge variety of disciplines and participants coming from around the globe to show case their talents.

I’ve been fortunate to be on the panel of judges for the past three years, and during this period I have observed the Stars of the Albion morph from a fairly small-scale competition, with one jury hearing all competitors, into a large-scale affair with two competitions (and two juries) running in tandem. This year I chaired the instrumental panel, working alongside (pictured below from left to right) concert pianist George Harliono (also from the UK), viola player and string teacher, Natalia Varkentin (from Latvia), and pianist and teacher, Nick Sergienko (from Canada).

The standard of playing was high, with most instrumentalists playing a well prepared programme (consisting of two contrasting works) from memory. The youngest performer was just six years old but already very accomplished, presenting Sonatina in A minor Op. 94 No. 4 by Albert Biehl and  a humorous work (Funny Puppy) by Anne Crosby. Her technical control was impressive with musicianship well beyond her years.

One reason I really love adjudicating is the breadth of works and composers offered at this type of competition. When judging festivals, set works frequently govern student (and teacher!) choices; pupils may be gearing up for an exam, so I might hear typical offerings from the ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus.

During this competition, however, we listened to a diverse collection of pieces across several instruments (clarinet, violin, piano and balalaika). The balalaika is a regular fixture in predominantly Russian contests such as this (and during my first year adjudicating at this competition, one such player won the Grand Prix award for the most outstanding performer). It’s a popular instrument and this year’s competitor had studied at the Central School in Moscow and was a touring professional (there were student, amateur and professional classes on offer). He was fantastic, and gave us rousing renditions of Vera Gorodovskaya’s Kalinka and Alexander Zigankov’s Introduction and Chardash.

I played the clarinet whilst a student, so relished hearing the beautiful Clarinet Sonata Op. 167 by Camille Saint-Saëns, having played it myself. The same participant also offered Igor Stravinsky’s exciting Three Solo Pieces (1919). Other repertoire offerings included: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance for violin, Vittorio Monti’s Czardas (violin), Suite italienne  (1932) by Stravinsky (violin), Sonatina in G HWV582 by George Frideric Handel (piano), Chaconne by Tomaso Antonio Vitali (violin), Salut d’amour by Edward Elgar (violin), Take Five by Paul Desmond (violin), Hava Nagila Trad. (violin), Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1 by Friedrich Kuhlau (piano), Romance in F major by Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Sonatina No. 3 in F major by Thomas Attwood (piano), Ragtime and Fantasy, both by Manfred Schmitz (piano duet), Children’s Corner Suite by Claude Debussy (piano) and the Nocturne in C sharp minor No. 20 Op. Posth. by Fryderyk  Chopin (piano).

Many disagree with the whole ethos behind competitions, but I feel every performer will have really benefitted from playing in this relaxed setting (irrespective of whether they won their class or not), and we hope they continue to enjoy these events, honing their playing and performing skills. A cohort of winners performed at the Gala concert and prizegiving ceremony held yesterday evening (at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre, in London). I wish Musica Nova continued success with the Stars of the Albion and I look forward to next year’s competition.


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.