Touring in Singapore and Malaysia

If you’ve been following my social media sites, you’ll know I’ve been working in Singapore and Johor Bahru (in Malaysia) over the past week. I aim to organise several overseas book tours per year as I love to travel, and I also enjoy meeting teachers and students from different parts of the world. I’m extremely grateful to my publisher, Schott Music, for their continued support; without them arranging such trips would indeed be challenging, particularly with regard to book distribution which can be tricky in some Far Eastern countries.

I have visited Singapore on a few occasions during the past couple of years; their hospitality is legendary as is their hunger to learn, and the same is true in Malaysia, too. I name these trips ‘book tours’, but they are actually much more than that. A book tour might describe an author who visits a country offering a brief presentation focusing on their book with, perhaps, a Q&A at the end. I generally offer workshops, public and private lessons, lectures or presentations, and adjudicating. Such elements are all connected to my piano course, Play it again: PIANO, but these workshops and classes are not merely presentations about the books. My teaching generally centres around piano technique, and during the workshops I touch on many technical aspects, and crucially, how to keep loose and relaxed whilst developing a solid technique.

In Singapore, I gave a six-hour workshop for piano teachers employed by Cristofori. Cristofori is the largest piano company and music school in Singapore with a network of over 30 centres island-wide.  Over 400 instrumental teachers are affiliated to the music school, and I was delighted that over 100 piano teachers came to my first workshop (see photo to the left). I offer four half-hour piano technique workshops in total, and after each one I encourage teachers to come to the piano to try out various ideas and exercises. Teachers can be a fairly reserved bunch in Singapore, but it didn’t take too long to coax them to the piano. And once one or two came up, there was no stopping them!

Chatting to Cristofori teachers at the Singapore Conference Hall

The following day I took a trip over the border to Malaysia. The second workshop (which was also for piano teachers) was shorter, and differed slightly from the first, still mainly featuring piano technique, but I also spoke about my compositions, played some of them, and then answered questions about incorporating composition into piano lessons. This took place at the Forte Academy of Music in Johor Bahru. Around 50 piano teachers attended the event and I appreciated their dedication and interest. They had no qualms about coming up to the piano to try my suggestions, and I endeavoured to answer the numerous questions about technique, piano teaching, and, of course, that perennial subject, piano exams.

Teaching at the Forte Academy of Music in Johor Bahru

Piano exams feature heavily in piano study in the Far East. ABRSM are the preferred exam board, and, again, copious questions ensued about various aspects of examinations, and particularly the diplomas, of which there are many candidates in this part of the world.

The final engagement on this short trip was adjudicating. It’s a privilege to listen to young pianists, and adjudicating (or jury judging) involves hours of listening and writing.

With fellow adjudicator Anthony Hewitt and our hosts from The Musique Loft, Winnie Tay and Angelyn Aw

The invitation to adjudicate at the 3rd Overseas Performer’s Festival came from my friends and colleagues, piano teachers Angelyn Aw and Winnie Tay who run The Musique Loft. This organisation hosts piano competitions, master classes and other events for piano teachers and their students. The festival consisted of a two-day event held at the Chinese Cultural Centre in the urban financial district of Singapore.

I was fortunate to adjudicate alongside fellow British pianist, artistic director, and professor of piano at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Anthony Hewitt (see photo to the left). Tony and I have previously worked together on several occasions and it was wonderful to work in conjunction with another judge, otherwise this job can seem a hefty responsibility on one’s own.

Adjudicating in action

We heard over 200 performances, and many were superb. An extremely high standard of playing was coupled with an interesting selection of diverse repertoire. Every performer played from memory (even the duets and trios), and students ranged from four- or five- year-old Grade one or Grade two students to twenty-five-year-old conservatoire graduates. All participants received trophies and lengthy written adjudications (it’s fair to say that my index finger didn’t work properly for a day or two afterwards!).

I’m not going to discuss whether competitions are ethical or not, but irrespective of this, such displays of piano playing can surely only help to secure a healthy interest in piano music, classical music, and music education in general. I’ve grown tired of making comparisons to the UK, but unfortunately it seems as though we are trailing far behind.

My trip ended with a further day of master classes for The Musique Loft and some private teaching. It was a full week in terms of engagements, but I felt inspired, energised and heartened by this outpouring of love for the piano and its music. I’m looking forward to returning to this part of the world in October to visit Jakarta (Indonesia), Singapore and Johor Bahru.

If you would like to attend one of my technique workshops, I’ll be at Ackerman Music Store in Hove on August 29th 2019, and at Forsyths Music Store in Manchester on August 31st 2019. I look forward to meeting you.


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.


 

A Master Class with Jonathan Biss

It’s time for a master class. I haven’t posted one for a while, but we can learn so much from observing the classes of others, and I enjoy highlighting public lessons for this reason.

To complement his series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 2017, devoted to the late style, Amercian pianist Jonathan Biss gave two public master classes to six young artists on the late solo works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. They took place in February 2017 at the Weill Music Room in New York. The following videos represent three of the classes recorded and I hope you enjoy them.




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.


 

Peaceful Piano Playlist: A Weekend Competition

It’s time for a weekend competition. Faber Music publish some of the most innovative educational piano material on the market. And they offer a wide selection of piano anthologies, providing teachers and their students with the valuable opportunity to access a diverse and vibrant collection of music by numerous composers, all, as it were, ‘under one roof’. Their latest piano volume is a cleverly designed tome catering for those who enjoy their playlists.

Peaceful Piano Playlist is a generous compilation of 35 thoughtfully selected piano pieces from an interesting bevy of composers. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on ‘peaceful’, and it’s clear from the tasteful colour scheme on the front cover that Faber are continuing with their plight to encourage mindfulness: Mindfulness: The Piano Collection was published a few years ago to great success, and this new book represents a similar theme. It will no doubt strike a chord with teachers and students due to the current popularity of this subject, which seems especially significant in our often chaotic world.

Amongst the selected group of popular composers are J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Robert Schumann, Erica Satie and Ludovico Einaudi, who effortlessely rub shoulders with a lesser-known group of Contemporary writers; Max Richter, Chilly Gonzales, Alexis Ffrench, Poppy Ackroyd,  Jessica Curry, George Winston, and Anne Lovett. Faber have also created a spotify playlist to accompany the book, enabling pianists to listen to each work.

I do like this concept, and I’m all for combining old favourites with Contemporary works. Having played through a few pieces in this collection, I particularly enjoyed Flora (by Henrik Lindstrand), Piano Piece, Imperfect Moments Pt. 4 (by Johannes Brecht), and Meeting Points at 2AM (by Ondrej Holý). Mainstream composers are represented by their most well-known, reflective pieces, such as Clair De Lune (Debussy), Prelude in C (J. S . Bach), and the second movement of the Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 (Beethoven).

I have one copy of this book to give away in my competition. To take part, leave your comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will announce the winner on Monday evening (British time). Good luck!

For an in-depth review of this book, head to Pianodao blog (click here), and to purchase a copy, click here.

www.fabermusic.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.


 

Finchcocks Piano Courses 2019

A weekend spent at the splendid Finchcocks manor house is rather like stepping back into the Eighteenth Century. Situated in Goudhurst, in the South East of England, and set in ample grounds, it’s positioned advantageously for panoramic views of the Kent countryside. This elegant Georgian mansion (see photo above), built in 1725, provides the perfect setting for luxury piano courses. Soft furnishings, tastefully muted colour schemes, original flagstone floors, marble and granite fireplaces, elaborate chandeliers, impossibly high ceilings, and wonderfully creaky staircases, allow a glimpse into what life might have been like nearly 300 years ago.

Accommodation on the third floor of the Finchcocks Mansion.

Last weekend marked my second visit to Finchcocks. On this occasion our accommodation was in the main house, whereas previously, we (myself and course participants) had stayed in the Coach House, a separate building to the right of the manor house. Meals are enjoyed altogether in a palatial dining room, with locally sourced food, all prepared and served by a chef. And for those who like a tipple, there is plenty of wine on offer too!

Courses begin on Friday evening at 7.00pm and end at 3.30 – 4.00pm on Sunday with afternoon tea. And they are fairly intensive affairs, so it really is possible to learn a substantial amount in a short space of time. I tutored an intermediate course; approximately Grade 5 – 7 level of the ABRSM examinations. We began on Friday with a duet session – the ideal ice-breaking introduction. I used my own duets and trios (Snapchats Duets & Trios), which are purposefully simple and tuneful, for a stress-free, friendly, and fun opener.

Duets & trios on two pianos in the crypt.

Saturday started at 9.00am with a two-hour technique session, focusing on straight-forward exercises which are helpful for developing flexibility, and alleviating physical tension. The weekend consisted of several class sessions, with participants playing their prepared repertoire, a memorisation session, a sight-reading session, and individual lessons for each course member. On Saturday evening, before dinner, we enjoyed a piano recital given by pianist Alexander Metcalfe, who played a programme of works by Satie, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt.

Built in 1974, with a powerful sonorous bass and a lyrical mid-range, this model 200 Bosendorfer was manufactured in Vienna, with ivory keys and is used for concerts and recitals in the hall.

A particular highlight at Finchcocks is the tantalizing array of pianos on which to practice. There are ten in total, and the majority are housed in the attractive crypt (see photo, above left); here, the pianos are contained in their own segregated area, allowing for private practice. Finchcocks was a musical instrument museum for forty-five years until it was purchased by current owners Neil and Harriet Nichols. The museum housed a variety of keyboard instruments, and therefore it seems fitting that the current collection also showcases an interesting selection of historical instruments.

The ‘flagship’ Steinway Model B, housed in the recital room.

Alexander gave his recital on a Bosendorfer, which is situated in the main hall on the ground floor (photo above, right). Also on the ground floor, there is a new Steinway Model B (photo, left) in the recital room, and a small Broadwood piano in the entrance hall. This instrument (see photo below) was constructed especially for Bertha Broadwood and it was designed to fit into her living room, therefore it is just 5 feet in length (and it’s nicknamed ‘Bertha’!).

Built in 1900 for Bertha Broadwood, chairman of Broadwood at the time, to fit in a space in her front room.

Most of the remaining instruments are in the crypt, and you can click on the gallery images below for more information about each one.

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Course participants brought a variety of prepared repertoire, including works by J.S. Bach (Prelude No 4 from Six Short Preludes), W. A. Mozart (Sonata in G major K. 283), Friedrich Kuhlau (Sonatina in C major Op. 55 No. 1), C.P.E. Bach (Solfeggietto in C minor H. 220), Frédéric Chopin (Prelude in D flat major ‘Raindrop’ Op. 28 No. 15 and Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6), William Gillock (Holiday in Paris), and Richard Rodney Bennett (Rosemary’s Waltz).

Finchcocks hosts piano courses virtually every weekend, and there is certainly something to suit every level with beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, alongside those for improvisation and even a course for piano teachers. You can choose from a cohort of expert course tutors including Dave Hall, Graham Fitch, Warren Mailley-Smith, Penelope Roskell, and Lucinda Mackworth-Young.

I will be tutoring two further courses this year; an intermediate course from October 4th – 6th and an advanced course from November 15th – 17th. If you are seeking a majestic weekend retreat to hone your piano skills, or you’re returning to the piano after a break, or you simply wish to connect with new piano friends, you will love Finchcocks.

Click here for the list of new courses.

www.finchcocks.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.

Snapchats Duets & Trios

Snapchats was originally a collection of short piano duets which was published a few years ago. This volume has now been republished and updated, with the inclusion of extra duets and some trios too; it’s most definitely bigger and better than ever!

Snapchats are intended for students from late beginner standard to approximately Grade 4 (ABRSM level). There are 19 duets (four hands at one keyboard) and 4 trios (six hands at one keyboard) in this volume, and they are short, succinct pieces for those who want to explore the art of ensemble playing or simply improve sight-reading skills.

Broadly minimalist in style, these pieces are between 8 and 16 bars in length and they offer a wide selection of moods from expressive atmospheric works such as Sutra, Andante, Shanti Shanti and Joyful, to up-beat numbers like Quick Chat, Hopscotch, Samsara and Take Three. It was quite a challenge to write very short engaging pieces, but students and teachers routinely comment on how much they enjoy the brevity these pieces offer, and many end up repeating the piece (some pieces do have repeat signs for this purpose). Both duets and trios become progressively more difficult throughout the book.

I use these duets and trios as the basis for my sight-reading classes. When I work with students (and teachers) in group classes, one element which they all enjoy and which can also be helpful, is to practice reading altogether. In Malaysia last year I had a class of fifteen piano teachers  simultaneously playing the same trio on five pianos!

You might choose to play Snapchats for fun with friends or perform them in a more formal setting at a music festival or recital, and I hope they offer a special and enjoyable experience. You can listen to each piece by clicking on the following sound files below:

Published by 80 days publishing (Christopher Norton’s publishing company), they are available to purchase 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.


 

Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 is now available, and, as I know some readers have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, today’s post provides some information about this new publication. I’m very excited about the third book in this series. Each book has its own character and unique collection of pieces, but this one is my favourite!

As a recap, Play it again: PIANO Book 1 and 2 were both published in 2017. Play it again is a progressive and graded piano course, published by Schott Music, intended for those who are returning to piano playing after a break. However, this course has also proved popular for students wanting to explore different repertoire between exam grades too. You can find out more about Book 1, here, and Book 2, here.

The course moves happily alongside the U.K. examination board system. Book 1 takes students from Grade 1 -4 and Book 2, from approximately Grade 5 – 8 level. Book 1 features 28 mostly original pieces taken from standard (as well as more unusual) repertoire, and Book 2 contains 21 pieces. Each ‘level’ consists of a group of pieces focusing on different aspects of technique and musicianship.  For many, particularly those learning alone, the most important facet are the copious practice notes and suggestions which accompany every piece. Piano teachers who fancy an anthology of pieces to work through with their pupils may like to explore this course too.

Play it again: PIANO Book 3

Book 3 will take students on from where Book 2 left off; approximately Grade 8 level through to Associate Diploma level. The new book is much larger than Book 1 and 2 (at 156 pages), and the practice notes which accompany each piece are, as may be expected, far more extensive.

What you can expect to find in Book 3

Book 3  consists of 11 piano pieces,  the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works and those suitable for exams). Similar to Book 1 and 2, there is a ‘technique’ section at the beginning of Book 3, with practical exercises and suggestions; these are especially helpful for those with tension issues. In the ‘technique’ section I have included hand flexibility exercises, information on the Bridge position, and exercises for developing finger agility  (especially for the fourth and fifth fingers), as well as thumb exercises. The Warm-Up exercises at the end of the book focus on ways of developing a more holistic approach to pre-practice preparation.

Each piece contains between 3 and 10 pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. The layout is very similar to that of Book 1 and 2. As this is a progressive course, it’s possible to ‘return’ to a level to suit your current standard; some may want to start at the beginning of Book 3,  whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at a later stage.

Book 3 is divided into two parts:

1. Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma

2. Post Grade  8 Diploma –  Associate Diploma

As Book 3 is a much more advanced level than that of Book 1 and 2, the repertoire is classical and the book is geared towards those who want, or are possibly considering, taking post Grade 8 exams. It’s possible to create a suitable post grade 8 diploma (ARSM/DipLCM) or Associate Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, ALCM) programme entirely from this book.  The former section consists of six works, and the latter, five. Each section contains a concert study (in the same manner as Book 1 and 2), alongside a collection of standard, as well as lesser known, pieces.

I hope you like my selection! This choice was based on many factors: the need to include pieces which employ particular techniques, musicianship, and, most importantly, works which display the chosen composer’s overall style effectively, and it was imperative to represent many different styles of music. Each work also had to be enjoyable to play, and, as with most commercial publications, some works simply had to be well-known. Other more practical aspects, such as overall programming of the book and the length of the piece, also came into play.

Book 3 Repertoire

Grade 8 – Post Grade 8 Diploma:

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major K. 215
Edvard Grieg: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op. 65 No. 6
Claude Debussy: La Puerta del Vino L. 223 No. 3
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No.  6
Paul Hindemith: Interludium and Fuga Decima in D flat
Melanie Spanswick: Frenzy, Etude for Nimble Fingers

Post Grade 8 Diploma to Associate Diploma Level

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor ‘Pathetique’ Op 13
Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major Op. 118 No. 2
Edward MacDowall: Wild Jagd from Virtuoso Etudes Op. 46 No. 3
Issac Albeniz: Asturias Leyenda Op.  47 No. 5
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12

Layout

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key, where appropriate; or I have linked it to those already featured in Book 1 and 2.  There are warm-up or pre-practice exercises, tailored to every piece. My aim was to highlight a myriad of practice ideas and different methods of breaking pieces down, hopefully re-assembling them with ease and with a greater understanding.

Each piece contains fingering, dynamic suggestions and (where necessary) some pedalling. Although you may choose to ignore this and add your own. All the information provided for every piece is transferable to an infinite number of piano works, therefore building solid practical methods for tackling different styles and genres. There are four videos online already, on Schott’s Youtube channel, and we will add another three teaching videos to this playlist very soon.

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The pages are well laid out and are designed with ‘tip circles’ and ‘technique box-outs’, and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano (see gallery above for an example of the page layouts).

Play it again: PIANO is now sold worldwide and many piano schools are using it as their course of choice for students. Schott Music and I launched Book 3 on April 4th at the Frankfurt Musikmesse (see image at the top; pictured with my editors, Robert Schäfer and Schott Editor-in-chief Rainer Mohrs, and the Cristofori Singapore team).

This year I will be travelling around the U.K. visiting various music stores giving Play it again workshops, so if you would like to find out more about the books, please keep an eye on this blog for updates about my travels. I’ll also be visiting the Far East twice for book tours, as well as Germany and Italy.

You can purchase Book 3, watch my teaching videos, and find out more about the Play it again: PIANO series, by clicking here.

Alternatively, purchase from Amazon, 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.


 

Selecting the piano course for you: 5 top tips

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter focuses on piano courses. Hope you find it of interest.


Piano courses are becoming increasingly popular amongst adults and children learning to play the piano. And to keep abreast of this growing demand, there are significantly more opportunities for this student demographic, with courses for students of all levels, semi-professionals and piano teachers, popping up every year.

My first post offers a few tips for those considering a course, and my second (to be published in Pianist’s next newsletter) will offer suggestions for preparing for such an experience.

  1. When selecting your course, it may be prudent to decide what you would like to achieve. It might be that you want to study with a particular teacher, or perhaps you fancy playing more chamber music or duets with a fellow pianist of a similar standard, or it could be that you need more experience at performing in public. Look for courses with an emphasis on your chosen aspect. Each one will offer something different and unique.
  2. There are piano courses which pride themselves on a really luxurious experience with sumptuous food and beautiful accommodation (although you may pay a premium), whereas others might be held in a school, but offer excellent practice facilities with well-tuned instruments. Offsite B&B accommodation is a prerequisite for some residential courses, which in turn can provide much-needed relaxation and respite from a demanding schedule.
  3. Generally, the larger or longer the course, the more fellow students you will meet. Piano courses can be wonderfully social affairs with the same students returning year after year, forming close friendships. This is the primary reason why adult students stick to the same ones; camaraderie can fuel an optimal study experience.
  4. If you would prefer to be an observer, attending lessons, workshops and classes, but not participating, then this can be a great introduction. Many courses offer this option but always check with the course administrator. ‘Open class’ policies are most helpful for the less experienced student. I encourage my students to attend as many master classes and workshops as they can, because often more can be learnt this way, without nerves and stress intervening; it’s then easier to decide if this course of study is suitable for you.
  5. Some courses are ‘specialist’ with one expert teacher giving master classes for a select group of students (these are usually shorter or weekend courses), whilst others include multiple study options such as theory, aural, composition lessons and sight-reading classes, or the chance to study with more than one faculty member. You may like to take this into consideration, particularly if you are preparing for an examination, diploma or concert performance. For those less confident in their playing ability or skill, there are courses which focus on certain levels; intermediate courses or courses for beginners or elementary players, for example.

The following piano courses are held in the UK and all offer a different experience (they are placed in alphabetical order):

– Benslow Music Courses

– Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists

– Finchcocks Music

– Hindhead Piano Course

– Jackdaws Residential Piano Course

– Piano Week

– Summer School for Pianists

Image: Finchcocks Piano Courses


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.


Stars of the Albion Grand Prix 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.starsofthealbion.org.uk


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.


 

Twiddling Your Thumbs

Recently I’ve been working with several students, aiming to develop strong, active thumbs. This may sound rather strange, but we tend to take the thumb for granted. They protrude at the side of each hand and we just expect them to support the fingers. I’ve written several times, here on this blog and in various articles, about the importance of a strong finger technique, but so far I’ve written little about the poor old thumb.

Thumb movement can make a colossal difference to many aspects of piano technique, as essentially they ‘control’ almost half of our hands, due to their dominant, and slightly lower, position (compared to the fingers). Alberti bass accompaniments, octave playing, pristine rapid passagework, are just a few of the typical piano elements demanding a clean, well-formed thumb. In my teaching, I’m very aware of a student’s movement during piano playing. Demonstrating to pupils ‘how’ and ‘where’ to move is an issue which must be constantly addressed. Without correct, helpful movement, technique really can’t be developed. This is certainly the case with our thumbs, and they require a different approach to the fingers.

Whereas fingers are encouraged to play with all joints active, that is, not collapsing, and on the tips (or finger pads), ensuring strength and contact with the key, the thumb will, by necessity, play on its side. However, like fingers, they are best utilized with the joints fully engaged for optimum movement. If we allow our thumbs to just ‘hang’ or lag behind our fingers, or even worse, ignore them altogether, they will be unable to articulate with clarity and precision.

Here are a few ideas for clean thumb playing:

To be aware of thumb movement, start by moving the thumb; you can do this exercise away from the keyboard. Sway your thumb back and forth under the hand, gradually building flexibility. It can also help to move the thumb in a circular motion over the hand too, but aim to do this carefully and free of any tension.

Now experiment at the piano with four white notes; C, D, E and F using the right hand. Try this fingering 1, 2, 3, 1. The first and last note will be played by the thumb. When you play the third finger on the E, lift your wrist slightly allowing the thumb to go under the hand to play the final note, but don’t let go of the E. You’ll notice this position, that is playing the E and F together, will contort your hand slightly. Make sure your hand muscles and tendons, especially around the thumb joint, are pliable and flexible, so this position feels comfortable; it will require a ‘letting go’ or release of the tendons and muscles within the thumb joint in order to feel relaxed. This is best done whilst keeping both notes depressed, and it feels easier if you ‘drop’ you hand and wrist (as opposed to keeping them in a stiff position), releasing tension. Now do this with the left hand, perhaps using C, B, A and G.

You can also experiment with arpeggios. Using the right hand, play a C major arpeggio; middle C with the thumb (1), E with your second finger (2), G with your third finger (3),  and C (above middle C), again with the thumb (1). When you reach the G with the third finger, turn the thumb under the hand, leaving both finger and thumb in place, as shown in the photo:Try to ensure that your hand keeps loose and relaxed as both notes are depressed. Again, it’s the release of tension in the hand and thumb joint as the notes are held which will help and encourage easy thumb movement.  Now try this with left hand too; a C with the fifth finger, E with the fourth finger, G with the second finger, C with the thumb, and then turn onto the E with fourth finger, holding both the second C and E in place, releasing the thumb joint muscles.  This gap might feel unnatural at first, but when combined with a free wrist and arm movement, it will eventually feel relaxed.

Aim to use thumbs on a scale. Taking C major again, try this fingering: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 or even: 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3.

This works well with a chromatic scale too. It may feel a little unorthodox to begin with, as the movements required will test the thumb, encouraging it to ‘move’ out of its comfort zone, but provided this is done with total flexibility in the wrist and arm, and without tension, the thumb should feel more controlled.

Finally, find an Alberti Bass pattern (a broken chordal accompaniment figure), which requires the use of thumbs. Here’s a left hand example from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 (first movement):

A weak or flabby thumb is very obvious in this pattern (generally the thumb would play the repeated middle Cs in the example above). The thumb must skim the keys lightly but very precisely and rhythmically. After blocking out the chordal pattern (playing the notes altogether, so you are aware of the fingering and note patterns), play deeply into the keys on every note, with a heavy tone. Accenting can help, at first just on the thumb, ensuring it plays on the right hand corner of the nail and with a good connection to the key surface. Now accent every note, employing a very free rotating wrist movement throughout. Once the fingers have been given a thorough work out, play the note patterns again very quickly and lightly ensuring a tight rhythm. It’s essential to balance the hand in passagework such as this, so a combination or finger/thumb power and wrist rotation will be crucial. But without an active thumb, achieving evenness will be almost impossible.

I hope these suggestions may be of help. They will at least draw attention to the plight of the thumb, so it hopefully won’t be a bystander during piano practice sessions.


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.


Etude op. 97 No 1 by Anton Reicha

Some readers will know that I write a regular ‘how-to-play’ article for Pianist magazine; If you’ve yet to discover this magazine, you can find out much more here. My article focuses on elementary level pieces for students of around Grade 1 – 3 level. It’s actually called a ‘beginners how-to-play’, but in reality few students start with such repertoire. Our audience is mainly adult amateurs, teachers and students, and I always appreciate your kind comments (and there are many!) regarding the magazine and my articles when I visit various parts of the world, adjudicating and giving workshops.

Around 900 words in length, my column aims to shed some light on the style of each chosen work whilst offering some detailed practice ideas. Pianist magazine ensures that readers can listen to and play each piece, and every edition contains the score of the piece and a recording, which is played by Chinese pianist Chenyin Li.

A particularly wonderful aspect of my brief is that it has brought me in contact with the music of a myriad of lesser known composers. In this respect it has been a real education. Magazine editor Erica Worth and I are constantly searching for suitable material and this has led to the discovery of whole collections of various educational piano pieces. Always mindful of the level and difficulty of the piece, occasionally we unearth a composition which may be slightly trickier than the expected level, but which we feel just must be included. The featured piece in Pianist magazine edition 105 was one such piece.

Etude Op. 97 No. 1 (see above image) was written by Anton Reicha (1770 – 1836), who was a friend and contemporary of Beethoven; the two composers studied at the University of Bonn together.  Reicha is probably best known for his wind quintet literature and the important role he advocated as a teacher, numbering Liszt, Berlioz and Franck amongst his pupils. He wrote treatises on various aspects of composition and theory, but due to his apparent aversion to being published, his music largely fell into obscurity soon after his death, and his life and work have yet to be studied in detail.

Reicha contributed to the piano repertoire via a series of fugues and etudes, as well as larger scale works, including a set of variations lasting over 45 minutes in length. Inventive and imaginative, he was an early advocate of polytonality and asymmetric meters. Reicha’s fugues were also renowned for breaking the usual strict rules. However, his music is predominantly tonal, with a spontaneous quality, and his scores are relatively free from the ubiquitous composer’s musical directions, leaving interpretation solely to the performer.

The Etude Op. 97 No. 1 is an extremely beautiful, contemplative little piece; the melody  largely floats serenely above a series of repeated left hand chords, and then roles are reversed later in the piece. This Etude is an exercise (or a study) in balance between the hands, chordal balance and cantabile. Yet ultimately, it’s all about developing an elegant, personal reading with a depth of colours via a rich sound and judiciously balanced phrases. Irrespective of your level as a player, I urge you to consider playing this piece, if only to revel in the delectable harmonic twists and turns combined with a simply delicious melodic line. You can enjoy pianist Ivan Ilic’s performance by clicking on the link below. To  subscribe to Pianist magazine, click here.

You can read my ‘how-to-play’ article on this work here:

Etude Op 97 1a by Anton Reicha

If you would like to purchase and download the music for this piece, 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.