A few thoughts on piano teaching in Singapore & Malaysia

I spent an energizing and inspiring Summer period away from home this year. For me, this was the perfect way to enjoy a substantial break from my conventional teaching and writing. After working trips to the US (New York) and Germany (Gelsenkirchen), I savoured a relaxing, short holiday in Devon (South West of the UK) before embarking on a three-week sojourn to Southeast Asia.

I was predominantly based in Singapore, but I did cram a jam-packed five days in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) too. This part of the world has always been a favourite; I have visited these shores many times as a young pianist, more recently returning as an examiner (for the ABRSM) and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals (BIFF). The culture, colour, and sheer vibrancy of this region resonate with me completely, and I particularly admire the deeply respectful attitude to my profession.

My work began with a visit to the Singapore Performing Arts Festival, where I was invited to adjudicate (for BIFF) small classes of solo piano and strings. This festival, which is based in Katong (to the East of the city centre), is fairly new and has yet to blossom into the colossal organisation of the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival where classes of sixty are a regular occurrence  (and where I will be adjudicating for a month in March 2018). The classes in Singapore were mostly filled with students preparing for exams or concert performances, and, as always, it was a real pleasure to hear their work and hopefully help with a few constructive comments.

The primary reason for the trip was to introduce and talk about my new two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music), and under the kind auspices of the festival, I gave two days of master classes and a further two of workshops, all of which incorporated my new books. The first workshop was for students and their parents, and the second, for teachers. Both were well attended, but the workshop for teachers was especially interesting (pictured above). My chosen topics (piano technique, scales & arpeggios, memorisation and sight-reading) were subjects of concern such is the regularity with which these elements are taught, often due to examination requirements (the British exam system thrives throughout the region).

All twenty-eight teachers were not just responsive to my work, they were also keen to come to the piano, one by one, and try out my ideas and suggestions. The day flew past, and it was extremely satisfying and heart-warming to see such an animated, engaged group.

A couple of days were then spent giving private lessons for the festival; working both with children taking their graded exams, and teenagers and teachers preparing for their performing and teaching diplomas. Practice and preparation is a serious business in Singapore, which suits my style of teaching, and I relished working on the FTCL and FRSM repertoire with several students.

There are a plethora of piano studios and music schools in this tiny country,  some of which inhabit shopping malls! My second engagement was giving private lessons and public classes at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, also both based in Katong, in a mall full of beauty salons and health shops. These busy studios teach students of all levels, and we had fun working on mainly exam repertoire. Parents are generally involved with their child’s musical progress and frequently come to the lessons. Some will disagree with this practice, but I find it can be very beneficial; it ensures fruitful practice and therefore bodes well for overall improvement.

The teacher’s workshop at The Musique Loft (pictured to the right, above) was held in a studio with a beautiful Steinway grand and with another group of dedicated teachers. Memorisation is a popular topic amongst teachers; ‘I can never memorise and therefore find it challenging to teach to students’ is a remark I commonly hear. We work at this subject in several ways, but memorising on the spot is a feature of my class, and I’ve yet to find anyone who can’t do it. Observing pianists who suddenly realise they can master this aspect of piano playing is always a happy moment.

Another element which appeared popular at all the workshops, were the sight-reading classes (which round-off the day); at the end of each session, I encourage groups to sight-read altogether (one of which is pictured to the left, at the Performing Arts Festival), with three pianists per piano or six hands (there were nearly always two or three instruments in the room (and we had five pianos to work with in Kuala Lumpur!)). I use one or two pieces, both of which are well within most student’s capabilities, and we run through them with me acting as the conductor; I use the same musical parts duplicated, which makes it easier for students to ‘hear’ and feel where they are in the piece (and in the bar) at any given time.

British composer Mike Cornick has written a splendid series of trios, 4 Pieces for 6 hands at 1 piano (there are several books in the series for different abilities), and the second piece, Sempre Legato, is a winner (the front cover of this volume was photographed many a time during these sessions, by those eager to get their hands on a copy). Sight-reading in groups is a sure way to improve reading, although most work on this demanding discipline is done individually in my classes before playing as a group.

In this part of the world, piano teachers sometimes work in music shops (where jobs are coveted). After working for three days at The Musique Loft and Musique D’amour, I gave classes and shorter workshops for two days at the Cristofori Shop and School (pictured below) near Marina Bay (with an impressive view of the renowned hotel, Marina Bay Sands). The Cristofori brand is new to me – it’s popular in this part of the world, originating in Singapore, and taking its name from the ‘inventor’ of the piano, Italian maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731). The Cristofori instruments I played had a slightly muffled, ‘soft’ tone and a deep touch (which students responded to favourably).I took the bus from Singapore to Petaling Jaya, to the West of Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed for a few nights. A refreshing change from flying, it was a pleasant way to spend six hours and offered a chance to enjoy the scenery. Kuala Lumpur might be viewed by some as an assault on the senses with its stunning Batu Caves (I managed a quick visit), frighteningly imposing Petronas Twin Towers, endless traffic jams, bustling night markets, open-minded cultural mix, intoxicating heat, and stupendously spicy, fabulous food!

Gloria Musica is a popular piano school in this region with many students and teachers (and it’s about to become larger with a lovely new premises). I had been invited to coach several three-hour master classes and two days of workshops; one for students and another for teachers (pictured above, at the end of the day, with Play it again: PIANO). A factor which I feel is important when giving workshops is the inclusion of all. Active workshops seem the best way to assimilate information, and to this end I urge each participant to come to the piano and engage in what is being demonstrated (although this is a personal choice; students are never forced to take part). As a result, everyone does participate and they usually comment positively on how much more is learned.

After the final classes, the tour concluded with a teacher’s concert (see poster below). A group of teachers at the school (and professors from UCSI University) played short pieces to a large and appreciative audience. I played some of my own compositions. The range of music was interesting, from a duet version of Carnival of the Animals (by Saint-Saëns) to some compelling (and previously unknown to me) Chinese pieces.

I am extremely grateful to the teachers and piano studio owners who kindly invited me to their schools during this period (and spent much time and energy showing me around these enchanting countries), to the Performing Arts Festival in Singapore for its wonderful hospitality, and to Schott Music for their exemplary distribution and vital support.

The opportunity to travel is a privilege. And to incorporate travel and work together is an aspect of my life which I have never taken for granted. I left Singapore and Malaysia with a greater understanding of the culture and complete admiration for their dedication to music study. I can’t wait to return very soon.

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.


PIANO WEEK at Rugby School

If you are a regular visitor to piano summer schools but haven’t yet discovered PIANO WEEK, it might be time to explore this rapidly expanding piano course and festival. With seven international residencies during 2017, you will certainly be spoilt for choice.

Established by pianist Samantha Ward, this impressive touring piano festival and summer school moves around the world. Samantha and her pianist husband Maciej Raginia, has designed a bespoke musical performance experience for pianists of all ages and abilities. Here, you can expect to find a five-year old beginner alongside an adult amateur, a professional concert pianist or a world-renowned artist all engaged in music making together – on stage, in public master classes, playing duets or composing.

The concept of a piano festival and summer course without boundaries, whether that be age, ability or location, has generated unique concert platforms, whilst engaging new audiences, as well as offering a confidence boost to all participating pianists.

A tempting choice of venue and country (or continent!) is on offer; Sankt Goar in Germany, Foligno in Italy, Beijing in China or any of three residencies in the UK. These include two at Moreton Hall School and one at Rugby School. The latter, which is UK’s newest addition to the festival, is being held between the 13th and 20th August 2017.

PIANO WEEK at Rugby coincides with the 450th anniversary of the school’s foundation. Based at the well equipped music school, with concerts held in the Memorial Chapel and the Temple Speech Room, this week-long residency offers participants an opportunity to study with distinguished concert pianists in a stimulating environment.

Samantha (Artistic Director) heads the piano team, and will work alongside Maciej (Creative Director), Alexander Karpeyev and Mark Nixon. Apart from daily recitals given by all the faculty members, the closing concert will feature a two piano recital; internationally celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich will perform works by Debussy and Rachmaninoff with Samantha, as well as Schubert’s final Sonata D960. It’s Stephen Kovacevich’s third consecutive year performing at the festival, which is a tribute to its cultural wealth and success.

The content of this intensive piano course consists of a long list of individual one-to-one lessons, master classes, duet lessons, listening and harmony, memorisation, composition, theory and sight-reading sessions to name but a few. All this is delivered on excellent instruments with copious practice facilities. For those keen on physical activities, there is a gym, two sports halls, tennis, hockey, netball, squash or badminton (all subject to availability), provided free of charge throughout the duration of the festival. Participants can also benefit from using the 25-meter swimming pool for a small fee.

Whether you live near the school campus or come from further afield, both non-residential and fully catered residential options are available for participants at PIANO WEEK | Rugby. You can apply for your place or buy tickets for all the concerts online.


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 1

The piano is an intoxicating instrument. Those who have played in their youth often harbour a desire to return to it later in life. Piano ‘returners’ make up an increasingly large cohort of amateur pianists. Whether younger or older, it’s usually fairly easy to pick up again and  progress can be swift, proffering the opportunity to fall in love with this majestic instrument (and its colossal repertoire) all over again.

My new two book piano course, Play it again: PIANO has been written with the ‘returner’ in mind. Book 1 was published just last month (and Book 2 will be available from the beginning of July). The first book takes pianists almost back to the beginning (but not quite; this isn’t a piano tutor or method book).

The course consists of 49 piano pieces, the majority of which are drawn from standard repertoire (with emphasis on pedagogical works), starting at elementary level (Grade 1) through to advanced (Grade 8). Each book has an extensive ‘technique’ section at the beginning, with plenty of technical reminders and practice recommendations, and a ‘theory’ section at the end. Each piece contains at least two pages of practice ideas and tips, as well as many musical examples, diagrams and photographs. 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 (which is what I suggest, as this can be beneficial, even your playing is at a much higher level), whilst others may prefer to ‘drop in’ at Book 2 or a later stage.

In Book 1, the technique section focuses on flexibility, posture, and keeping relaxed during practice sessions, with a few warm-up exercises, posture suggestions, and scales, arpeggios, and sight-reading practice tips. The theory section offers note reading reminders and exercises, how to keep time, time signatures, and all the information needed to understand the music within the book.

Each book is divided into four parts, and Book 1 looks like this: Elementary, Late Elementary, Early Intermediate and Intermediate. Although this course is not necessarily exam based, it’s helpful to know the approximate grades for each level; Elementary is roughly Grades 1 – 2 level (ABRSM exam standard), Late Elementary, Grades 2 – 3, Early Intermediate, Grade 3 – 4, and Intermediate, Grades 4 – 5.

Each level contains seven pieces (therefore 28 in Book 1); a technical study, an arrangement and a selection of standard repertoire. My brief was to include a wide variety of styles and genres, so there’s plenty for those who enjoy rock, latin, jazz, blues and even a piece for those who want to try their hand at improvisation. I’ve endeavoured to add a number of favourite original works throughout both volumes, and have balanced these with some terrific lesser-known gems.

The Elementary section includes works by Purcell, Petzold, Bertini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar (an arrangement of Salut d’Amour), a latin number by John Kember and Elena Cobb’s improvisation piece, Super Duck. Whilst the Late Elementary portion features Clarke, W.A. Mozart, Schumann, Gurlitt,  a study by Schytte, a Scott Jopin arrangement and a rock piece by Tim Richards. In the Early Intermediate section you can expect to find works by J.S. Bach, Gounod, Chopin, a study by Lemoine, The Sailor’s Hornpipe (an arrangement), a ragtime piece by John Kember, and a blues number by Mike Readdy. And the final collection, Intermediate, offers Clementi, Burgmuller, Satie, a study by Czerny, an arrangement of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, a rock piece by Jurgen Moser and a minimalist inspired Contemporary piece (Karma from Digressions) by myself.

I’ve included the scale and arpeggio of each key (where appropriate), and warm-up exercises, tailored to certain pieces. There are a myriad of practice ideas, and different methods of breaking pieces down, resembling them with ease and with 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.

This book could be used by a plethora of students; adults returning to this pursuit (it could be useful for study on your own or whilst learning with a teacher), teenagers (or anyone of any age!) who fancy a progressive course with a variety of music (it could be used alongside piano exam preparation too), and piano teachers may find it a beneficial selection of repertoire to use with adult students in particular (several piano teaching friends have already started using Book 1 for this purpose).

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The pages are well laid out (see above) and are designed with ‘Tips’ and ‘technique’ box-outs (the books are published by one of the world’s leading music publishing houses, Schott), and I hope it’s an easy to use course, inspiring pianists to rekindle their love for the piano.

You can find out more here, watch my taster videos by clicking on the links below, and order your copy from many outlets worldwide, including:

For those in the UK: Schott Music or Amazon (there are many other online shops also selling the book).

For those in Europe: Schott Music

For those in the US: Amazon

For those in Canada: Amazon

For those in Japan: Amazon

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.


Top Recommended Piano Resources for November 2015

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Another month has passed and it’s nearly Christmas! November’s resources include the usual range of piano related fare; music for beginners, elementary and intermediate pieces for you or your students, piano games, books, competitions and an online resource offering a 10% discount to all my readers! Read on to find out more….

Beginners and Elementary:

Ornament Moves


The latest worksheet to emerge from Susan Paradis’ ever popular piano teacher and student blog is this one, featuring Ornament Moves (pictured above). A Christmas worksheet aimed at reviewing steps and skips; you can either print the sheet or download to your tablet. It helps beginners learn about skipping notes, and reinforces their appearance on the stave. Students need only ‘tick’ the correct answer – so it’s a handy resource for teachers especially. You can print, download and find out much more information about Susan’s blog here.

Improve Your Sight-reading! A Piece a Week

A piece a week

A Piece a Week is a welcome new addition to the Improve Your Sight-reading series by Paul Harris, published by Faber Music. The series isn’t actually sight-reading as such (although could be a perfect supplement to the more advanced player’s sight-reading practice session); it is designed to encourage elementary players to literally learn one piece every week. The volume, which can used alongside Paul’s original Improve Your Sight-Reading! series, contains a selection of short pieces starting with simpler tunes, gradually increasing in difficulty (two books exist at present – for Grade 1 and 2). Paul’s introduction explains all the essentials, and the concept of learning different notation and varied pianistic textures week by week is very beneficial, and eventually reading at sight will become easier and more manageable. Find out more and get your copy here.

Practice Games


Practice Games have been devised by the Take Piano Lessons website. The website offers 20 fun and educational games for children as well as many ideas for piano recitals too. The suggestions involve traditional style games such as Jenga, Twister and Flash cards, which have all been given an appropriate musical ‘twist’.  The recital ideas essentially revolve around theming concerts by including various favourite characters and traditional stories. All suggestions are free and you can find out much more here.


The Wheels of Time Piano Duet


Heather Hammond has featured frequently on my resource list. Her piano (and woodwind) compositions are popular around the world and, earlier this week, Heather’s music was performed at Steinway Hall in a concert for composers (held by EVC Music Publications). The Darina Piano Duo played this energetic, pulsating arrangement of Heather’s solo piece (watch their performance here), The Wheels of Time (already featured on this list). This duet is a showstopper and around Grade 4-6 level. Purchase your copy here.

Vladimir’s Blues


I recently discovered this haunting piece by German-born British composer Max Richter. It’s probably around Grade 6 level (intermediate) and is a reflective, meditative, essentially Minimalist work, which would work perfectly (in my opinion) in a cinematic setting. Written in 2004, the piece comes from Richter’s album, The Blue Notebooks; each work forming a series of ‘interconnected dreams’. Vladimir refers to the writer Nabokov, who, like Richter, was fascinated by butterflies. The oscillating pattern in the right hand is apparently a nod to Chopin and are akin to the fluttering of wings in slow motion.You can listen to the piece here and purchase here.


Making the Tailcoats Fit

Making Tailcoats fit

This is the first ever biography on the life of pianist, conductor, composer and Oscar-winner Richard Hageman. Dutch-born RIchard Hageman (1881 – 1966) toured the US at the beginning of the twentieth century as accompanist to the French cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert. For years he conducted the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performing with such musicians as Enrico Caruso and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Writing duo, South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers and Dutch journalist Asing Walthaus, have unearthed a wealth of remarkable facts about Hageman from archives and newspapers, making this a fascinating read. You can find out much more here, and purchase a copy here.



iPiano Screenshot

iPiano is an innovative online platform which allows students to learn to play the piano at their own pace. Created in a linear lesson series, iPiano can apparently take total beginners through to a level where they can confidently read music and play the piano. iPiano also offers a cover series which shows students how to play their favourite pieces as well as a series teaching students how to write and compose their own music.  As a special introduction to iPiano, my readers are being offered a 10% discount on all memberships. Just type in the word ‘MELANIE’ at the checkout! Enjoy! Find out more here.


International Piano Competition For Young Players


Competitions aren’t usually a remit on this list, but I couldn’t resist mentioning this one (initiated by publishers, Edition HH and the Windsor Piano School), to be held next year; the winners receive cash prizes and a recital opportunity in Oxford at the Holywell Music Room on July 10th 2016. The competition is open to pianists between the ages of 5 – 18 living anywhere around the world (there are three categories) and entered by submitting a video of specific repertoire. You can find out much more 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.

A few thoughts on demonstration

Interviews with great pianists are always interesting (this I know first hand, after speaking to forty concert pianists in my series Classical Conversations), but one particularly fascinating interview popped into my timeline recently; Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin spoke to Frederic Gaussin about his life and work. You can read the complete interview here. Detailed, in-depth and searingly honest, Kissin reveals his love for poetry, various composers, and admiration for his teacher Anna Kantor. Amongst many comments about her teaching, Kissin makes this statement:

‘Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.’

And it got me thinking; do we rely too much on demonstration during piano lessons? Just how easy is it to verbalise all instruction? Surely, showing students is far more productive? But Mrs. Kantor makes a very valid point, of course, by demonstrating we are subconsciously influencing our pupils’ interpretations.

After writing many articles on piano playing and providing written ‘lessons’ on piano works for various magazines, I’m aware just how tricky it can be to teach via speech or written ‘speech’ at least. Finding the right expressions, phrases or words isn’t easy, and can be  quite cumbersome. Lessons provide the opportunity to really show how to do it. But then, teaching young, very gifted students (such as those who would have frequented Anna Kantor’s class) is quite different from working with those wanting to pass a few exams, play for pleasure or even take a diploma.

Nevertheless, I decided to give this concept a chance. I asked a student to  participate in  my experiment, and I  conducted a thirty minute lesson without touching the keyboard. We worked on a few scales, arpeggios, and a Grade 7 exam piece.

Teaching scales might seem easy without demonstrating, but at the start of the lesson my student wasn’t moving as flexibly as she might, and rather than show the necessary finger movement in slow motion (as I normally would) followed by the rotational hand/wrist motion needed between notes and/or groups of notes, I’m left trying to describe it, which takes twice as long (and isn’t really as effective). Testing knowledge of keys/key signatures and pin pointing fingering is simple, but we then talk about accentuation and touch, which posses a few problems for the ‘verbalist’ (i.e. me!). I end up singing where accents might be placed or at least practised, and using my voice to show how to work in various rhythms in order to strengthen fingers, especially those in the left hand.

On discussing finger staccato, I’m left demonstrating again, but in the air! Having said this, my student understands immediately, and doesn’t appear bothered by my lack of participation.

Arpeggios prove equally awkward, but I manage to show the swivel movement required for security, again, in the air, which works to a degree. One element which comes to light as a result of not touching the piano, is the importance of listening, especially with regard to coordination. We all know the benefits of listening carefully to our playing (or a student’s playing), but whilst explaining how to practice when aiming for complete unison between hands, I calmly talk the student through the usual practice techniques which, for me at least, demand more concentration than usual (it’s definitely an added challenge to describe as opposed to demonstrate). If I had been showing in the normal way (i.e. playing myself), I perhaps wouldn’t have been so attentive in terms of totally focused on my student’s efforts.

As we move on to the exam piece, technical aspects are becoming less difficult to explain (you can certainly get used to this way of teaching fairly quickly) but what is rather arduous, is to verbalise the required sound. Talking about tone, variations of tone and a rich or Cantabile sound, doesn’t seem to quite work with a Grade 7 pupil, and I’m accustomed to either illustrating wrist movement, finger motion or necessary arm-weight, or helping students with their movements whilst they play in order to change or vary the tone. Many facets of interpretation can be talked about or ‘described’ with ease, but teaching any kind of voicing, variation in texture, phrasing or colouring seems to be more effective when demonstrated.

As the lesson ended, my pupil said she had still learnt a lot via this method, but I’m not sure this is the case, especially with regard to alleviating tension, which is still best illustrated (in my opinion).

I know from my own piano lessons, that by hearing piano sonority and aspects of interpretation from my teachers, I carried their playing in my mind, and used it as a  beacon for what I was trying to achieve (this could be cited as ‘copying’, of course, but the majority of pupils do need guidance up to a certain point).

Another positive aspect of demonstration is inspiration. Talking about playing, practising and discussing interpretation can provide plenty of food for thought, but if a passage or a section of a work is played reasonably well by the teacher, this can help the student to overcome various difficulties purely by watching and observing.

I enjoyed the experiment and have complete admiration for Mrs. Kantor’s style of teaching, but I’ll be sticking to a healthy mix of demonstration and verbalization in future.

Demonstrating at a recent workshop at Yamaha Music London, with piano enthusiast, Roger Toye.

Working with Roger Toye, at a recent workshop (at Yamaha Music London).

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.

It’s all in the Preparation 2: 5 Top Tips

Hands for blog

Last week I offered a few tips for those about to prepare a piano piece. These tips were primarily concerned with pre-practice elements (you can read them here), and today’s post proffers a few more ideas which I hope may be of interest.

Once you’ve marked up your score and have studied its structure, it’s time to get practising.

1. Much has been written about practising hands separately to start with, and there’s no doubt this is the way to go, particularly with complicated works such as a fugue or sonata, but how practice is actually done in this respect can make all the difference. Depending on level and standard, try to familiarize yourself with note patterns. It can be helpful to ‘speak’ the names of each note at first (bar by bar) and then find the corresponding keys on the keyboard. This might sound very basic, but so many pupils suffer from being unable to ‘find’ notes quickly, and this hampers ability to spot note patterns and position changes.

2. Take one line at a time (first right hand then the left) playing and mentally digesting every note, using correct fingerings, but without adhering to the pulse or rhythm. This should allow space to find all the notes, and even more importantly, be aware of hand position changes (which will be especially necessary if large leaps and chords are an issue). Work bar by bar at first, then line by line. If you practice bar by bar, aim to stop on the first beat of the following bar as opposed to the end of the one you are practising, as this will make continuity that mush easier when playing the whole line (or piece). Pay attention to the sound you are making, and aim to produce a rich timbre on every note. Conjuring a large sound at the start of practice, will make it easier to pull back and change the tone quality later (i.e. playing softer, lighter etc.). At this stage of practice, check how your body feels; do you feel suitably relaxed and free when playing? Try to ensure easy movement around the keyboard at all times, banishing any tightness or tension.

3. Now turn your attention to the rhythm. Find a steady practice tempo (usually no faster than a third of the intended speed), and set about ‘feeling’ the pulse. The quickest way to do this is by using a metronome. Once you are aware of the beat and are firmly ‘sitting’ on the pulse i.e. not rushing or pulling back too much, but simply ‘predicting’ accurately where the beat will fall, tap the rhythm of the piece or first page of the piece, if it is lengthy, with both hands; the right hand tapping the rhythm of the treble, and the left hand tapping that of the bass. This can help with understanding the rhythm and how the two musical lines interact and fit together.

4. Play through small passages hands separately (i.e. a couple of bars at a time); find all the correct notes (as before) but now play in time too. Much is made of counting (and it’s crucial in the early stages of learning a piece), but if you can learn to count aloud with a rhythmical, steady beat whilst playing, you’ll find keeping time is that much more accurate. Sub-dividing the beat can be beneficial as well. Eventually elongate practising in passages, so that you can play through the whole piece separate hands, in time (albeit slowly) with the correct notes. It might be necessary to repeat passages many times. I cannot stress enough the need to pay careful attention to the left hand; both the notes and the rhythm. The bass clef or left hand musical line drives a piece and to perform with real confidence and poise, this must be known as well (or even more so) than that of the right hand.

5.  In order to achieve an even tone, experiment by playing each hand with various touches (legato, non-legato, staccato etc.), thus helping to alleviate bumpy phrasing and uneven sound. When working hands separately, be aware of structure and phrasing. Sometimes, this element is completely forgotten what with attention being focussed on correct notes, movements and rhythm, but if you can achieve a beautiful sound and cantabile line, with effective phrasing and shaping whilst playing separate hands, then when hands are combined, the overall result could be spectacular.

You’re now ready to put the hands together, and I will publish these tips next week. Happy practising!

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.


8 Recommended Resources for March 2015

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This month I have listed nine resources, and I hope they contain some interesting and useful selections. Focusing again on ideas for beginners and younger players, as well as some intermediate pieces. The online content is often the most popular choice for many teachers and students.

Beginners and Elementary:

Improve Your Piano Grade!

Paul Harris/Richard Crozier: Improve Your Piano - Grade 1

A new set of publications by Faber Music. Written by Paul Harris and Richard Crozier, these volumes (I looked at Grades 1, 2 & 3), focus on the ABRSM exam syllabus for each grade, and they are based on Paul’s Simultaneous Learning method. The Simultaneous Learning map is printed at the beginning and referred to substantially for each piece. Nine works are featured in each book, and are given a holistic approach although the actual piece isn’t included, because these volume are designed to be used alongside the ABRSM syllabus. The method segregates each musical element; providing pre-notation activities (such as rhythm and pulse, aural, key and scale patterns), introducing the notation i.e. opening the book, playing and refining the piece and a worksheet. This encourages students to really ‘know’ their pieces from every angle, and some teachers may find it beneficial too. Buy a copy here.

Music, Me, Piano

A series of piano workbooks which have been written and devised by British piano teacher Roberta Wolff. They are very user-friendly and have been colourfully illustrated by Claire Holgate, really appealing to children of all ages. The practice note books are designed to make practising more fun and also encourage development and progress. Although interactive and lively, the basis for the concept is built on one of deliberate practice, and to this end they are beneficial for all piano students. The books work with any teaching method, and they can help set termly targets, make weekly practice notes and plans, asses whether students are on track, allow parents to check progress, draw scale patterns onto keyboards, and use manuscript paper and note pages. There are three different versions: Express, Workbook and Practice Pages, and they work for pupils of all standards too. You can order your copy here.

The Classical Piano Method: Repertoire Collection 2

This collection, arranged by German composer and arranger Hans-Günter Heumann and published by Schott Music, contains many well-known pieces such as Salut d’amour (Elgar), Clair de Lune (Debussy), Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J S Bach), Greensleeves (Anonymous) and The Entertainer (Joplin). Beginners and Elementary pianists will enjoy the tasteful arrangements which bestow the character of the original, but without the burden of too many notes! You can find out more about the collection of books and order your copy here.


Picture Studies

It’s great to highlight less familiar composers and their music. These lovely miniatures certainly fall into this category. Robert Bruce is a Canadian composer of both educational and film music. Many of his compositions have been included in the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) examinations syllabus, as well as various Canadian music festivals. Picture Studies contains six pieces for pupils of around Grade 3-5 level (British exam board standard), and they lie well under the hands, are bright, tuneful and fun to play. Piano Studies make an excellent alternative to standard repertoire and will give students a break from exam syllabuses. Listen to some of the pieces and get your copy here.

Little Passacaglia


This effective, contemplative  little piece was written by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died last year. It’s around grade 5/6 exam standard, and contains a beautiful serene, minimalist flavour (for those who appreciate and enjoy playing this style). Contemplative chord progressions lurching from one eloquent melodic strand to the next is a feature throughout, yet it has a wistful, melancholic character which will appeal to students. It requires a smooth, legato, cantabile touch; every note needs to contain pathos. Get a copy here.


Susan Paradis

American teacher, Susan Paradis, was one of the first teachers online to start a website exclusively for piano teachers. For almost 10 years, piano tutors from all over the world have come to her website to print music theory games, worksheets, early level music, flash cards, and other “printables”. Her free downloads of early level music, include off the staff notation for beginners. UK and Australian teachers especially love her webpage of material containing UK music terms. You can find out much more about Susan’s website and resources here.

Wolfie Piano App

Wolfie Piano App essentially provides students and teachers with a new or different way to practice. Download the app on the iPad or tablet, and Wolfie behaves in a similar method to a teaching assistant for the piano teacher, helping students master each piece. Wolfie has around 1000 scores in its digital sheet music catalogue, so there will be something for everyone. The App can listen to a performance, turn pages for you, provide practice statistics, score synchronized recordings, annotations and more. Visit the website here, and you’ll find more information about how to use the app here.

Musical Orbit

This is an interesting new website for all those wishing to learn to play an instrument. You can sign up completely free of charge, and once signed in, browse various teachers and their services. Select a date and time when you would like to connect with the teacher. Once you have booked your slot, you pay the price which is listed on the teacher’s profile. Musical Orbit will then put you in touch with your new teacher. All teachers have professional profiles and many are principal players of top orchestras. Musical Orbit has recently entered into lessons for beginners and young people too, offering beginner lessons and aural tests for a fraction of the price. Find out more 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.


Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation: The Memory Game

Next week I’m coaching at the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey (UK). My classes will focus on sight-reading, studies and exercises, and memorisation. To prepare, I’ve been re-visiting notes and articles on these topics and found the following on memorisation techniques; it’s the first article I wrote for the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition, Pg. 22-24), which is published by EPTA (the European Piano Teaching Association). If you teach the piano or wish to start teaching, you might consider joining this excellent organisation.

I hope these suggestions and ideas might be useful to those studying for their diplomas or teaching memorisation to students. There is a helpful PDF download at the end, with ten tips largely built on the ideas in the article.

The Memory Game

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) developed the concept of the solo piano recital and, as a result, the Romantic era became the golden age for the piano.

Liszt not only masterminded the solo recital but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too; with the instrument side-on so that a pianist’s profile could be admired with the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume. Crucially, he was also the first pianist to play from memory in public.

This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals. Liszt apparently often commented on the importance of playing without the score:

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’

(Living With Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, ed. by Alan Walker)

He benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed a charismatic romantic image; one which he had worked hard to cultivate. However, for subsequent generations of pianists, who have since made the concert platform their home, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. There are, of course, pianists who find memorisation a fairly straight forward process and would indeed never want to play with the score, but for most, playing from memory can cause grief and terror.

Today’s concert pianist is expected to play their entire repertoire from memory (with the exception of complex Twentieth Century works and chamber music). Successful memorisation often eludes students and they rely on learning a work digitally, praying their hands and fingers will remember where to go during performances. This approach doesn’t bode well because stress will often intervene and cause the dreaded memory lapse.

Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it shows you really ‘know’ your piece. There are many unexpected advantages to memorisation and perhaps one of the most important is a regular brain ‘workout’. There is no doubt that once the human brain learns to retain and process information then this generally becomes a habit and one which can be very useful in many different life situations.

Memorisation does put extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind-set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score accurately. If you know you are going play a piece from memory before learning begins, the best approach is to learn in a very focused way from the outset, making a conscious effort to memorise every bar, nuance and phrase as you are going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with a work, therefore it saves much time and energy if you are able to capitalize on this, rather than to study a piece by repeated reading and focus on memorising it at a later date.

Memorisation can be a daunting prospect particularly if you have never done it before. However, this should not deter you because it is entirely possible to develop this skill at any point in your piano playing career, and your confidence will soar when you become accustomed to playing without the score. Many find memorisation ultimately affords greater freedom.

There are so many ways to enhance your memorisation technique and if you implement many of the following suggestions, you will be well on the way to developing a reliable memory.

Here are four popular methods;

Visual memory

Try to remember what the music looks like on the page. At first you might recall certain patterns of notes, key signatures or where particular passages occur in the score. This is photographic memory. It helps to keep going through the work in your mind, first of all with the score in front of you and then without the music away from the piano. The latter is a skill that is really worth developing as it allows for mental practice which can be a very useful tool.

It’s best not to rely too much on looking at your hands as this type of memory can cause problems or memory slips during a performance if not backed up with other types of memorisation.

It might be a good idea to remember or recall the physical gestures involved in playing a piece; certain movements and finger patterns can act as a guide for example. Perhaps memorise difficult passages first then practise them as a technical exercise every day.

Auditory or Aural Memory

Listen to everything you play meticulously. This might seem an obvious instruction but many do not consciously ‘hear’ what they are playing or learning.

Most humans have the ability to remember a tune and this is really about nurturing that skill to a highly sophisticated level. As with many skills, it takes a while for the mind to assimilate all the nuances that occur in a piano piece but eventually you will learn to ‘hear’ everything you play from start to finish.

Kinesthetic or Muscular Memory

The ability to remember or recall all the actual physical sensations and movements; remembering the finger patterns and shapes as well as arm, hand or wrist motions, pedalling, note repetitions and repetitive patterns. Fingerings also really help memorisation which is one of the many reasons why fingering is such an important element in piano playing.

Play through the piece each hand separately without the score; this is especially helpful for the bass or left hand. Practising and concentrating on the left hand really is a crucial part of developing piano technique so it may be beneficial to always practice the left hand first and commit it to memory securely at the same time.

You could trust your instincts and try to play a work through in the dark; can you feel your way around the instrument and play everything precisely? This is a challenge but good fun too; it’s quite difficult just to find the correct place to start your piece.

Intellectual Memory

Undoubtedly the most important element in your memory armour; it involves total ‘immersion’ in the score. You must know your piece backwards.

Look out for typical signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chord progressions, scale passages, large leaps, dynamics etc. All these elements will support successful memorisation.

Thoroughly study the structure of a work and assess the style. The way it has been constructed, particularly harmonic structure as this helps with the sound as well. To do this you need to have studied music theory so that you are familiar with four-part harmony, chord progressions, cadences, key changes and counterpoint etc. It can help to break down complex florid or rapid passagework into chords or make a skeleton of the harmonic pattern in a movement or work, so that harmonic progressions are realised and assimilated.

My tips and suggestions:

Visualisation can be a useful tool or method. This is the ability to form mental pictures of events, images or situations. Aural visualisation is sometimes known as the ‘inner ear’ which allows a pianist to hear how the melody, harmony, dynamics and all details found in the music, will sound, in other words, ‘predicting’ the sound before it actually happens. If the ‘inner ear’ is working well, then the pianist’s fingers know what they must do in order to produce the sound. This technique can be especially effective and has been used by many artists, not only musicians. Sit quietly and imagine playing the whole piece through from beginning to end; see every hand position or movement, in effect ‘watch’ yourself play the piece. You might be surprised at just how much concentration this involves. Some find it helpful to see themselves actually sitting on the stage or wherever the performance will take place.

The trick to successful memorisation is thorough structural knowledge of a piece combined with a strong awareness of the musical or expressive qualities. Emotional connections seem to really aid memory (I have found this to be the case not only with my own playing but also with that of colleagues and students too).

Hearing the music in your mind really helps, especially focusing on the way it affects you emotionally. By learning and thinking in this way you will never forget any detail in your piano piece. Learn to play from the heart; the music needs to be part of your soul. Musicianship and interpretation play a vital role in memory but they are frequently over looked. Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that you will be so focused on the expressive and interpretive qualities that your mind won’t be overly concerned with memory or the detrimental thoughts of a possible lapse. This last point can be imperative as it’s connected to many aspects of performing; a positive mind-set really does help when memorising. An ‘I can’ attitude goes a long way, so try to quell the negative mental chatter or the ‘inner voice’ that can frequently undermine a performance.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it’s still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves can sabotage practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing. Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until they are able to ‘find themselves’.

The majority of classical pianists don’t improvise, so an effective strategy is to make sure that you know your piece in sections and are able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly from one passage or ‘section’ to another. Try to memorise in small sections, passages or ‘chunks’ (the more sections you break the piece into the better and you are completely free to break the work down as you wish); learn the piece so you know each section thoroughly. If a memory slip does occur then you won’t be too flummoxed and will be able to keep playing to the end of the work. It’s not advisable to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encourages another slip and may make you even more frustrated. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t usually miraculously reappear a few minutes later, so it’s best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. Also, be able to pick up the piece from anywhere, so that if you do have a memory lapse you will always be able to keep going. It might be an idea to try to completely eradicate the slip from your mind too otherwise you will be constantly thinking about it for the rest of the performance.

I use the following strategy in my memorisation classes and students have found this helpful:

  1. Listen to the work before you start learning it and observe the score carefully. Be aware of how the work makes you feel and spend time focusing particularly on interpretation.
  2. Take a short passage (perhaps a four bar phrase or a line or two of a piece) and start by memorising the left hand on its own, and then the right hand. Be able to play them through accurately without the music, noting all the unusual features (i.e. large leaps, scale passages etc.). Also pay special attention to fingerings as they can be very useful as a memorisation aid. When you have done this you may find it beneficial to reverse the roles and play the left hand line with the right hand and vice versa. This allows your mind to really know the shape of the musical lines rather than only relying on digital learning which can be dangerous. Practising a line of music with one finger at a time can be advantageous too.
  3. Then play the passage hands together using the score at first then taking it away as soon as possible. Observe which passages you find difficult to recall. Work thoroughly on those areas (by repeating as well as mentally finding patterns to remember). Most passagework has some unusual feature which will help act as a ‘signpost’. The more ‘signposts’ you can find the better.
  4. Sing the melodies in your piece and then play them with and without the accompaniment so that you become even more aware of the musical structure. Another valuable exercise at this point may include playing the accompanying material in a piece from memory or playing the accompaniment with the bass line first (if there is one) and then with the melody line. It can be helpful to do all this at slow speeds allowing your mind to digest the musical lines and phrases.
  5. Work the passage up to tempo with a metronome but without using the score. It’s really important to emphasize how repetition really does assist memory. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to play the piece or the sections within your piece without the score as soon as possible so that your fingers and brain accustom themselves to this swiftly.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 on other sections of the piece.
  7. Practice other pieces before coming back to test your memory during practice sessions. You will probably find that you can’t remember every detail at this stage. Memory takes time and persistence so just keep working on it.
  8. Test your memory on the same passages the next day (and on consecutive days) before resuming working on other sections in the piece.

Once you have committed your piece to memory, work at it backwards, i.e. playing and analysing the last phrase first. Learning backwards can really work well and professionals sometimes employ this method.

Young children will generally memorise far more easily than adults, and we all have highly individual ways of remembering music. The success of memorisation is normally just persistent practice and sometimes it’s necessary to have a memory lapse or a stumble under pressure whilst playing in public, because only then do we realise what we must do to safeguard our memory for the next performance. Don’t expect to memorise in one practice session either, memory takes time and work, so divide your piece into small sections or passages and you will make progress every day. Good luck!

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation

So you want to play the piano photo 5

© Melanie Spanswick

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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

The Piano Bench Mag Feature

The Piano Bench Mag Interview

I was recently interviewed for an article in the December edition of The Piano Bench Mag. I’ve written about this fairly new publication before here on my blog (you can read about it here). The Magazine was founded and is edited by piano teacher, Karen Gibson, who wanted to create an online ‘well’ of useful information for piano teachers. Karen is based in the US, but the Magazine (which is published monthly) is available on Apple Newsstand and Google Play (for Android).

Karen has been kind enough to write a review of my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (which can be read in the December edition), and, as you can see from the image above, I’ve been featured as cover girl too!

You can read my interview here:

The Piano Bench Mag Interview

Download The Piano Bench Mag:

Apple Newsstand and Google Play. You can also find The Piano Bench Mag on Facebook.

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.