How loose are you? Piano teaching in Asia

Returning from another enjoyable and successful book tour, I find myself reflecting on a perennial piano teaching issue; one which seems to occur all over the world.

This tour was the busiest yet with visits to four countries and multiple cities; Singapore, Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), Indonesia (Jakarta and Surabaya), and Hong Kong.  On this trip I was fortunate to have company: I gave teaching workshops alongside colleagues Samantha Ward, who is artistic director of PIANO WEEK and also a fellow Schott Music author (she was presenting Piano Junior, the new Schott beginner’s method), and Dr. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, president of G. Henle Verlag (who spoke about Urtext editions), as part of the Arrow Vision/Schott Music/G. Henle Verlag tour, which formed the middle segment of my trip.

Whilst our workshops were open to students, teachers and parents, the majority of the audience consisted of piano teachers. It’s a real pleasure connecting with teachers around the world, sharing a few (hopefully) useful ideas, as well as highlighting the benefits of using my piano course, Play it again: PIANO. Several teachers had previously attended my workshops last year, and it was lovely to see them again. I also appreciated their feedback regarding Play it again, and it was wonderful to hear how much their students have enjoyed using the books.

Teachers are generally very receptive to this two-book course (pictured above), which, as readers of this blog will know, contains an anthology of 49 piano pieces progressing from Grade 1 – 8 level, with copious practice suggestions for every piece. I was delighted to be able to talk about Book 3 for the first time too. This new addition will focus on works of approximately Grade 8 level up to the DipABRSM diploma, and it was written due to vociferous demand from teachers! Many thanks to all who have been in contact over the past year.

At the Encore Music Centre in Melaka, Malaysia, giving a two-day workshop for piano teachers

Play it again: PIANO Book 3 will be available at the beginning of next year (2019), and it will follow the same format as Book 1 and 2, featuring a select group of pieces drawn from mostly standard repertoire with plenty of guided practice tips and advice. The practice ideas, which run throughout the books, are certainly not designed to replace teachers; piano teachers are irreplaceable. However, in my experience, students tend to ‘forget’ much of the advice we offer from week to week, therefore my suggestions, which primarily focus on breaking pieces down to enable swift, successful learning, are intended to serve as reminders and ‘extra’ help between lessons.

In Singapore and Hong Kong I gave private lessons as well as workshops and master classes. The level of playing was consistently high; many of the students were teachers, and they were nearly all advanced diploma level. This isn’t unexpected, but what I often find surprising is the amount of time I spend on teaching physical flexibility.

Physical movement at the piano is, for me, probably the most crucial factor when playing the piano, because without a flexible, relaxed technique, playing accurately and with a rich, full sound are both challenging. But, perhaps more importantly, a tight, tense technique also tends to make playing a very uncomfortable experience for the pianist.

I spend a large percentage of lesson time working with students to sort tension issues. I always pose the question: “how loose are you?” or “how loose do you feel?” as this is often the easiest way to help students understand the desired ‘feeling’ necessary in several parts of their upper torso. It’s interesting to note that tension can occur at any level or stage of piano playing, and it’s this that fascinates me. The more advanced the student, the more demanding my job! Although it isn’t a ‘job’, but rather a pleasure and privilege to help.  Advanced students might have habits which are inextricably ingrained. The fun part is being able to unravel their issues, and replace the old habits with new, healthier ones.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, with piano teachers at my workshop

Repetitive strain injury and tendonitis are just two of the conditions resulting from piano playing laced with tension. Over the past few years I have worked with students who had developed quite serious pain issues, and we carefully reconstructed their technique over a period of around twelve months (it can take less time with a very dedicated pupil). Boring and painstaking work? Actually, I find it very rewarding. Witnessing a student’s progression from pain and dejection  to mastery and confidence is very gratifying.

Working with a student at a master class in Hong Kong

There are a profusion of effective teaching methods which can be employed to reverse tension. I use one which is easy to understand, and one which emphasizes relaxation (or a ‘loose’ feeling). The tension/release concept is relatively simple to comprehend, and if it is implemented with a series of loose wrist and hand movements, which are all exaggerated to start with, improvement can be almost instantaneous. Although it can take a while for such movements to become an instinctive, natural habit.

I aim to continue my work with pupils who require such teaching, and my trip served as a vital reminder of its value. I examine the basics of flexibility in the opening section of Play it again: PIANO, Book 1, 2 and 3, and you can also watch my videos online for more ideas (see below):

 

You can watch all four videos in this series by clicking here. Huge thanks to my publisher Schott Music for their fantastic worldwide support. I look forward to next year’s Far Eastern adventures.


My Publications:

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

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


 

Workshop for the Performing Arts Festival in Singapore

After a thoroughly enjoyable Southeast Asia tour over the Summer, I will be returning to Singapore and Malaysia at the beginning of November. This time, I’ll be predominantly based in Kuala Lumpur (where I’m looking forward to presenting at the UCSI University Piano Pedagogy Conference, and giving presentations for Schott Music), but will also be briefly visiting Singapore too, for lessons and a workshop (see flyer below).

This workshop is intended for students, parents and teachers, or anyone preparing for a piano exam of any level or any examination board. We will discuss practice methods and preparation, and a number of students will have the opportunity to play their programme (or part of their programme) to a friendly audience, after which they will receive helpful, constructive feedback as we work on various technical and musical ideas to improve performances. There will also be a chance to present technical work such as scales and arpeggios.

I know many from Asia read my blog, and it would be wonderful to see you in Singapore on November 4th. Please follow this link to secure your place. I look forward to meeting you.


My publications:

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

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


 

A master class with Garrick Ohlsson

I’ve been working in Germany over the weekend, tutoring a bilingual piano workshop near Düsseldorf, so I thought it appropriate to highlight a master class today.

Gelsenkirchen is a city in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany, and I’ve been visiting a couple of times a year since 2014, providing free piano classes to those who would not normally have such an opportunity. I love this concept and am very grateful to Kery Felske (director of IKM Gelsenkirchen) and our sponsors for their unwavering support, enabling the possibility to continue this important work.

The class always consists of a variety of levels and abilities (and age ranges!), from complete beginners to advanced players (probably to a standard comparable to UK diploma level), and this weekend focused on those who hadn’t played much before, although there was one intermediate to advanced level pianist. Classes are held in English, and for the younger participants this can seem somewhat daunting, but it hasn’t proved problematic as yet.

The value of an ‘open piano lesson’, which is ultimately what a master class or workshop is, cannot be underestimated; it presents a chance to observe a variety of musical and technical issues. Solving such challenges can be of benefit to everyone and therein lies its beauty. Hopefully, those who attended our two-day event found it useful, and will be encouraged to further develop their playing.

The following master class was given by leading American pianist Garrick Ohlsson and features Chopin’s Etude in A minor (‘Winter Wind’) Op. 25 No. 11 played by Netanel Grinshtein and recorded at The Jerusalem Music Centre last year.

As always, there’s much to enjoy in this class and I hope you find it of interest:


My Publications:

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

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


 

The Importance of Breathing

I’ve been working in Germany this past weekend, giving classes and piano workshops in a busy town in the Ruhr. I do this two or three times a year. My students are invariably an eclectic group of all ages and abilities, intent on improving their playing. We work for two days and then present a little concert at the end. The venue for these classes sometimes changes, but the concept is always the same. The course is becoming increasingly popular, and provides an opportunity for pupils to develop various piano skills.

I work closely with course organiser and singer Kery Felske, and together we try to vary the content slightly; adding a new aspect of piano playing each time (which might involve highlighting anything from sight-reading or scales to the importance of posture). The topic on this occasion was breath control. Once this useful skill has been assimilated, it can be added to the smorgasbord of performing tools in a pupil’s ever-increasing armoury.

At the beginning of every session, we practised deep breathing, which can be effective for all types of performing. The class visibly relaxed after around ten minutes, and those who employed this technique before the concert said they found it beneficial.

Kery lead the group ‘breathing session’, and for readers keen to improve their breath control, here’s what we did:

  1. Stand up straight; your feet parallel with the width of your shoulders. Knees should ideally be flexible and not at all stretched, so that moving is easy (imagine you are preparing to Ski, with the knees in a slightly bent position). Sway from side to side freely, and find your centre by allowing body movement to become smaller and smaller.
  2. Breath through the nose and imagine your stomach is filling with air, encouraging the diaphragm to contract downwards (wear elastic or comfortable clothes!). When you intake air, make sure the belly is totally supported, so it is able to expand fully.
  3. Hold the air-filled stomach for a moment, then change the breath direction from breathing in to breathing out. Start breathing out by pursing the lips, making an ‘F’ sound, thus allowing yourself to feel a connection between the air-filled stomach and the mouth. Aim to be aware of a pillar of air between the stomach and mouth. Hold this position for as long as possible.
  4. As you release the diaphragm, the muscles of the stomach will take over, supporting your breathing as the air releases. Watch how the stomach caves in and finish with a ‘shh’ sound, making sure all air has been expelled.
  5. Then, once again, change direction of your breath, as you repeat this process. When executed correctly, you may feel slightly dizzy to begin with, and if so, take more time and slow down (or stop for a while and try again later). Repeat the process around five times at the most to start with. It should be done rhythmically and with purpose. Breathing out must take longer than breathing in. Breathing in could be considered the passive part of this exercise, and breathing out, the active part (it’s possible to stand or sit whilst doing this exercise).

    Once ingested, you will hopefully feel a sense of  tranquility by the end of the process. The ‘flight or fight’ instinct will calm sufficiently and this may help alleviate nerves, or at least help to control the rapid breathing associated with nervousness before and during a performance, as well as aiding concentration whilst playing.RZ6_8420With Katharine Pilgrim during a workshop session.

     IKM GELSENKIRCHEN

Image: Ralf Zeiß


My publications:

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

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


 

Master classes in Germany

IKM_logo

Earlier this year I visited Gelsenkirchen (near Düsseldorf), in Germany, to give master classes and workshops, and last weekend I enjoyed a second visit. The classes form part of a community piano project, established and organised by Kery Felske and the wonderful organisation, IkM-Ge e. V (The Interest group of Cultural working Musicians). Kery (who is a singer), works tirelessly, arranging many cultural events in the region, promoting a whole variety of artistic projects. During the weekend, I asked Kery to write a little about this organisation, explaining its objectives and ideas:

‘Since 1997 the Interest group of Cultural working Musicians (IkM-Ge e. V.) in the Ruhr Area in Germany, regularly organises and manages practice rooms, venues, events and workshops for the free artistic and musical scene. The association has the aim to realise conceptions supporting cultural life and its growth with a special view to newcomers, transregional networking and keeping musical events and qualification achievable for everyone while engaging for fair payment of professional performance in the cultural field. Those aims already appear in the non-commercial background of this community whose members do most of their work as volunteers in their leisure time. The wide range of their projects runs from monthly local rock concerts in our own venue, crossover workshops and events of art and music of different styles and genres, a yearly three-days open air event with two stages and thirty bands up to international co-operations with the classical scene and all in between. Diversity is an important aspect of the work of the IkM-Ge. A lot of idealism and enthusiasm is needed to do this job successfully. Since 2005 they run a practice centre (Consol4) with 39 rooms; since 2013 they have their own venue in the same old mine building equipped with PA, stage lighting and an over 100-year-old Bechstein grand piano. But the IkM-Ge uses a lot of other venues around depending on the character of the event and cooperation. Since 2013 as organization structures of the practice rooms, the venue and external events are established, the association started to create more supportive projects around qualification for musicians. In 2014 international workshops especially the classical piano masterclasses with Melanie Spanswick enriched our programme.’

Consol4, the practice centre in Gelsenkirchen (image link)

I’m delighted to be a part of this programme, and will be visiting Gelsenkirchen more frequently in 2015. My classes are generally held at the Grillo Gymnasium in the city centre, and are intended to help those who may not be able to attend regular piano lessons. We work for a period of two days and all workshops are public. Each student receives one to one coaching (in English)  and also has the opportunity to use the practise facilities at the school. The lessons are followed by a concert at the end of the weekend, where we all perform (including me!) and introduce our pieces.

A variety of ages and abilities were invited to participate, and the improvement after a couple of days of intensive lessons was considerable. Students presented a wide range of works from Bach and Chopin, through to Denes Agay and Housman. An open class affords the opportunity to learn from others; whether a relative beginner or advanced player, there is always more to assimilate. It’s a pleasure to work with such attentive and dedicated pupils, and I look forward to many more German weekends.

www.ikm-ge.de

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With Kery Felske (in the middle) and some of the students.


My publications:

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

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