Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.


The value of music lessons – why we need music education

Music education, particularly for young children in state primary school, and beyond, has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, not least because of a new initiative and accompanying TV series Don’t Stop the Music headed by pianist James Rhodes, and the publication of a report on music education by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). While the ABRSM report highlights increased access to music tuition amongst schoolchildren, James Rhodes’ tv series presents a much bleaker picture of little or no funding, woefully inadequate provision for music lessons in the state school sector, and untrained teaching staff. His campaign, Don’t Stop the Music aims to right these wrongs, and, working in conjunction with Oxfam and Yodel, the courier company, Rhodes is asking people to donate unwanted and unused instruments so that schoolchildren across the UK can have the chance to play an instrument, join a school orchestra and generally experience the joy and wonder of making music. This is all very laudable – and there is no doubting Rhodes’ passion and commitment (akin to Jamie Oliver’s campaign to reform school dinners) – but without the trained staff to teach the children how to play these instruments, the project may not be as successful as Mr Rhodes hopes, which would be a great pity.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this subject as my knowledge of music education in school is based largely on my own experience at school in the 1970s and 80s, but I would like to offer some of my own thoughts and observations on the value of music tuition, based on my experience over the last 8 years as a private piano teacher.

But first, a little background as to how I arrived at my current career path. I was very fortunate when I was growing up to be surrounded by music: at home my parents listened to Radio 3 and classical and jazz LPs. I was encouraged to begin piano lessons around the age of 6 and although I remember being quite bored a lot of the time with my first teacher, I can still recall the pleasure that came from being able to sit at the piano and play for my own enjoyment and to escape into my own fantasy world that was music. In addition, my parents took me to many concerts and operas. At senior school, I had an inspiring music teacher who took me through O- and A-level music, and who led the senior choir, orchestra, madrigal group and baroque ensemble with great energy and enthusiasm (he retired quite recently, having remained at the school for nearly 30 years). Alongside this, I had a very good private piano teacher with whom I learnt fast. Music was part of my day-to-day landscape, at home and at school. In fact, it seemed to be everywhere in my life. Looking back, I now realise that I was very privileged to be surrounded by music and to be encouraged in my music by supportive parents and music teachers. What I enjoyed was very much the preserve of a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but I do not believe that music and music lessons should only be the exclusive preserve of the better off.

Fast forward 30 years, and now I am involved in music education, in a tiny way, as a private piano teacher in an affluent area of south-west London. I didn’t choose this profession (I worked for 10 years in art and academic publishing and bookselling before I had my son); rather it chose me when I was approached by a friend to teach her daughter. At the time, I had no great desire to become a piano teacher, but I quickly grew to enjoy the job because it gave me an opportunity to share my passion for the piano, a passion that had been reignited after a long period in hibernation while I was busy working in London, getting married and having my son. And I could work from home.

Children in the leafy suburbs where I live now are very lucky indeed – as lucky as I was when I was growing up in an affluent part of Hertfordshire in the 1980s. In addition to excellent state and private schools, they have parents who are interested and keen to invest in their children through extra-curricular activities, and piano lessons take their place alongside tennis, French, Kumon maths, judo, gymnastics, horse riding and much more. The children who attend private schools in the area have access to fantastic music facilities (Hampton Boys’ School, for example, has a new purpose-built theatre/concert hall, complete with a Steinway D grand piano), and even those at state school receive good music tuition in class and via visiting peripatetic instrumental teachers.

So why is music so important? For me, music, of all the arts, puts us in touch with what it means to be human. I suspect we were drumming on the floor of the cave with sticks long before we started painting on the cave wall, and we are driven by an internal drumbeat, if you will – our pulse. Music (and indeed all the arts) is important in broadening our horizons, both culturally and socially.

The benefits of learning a musical instrument are well-documented and I have observed many of them at close quarters through my teaching and my own recent studies when I returned to piano lessons as an adult. One of the key benefits is building confidence, and I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote about one of my students, who I’ll call Jane.

Jane came to me as a complete beginner about five years ago. At the time, her mother decided to have lessons as well, to help support her daughter. Jane was a very timid child (until very recently her mother would sit in on her lessons), but obviously bright and keen to learn, and she progressed quickly. I was impressed by her determination to learn notation, musical terms and signs, and the “language” of music without much input from me during lessons, and by the time she took her Grade 1 exam, it was clear that she was developing into a rather fine young musician. Despite her shyness and anxiety, she would perform in my student concerts and was rewarded with a special prize at one of the concerts. This endorsement of what she could do, from an independent observer (a teaching colleague of mine), together with a high merit for her Grade 1, signaled a wonderful transformation in Jane and she quickly grew noticeably more confident, eager to progress to Grade 2. Meanwhile, her playing was showing great poise, sensitive sound, and a solid musical understanding. It was no surprise to me when she achieved a Distinction for her Grade 2 exam earlier this year, around the same time as she gained a place at a prestigious local grammar school. This week she came for her first lesson after the summer holiday – she literally ran in the door and was at the piano and ready to play before I had time to ask her about her summer break. And she played beautifully.

I would not dream of taking all the credit for Jane’s new-found confidence, but I have no doubt that her piano lessons have contributed to this in no small way, and I have seen other students make similar strides in confidence and self-esteem as a result of their music lessons.

Learning a musical instrument equips us with important life-skills. If you can perform in a student or school concert or a public music festival, you can also stand up before a room of people and give a paper at a conference. Music stimulates brain function and can improve memory, cognitive and motor skills, concentration, time management and organizational skills, and creative thinking. Playing an instrument is both stimulating and therapeutic, as the physical activity of playing releases the same “happy hormones” (endorphins) which sportspeople enjoy. Learning and playing a musical instrument fosters self-expression and relieves stress, and can also bring a deep sense of fulfillment and personal achievement (I have observed this many times in recent months when hosting events for the London Piano Meetup Group). Meanwhile, playing in an ensemble, orchestra or band, or singing in a choir, offers a wonderful sense of a shared experience while also encouraging team building, sociability and cooperation. For children with special needs or learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD, music can offer an important outlet and allow them to shine when they may be struggling in other areas of their school life.

We need music, and we need committed, skilled and enthusiastic people to encourage and train the next generation of musicians and to foster an appreciation of and excitement in music, whatever the genre. The devaluing of music, along with the other arts, by former education secretary Michael Gove, was an outrageous attack on a crucial aspect of our cultural landscape and heritage, and music and arts education is still not safe in this government’s hands.

We need music. Support music in schools, music hubs, local ensembles, national orchestras. Encourage your children to learn music, sing in a choir, join a band, form their own band, go to concerts, talk to musicians. Write to your MP and urge him or her to take music education seriously. Listen, engage, and above all enjoy. Please.

Protect Music Education

Don’t Stop the Music – a response from My Music Classroom

Don’t Stop the Music – Starting on the Wrong Note?

Look to the Informal – Abigail Amore



Meet the Artist……Patrick Nunn, composer

_MG_8764Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I don’t recall the initial trigger(s) to take up composing but there was always a strong desire from about the age of seven to put dots onto the page.  Similarly, the decision to make a career appears to have been there from an early age in some form – it just always seemed to be the path I was destined to follow.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

There are key figures and key works that have become significant in my musical life – those being Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Messiaen and more recently, Jonathan Harvey, George Crumb, Anton Webern and Matthias Pintscher.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The process of composing itself is by far the greatest challenge of my career to date.  Self-doubt and anxiety has often crippled my creative output for months on end.  I’ve also never been a composer to repeat the same technical trick over and over in my writing.  Every new piece presents a new problem to solve and each time the solution requires a different approach.  Perhaps this explains why I write so slowly.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I rarely write without a specific request for a work (with or without payment) and that brings with it certain pleasures such as working closely in collaboration with a musician or ensemble to develop a specific idea or sound.  The biggest challenges are always the deadlines and time-frames that often appear to get in the way of the creative flow.  It seems to be a common issue amongst artists, yet I am finding more and more that these goal posts can serve as great motivational forces when hitting a creative dead end.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

I’m always interested in exploring new sounds often through the combination of electronics and acoustic forces.  Working with particular performers, especially those who have developed new performance techniques or use extended instruments, is really exciting because as a composer I get to try out sounds that perhaps nobody has written and heard before.

Which works are you most proud of?  

There are a few recent works that have been significant for me because they represent either a change in style or in the way I approach writing. Music of the Spheres (2006) for piano and planets  was a real labour of love due to hundreds of hours spent trawling through data files from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in order to find a few gold nuggets that could be turned into something of musical interest.  Despite all the effort, I am very happy that performing piano alongside a sonic representation of our solar system is accessible to anyone from about Grade 2 piano upwards.  Escape Velocity (2006) for accordion and string quartet is also an important work because it represents both a change in style that felt very comfortable for me but also because it demonstrates an attempt to explore and ultimately integrate two different instrumental forces into a single sound world. Fata Morgana (2007) for cello with Hyperbow, ensemble and live electronics is another key work as it represents the culmination of several years of research exploring the application of sensors and performance data in shaping and controlling the evolution of accompanying live electronics. It was also the first time I began to feel confident with my expanding musical language and with writing expressively at the extreme ends of the cello’s range. In this work, I felt that I had finally begun creating a more unified and meaningful connection between the expressiveness of the performer and the resulting reflections from the electronics through the aid of the sensors – something that has been a developing working method for me ever since.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not at all – I’m always grateful for a performance, wherever that might be!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

In addition to those composers I mentioned earlier who were of most influence in shaping who I am as a composer, I would include Ockeghem, Pergolesi, Prokofiev and some contemporary heavyweights such as Schoenberg, Ligeti, Boulez, Crumb, Magnus Lindberg, Helmut Lachenmann, Unsuk Chin, Harrison Birtwistle and GérardGrisey.

As for performers, I wouldn’t say I have any favourites as such.  Moreover, I just really appreciate and admire performers generally as I gave up myself after completing my undergraduate studies due to stage nerves.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are three that are particularly memorable for me – the London Sinfonietta’s 2008 QEH performance of Grisey’s complete Les espaces acoustiques; the Sinfonietta/Royal Academy 2013 RFH performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen; and the Britten Sinfonia’s astonishing performance of Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Thethera at the Barbican this May.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

In the words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss”.  If you don’t feel utter joy and a sense of deep passion for something, change direction and try something else.  Life’s too short!


Tell us a little more about your new work ‘Morphosis’, recently premiered by Zubin Kanga. What was the inspiration/creative impulse for this work? What were the particular challenges of creating and performing this work? 

I’ve wanted to work with the wonderful Zubin for many years.  He’s a real collaborator and that excites me because it affords me space to try new things and to make mistakes – essentials in the quest for new methods of creating and working.  Zubin knew of my work with sensors and electronics so it seemed a perfect collaborative partnership.

Much of my recent work is fundamentally concerned with this notion of meeting points – of fusing apparently opposing sound worlds; moulding, mixing and states of flux. I see my work as becoming more sculptural of late – where musical ideas grow outside of their original form, then take an unexpected turn and morph into something else, perhaps falling back temporarily to allow the electronic reflections to come to the fore only to suddenly re-emerge with a fresh direction that overwhelms all proceeding shapes.  This concept of flow, of coursing and of flux is also at the base of Morphosis. Musical objects begin as simple chords surrounded only by their electronic reflections that are subtly influenced by the movement of the performers hands (the sensors being attached to the back of the hands and transmit three-dimensional movement data to the live electronics).  These musical objects are presented several times as if one is looking at a single object from different angles. They are joined together by the morphing states of the electronics into what I hope is a flowing musical argument that is both visually and aurally engaging.

Working with live electronics is always a challenge but is particularly so with the addition of sensors.  Speed is critical!  Six channels of data from the performers hands must stream into the laptop once every 20ms.  This data must be refined for musical processes.  Each movement must be carefully calibrated and assigned to a particular parameter of a digital sound process.  Vast amounts of number crunching are performed in tiny segments of time and any blip in the system results in either a click in sound or a fatal system crash.  All this must be performed from just a single laptop that gets slower the more processing is added.  As a composer, the months of computer programming can become unbearable.  Many challenges emerge: Which should I write first – the music or the electronic effects?  How will the sounds change if I do not fully know how the performer will try to control the sound through the sensors?  How can I impose limits on what the performer will do with their hands to shape the sounds?  All these questions push my creative process to the edge – something I fear yet something I crave too…. living on the precipice…. creating something new, something never before uttered…. it’s the ultimate drive….

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Southern Italy full time – writing more than I teach

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Acceptance of myself and everything external

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind – all else is temporary

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dancing 4am, hot sand between the toes, cool breeze on the skin – Italian beach

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzy and tired – it’s 4.30am!

Patrick Nunn (b.1969, Kent, UK) studied composition with Frank Denyer at Dartington College of Arts, Gary Carpenter at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and Simon Bainbridge and Jonathan Harvey whilst completing his PhD in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music (funded by a PRS Scholarship).

He has been the recipient of many awards including the Birmingham New Millennium prize for Sentiment of an Invisible Omniscience (2010), the Alan Bush prize for Transilient Fragments (2008), a British Composers Award (solo/duet category) for Mercurial Sparks, Volatile Shadows (2006), and the BBC Radio 3 Composing for Children prize for Songs of Our Generation (1995).

Patrick’s music has been performed widely in the UK and on the continent and has featured at more than fifty festivals worldwide. He has worked with a diverse range of collaborators, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Kreutzer Quartet, Thalia Myers, Piano Circus, Icebreaker, Ballet Rambert, Gogmagogs, Composers Ensemble and New London Children’s Choir.

Under the auspices of Tod Machover (MIT), Nunn, in his role as Hyperbow Researcher at the Royal Academy of Music, wrote two new works incorporating Diana Young’s (MIT) Hyperbow design: Gaia Sketches for solo cello and live electronics (finalist in the New Media category, British Composers Awards 2006); and Fata Morgana for cello, ensemble and live electronics. Nunn presented the collaborative process between composer and engineer in a research paper alongside Young at the 2006 NIME conference at IRCAM.

In addition to his extensive work as an educator, Nunn has recently completed two ABRSM commissions for their Spectrum series, as well as a new work for the Tempest Flute Trio. His work Prism was nominated for the solo/duo category for the 2009 British Composers Awards and Pareidolia I for bass clarinet, electronics and sensors has been shortlisted in the Sonic Arts category for the 2012 Awards. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His music is published by Cadenza Music and the ABRSM, and also features on Red Sock Records (Music of the Spheres), NMC (Prism) and the Sfz label (Gonk).

© Patrick Nunn (Nov 2012)

Photo credit: Nick Fallon


Sunday afternoon music and tea at Craxton Studios

On a fine mid-September afternoon a group of adult pianists, piano fans and music lovers gathered at Craxton Studios for a recital and talk by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

Craxton Studios, a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Hampstead, north London, has an important musical heritage and is therefore the perfect place for concerts and gatherings of musicians. Originally built by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio, the house was bought by Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Professor Harold Craxton OBE was an eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher (he was a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music), and those of us of a certain age will know his name from ABRSM editions of Beethoven and Co, edited by him and Donald Francis Tovey. The house on Kidderpore Avenue became a meeting place for musicians to come together and the house became a focal point for the artistic and musical milieu of London. This tradition continues today, as the house is used not only for concerts but also rehearsals, auditions and as a film location.

When Harold Craxton died in 1971, a trust was established in his name to support young, extremely talented musicians embarking on a professional career.

I first visited Craxton Studios in December 2013 for a concert by pianist Sarah Beth Briggs. I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and particularly the special ambiance and decor of the venue. Concerts are held in the artist’s studio, a large airy room at the back of the house, adorned with paintings, which looks out over the garden. The piano, which was Harold Craxton’s own instrument, is an early 20th-century Blüthner. (There is another grand piano in the small rehearsal studio on the top floor of the house.) The Craxton family still manage the property and it continues as a lively hub for musical activities in London.

‘Notes&Notes’ with Graham Fitch was the launch of a new concert concept for the South London Concert Series (which I run with my pianist friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage). I have always found concerts in which the performer introduces the music most interesting, and I find audience members enjoy hearing anecdotes about the music or why particular pieces are important, and as such offer something more personal and interesting than a standard written programme.  Inspired by the magnificent high tea at Sarah Beth’s concert, I suggested to Lorraine that we might offer our guests tea, and so ‘Notes&Notes’ was created. The concert also marked the launch of the second season of the South London Concert Series.

Graham Fitch introducing his programme
Graham Fitch introducing his programme

Graham’s programme consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat and the French Suite, No. 5 in G, both popular and accessible works, and Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C, Hob. XVI/50, written while the composer was living in London. Graham introduced the music, explaining that Bach was drawing on a tradition of presenting a suite of stylised dances popular at the time (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue etc). He also described his first encounters with this music and his studies with Andras Schiff, who has received high praise for his own intepretations of Bach, and who “gave” Graham the ornaments in the French Suite. Graham also explained that there is no “right way” to play Bach and that a romantic interpretation is as valid any other.

Graham combines a vibrant, colourful sound with an ability to highlight all the different strands of melody, voices and interior architecture in the music, together with subtle use of pedal, sensitive phrasing and restrained rubato. As his introduction to the Haydn Sonata, he explained that Haydn was working with John Broadwood, the London piano maker, and the Sonata shows the composer experimenting with the range of possibilities afforded by an English piano (as opposed to the Viennese instruments which Haydn had previously been used to). Graham’s performance sparkled with wit and humour, while the middle movement had a lovely arching melody, warm and supple.

Afternoon tea & scones
Afternoon tea & scones

After the music came the tea party and guests gathered in the dining room to enjoy tea and scones (with clotted cream, of course) and the chance to meet Graham and talk to other pianists and piano fans. There were many friends amongst the audience and the house was full of conversation. Some people even went to try the piano, before the studio was cleared ready for an audition the following day. The general consensus was that this was a really lovely event, combining music, words and conviviality, and we hope to host a similar concert at Craxton Studios next year.

South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson
South London Concert Series co-founders and directors Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson

The South London Concert Series continues at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo on Friday 3 October. For full details of all concerts please visit the South London Concert Series website


Craxton Studios website

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch


Xerxes at English National Opera

Xerxes (Alice Coote) sings to his beloved plane tree

In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.

In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.

Xerxes (Alice Coote), Romilda (Sarah Tynan) and Arsamenes (Andrew Watts). Picture credit Mike Hoban

The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.

The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.

Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October

Meet the Artist……Nicolas Hodges, pianist

(photo Marco Borggreve)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I don’t remember not playing the piano. As my parents were also musicians, it was probably a rather obvious thing to do. I never thought of music as a career per se, but it was clear to me rather early (certainly before my teens) that music would consume my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

So many people! Obviously my teachers, Sulamita Aronovsky and the late Susan Bradshaw, have both been crucial. I learnt very different things from each of them. In a way they were very contradictory, but I have never felt confused, rather enriched by having multiple views on so many issues. I am hugely grateful to them both. Beyond that, clearly the influences on a musician who is even slightly inquisitive will be very wide-ranging.

Several pianists have been personally very important to me, most obviously perhaps David Tudor – who helped me most generously in my early 20s, as I was preparing a major Cage project – and Maurizio Pollini, whose work was influential on me in many ways from an early age, and who in recent years I’ve come to know personally. He invited me to share a concert with him at Suntory Hall last season, which was a huge pleasure – I played a work of Manzoni in the first half, and he played Beethoven Sonatas in the second.

I have had the honour of working with many living composers over the years and have learnt many things from them. When that honour has been dubious, I have learnt what to avoid rather than what to embrace. But in the case of a composer like Birtwistle, whose “Variations from the Golden Mountain” I am premiering at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 14th September, the relationship has been only fruitful and enjoyable (for me at least).

Conductors, studying works in other genres (string quartets, orchestral works), visual arts – everything goes into the artistic pot and influences the flavour like herbs in a stew.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Challenge in what sense? Every concert, every confrontation with a work of music, is a challenge. And practical life is a challenge. And bad conductors are a challenge.

Yes, that’s it: bad conductors are definitely the greatest challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

A composer was once asked which piece he was most proud of, and said it’s always his most recent. I guess the same is true for me. I’m just seeing a disc of the concertos of Birtwistle through the press, and have also just finished a disc of the complete piano music of Brian Ferneyhough. So I guess they’re the ones I’m most proud of.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

There are many things I think about for ages but don’t programme for many years, and on the other hand sometimes I decide quite quickly that I want to do a particular work. One of the joys of my situation is collaborating, and bouncing ideas off a trusted promoter can be extremely stimulating.

You are performing a new commission by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at your Wigmore Hall concert on 14th September. What is especially exciting about working on new music such as this?

Working with great composers personally is something that can only happen with contemporary music. All the others are dead. I can’t work with Beethoven or Debussy, but I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to work with Birtwistle, for example. So much is made clear in our personal meetings and discussions; at the same time one understands the freedom available with more precision.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? What is your most memorable concert experience?

Well there are many remarkable acoustics around the world, and many halls with intelligent and searching programming. But what makes a concert really memorable is the situation – the programme, the audience, my mood, my collaborators (dead or alive). When everything aligns the experience is unforgettable.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The most important starting point for young musicians is the score. Students sometimes seem to view it more as a hint, rather than as the least indirect link to the composers intentions, which is what it is. Understanding notation in the deepest manner is one of the most important things which can be taught.

What are you working on at the moment?

After the Wigmore, I have to prepare a new piano concerto by Simon Steen-Andersen, and will also be working on Brahms 2nd Concerto for a concert in Finland in November. And many other smaller things in between!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

No idea. I am sure though that I won’t be anywhere I could now guess.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I am still trying to work that out.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway (which is beyond obvious).

What do you enjoy doing most?

Watching my children develop.

What is your present state of mind?

Expectant before the birth of a new work at the Wigmore tomorrow!


Nicolas Hodges performs music by Mozart/Busoni, Debussy and Sir Harrison Birtwistle in an 80th birthday tribute concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, Sunday 14th September. Further information here


Born and trained in London, and now based in Germany, where he is a professor at the Stuttgart Conservatory, Hodges approaches the works of Classical, Romantic, 20th century and contemporary composers with the same questing spirit, leading The Guardian to comment that: “Hodges’ recitals always boldly go where few other pianists dare … with an energy that sometimes defies belief.”

Full biography


Three Composers, YOU Decide – VQ New Works Competition 2014

(Photo by Charles Gervais – Both Hemispheres Photography) Villiers Quartet is James Dickenson (violin) Tamaki Higashi (violin) Nick Stringfellow (‘cello) Carmen Flores (viola)

Villiers Quartet (VQ) is an exciting and progressive chamber ensemble with a willingness to embrace a wide range of repertoire and genres. They have an established reputation as exceptional interpreters of English composers including Elgar, Britten, Delius, and Thomas Adès, and are also involved in a range of groundbreaking cross-genre collaborations

VQ are the creators of the VQ New Works Competition which celebrates an international field of new and emerging composers writing for string quartet, treating the format of traditional string quartet performance and the discipline of chamber composition in a fresh and thought-provoking way. Works are selected to go forward in the competition via online voting rounds, and the three works selected for the final will be performed by VQ in a special concert at London’s King’s Place on 21st September. In the spirit of true public participation, VQ invites in an audience from all over the world, not just to listen but to decide the outcome. The winner will be announced at the end of the concert.

I caught up with Villiers Quartet to find out more about their influences and inspirations, the motivation behind the VQ New Works Competition, and the pleasures and excitements of working as a string quartet.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

The genre of chamber music has always been a source of inspiration for us, and it is a driving force in our careers as musicians.  We love the intimacy and camaraderie that chamber music encourages between people.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

We’re a group inspired by many different strands, reflecting the different backgrounds we’ve all had. Christopher Rowland of the Fitzwilliam Quartet was an early influence.  We studied with violist Jerry Horner from the Fine Arts Quartet and worked with him early on.

We’re also greatly inspired by each other – that’s the beauty of string quartet.  Where else can you gather in a room and be in the company of four fine musicians?

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge of a string quartet’s career, we find, is keeping your identity amidst all of life’s forces working around it.  Maintaining your commitment to each other throughout life’s challenges can be a big struggle.  But we are always brought together by our passion for the music, and our joy in performing with each other.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

We are big fans of the piece Dialectic for String Quartet by Alan Bush, which we think is a masterpiece.  We’ll be performing Dialectic on September 21st along with our VQ New Works Composers.  We’re most proud of our recording Robert Still quartets, which will be released on Naxos later this month (September 2014 release date).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

We love late-romantic music.  We also have a have a penchant for English works, and we play the Elgar Quartet and Delius Quartets very well.  We love discovering new pieces by composers, as evidenced by our VQ New Works Competition.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working in a quartet?

We gain much pleasure from exploring the best repertoire, written by the best composers.  String quartet really lets you get into the centre of stringed instrument sound, and create a sound-world like no other.

String quartet always seems to challenge the compositional techniques of every composer; we enjoy discovering that composer’s challenge through this powerful genre. For us, the pleasure is all about this discovery – together, we discuss, argue, laugh, and construct our collective interpretation of the music.  And for us, the end result is much bigger than just the four of us playing together.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

We each make a short list of three pieces we really want to play.  Sometimes our lists overlap.  We get together and discuss the repertoire, play through some of the pieces if we’re not familiar with them.  After this meeting we decide what our repertoire list will be, alongside any other special projects we may be running that season.

Tell us more about the VQ New Works Competition? What was the original motivation for creating this competition? What are the particular excitements and challenges of working with new music?

The motivation for the Competition was simply to experiment with different ways people could interact and connect with contemporary music.  We were a string quartet that loved new music, and we wanted to connect more with composers who were writing new pieces.  We also wanted to find a way to share these works with the widest audience possible, and going online seemed like the most obvious way.

When we read through each of the pieces that are sent to us, the most exciting thing is discovering a composer’s voice, and really connecting with it.  Being able to share our music through YouTube and our website is also very exciting.  We also like leaving the final decision to the audience vote, and letting the audience have a say in what they think about each piece.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

On our last tour to America, we played in Sauder Concert Hall, which is part of Goshen College in the town of Goshen, Indiana.  You would never have guessed it by being in such a small town in the mid-west, but it is a beautiful, world-class concert hall with a fantastic acoustic.  The Tokyo Quartet recorded one of their final albums there a couple of years ago.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Ivry Gitlis, the Guarneri, Cleveland, and Alban Berg Quartets.  For groups that are around today, we love the Takacs, Brentano, and Artemis quartets – some fantastic playing and groups who really have something to say with their sounds and interpretation.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The most important idea is to find out who you are, and ask – what kind of musician are you? What are your aesthetic qualities?  What things do you do best?  What is your sound? There is no use trying to play like someone else, or copy someone else’s interpretation because that is the accepted or popular standard. What audiences really want to see is who YOU are.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Musically and intellectually matured, like a single malt whisky

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

According to James [Dickenson, violin], watching the cricket, and playing Beethoven quartets.

What is your most treasured possession?

Our most treasured possessions are our children and families. And our instruments, which make it possible for us to do what we do.

What do you enjoy doing most?

We enjoy each moment for what it is: quartet, all other musical activities, being with our friends and family.

What is your present state of mind?

We always aim to be in the present.  One of our slogans is:  “Expect nothing, experience everything.”

VQ New Works Competition final is on Sunday 21 September 2014 at Kings Place, London. Further details and tickets here

One of the leading string quartets in Britain, the Villiers Quartet is known for their imaginative and visionary programming. They have given acclaimed performances nationally and internationally at St. John’s Smith Square, Sauder Concert Hall (USA), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (USA), and Ronnie Scott’s. Their performances of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet have been described as ‘masterful playing’ (Classical Source) and they have been declared ‘one of the best young quartets around today’ (Jerry Horner, Fine Arts Quartet). Their concerts of Beethoven and Elgar have been hailed by the York Press as performances ‘that took the breath away… brilliantly balanced.’  Upcoming disc releases include the quartets of Robert Still on Naxos Records, and a collaborative CD with composer/tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, MBE for Keda Records. Their digital VQ New Works Competition – where they let the audience vote for the top prize – has become one of the most talked about new music events in London.


Meet the Artist……Ursula Oppens

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

My mother was a piano teacher; my father a musicologist and piano tuner. I was far from imagining that I wanted to be a professional pianist, though. When during the one hour of career counseling I received in college it was suggested that I learn to type, I thought that I can already play the piano, and the two skills are somewhat similar.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

Of course, my parents. As a child I spent every summer at the Aspen Music Festival, and heard many concerts. I was especially moved by the Juilliard String Quartet, whom I heard play the complete Beethoven Quartets, the complete Bartok, and the Carter Quartets as they were being written.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The daily challenge is to remain positive and with focus.

Which repertoire/composers do you think you play best? 

I find it personally necessary to practice a variety of music each day. I have had wonderful experiences with composers whom I know and have had significant works written for me. I have also performed all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the moment, some highlights of my daily practice are the very different, but both very romantic Franck Piano Quintet and Carter Night Fantasies.

How do you make repertoire choices from season to season? 

They are a combination of my own thoughts and the wishes of presenters.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In recent years, I have been asked to perform Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated to commemorate various historical anniversaries: The 40th anniversary of the Portugese “Carnation” revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the coup that resulted in the Brazilian dictatorship on the 60’s.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

In New York City these range from Carnegie Hall to the Barge on the East River

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I am always excited by whatever I perform. I love to go to operas, both those written by my friends and the greatest of all the classics, Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, etc.

Who are your favourite musicians?  

It is impossible to name all the truly exciting musicians – there are so many. Right now, I am listening to pianists from Claudio Arrau to Yuja Wang.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Always remember that performance is communication with another person. What you will say will change all the time, and that is good.


Ursula Oppens makes a rare UK appearance in Brighton on Friday 19th September, performing music by Carter, Ravel, Rzewski, Bolcom and Wuorinen. Further details and tickets 

Pianist Ursula Oppens, one of the very first artists to grasp the importance of programming traditional and contemporary works in equal measure, has won a singular place in the hearts of her public, critics, and colleagues alike. Her sterling musicianship, uncanny understanding of the composer’s artistic argument, and lifelong study of the keyboard’s resources, have placed her among the elect of performing musicians.

Ursula Oppens studied piano with her mother, the late Edith Oppens, as well as with Leonard Shure and Guido Agosti. She received her master’s degree at The Juilliard School, where she studied with Felix Galimir and Rosina Lhévinne. After 14 years as the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University, Ms. Oppens is now a Distinguished Professor on the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (source: Colbert Artists)

Full biography




Music Notes – How to Cast a Spell with Schumann’s #30 From Album for the Young

Guest post from Nancy M Williams

Schumann’s #30 (* * * (untitled), in F major) from Album for the Young has a way of casting a spell of contemplation over its listeners. Whenever I perform this music, I meditate on how I reclaimed my passion for classical piano music. As your guest columnist, I want to share with you my secrets on how to study and play the #30 with best effect.

In April, I performed the #30 as part of “Claiming Your Passion”, a keynote workshop I gave at a Toronto conference. I hesitated before including this relatively unknown piece in my program. How would it fare in a lineup with recognizable works by Chopin and Schubert? I placed the #30 towards the end of my workshop, when participants would reflect on a plan for claiming their passions.

At the workshop, as soon as I rippled the #30’s opening chord arpeggiato, the music’s calming harmonies drew me in. I contemplated the 25 long years, from the summer of my 16th birthday until my early 40s, when the piano had lain fallow in my life. I thought about the bliss that I had experienced once I reclaimed the piano, bliss that had radiated outwards, turbocharging my career as a speaker and writer and strengthening my family life. Now at the workshop, I played the #30’s ending, two Ds ringing out, connected by a chromatic inner voice, followed by a simple, plainspoken resolution to F major. Afterwards, I felt gratified when several participants told me that their favorite piece of music was the #30.

The #30 is one of the pieces at the back of Album for the Young that offers concert repertoire that is nonetheless accessible for the advanced student of adult piano lessons. In order to appreciate this music, we should start with its composer. Robert Schumann loved writing almost as much as composing. In the mid-1830s, he launched, as chief editor, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music). For his journal, he often wrote under the pen names of two distinct personalities, Florestan and Eusebius. While Florestan was impulsive and exuberant, Eusebius was thoughtful and contemplative.

These two aspects of Schumann’s personality also suffused his music. The #30 “is contemplative and expresses the Eusebius side of Schumann’s personality,” says Mark Pakman, adjunct professor at the Cali School of Music and my piano teacher. Once I learned the notes, I agreed with his assessment. This four-minute piece doesn’t have a dramatic arc with crashing chords or chattering scales; the sound ascends to forte on only two brief occasions.

The biggest challenge in studying the #30 is to create its contemplative mood via meaningful phrasing. The phrases in this decidedly Romantic music have less resolution than music from the preceding Classical era. Take, for example, the #30’s opening motif, a C lingering with longing, two As gaining urgency, and then the motif sliding with resignation into a G. This G clearly marks the end of the motif, yet it feels somewhat unresolved, as though the impulsive Florestan had snuck into the music and sliced off the motif. I found that playing only the top melodic notes of the chords helped me to absorb the melody and its phrasing. Away from the piano, I tested myself, making sure I could sing the melody in tune and out loud.

Further complicating the phrasing is the fact that the #30 has a surprising amount of repetition. The opening motif I described above appears four times in the music’s first period, a section that is then repeated, at Schumann’s suggestion, in pianissimo. Moreover, the entire second half of the music is essentially a repeat of the first. When my piano teacher first showed me the music, I silently registered the repetition with some glee: I could learn the notes quickly. Yet once I absorbed the notes I faced the challenge of preventing the music from sliding into a pool of monotony.

One technique for creating variety in the #30 is to use tempo rubato. Take, for example the opening motif, the lingering C, followed by two As, and finished with G. My piano teacher and I decided that the first time I played this motif, I would slightly delay the dotted C note, in contrast to playing the motif strictly in time in its next appearance.

I also used shades of different mood states within my own mind to create a slightly different color with the repeat of the opening section. This music reminds me of my own 25-year-long wandering back to the piano. The first time I played the opening section, I thought about the longing I had for piano music during that time in my life when I was not playing. The second time through, I reflected on how, now that I have reclaimed my passion for the piano, I actively seek to dedicate myself to music.

I’ll share with you a few more tips that I assimilated learning this music:

  • Schumann begins the music with a chord arpeggiato, and uses them frequently throughout the #30. Don’t do as I did, and create a bad habit that is later difficult to undo, by playing all three notes of these chord arpeggiatos with equal emphasis. The top note is the melodic one. If you play the first two notes with a delicate touch and allow the top note of each arpeggiated chord to ring out, the music will shimmer.
  • In the #30’s second section (measures 9 to 16, repeated in 25 to 32), half-note, trombone-like octaves ring out, while an inner voice picks its way up and down the keyboard, as though stepping through wildflowers. In order to achieve a contrasting effect, practice the octaves and the inner voice separately.
  • If you’re like me, and you sometimes forget to pedal, especially when you are concentrating on tricky chord changes, then pay special attention to measures 22 and 23 (repeated in 38 and 39). Here a crowd of tied notes, 16th notes, and inner voices create a general confusion, but stay calm and make sure you pedal after each eighth note.

Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young has become a staple of my repertoire. I hope you will obtain as much enjoyment as I did studying this music. For me, the contemplative #30 packages feelings of longing and seeking with a wrapping paper softly glowing when turned towards the light.

Watch Nancy play Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young


Nancy M. Williams is a motivational speaker on “Claiming Your Passion” and an award-winning creative nonfiction writer. She is also the Founding Editor of the online magazine Grand Piano Passion™. An amateur concert pianist, she debuted in 2012 at Carnegie Hall in a master class recital.

“Claiming Your Passion”



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