All posts by Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, piano teacher, music and arts reviewer, blogger, writer, cook, and Burmese cat lover

A digital piano for the 21st-century pianist

I was delighted to have the opportunity to try Casio’s latest addition to their Celviano range of digital pianos. The Celviano Grand Hybrid takes the digital piano to a new level: produced in collaboration with renowned German piano maker C Bechstein, Casio have succeeded in producing a top-of-the-range instrument with an affordable price tag and a compact size.

The demo took place at Metropolis Studios in west London (where both Adele and the late Amy Winehouse recorded albums) and it was a privilege to meet acclaimed young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who praised the instrument for its superior touch, tone and a host of other features which enable one to practise at all times of the day and night. There was also a chance to chat with Benjamin generally about his busy year of concerts (including performances at the Proms and his debut at Carnegie Hall) and his plans for the forthcoming season. I was then able to try the Celviano Grand Hybrid myself.

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I owned a digital piano when I first started playing again, about 15 years ago. It did the job, at a time when I had neither the space nor the funds to purchase an acoustic piano, but it always felt slightly unsatisfactory, particularly in its limited range of sound and inauthentic touch.

Touch is very important to the pianist and from the moment anyone commences playing, as a child or adult, an awareness of how touch affects the sound we produce is crucial. A keyboard simply cannot reproduce the weighted touch of an acoustic piano. But Casio have achieved something that comes very close to a real piano by combing the same spruce wooden key material used by Bechstein with a hammer action which replicates the action of a grand piano (real hammers inside the instrument follow the same path as the hammers inside a grand piano). This allows the player to fully utilise arm weight in the production of sound, which means that when one goes to play an acoustic piano, the difference in touch is very slight. The player can also adjust the touch to make it heavier or lighter, thus reproducing the differing touches of acoustic pianos.

The other significant feature of this instrument is its sound. Using the Bechstein concert grand as its template, Casio has created deep, nuanced sound, tonal palette and rich resonance. You can also open the lid to increase bass resonance. Settings on the instrument allow one to utilise a Berlin grand sound (Bechstein), Hamburg (Steinway) or Vienna (Bosendorfer), and there are also options to adjust the sound to suit the composer, recreate the reverberation of a concert hall, record oneself playing, playback, and tempo changes.

I was impressed with the quality and range of sound and the touch of this instrument. For the teacher, student or professional pianist, the Grand Hybrid offers superior sound and touch plus a host of other features to enhance the playing experience. In addition, one can practise with headphones, which means you can play any time of the day or night

For more information, please visit

(Photos courtesy of Casio UK)

Key features and technical specification:

  • It is the only piano that has the distinct blend of classical workmanship from world class piano manufacturers C.Bechstein, teamed with the technology that Casio has brought to all of its digital pianos for over 35 years.
  • It is the only piano that combines the world’s most famous piano sounds ­ The Hamburg Grand and the Vienna Grand ­ as well as having The Berlin Grand sound, which was exclusively developed as part of the Casio/C Bechstein collaboration just for this piano.
  • It actually feels like a Grand Piano unlike other hybrids… right down to the weight of the keys under your fingers. It combines spruce wooden key material as used in C. Bechstein grand pianos, and a new unique action mechanism that delivers the right hammer movement, which has a huge impact on the playing response of a grand piano

AiR* Grand Sound Source:

  • Enables beautiful sound and rich reverberation just like a grand piano.
  • It provides the sound profiles of three grand piano styles with a long history: the Berlin Grand, which is known for its elegant clear sound and a reverberation that gives each performance rich melodic color; the Hamburg Grand, which delivers gorgeous power and strength with plenty of string resonance; and the Vienna Grand, which provides a calm and stately sound with rich bass and beautiful tones when the keys are played softly.
  • Of the three, the Berlin Grand sound was developed in collaboration with C. Bechstein, a piano maker with a history of over 160 years. As a result, the new models have moved beyond the realm of conventional digital pianos, demonstrating a commitment to nuanced sound creation.

Grand Acoustic System:

  • Represents the sound of a grand piano as it emanates from above and below the soundboard. The system delivers three­-dimensional sound with tonal elongation, expansion and depth.

Natural Grand Hammer Action Keyboard:

  • Combines spruce wooden key material as used in C. Bechstein grand pianos, and a new unique action mechanism that delivers the right hammer movement, which has a big impact on the playing response of a grand piano.
  • This allows the pianist to produce nuanced sound with a delicate touch that is essential for demonstrating the expressive power of the piano, while also enjoying reliable key response and supple playing comfort.

Scene feature:

  • Consists of 15 preset types for different composers such as Chopin and Liszt, as well as musical genres such as jazz and easy listening. The presets combine the best optimal tones, reverberation, and effects for the type of piece being played.
  • Users can also create and save their own presets.

Concert Play:

  • The spectacular sound of a live orchestra is recorded in a high­-quality digital format. By playing the piano together with the recorded orchestra, users can enjoy the feeling of performing at an orchestral concert.
  • The technology can also be used in practice, as it allows the tempo to be slowed, and also features rewind, fast forward, and repeat playback of A­B sections.

Hall Simulator:

  • Allows the pianist to enjoy the immersive sound found in different types of venues such as an Amsterdam church, or a classical concert hall in Berlin.
  • Also, the GP­500BP and GP­300 models enable users to switch between the Player’s Position, which provides a sense of playing a real grand piano, and three types of Listener’s Positions, which gives the pianist the effect of listening to the performance from the audience.

Please stop the music!



Extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s a classical concert, so presumably the audience are there because they want to hear classical music – and yet the bar is playing “bad pop” (and those two words cover a multitude of sins!). This strikes me as a major “fail” on the part of the management of the venue – it’s also just plain dim.


Music, often bad music, is everywhere these days. We used to make jokes about “lift music” (or muzak) or “hotel lobby music”, but now it is inescapable. It’s in shops, bars, cafes, restaurants – the noise often blaring from the invisible speakers so loud as to preclude intelligent or intelligible conversation. It’s leaking tinnily out of other people’s headphones on the tube and bus. And if you dare to ask to turn it down – as I do on occasion – you are met with looks of surprise, as if to say “you don’t like it?”. Or, worst case scenario, the chef gobs in your soup in revenge for your effrontery. I have had to leave certain establishments because the “background music” (ha!) made it impossible to have an audible conversation with the person I was meeting.

Most of this “music” is repetitive, musically simplistic (4 or 5 harmonies at most), and full of banal platitudes. But endure it we must, because it seems that some of us are afraid of silence. (Pause for a moment to consider the composer John Cage’s thoughts on “silence”…..)

Even the bank which I use on London’s High Street Kensington has been invaded by bad pop, the “music” regularly interrupted by the inane gabbling of some fifth-rate “DJ”. Why do we need such “noise” in the bank? Do those that select this noise think it will enhance our “banking experience”? In most cases, it makes me want to run screaming onto the busy street. It is a relief, therefore, to enter High Street Kensington tube station, where classical music plays, as background music, just audible enough to identify Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto or a Handel aria as I make my way down to the westbound platform.

Most of the time I – and I suspect quite a few others – would happily go about my business uninterrupted by bad pop or “background music”. I don’t need a soundtrack to my transactions at the bank (though if one were to choose something appropriate, perhaps ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd, or Beethoven’s ‘Rage Over the Lost Penny’?); I’d like to enter a pub or cafe and hear the sound of other people talking, laughing. Going clothes shopping needn’t be like entering a discotheque (though I was pleased to have my street cred enhanced by correctly identifying ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers in Top Shop recently – the (very young) assistant said “this is nice, what is it?”. Fortunately, I resisted the urge to sound like Michael Winner – “It’s from the 80s, dear”.

Don’t get me wrong: I love music, especially classical music, and most especially live classical music. I enjoy music in the right context and I’ll happily sit and listen to a radio broadcast, CD or live concert for several hours, uninterrupted, given half the chance. But out of context it can grate and intrude, especially when the music being played is someone else’s selection, a playlist made to someone else’s taste. Better in those circumstances to turn it off.

Because my main activity is playing the piano and teaching other people how to play the piano, when I am not engaged in that, I tend not to listen to the radio or music via CDs or a streaming service. Instead, I like to hear the sounds of my house quietly creaking and stretching, the cat mewing, the birds in the garden, the wind in the trees in my garden, the chatter of my neighbour’s grandchildren. These sounds are far more enjoyable and genuine that anything blaring out of a loudspeaker in a shop or cafe.

Pipe Down – the campaign for freedom from piped music

A Point of View: Why it’s time to turn the music off

Pop Music is Literally Ruining Our Brains






H is for…….


You can’t be a pianist without [at least one] ( But what do you do if you are a small-handed pianist (barely an octave in the right hand, and that just at the edges of the keys) and want to play Chopin Op. 53 (the “Heroic” Polonaise”)? Your teacher looks at you with consternation, and then tells you that you must learn Chopin Études in a certain order, and that it will take a couple of years.

Fast forward two and a half years; my right hand span is now a centimetre longer than it was at the beginning of this saga. That single centimetre has been enough to allow me to play an octave right on top of the keys, enabling me to get a lot closer to the Op 53 ambition. I still can’t play the piece, but I can now play all the notes. It’s taken a lot of patience and trust in the sometimes non-intuitive ways of breaking down the Études; for example, I spent a couple of months practising the right hand of Chopin Op. 25 No. 9, shaking out my wrist after every half bar, to learn the feeling of playing octaves without stiffening my wrist.

I am well over the age that people stop growing, so the improvement is entirely down to the practise regimen. The increase in ability is not just down to the increase in span, but also increase in flexibility of all the fingers. When I play chords spanning an octave, I can now get the fingers out of the way that aren’t playing anything, avoiding hitting extraneous notes. I am not familiar with hand anatomy, but it feels as though the ligaments inside the palm have had to stretch the most.

As I progressed through the different exercises, I have felt my hands and arms up to the elbow ache in strange places. I am fortunately quite body-aware so have never done any damage; if the ache persists in the same place for a few days, I stop and work on something else until it goes away. (Incidentally, my typing speed has increased considerably, and I can now take dictation in almost real time.)

It’s tremendously motivating and every few months I take out a couple of octave heavy favourites to retry – every few months I am able to play big chords that bit more cleanly. There are no short cuts and this slow and steady progress feels more satisfying than if I were to magically be able to do it overnight, because I know that it is sustainable.

Mentally, it’s required the ability to trust that the practise will bear fruit, and to stop when it starts to hurt- not to push through to the point of damage (Probably a useful skill in any physical endeavour).

Obviously, my fingers aren’t going to grow any longer, but I hope that this will offer hope to other small-handed pianists. But a word of caution: It’s probably a bad idea to embark upon such a programme without the supervision of an experienced teacher, so as not to end up like Schumann.

Petra Chong
Petra Chong is a computer programmer as well as a pianist and so is perpetually bashing keyboards of one form or the other. She is a student of Marina Petrov

Meet the Artist……James Turnbull, oboist

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

I was on my way home from school aged 7 when I heard the oboe on the car radio. As soon as I heard it I knew that was the instrument I really wanted to play. I pestered my parents until they let me start lessons. I have always loved music and playing the oboe but it was probably the summer I turned 19 that I decided that life as an oboist was something I wanted to commit everything to. I had just finished my first year of university when I travelled on to Banff Arts Centre in Canada for an intensive masterclass course there. I spent much of that summer taking extra lessons and practising as much as possible. I felt by the time I went back to university I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an musician.

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

There have been so many influences to be honest. My teachers have always been fantastic to me and I feel lucky that I have been surrounded by such kind and generous mentors within the music world. I am hugely influenced from my time studying in Germany with Nicholas Daniel. He taught me repertoire I had never considered before and inspired me to work closely with composers. I remember asking him about why commissioning new oboe repertoire was important. The answer he gave me changed everything for me and working with composers to increase the oboe repertoire is something I care deeply about.

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

I found the period in my early twenties very tough going. I knew I wanted to play the oboe for a living but let a fear of failing get in the way sometimes. I’ve always felt I need to turn every experience into something I can draw on so now I look back and think how important that time was for me.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Back in 2010, I gave a recital at Wigmore Hall and that was a very important concert to me that meant a considerable amount to me. It coincided with me finishing my studies and also releasing my first solo disc ‘Fierce Tears’.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’ve found in the past few years I always end up gravitating towards contemporary British repertoire which I love performing. I think the feeling of discovering something new in the repertoire is something that always pushes me so this often informs my approach to programming. I want the audience to leave feeling like they’ve discovered some fantastic repertoire they never knew about before.

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

I always programme each concert separately and try not to think in terms of a focus for one season. Inevitably I find I go through times where I play a piece several times in a row but generally I try to put together a recital that balances out and suits the particular venue and audience. I always try to include a contemporary piece and also an older piece that may be very rare but an absolute gem.

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

I don’t have a favourite venue but I enjoy venues like churches were the acoustic adds something to the atmosphere of the concert. When performing pieces like the Howells Oboe Sonata, having an interesting space with a good acoustic can make a big difference.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a very strong affinity with Michael Berkeley’s Fierce Tears I & II. Every time I play that it feels very different and changes all the time for me. I also enjoy his Oboe Concerto as well as works like the Strauss Oboe Concerto which is a favourite of mine. I particularly love oboe repertoire by Rubbra, Bowen, Lutoslawski and Antal Dorati too. In terms of listening, I really enjoy lots of different things. Most recently I’m listening to a lot of electronic music but also love vocal recital discs. In particular Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s recording of ‘Silent Noon’ always has an incredible effect on me when I listen to it.

Who are your favourite musicians?

This is a tough question as I think there are so many to think of. For me, I tend to think in terms of favourite composers or favourite repertoire. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Sibelius and Prokofiev amongst other things.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It is a long time ago now but when I was 18 I performed in Mahler 8 with Simon Rattle at the Proms just before he started his post in Berlin. I’ve enjoyed plenty of memorable experiences in concert since but this contributed to me making the decision to become a musician so for that reason it is probably my most memorable.

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

The most important thing is to be very open to various opportunities. Take every experience as a positive one. There are inevitably times where you suffer what feels like a knock back but often these turn into catalysts for better things. My feeling is that you end up exactly where you want to be but usually by taking a completely unpredictable route to get there.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m just putting the final touches on a disc that Champs Hill Records is releasing later in 2015. It is full of fantastic repertoire that I’ve really enjoyed recording. My next big project is establishing a new series of chamber music events with my group Ensemble Perpetuo. It is going to be my busiest year yet but also one I’m incredibly excited about.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of happiness revolves around balance. It involves me being busy enough with music to feel fulfilled but also relaxed enough to spend time with my family.

What is your most treasured possession?

My answer should probably be my oboe but in reality is something far less poetic like my phone or laptop!

What do you enjoy doing most?

The thing that makes me tick is working on new projects. Sometimes it is a recording project, sometimes it is a new kind of recital programme. That feeling of limitless possibilities is what I find exciting and what makes me keep trying to move forward with my playing.

What is your present state of mind?

Really excited about the future but also slightly sleep deprived!

(Interview date: March 2015)


Described by The Independent as “a worthy champion” of contemporary oboe music, James has dedicated much of his performing life to promoting and extending the oboe repertoire. James has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe including a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2010. He has broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and appeared as a soloist  in numerous UK festivals including Oxford, Leicester, Cambridge, Thaxted, Ryedale, Machynlleth, Swaledale and, King’s Lynn. James has released solo recordings for Champs Hill Records, Quartz Music and the ABRSM as well as featuring on a disc of Thea Musgrave’s works for Harmonia Mundi USA. Gramophone Magazine described his debut recital disc, Fierce Tears, as a “notable debut” and it was selected as the Editor’s Choice Recording by Classical Music Magazine.

James was seven when he began his oboe studies, learning with Irene Pragnell, Melanie Ragge, Celia Nicklin, Tess Miller and Chris Cowie. After gaining a First Class degree in music from Christ Church, Oxford University, James continued his oboe studies at the Royal Academy of Music and under Nicholas Daniel at Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, where he was awarded First Class for both his Artist and Soloist Diplomas.

James is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. He worked closely with Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Jonathan Dove, John Woolrich, Thea Musgrave and Tansy Davies on their compositions for oboe. Composers including Patrick Hawes, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich have also written for him. James has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. In 2011 he worked closely with Christopher Hogwood on preparation for a new edition of Thomas Attwood Walmisley’s Sonatinas for oboe and piano.

James is an active chamber musician and is Artistic Director of Ensemble Perpetuo. Founded in 2013, Perpetuo is a chamber music collective that specialises in multi-art form collaborations and innovative ways of performing chamber music in new contexts. James has also performed with other chamber music ensembles including the Berkeley Ensemble and the Allegri String Quartet.

Aside from his performing interests, James is dedicated to broadening the appeal of the oboe and encouraging young people to learn the instrument. To this end, he has launched the website which now receives over a thousand new visitors every month from across the world. James also teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and gives masterclasses across the UK.

James plays a Lorée Royal Oboe and Cor Anglais supplied by Crowthers of Canterbury. For more information about James and his playing, visit

Meet the Artist……Konstantin Scherbakov


Who or what inspired you to take up piano and pursue a career in music? 

In my family, music was our everyday life, my father being an orchestral musician and a music teacher. Practising piano, learning music and going to symphony concerts and recitals every week was as a natural thing as going to school, skiing and skating, fishing, and biking around. I was therefore practically never given a choice to become or not to become a musician. Later the study became a passion, music turned into profession and a way of life.

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

…My teacher Lev Naumov, the greatest artistic talent and musical encyclopaedist that I have ever encountered. The trace that this charismatic and extremely influential pedagogue left on my ideas about music was overwhelming.

Next, listening to music and sight-reading have been life-long passions. They always fed my appetite for musical discovery and set me on my path into the world of lesser-known music.

Winning prizes at competitions was another major contributor to my career. It helped establish my name. However, the most important influence on my career came from the labels with which I have been associated for more than twenty years: Marco Polo and Naxos. My first commercial recording (Lyapunov’s Twelve Transcendental Etudes, 1994) was not only the first step in my artistic journey; it also defined its direction.

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

The beginning of the project to record the complete works of Leopold Godowsky. The condition that Naxos set meant the project had to be finished in four sessions, I was supposed to record four CDs in each eight-day session, 16 CDs in total. The first session took place in Los Angeles in 1998 when we indeed recorded four CDs of Godowsky’s music in eight days!

Playing the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich at the Salzburg Festival and breaking my right leg just two days before the performance (nobody noticed!).

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Moscow Philharmonic under Yuri Simonov at Seoul Arts Center;

Strauss-Transcriptions (EMI);

12 Transcendental Studies by S. Lyapunov (Marco Polo);

24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich (Naxos);

Sonatas by Scarlatti (Naxos).

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

From my very personal point of view it is the Russian repertoire and Beethoven.

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

There are a few factors that I take into consideration: my own repertoire preferences; wishes coming from concert organizers / orchestras; sometimes it is just the repertoire that is linked to current recording plans.

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

Hard to say! I recall many wonderful halls which I thought were fantastic. Many British halls; the absolutely stunning Town Hall of Dunedin, the most southern city in New Zealand;  National Hall in Taipei, Tonhalle Zurich, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The acoustics and ambiance, a lively and enthusiastic audience, great piano – when brought together, all of this means a successful concert.

Good concerts stay in the memory and the concert hall where they took place is a huge part of that.

Favourite pieces to perform?  

Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies; Piano Concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky; Anything by Chopin.  Listen to?

I can’t really name them all! I never sit and listen to a work that I would consider ‘my favourite’. Basically, I like whatever’s in my ear at a given time; it’s a very good critic.

If I had to choose, I’d say: Beethoven’s Symphonies and Quartets. Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony; Brahms’s 3rd Symphony…

Who are your favourite musicians? 

There are many, various musicians at different times. Among pianists that have formed my idea of pianism (with this they are my all-time favourites) there are Vladimir Sofronitsky, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, George Cziffra, Emil Gilels; all pianists of the Golden Age.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

A Beethoven recital in a small town some 70 km away from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Outside temperature -45°, in the hall – the most intense dialog with the audience. Unforgettable.

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

Practical advice: Practise a lot! Listen a lot! Sight-read! Every time you sit down at the piano think of the purpose of your practice!

General advice: next to playing, try to learn the profession. Every day ask yourself: what have I done today to be on stage in one – ten – fifty years’ time?

At all times try to answer the questions: Who am I? – Why do I play music? – What do I want to communicate? – Is my message clear?

Tell us about your new disc from your Godowsky collection: why did you decide to embark on this project to record 15 CDs?

As I said, the suggestion to undertake the project came from Naxos / Marco Polo. On the one hand it was my curiosity, my insatiable greed for new repertoire, the ability to learn fast; on the other hand, there were countless challenges involved – how could I resist?

You’re returning to Wigmore Hall on 26th November. How did you choose your programme for this concert? 

Given the concert’s length (an hour), my passion for Beethoven/Liszt’s Symphonies (I have played and recorded them all) and an intention to present an unusual and attractive program it seemed to be quite a natural choice. Moreover, I’ll be playing the Eroica Symphony many times this season, ending at the 2016 Beethovenfest in Bonn.

Besides, it is a sheer joy to play this marvel of musical genius, compositional beauty, and pianistic sophistication!



Wolfie – a music app which makes practising fun

The ‘Wolfie’ piano app (named after who else but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) offers students and teachers an interactive and supportive learning tool using up-to-the-minute score-reading software plus a whole host of other features.

Developed by music tech company Tonara, who first launched an interactive score-reading app back in 2011, the team behind Wolfie appreciate that piano practise can, at times, be lonely, dull, repetitive and disheartening. Teachers expect their students to practise between lessons as regular practising is proven to bring noticeable progress, and there can be nothing more dismotivating for student and teacher to have to sit through a lesson going over all the same things as last week. Through interactive, colourful features, Wolfie makes practising fun, young piano students feel supported and inspired, and teachers can set targets and track the progress of their students (this feature is available with the full, paid version). Children today generally love technology and many are very comfortable with using a tablet or smartphone. Wolfie taps into knowledge: the app looks like a game, but it also offers an intelligent learning environment for children of all ages. In effect, it provides a bridge between the old-fashioned paper music score and 21st-century tech. Download the app here here

The most significant feature in the app is the ‘Magic Cursor’, which follows music being played by students in real-time on the score itself (in effect, the app “listens” to the student playing, via the iPad’s microphone; this also provides the option to record oneself playing). The magic cursor (whose colour can be customised according to your preference) enables students to really focus on the music, encouraging notational and rhythmic accuracy, and improving sight-reading skills. The magic cursor works with any level of music (though it is less consistent in more advanced music) and because it “listens” to the music as it is being played, it is sensitive to tempo changes. As the magic cursor tracks one’s progress through the score, it also turns the pages, avoiding the need for additional devices, such as bluetooth page turning foot-pedal. There is also the option to listen to the piece being played (in a rather expressionless MIDI format, but useful nonetheless), and a synchronized recording feature allows the user to simply touch the relevant note in the score to advance playback to tricky passages. For those who prefer a visual cue, integration with YouTube allows you to see and hear the music via a selection of videos, including performances by famous pianists such as Daniel Barenboim.


Alongside this, users can make recordings of themselves playing, which can be shared with teacher and others. The app also gives instant feedback to the player on fluency, pitch, rhythm and tempo, with cheerful emoticons and motivational statements, and awards badges for time spent practising, dedication and completeness. There is also an option to “challenge a friend” by issuing an email invitation to download the app and join in the fun. The attractive, easy-to-use layout of the app makes it enjoyable to use, and if practising is fun, children will more readily engage with it.


From a teacher’s point of view, the app offers positive reinforcements to encourage students to practice more, and teachers can track their students progress via the app (by adding students to their account).

The app has its own music store from which a wide variety of music can be downloaded and played, all using the magic cursor and other features within the app, including an adjustable metronome. There are popular classics, exercises, pop songs, jazz standards and film soundtracks, and all the scores are organised by level from ‘First Steps’ to ‘The Master’. Once downloaded into the app, scores can be annotated. You can also upload your own scores (in PDF format), though these will not work with the magic cursor.

In addition to all of this, there are helpful guides and a video tutorial on how to use the app. I’ve really enjoyed using Wolfie myself, and also with some of my students, who gave it a very positive endorsement and deemed it “a lot of fun”!

Wolfie for Piano is available to both teachers and students in one-, three, nine- and twelve-month subscriptions beginning at as little as £3.75/month.  A free trial version allows potential users to try the app before committing to purchase. Requires iOS 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPad.

For more information, visit


(This is a sponsored post)

Seeing and hearing

This post by conductor Kenneth Woods set me thinking about how we engage with concerts in the 21st century. There was a time when we would speak of going to “hear” a concert, but today, in our image-conscious and visually heightened times, we tend to “see” a concert as well.

The concert hall is like the theatre, and the performer the actor on the stage. And for the audience, a concert is both a visual and aural experience – we listen with eyes as well as ears. Today audiences are likely to be as much concerned with what they see in performance as what they hear. But surely the sound of the music should be enough? Sadly, this isn’t the case and what the performer looks like, how they behave on stage, and what they wear has almost as much, if not more in some instances, bearing on the entire performance. I know of promoters, for example, who will only engage “good looking” or attractive artists, and if you don’t fit into what is currently fashionable you may not get as much work. As a pianist whom I interviewed a few years ago said, more in exasperation than humour: “I am waiting for white British middle-aged men to come back into vogue”.

It shouldn’t matter what performers look like, but in our visually-aware times it does. Because isn’t it nicer to enjoy music played by performers who are easy on the eye as well as the ear? I freely admit to spending an entire recital by Angela Hewitt admiring her gown, and let’s not forget the furore surrounding Yuja Wang and “that dress” and “those shoes” at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl some years ago.

Yuja Wang (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Of course we want performers to be attractive (no one wants to watch some “fugly“, socially awkward, twitching hairy freak) and attractively-attired. On one level, it indicates that the performance is an “occasion” and concert attire “identifies” the performer for the audiene. It is a “uniform”, a means of differentiating one from the audience and defining one’s role for them. Some performers prefer to go to the other extreme and appear in casual clothing which they feel better connects them with the audience by making them appear “normal”, and that it helps break down misconceptions about classical music being “elitist” or “inaccessible”. One’s concert attire is also dictated by the time of day and venue. For example, I probably wouldn’t wear a full-length evening dress for a lunchtime concert at my local music society, and a man may feel comfortable performing in shirt and trousers rather than a suit and tie.

Once we have got over what performers are wearing, there is a whole other area – that of movement and gesture. Performers use body language to convey the “story” of the music, expressive elements, drama and their own involvement in the music. This is an area of performance which, for me, has far more importance over what the performer is wearing. I believe gesture should serve the music, not obscure it. We have all witnessed exaggerated gestures at concerts – extravagant hand and arm waving, swaying across the keyboard, and gurning as if one has extreme indigestion – and now and then we have wondered what is the point of such pianistic gesticulation.

The physical movements and gestures of the performer not only influence the character and quality of sound but also enhance the dramatic content of the work and “explain” the music to the listener. Music is emotional and expressive – even the most mannered passages of Bach are rich in expression – and the performer’s physical gestures communicate the content of the music being played. Sometimes, these gestures can seem extreme, and when the performer’s gestures get in the way of the music or have no connection to the ‘story’ in the music, it can be frustrating or impossible to watch. But at other times, with the right gestures, the performance is magically enhanced and heightened – for both listener and performer.

Gesture is crucial in piano playing as our movements at the keyboard are immediately translated into sound: smooth, flowing movements will result in a smooth, flowing sound, while prodding or poking at the keys will result in an ugly sound. Gesture should always serve the music – not only in terms of the sound being produced but also in guiding the audience through the narrative of the music. At the end a performer may fling their hands away from the keyboard and the audience will know that the performance has ended and will take that as the cue to applaud. Or a performer may choose to allow their hands to remain on the keyboard, withdrawing them slowly to allow the memory of the sounds to continue to resonate with the listeners. The audience reads these gestures and will (hopefully) know not to applaud immediately.

The spectrum of gesture in piano playing is very broad, from almost complete concentrated stillness at the piano (Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough) to exaggerated flamboyance bordering on the ridiculous. Sensitive performers will adjust their gestures according to the character and mood of the music. I have noticed a trend amongst certain younger performers to use gestures which seem unnatural and contrived, as if they have been “given” these gestures by teachers or mentors, or are trying to imitate another performer. Turn off the sound on the YouTube clip below and consider whether these performers’ movements have any value without the music?

By contrast, the late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter liked to perform in darkness, with only a small lamp illuminating the music stand. He felt that this setting helped the audience focus on the music being performed, rather than on extraneous and irrelevant matters such as the performer’s grimaces and gestures. What’s the point of watching a pianist’s hands or face, when they only express the efforts being expended on the piece?” he said. And at a concert hall in Bremen, Germany, concerts take place in complete darkness, owing to the venue’s design which avoids light leakage, allowing the audience a very special aural experience without visual distractions.

James Lisney (piano) and Joy Lisney (cello) at their Konzert im Dunkeln, Bremen
Further reading:

Telling tails: do special clothes help us to perform better? – article by pianist Stephen Hough

Wit and warmth and a whole lot of fun: The Mikado at ENO

The operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are much-loved national treasures, as English as strawberries and cream and tennis at Wimbledon. These light comic operas poked fun at Victorian mores, politics and society, and their sharp observations, dressed up in Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy world” where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion, would have been easily comprehensible to their audiences – and remain so today. The operettas have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their enduring popularity, many revivals, and performances around the English-speaking world, and their messages remain witty and topical. The operas have encouraged political debate, social discourse and much pastiche, and the innovations which Gilbert and Sullivan introduced to content and form directly influenced musical theatre in the 20th century.

The Mikado was the most successful of the ‘Savoy Operas’, works which were written to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard d’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. Its story pokes fun at English bureaucracy and social standing, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting in the fantasy city of Titipu, a seaside resort. The narrative and the characters who populate it resonate today, in an era where career civil servants and political mandarins, sycophants and hangers-on appear to hold sway over those who govern us, and at a time where donations to political parties can lead to elevation to the House of Lords and other positions of privilege. All this commentary is delivered with catchy, memorable tunes (The Mikado contains some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most well-loved songs, including ‘A Wand’ring Minstrel’, ‘Three Little Maids’ and ‘Tit Willow’), wit, warmth and humour. Add an attractive set, fine singing and a great chorus, and you have the recipe for a splendid night’s entertainment.

As a child growing up in Shrewsbury, we had members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company lodging with us while the company were on tour, and in Birmingham in the 1970s I saw Welsh National Opera productions of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. I’ve always enjoyed the clever combination of words and music, the hummable tunes and colourful settings of these operettas, and so when Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado first burst onto the scene in 1986, I was keen to see his fresh take on this much-loved story. It’s taken me 30 years to achieve this, and the latest revival at English National Opera did not disappoint.

The curtain goes up on a light bright cream set, depicting a hotel in a 1930s English seaside resort. The setting may suggest faded gentility, but there is nothing cosy about satire, and the production shines an amusing but critical light on political bureaucracy and scheming and the English middle class and their obsession with status. It is Gilbert’s poking fun at our own status anxiety, and the satirist’s talent for highlighting the absurdities of bureaucracy, which makes Mikado so enjoyable for us today.

The costume colour palette is simple, black and cream with tiny flashes of red, and the chorus and dancers are dressed as bell-hops and maids. Richard Suart as Ko Ko (the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner) steals the show. It’s a role he’s played many times, and it shows in his exquisite comic timing: obsequious bowing and scraping one minute, the next flirting and patting bottoms of maids. His “moment” comes in the great number ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, updated as is traditional to reflect the zeitgeist. Thus, Jeremy Clarkson, Sepp Blatter and FIFA, cheating Russian athletes, David Cameron (with a not-so-veiled reference to ‘Pigggate’) and Donald Trump get a mention.

Nanki-Poo, the young man and “second trombonist” (which provides much scope for comic asides) who is in love with Yum Yum (Ko Ko’s ward, and wife-to-be) was elegantly played by Anthony Gregory with a nice balance between pathos and comedy, while Yum Yum (Mary Bevan) was winsome and coquettish.

Youth and experience were celebrated too in this revival: young conductor Fergus Mcleod was making his house debut on this occasion, while and Robert Lloyd, who made his debut at ENO 46 years ago, reprised the role of the Mikado, tottering and portly in his over-sized cream linen suit.

The evening fizzed along, the singing and drama enhanced by some wonderfully quirky and surreal Busby Berkeley-style dance interludes, and it was lovely to see Jonathan Miller there, cheerfully greeting friends in the bar beforehand, and later taking a bow at the end of the show. The standing ovation was as much an appreciation of that evening’s performance as the enduring appeal of Miller’s sparkling production.

The Mikado continues in repertory at ENO until February 2016. Details here


In praise of the piano summer school

This week I had the pleasure of attending a piano meetup event organised by Fiona Page, the owner of La Balie, a beautiful 16th-century restored farmhouse in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now home to a piano summer school, launched in summer 2015.

The event was a relaxed soirée at the 1901 Arts Club, an intimate and elegant venue near Waterloo station whose cosy ambiance and welcoming staff lends itself to conviviality. Many of the guests had attended the summer courses, others were planning to attend next year, and I was there as I have been helping to publicise the courses.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club
Piano courses bring like-minded people together and firm friendships are regularly forged in the process of shared study and pleasure in music. I have made some very good friends through piano courses I have attended and the social aspect of such courses is a big attraction for many participants. The convivial and relaxed atmosphere which Fiona has created at La Balie is evidently infectious: when I arrived at the 1901 Arts Club there was already much lively chat and laughter coming from the upstairs bar and lounge before the concert began, and this continued into the interval and after the concert. The programme was varied, reflecting the musical tastes of the performers, and there was some fine playing.

After the interval, the course tutor, pianist James Lisney, played music by Chopin, prefacing his performance with generous thanks to Fiona and impassioned praise for the summer school concept (he is regular tutor at a number of summer schools) and its value.

“If you think you have learned everything there is to learn, think again”

He cited his own experience of attending a summer school in France, following study with Phyllis Sellick. and revealed that his own experience proved his comment: there is always more to learn.

My own experience of piano courses confirms this. Even if you study with a regular teacher, or no longer have lessons, if you are a teacher or a student in conservatoire, there is always more to learn, and piano courses offer a different way of learning which can be highly beneficial to one’s development as a pianist, as well as offering opportunities to connect with other pianists

Piano courses are incredibly popular (as evidenced by the number listed in my annual round up of courses and summer schools – and this is by no means exhaustive). Participants enjoy the opportunity of “total piano immersion”, the chance to study with top class tutors and internationally-renowned musicians, and to share repertoire and socialise. For many, the piano course can be revelatory and rewarding, but it also takes a sensitive tutor and responsible students to help make the course successful and enjoyable for all.

I have attended wonderful courses where the sense of a shared learning experience is very potent and inspiring. To get the most out of a piano course, go with the intention to take from the course what you need, not to compare yourself to others but simply enjoy the other repertoire and playing you hear. For many, the attraction of receiving tuition from a top-class pianist/renowned teacher is also very important – to return home from the course and tell your friends that you studied with So-and-So….. In fact, it is about the quality of tuition, not the “big name” who is giving it, and it can be helpful to seek recommendations from friends and colleagues who have already attended courses as to who is the right tutor for you. Some people enjoy a rigorous approach, others (like me) prefer to be treated with more kindness.

If you regularly study with one teacher, someone else’s approach may run counter to your own teacher’s and may be confusing, especially for the less confident player. And if you attend many courses and summer schools, the masterclasses may be like going to the doctor: one teacher will tell you to do with one thing, another will advise something completely different. The differing opinions and approaches of teachers can be confusing, and sifting out what is useful advice and what is not, can be tricky. Again, take from the tuition what you feel will benefit you. If others swear by Hanon exercises every morning, it does not mean you must too….. An important part of our development as pianists, at whatever level we play, is knowing what will be most beneficial to us, personally. And no teacher’s advice should ever be regarded as absolute gospel!

Because the teaching at summer schools is organised in a different way to the one-to-one private lesson, tutors by necessity may not always be able to give very detailed or thorough advice. Instead, a sensitive tutor, such as James Lisney, will be able to identify what the student needs then, at that moment. Group classes and workshops are also a useful way of sharing ideas on aspects such as technique, proper warm up routines, performance anxiety etc and such classes often become a forum for lively discussion and contributions from all participants. The great thing about being on a course is that there is time to digest this advice, act on it and come back to the tutor with it later in the week.


La Balie, France
La Balie, France
Being on a residential course also offers opportunities for free playing, informal concerts, plenty of piano chat, socialising, and relaxing, all of which feeds into our musical landscape and informs our playing (if we allow it to). Talking to participants at La Balie, I got the impression that people had really reveled in the expert teaching, the shared music making, the superb accommodation, fine food and general sociability of the courses. Add to that a charming hostess, a beautiful location, and the lovely sunshine, and you have much, much more than a piano holiday….

La Balie.
 Further reading

More articles on piano courses and summer schools

Playing too many masterclasses can be confusing for the student (article from The Strad magazine)

Meet the Artist……Ben Socrates, pianist

ben-socrates_0464_1 copy

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I have a half brother to thank for this – Luke, who lives in Arizona, or at least he used to, and I’ve only met him once in my life. He came to visit us in Devon when I was younger, and my mother convinced my father to get an old pub piano – Luke is a singer/songwriter and she hoped we would appreciate hearing his music. I did, and I took a particular liking to that creaky piano, began making noises and was soon taking lessons. I don’t come from a musical family, and there wasn’t exactly a fertile scene for it in my hometown, so the desire for a career in music came later, when I enrolled on a music course at The University of Chichester, met some inspiring musicians and mentors, and discovered the breadth and potential of what was out there

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

My first major influence would be my first band The Plastic Hassle – which helped me learn how to improvise and write music, play with rhythm and make naïve psychedelic jazz-rock noise, at the age of 15. My first piano teacher had moved to Yorkshire by then and I was feeling a bit discouraged about music so this was a welcome kick! When I came back to classical piano aged 19 I found I had much more to express and ‘something to say’, and I never lost my love of improvisation. Adam Swayne, my teacher at university, switched me on to modern music, and showed me the scope and variety of piano repertoire outside the repressive ABRSM exam bubble. Finally, my teacher at Trinity Laban, Douglas Finch, who has always challenged conventions and collaborated successfully within other disciplines, which is something that became very important to me. There are of course many more influences, but these are the most important!

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

Finding time and a space to practice away from irritable neighbours. Finding other musicians and artists to work with, which is easy enough when you’re part of a big collaborative conservatoire but harder when you’re in the wider world chasing up jobs, gigs, and endless life admin! Organising interesting concerts and events myself, which I would like to do more of, it is a huge investment of time and energy but incredibly worthwhile, and can raise awareness for good causes. I would like to pursue my other musical interests – whether that’s composition, jazz, harmony, learning accordion, or electronic music – but as is known, getting and staying half decent at piano is time consuming enough in itself!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut recital at Chichester Cathedral last year was special for me, so much of my musical development happened in that area, and coming back to perform for an audience of over 500 was quite overwhelming. I’ll be back there on the 8th March next year, excuse the plug. While studying for my Bachelors I was invited to perform the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2 with the university orchestra – the support and goodwill from the musicians, conductor and audience, and how it all came together on the night, is an enduring memory. Other than that, I enjoyed putting together a performance of Ravel’s La Valse, arranged for two pianos, with a choreography devised by contemporary dance students at Laban, for the first CoLab festival at Trinity Laban. I got to play some of Eric Satie’s Vexations at 4 in the morning, for a project at Chichester University. The performance, split between all the pianists that the university could muster, had been broadcast online for a good 12 hours prior to this and the music was firmly lodged in my psyche before I dragged myself out of bed to the concert hall!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think it’d be easier to say what I perform badly! I suppose I feel most at home with music of the 20th century, which is very vague, and in itself contains a vast variety. I never tire of exploring whats out there, trying to find out how it all came about, and it’s place in history. Alex Ross can help with this.

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

I try and learn a programme or two worth of new repertoire every season, but then it is also satisfying to come back to something I struggled with years ago and find that I now better understand the music or am no longer wrestling with the technical problems, or I might find a whole new approach to take. A teacher told me that the best performances are of the pieces we learn and forget, then relearn, then forget, then relearn, and by then they are just so well internalised and part of our musical DNA.

When it comes to programming, I try and include a diverse selection from across the four main periods of Western music, but the challenge is in giving it some kind of unifying  thread. My recitals this year are loosely themed around the title ‘Visions & Dances’, with the music grouped around Visions (visionary, impressionistic, colourful, innovative, imaginative pieces, usually of the 20th century and beyond) and Dances (self explanatory), which really means I am able to incorporate all the music I love to play! I find that unpretentious and demystifying introductions can really help ‘sell your idea’ also.

I like to include contemporary repertoire in most of my concerts, not so much the wilfully difficult and obtuse stuff, but experiments in sound by Henry Cowell, Rautavaara, Somei Satoh and Frederic Rzewski have all been memorable for audiences (for good or bad!).

I occasionally start to write a ‘bucket list’ of the music I want to perform in the next year, 5 years, decade, lifetime, but such a list is never finished and can be overwhelming. It’s good to be spontaneous in our selections also.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I never get tired of performing Prokofiev – I haven’t yet approached the sonatas but I became hopeless addicted to the Visions Fugitives, the Ten Pieces opus 12 and some of the etudes. There is something very seductive about the expressive language, the kaleidoscopic colours, the hallucinatory changes of character. It seems like this kind of music emerged out of nowhere, from a timeless and intangible place, and I can’t really figure out where it went after Prokofiev departed. I admire the nationalistic, folkloric strain in music at the turn of the century – the Dvorak Slavonic Dances, and of course Brahms’ Hungarian Dances that inspired Dvorak, are pretty much the most fun I’ve had at the piano, and I love Janacek’s piano music.

When it comes to listening that is a very difficult question in the age of Spotify, as there is so much that I have loved, forgotten, come back to – but at the moment I am enjoying the more meditative music of Olivier Messiaen, Morton Feldmann, John Adams, Arvo Pärt. Also anything with a rhythm that makes me stop in my tracks, or want to dance, whether it’s Scarlatti, Villa Lobos, Gershwin or all kinds of electronic and world music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have a lot of admiration for musicians that have taken creative U-turns, in spite of achieving a certain amount of success, and turned their hand to different styles rather than play it safe, bringing a new audience and appreciation to other forms – Jonny Greenwood, Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt, David Byrne, PJ Harvey, for example. As far as pianists go I love what Chilly Gonzales is doing, bringing back the somewhat lost character of composer/performer, he is also a formidable improviser, and I recommend you listen to the online snippets from his 27 hour marathon piano performance (he was the Guinness World Record holder for the longest solo performance, but only for a few months!) you’ll be impressed by the variety of music at his fingertips. In the classical world it’s hard not be in awe of Daniel Barenboim at the piano or the podium, Grigory Sokolov for the Romantic repertoire, Martha Argerich in everything she does. Alice Sara Ott has done some really wonderful things with Chopin. They’re my favourites for now. I have to mention Art Tatum and Bill Evans also, for their boundless creativity at the piano, and the music of Charles Mingus never fails to blow me away. Why are all my favourite jazz musicians dead??

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Can I pick a few?

The second time I heard an orchestra was in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, which set the bar rather high. I heard three quarters of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the space of a week, it was the Berlin Statskapelle conducted by Barenboim at the 2013 Proms, and time seemed to stop for those 12+ hours. I was transfixed by Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians performed by the Colin Currie Group, and Cordelia Williams performing Messiaen’s 2.5 hour Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus from memory, with this superhuman ferocity and passion. I vividly remember when Douglas Finch improvised a set of subversive variations on Christmas themes we’d suggested, in the dark, at a party. There is a German composer called Haushcka who prepares a grand piano by filling it with ping pong balls, contact microphones, E-Bows (magnetic devices invented for guitarists to sustain sounds indefinitely), other gizmos – I expected a load of gimmicks and party tricks but it was quite an amazing transformation. When I was younger I was inspired by some of the modern jazz artists who for some reason came to play in my sleepy hometown of Barnstaple, particularly Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear, and Basquiat Strings, a string quartet of incredible improvisers backed by double bass and drums. When I got a place at Trinity Laban and found some of these very musicians were on the faculty, I was very excited; unfortunately my jazz chops hadn’t really kept up!

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

Despite my philosophical sounding name I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t been said better already. I went to hear Daniel Barenboim speak at this year’s Edward W. Said Lecture and wrote down loads of quotes I considered important. They’ve been lost since I moved house, but essentially – use music to understand life, and life to understand music, and always impart this to everyone you encounter as a musician and teacher.

Happily the lecture is on YouTube for anyone who wants it in a bit more depth/less paraphrased!

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

In some remote part of the world with some good companions, a piano and just enough free time!