Category Archives: General

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

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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!

Dulwich Music Festival 2016

The Dulwich Music Festival is now in its fifth year. It is an annual event that takes place several times during the year to provide performance and feedback opportunities for pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. In 2016, the Festival comprises two separate events:
  • The Clementi House Piano Competition – a chance to perform in the London home of pianist and composer Muzio Clementi. Alongside the competition, there will be concerts by leading harpsichordists and fortepianists. 6th March 2016
  • The Piano Competition – a full day of classes from beginners to advanced and adult recital classes. 11th June 2016

These events are designed to celebrate the piano (and harpsichord and fortepiano) and to encourage enjoyment and progress amongst players of all levels.

Repertoire has been carefully chosen to allow complete beginners the chance to gain their first experience of performing to a friendly and welcoming audience. We seek out innovative repertoire by contemporary composers who also adjudicate the classes. In addition to the contemporary repertoire, we also have graded classes and recital and exhibition classes. The piano competition is well established and fully booked months in advance. We recommend early booking. Some of the June classes are already fully booked.

I am delighted to be involved with the Dulwich Music Festival once again in 2016 as an adjudicator, a role which offers me the opportunity to hear young pianists in action in a variety of repertoire.
Full details about the Festival can be found here:

Meet the Artist……Robert Steadman, composer

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

As far as I can remember, and from the stories my mother tells, I was always composing music in one form or another.

I began playing the recorder whilst I was in Infant School and then started to learn to play brass instruments (initially the cornet in the local brass band) at the age of 7. As soon as I could play a few notes I was rearranging them and experimenting with them.

My mother often tells of times when I was only 7 or 8 years old, armed with a couple of decant recorders, a cornet, a script I had scribbled on a scrappy piece of paper and my sister I would make up and record “radio programmes” onto a cassette player that I would then inflict on the rest of the family. In these shows, I was not only the scriptwriter and presenter, but I also composed all the music that was featured!

Sadly, when I was at school, composition wasn’t really a thing in the way it is these days and, although I continued writing short little pieces for myself to play at home, I didn’t really have any “performances” of pieces until I was in my early teens.

It was whilst at sixth-form college in Andover, on the Pre-Professional Music Course at Cricklade College) that I realised that I seemed to have a bit of a flare for composing, and being on that course meant I had the opportunity to write for lots of players who were quite able. College sorted me out a composition tutor (Tom Eastwood) and gradually I had more and more pieces being performed.

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

I think that my time at Cricklade College was fundamental to me becoming a composer.

Tom Eastwood, my composition tutor, was fantastic teacher – inspiring and very realistic about what I needed. He pushed me in the right direction.

Cliff Bevan, who had been my tuba teacher (yes, as I grew so did the brass instrument I played get larger) and then became the head of the course at Cricklade, was also a massive influence, as he found me opportunities to get pieces played and, because he also ran a small publishing company, he published my first two compositions: Delta IV – a fugue for four trumpets; and Sonata in One Movement for solo tuba – which I wrote as a audition piece for myself to play for County Youth Orchestra and university interviews.

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

I’m fortunate in that I find composing relatively easy, and I work quite quickly. I think, as a composer, the challenges come from trying to persuade people that they’d like to have a new work written, or that they could include a new piece in a concert. Sometimes, it’s such an uphill struggle – and, in fact, it can be soul destroying to think that 200 years ago audiences and performers wanted new music more than they wanted to listen to older things – what went so wrong?

Personally, I guess the biggest struggle for me, as a composer, was about three years ago when I suffered very badly from depression due to a combination of work and home problems. I had it very bad and got to a point where I was being closely watched because I was considered to be a suicide risk. I was put on a complex cocktail of medication that, I felt, turned me into a bit of a zombie and removed my spark and creativity. In July 2012, a couple of weeks before I went to London to be a Games Maker for the Olympics, I stopped taking all the medication and decided to fight back against the depression. My GP was fantastic and supported me throughout this, even though she didn’t necessarily think it was the right thing to do, and, as a result, my composing resumed.

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

The hardest part of working on a commissioned piece is getting the commission in the first place (oh, and getting the second, third, fourth performances).

I love sitting down with a commissioner to discuss a new work – but, of course, by that point they’ve dipped their toe in the water and made the decision that they want a new work written!

I normally talk to a commissioner for ages to find out their needs, about the event, things they’d like, things they wouldn’t like…. I do love the collaboration of working with someone else – it’s like solving a puzzle making sure all the pieces are placed in the right way so that the performer has the piece they want! 

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

Every musician is different and that’s what makes things so exciting and, to be honest, inspirational.

Yes, as a composer there are things I want to write but I realise I can’t just compose what I want (I’m certainly not a big enough name for that – yet!) so I have to adjust my ideas to fit with what someone else wants. A lot of the time I think this helps me hone my thoughts and, I hope, the final piece is better as a result.

Which works are you most proud of?

I’m always most proud of the piece I’m currently working on but, of finished pieces, I am particularly proud of pieces that have had a life beyond the premiere and beyond the first performers: my MAGNIFICAT has had a wide range of performances in its different versions; BE NOT AFEARD,THE ISLE IS FULL OF NOISES is a piano sonata that I wish my meagre piano-playing skills would enable me to perform; IN FLANDERS FIELDS was performed a lot last year – it’s a setting of John McRae’s First World War poem in versions for various different choirs!

There is also MASS IN BLACK, which was commissioned by Basingstoke Choral Society in 1987. It’s had a premiere scheduled twice, by two different choirs, but, on both occasions, it’s been cancelled because the choir has decided the piece is too controversial (it combines a requiem mass text text with the prophecies of Nostradamus and poems on environmental issues and the end of the world). I think it’s one of the best and most original pieces I’ve ever written – but, so far, it remains unperformed!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I have a very eclectic taste in composers (and have only recently fallen back in love with classical music after a trial separation of a few years!

Of modern composers, I adore the music of John Adams who is, to my mind, the greatest of all living composers. I also very much enjoy the music of Michael Nyman and Michael Torke.

Of twentieth-century composers, I always had a thing for the music of Michael Tippett (I wrote a dissertation about him for my O-level music exam) but then it’s the usual suspects: Stravinsky; Bartok; Reich. I am not a fan of serialism though I’m glad it happened (actually, aged about 8, having never heard of Schoenberg or the Second Viennese School, I “invented” a system not dissimilar to the 12-note row…).

Of earlier composer, I particularly like Berlioz and Bach. I’ve recently re-discovered Beethoven (and especially like his later works) and then there’s renaissance choral music, which I adore.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has to be when I conducted a school orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall at the Schools Prom in 2005. We played a suite from Jurassic Park and then Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 – I’m not one for the whole flag-waving jingoistic nonsense but, with a bunch of youngsters that I had coached, it was a truly memorable experience.

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

I think that Roy Castle hit the nail on the head in the lyrics to the song he performed at the end of episodes of Record Breakers: “Dedication’s what you need”.

You need to be dedicated to your art, honing your skills, keeping an open mind and listening carefully to everything around you. You need to be continually learning and you must never accept second best! Being a bit OCD is a positive!

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

In 10 years I’d like to be doing more composing and less of the other bits I do to try to please my bank manager! 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing – composing without interruption and then hearing a perfect performance without interruption (though I do hate being in a hall when a piece of mine is being performed because I have no control over it – it’s one of the few times I get nervous).

What is your most treasured possession?

My most treasured musical possession are some of my own hand-written manuscripts from the days before computer notation (I began using notation software in 1990).

My most treasured non-musical possession is a set of encyclopedias I inherited from my paternal grandfather (who I never actually met). They’re from 1921 and have such a different world view.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing – and if I’m not composing, I love to cook or watch movies.

I’m a vegetarian, and have been since my Freshers’ Year at uni, but I cook meat for those who need it – yes, in an ideal world everyone would be vegetarian, but, sadly, they’re not! In fact, I’d prefer to be vegan, but I think it would still be too difficult. Maybe in a few years time…

What is your present state of mind?

That’s a tricky one! I have days when I am manic with ideas to the point I feel my head will explode, and other days when I am more relaxed. I’m in a good place now, much better than I was a few years back.

Robert Steadman is a prolific composer of music ranging from symphonies and operas to musicals and pieces for brass band. He has written a great deal for amateurs and children.

Robert has been commssioned to compose works for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, saxophonist Sarah Field, London Brass Virtuosi and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

His opera Sredni Vashtar was written to a libretto by Richard Adams.

He has also written radio jingles and a song used on Chris Evans‘ Radio One Show.

As well as composing, Robert has written many articles on music education and a number of books alongside teaching and leading creative music workshops for schools, museums and charities.


Omelette Arnold Bennett

(photo: BBC)

‘Masterchef – The Professionals’ is back on BBC TV, the competition for professional chefs. I admit to being glued to the programme every night, and this year I’m watching even more attentively as my son is training to be a chef (and of course this proud mum would love to see him on the programme in the future….)

At the start of the competition, the chefs undergo a variety of “skills tests”, including making brandy snaps, boning, trimming and tying up a joint of meat, preparing a lobster or crab, or making the classic Omelette Arnold Bennett. For a “classically trained” chef, these tests shouldn’t present too many problems, as many of these skills and dishes are standard fare in the chef’s basic training. Of course in the TV spotlight and under the eagle-eyed stare of Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing, nerves can get the better of the contestants and mistakes inevitably happen….

During last year’s contest, I enjoyed lively conversations on Twitter with pianist and writer Susan Tomes, and once again we are exchanging thoughts about the competition. One thing that has puzzled both of us is how these chefs seem to lack basic skills, skills which one would expect them to have mastered within the first few years of their training (my son, for example, who is in the second year of his diploma course, learnt to make Omelette Arnold Bennett in his first year). And it set me thinking about what the equivalent skills would be for a pianist.

So, if the pianistic equivalent of Omelet Arnold Bennett is the first Prelude & Fugue from Bach’s WTC (a suggestion received via Twitter), what other basic attainments should a pianist have, based on an equivalent list of culinary skills? I would love to have your suggestions, which I will then collate into a further blog post exploring this theme. Feel free to post your suggestions in the comments section at the foot of this post.

How to chop an onion

Make a roux sauce

How to cook pasta properly

Salmon en croute

Prepare an artichoke

Black Forrest Gâteau

Make a soufflé

Coq au Vin

Steak Tartare

Prepare oysters

Deboning, trimming and tying a joint of lamb