I’m delighted to be featured in the July/August 2015 issue of the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ Music Journal. Read more about my musical activities, inspirations and plans for the future here (click on the image to enlarge it):
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I have never pursued a career in music, it ended up like this. Ok, let me tell you backwards. All I wanted in my life was to compose my own music, whatever it may be to other people. The end result of my compositions are often categorised as “contemporary classical music” (which was also not my choice; I thought of my music is as easy listening top of the chart pop music, but I guess a lot of people don’t feel that way, sadly), and I always want to compose.
Like a lot of people, one needs to earn money to live, as I am from normal working class family; in other words, if I breathe, I need to earn (like everyone else, I guess), and I don’t want to spend time doing things other than composing. So naturally I had to think how can I compose music so that I can also eat. Then it became profession.
If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would be doing the same thing, composing-wise. My life hasn’t really changed since I was an 8 year old composing every day. I guess I don’t have to go to school as I am 37, so I can spend more time composing, not just after school hours and weekends.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
If I can speak about inspiration (before I get to the influence), I think I would say everyday life. I really think the inspirations are everywhere. Most significantly, by watching my wife being pregnant, going through each day until the birth, then my daughter growing and changing every day (she is now 3). The one and only good thing about being a composer is that you get to stay home and work, so you will not miss any of these magical times. I have written many works inspired by the specific parts of these situations, from early pregnancy to 2-day-old baby, movement of 2 week old cheeks, learning to walk, etc etc. All separate works.
Now, speaking of influences, I will mention these 4 people: Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian.
I am incredibly lucky, not just to know these people, or just shake hands once, but to actually work with these people, whom I grew up listening to when I was early teens. Sakamoto and Sylvian were my everyday play list, and Boulez and Eötvös were my everyday play list from when I was at music college student to today.
To be honest, I feel I’ve met everyone (my heroes) I wanted to meet in my life; everyone else, however many “famous” people are standing there in front of me now, I wouldn’t feel star struck.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Hmmmm, maybe writing my first opera SOLARIS.
It’s 90min, music for 5 singers, ensemble and live-processing electronics (I worked for months in IRCAM in Paris).
I must say I was a little worried before I started working on this opera, how would I feel about writing an opera. But from bar 1, until the final bar, I felt great. I have never had such a wonderful experience writing it, making drama, telling the story, controlling the pace, mood, atmosphere of the drama. At no point did I feel “I didn’t know what to do next” while composing SOLARIS.
I was sorry after 1.5 year I reached the final bar of SOLARIS, that I had to leave this world in which I lived for a year and a half composing.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Not every commission, but some commissions come with some “request”. I quite like this.
From when I was small, I always love studying. I loved school, I always studied (not because I wanted good grades, but I just wanted to know more things) something in my life, including unnecessary things!
For instance, I wrote a piece for Lucerne Festival, which was for anniversary of the oldest and biggest insurance company, Swiss RE. They requested me to write music about “risk management”, a term which I had not even heard of until then. Soon I found out one of my close friend’s partner whom I knew for years, is a professional Risk Manager! I knew that he wears a suit every day to go to work, unlike floating around everyday like a jobless person like me. So it was fascinating for me to study this totally unknown area.
Another was the anniversary for Kierkegaard. I knew the name, but never really knew about him. It was a great excuse to study and research him.
So it is not a challenge, it is an excuse for me to know more, a good reason to do research.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I wouldn’t say “challenges”, but I always think about the musicians who will perform (for the first time) the work I am writing. It may be hard to believe for some, but I really do. If it is an orchestra then I think about the conductor (especially if I know the conductor very well); if it is a solo or concerto works, I would have lengthy face to face or skype sessions with the musicians I am writing for. It is so important that I have these musicians in mind when I am composing.
But it is strange, quite often I compose music like that, then they premiere the work, they say nice things, but they never play the work again. A few years later, someone totally different from whom I imagined when I was writing the piece contacts me and then plays the work obsessively many times, as if the work was written especially for him/her.
I can never really control this, it’s a chemistry, I think. But it is nice, for me to try to seek the “reason of the work’s birth”. Once he/she is born, they walk their own life….
Which works are you most proud of?
Can’t answer that….though my old works, I feel are quite distant, a bit like someone else’s compositions with lots of bits I feel comfortable with, or like or am familiar with. I feel more possessive about recent works.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
“Daphnis and Chloe” BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was amazing to me that I literary could hear every single note which was played, and the pacing of it. The piece started, and finished as if in one breath. Really clean, like the most smooth single malt whisky.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring composers and musicians?
Why do you play these particular works in this exact time and for whom, and why those instruments. When I feel this clearly as an audience, I will most likely to like the concert.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to be writing larger scale works only, like operas. Hmmm….. maybe some little pieces in between for people I like.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Composing – and when my daughter is lying on me on the sofa, watching tv or reading books (preferably the latter).
Although Dai Fujikura was born in Osaka, Japan, he has now spent more than 20 years in the UK where he studied composition with Edwin Roxburgh, Daryl Runswick and George Benjamin. During the last decade he has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Huddersfield Festival Young Composers Award and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in UK, Internationaler Wiener Composition Prize, the Paul Hindemith Prize in Austria and Germany respectively and both the OTAKA and Akutagawa awards in 2009.
A quick glance at his list of commissions and performances reveals he is fast becoming a truly international composer. His music is not only performed in the country of his birth or his adopted home, but is now performed in venues as geographically diverse as Caracas and Oslo, Venice and Schleswig-Holstein, Lucerne and Paris.
Full biography here
As we continue through the pianist’s alphabet, next we land on C – which is actually a starting point for most beginner pianists.
C is for our first piano lesson: Middle C! The arbitrator of the two basic hand positions, the place we always return to, the sun our earthly hands rotate around.
C is also for cadence, those satisfying progressions that lead us to a harmonious end, and are so richly voiced on the piano’s many keys.
C is for Cat’s Fugue, Scarlatti’s Sonata for harpsichord that is often played on the piano. Which reminds me: C also stands for cats, who are so often part of a pianist’s practice time as they curl around us on the bench, paw the keys, and otherwise distract and complement our practice time!
C represents counterpoint, which brings me to Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ (which is a word worthy in itself, as it draws our attention to all of the piano-related instruments in the keyboard family). Bach’s fugues present the essence of counterpoint as the dancing lines of the different voices intersect across the keyboard.
C is for ‘Clair de Lune’, that most limpid and watercoloured movement of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque.
Lastly, C is for cantabile and colour, two of the most beautiful qualities of the piano. With our hands and our souls, we can produce that singing quality and an array of tonal color at the piano. The capacity for expression is infinite.
Written by Nadia Banna, piano teacher with TakeLessons (http://takelessons.com)
Cantabile – there is no sound more wonderful nor more musical than that of a piano singing. Cantabile, playing in a smooth, singing style which imitates the human voice, is something all pianists strive for (or should strive for), and the ability to play cantabile well takes practise and a high level of artistry. Extreme tonal control is required to achieve a smooth singing and each pianist needs to develop a keen awareness of their own sound and the ability to listen to themselves and imagine the sound before they play. The fingertips provide clarity and focus, the equivalent to a singer’s articulation, and cling to the keys like suction pads or the feet of a gecko (to use an image favoured by the pianist Lang Lang). The firm finger-end is an integral part of playing because it supports the freely suspended weight of the arm. Guiding the whole process is, of course, the ear.
The special cantabile sound which Chopin requires was modeled on Bel Canto, a style of singing popular at the time when Chopin was writing. In fact, the sound of this kind of cantabile is created by illusion: imagining the sound in your head before you play and then allowing fingers, arm and ear to guide you. More on tone control and cantabile playing here
The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH. Pianist Christopher Guild’s first volume of Stevenson’s piano music was released on the Toccata Classics label in early March 2015, though I suspect Guild did not realise at the time that his recording would become a kind of memorial for Stevenson. The CD celebrates Stevenson’s shorter works for piano with a special focus on one of his major preoccupations: his love of Scottish and Celtic culture. The album contains three suites of pieces based on Scottish folk songs or songs for children, together with the more substantial A Scottish Triptych, three pieces each written some time apart, and A Rosary of Variations on Sean O’Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980).
The piano is the ideal instrument for miniatures, and Christopher Guild brings warmth, intimacy and wistfulness to the pieces based on Scottish folk tunes with his assured lightness of touch, sensitive voicing, clean articulation, rhythmic vitality and a keen sense of the fleeting moods and characters of each piece, and Stevenson’s penchant for complex harmonies and unexpectedly vivid dissonances. Meanwhile, A Scottish Triptych explores more plangent piano sonorities in its opening movement, and even utilises the piano’s interior (strummed and plucked strings) to produce unexpected colours and resonances in the final movement.
Christopher Guild is an enthusiastic advocate of Stevenson’s music, and the CD provides a poignant memorial to the composer. I look forward to Volume 2 with interest.
In 1901 a new concert hall opened in the West End, just north of Oxford Street. Small and intimate, it boasted superb acoustics, unprecedented comfort, and scheduled two hundred concerts a year, as London’s concert-going populace, benefitting from a revolution in entertainment and leisure, flocked to see Frank Merrick and Leopold Godowsky, Artur Schnabel, Chopin specialist Vladimir de Pachmann, and ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, the Venezuelan lady pianist Teresa Careno.
This was Bechstein Hall, owned by the C Bechstein piano manufacturer whose London showroom and retail outlet was next door on Wigmore Street.
The C. Bechstein piano factory was founded on 1 October 1853 by Carl Bechstein who had studied and worked in France and England as a piano craftsman, before he became an independent piano maker. He set out to build a piano able to withstand the demands place upon the instrument by the virtuosi of the time, such as Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s son-in-law, Hans von Bulow, gave the first public performance on a Bechstein grand piano in 1857. Along with Steinway & Sons and Bluthner, Bechstein became one of the world’s pre-eminent piano makers. Bechstein pianos were praised for their colourful tonal palette, warm sound and delicate nuances. Pianists and composers who favoured Bechstein’s pianos include Liszt, Brahms, Scriabin and Debussy.
In 1916 Bechstein Hall closed, its German owners unable to sustain the business during the First War, and in 1917 the hall reopened with its current name – Wigmore Hall. Since its opening, the hall, in both its incarnations, has enjoyed a reputation for world class chamber music and it attracts the finest international pianists.
When I first “met” and played my 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano, in the north London workshop of my piano tuner in March 2013, I knew I had to own this instrument. Not only for its smooth touch, warm, mellow tone, rich bass, sweet singing treble, and beautiful rosewood case, but also for its association with my favourite London concert venue – Wigmore Hall. It was, and remains, a serendipitous meeting, and it is quite possible that my piano was sold from the Wigmore Street showroom.
Bellies, Bass-lines and Bottoms
While thinking of something to write for the Pianist’s Alphabet series, I considered various parts of the piano that I would like to describe and was particularly taken with the belly. It’s not often that I hear pianists talk of the instrument’s belly, but it’s sound-board. The sound-board is arguably the most important part of the instrument, spanning the surface area of the casing (well, the majority of it) and being responsible for the instrument’s personal tonal quality and capability. Steinway & Sons have even created the ‘Diaphragmatic Soundboard’ which they liken to a diaphragm by tapering the thickness of the wood to maximise the soundboard’s efficiency. Here’s a link: http://www.steinway.com/news/articles/the-diaphragmatic-soundboard-the-heart-of-the-steinway-tone-color-and-richness/
But, I prefer the word ‘belly’! Belly = guts, where all the important stuff happens. If the belly of the piano is in perfect working order and designed sympathetically, then the resulting sound is vital, vibrant, and capable of huge tonal and dynamic range. Isn’t it the same with people?!
As for bass-lines, I’m a sucker for bass-lines, and it’s these that we feel most through our bellies. One of the most satisfying things to play and listen to is a descending bass-line, often with an ascending melody, when the tension is building and passions fly, often causing both players and listeners to feel a knot in the stomach and great excitement before the final arrival or release in the music. Ecstasy!! (This happens so many times in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, or more gradually in the big climax in ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.)
The bass-line underpins everything; it supports the melody and provides the foundation upon which harmony can develop, grounding both player and listener alike. To neglect a bass-line is tantamount to creating a pizza with sumptuous toppings, but paying no attention to the dough! (Apologies for the food analogy but it’s the first thing I think of when searching for parallels.)
Now, bottoms. I’ve already mentioned guts and foundations, but how can any of this happen without being firmly planted? With so much energy being propelled forward towards the instrument, a rooted bum is essential. Great Kung-Fu masters have always spoken of opposing forces increasing power and strength. (Yin and Yang.) If we are to apply this to piano playing, then in order to play to maximum power with minimum effort, as much attention needs to go down through the stool and in to the floor as it does through the thorax, arms, fingers and, ultimately, belly.
So to summarise, pay attention to the bass-line, feel firmly planted and when the music requires it, release both down into the floor and out through the piano, feeling it in your very core. When the piano responds accordingly and its belly rumbles, the music will come alive and everyone will be fulfilled.
The 2015/16 season at St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) was heralded by real trumpets as two members of the London Mozart Players performed Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theatre.
I like St John’s very much as a venue. A short walk from Westminster and nestled amongst government offices, it is London’s only Baroque concert hall (designed by Thomas Archer and completed in 1728), though its programmes feature a broad repertoire of music from early to uber-contemporary. As a former church, it boasts a fine acoustic and I have enjoyed some excellent piano recitals there, including concerts by Paul Badura-Skoda, Claire Hammond and Richard Uttley.
For 2015/16, SJSS becomes the temporary home of the International Piano Series (IPS), normally resident at the Southbank Centre, which is undergoing a much-needed upgrade. Highlights of the new IPS season include concerts by established artists such as Steven Osborne, Nikolai Demidenko, Jean-Efllam Bavouzet and Imogen Cooper as well as younger, up-and-coming pianists. My highlights from this series are concerts by Denis Koshukhin (music by Haydn, Brahms, Bartok, Liszt and Wagner trans. Lisz), Lukas Geniušas (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Prokofiev), Steven Osborne (Schubert, Debussy, Rachmaninoff) and Tamara Stefanovich (Copland, Carter, Ives). Full details about the series here
The major season highlight for me is Warren Mailley-Smith‘s 11-concert survey of Chopin’s complete solo piano music, commencing in September 2015. The concerts have a broadly chronological thread running through them, while each will explore a particular aspect of Chopin’s oeuvre, including the Mazurkas, Etudes, Ballades, Scherzi and ever-popular Preludes. This promises to be a real treat for audiences and a marathon undertaking for Warren, who by his own admission, adores this music and is looking forward to a year of total immersion in Chopin. (A detailed preview of the series and an interview with Warren will appear in a later post.)
Fast-forward to today, and Rolf Hind’s fascinating and eclectic Occupy the Pianos festival returns to SJSS in September. 10 concerts over 3 days feature brand new works together with music by Morton Feldman, John Cage and John Adams. Further information about the series here
There is yet more to excite pianophiles in an excellent series of lunchtime concerts, including recitals by the Françoise-Green Duo in which first meets second Viennese School alongside new commissions (21 January, 25 February, 31 March, 7 April, 12 May 2016), together with concerts by Viv McLean (1 October, with soprano Sarah Gabriel) and Joseph Houston (10 December, Debussy, Messiaen, Feldman, Liszt and new works by Colin Matthews and Simon Holt).
My 2015/16 diary is already very full!
Full details of the 2015/15 season at St John’s Smith Square here (including a link to download the new season brochure)
On 29 June 2015 St John’s Smith Square announced its 2015/16 Season. With over 250 concerts and many individual series and strands, this season clearly demonstrates St John’s core mission: to be a centre of excellence for chamber orchestras, choral and vocal music and period instrument groups. St John’s also plays a vital function in presenting new work (with over 30 premieres for 15/16) and supporting emerging artists (including an own-promoted young artists’ series).
Orchestral performance is a cornerstone of the programme at St John’s Smith Square. Over the coming season St John’s is delighted to be welcoming the London Mozart Players, Orchestra of St John’s, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment*, London Sinfonietta* and Philharmonia* among others.
The London Mozart Players will be giving three distinct series: Mozart Explored, continuing their exploration of Mozart Piano Concertos with Howard Shelley; Beethoven Explored, performing the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, again with Howard Shelley; and Mozart Explored: 1783, celebrating music from the year 1783 in Mozart’s life.
The Orchestra of St John’s bring a range of programmes including opera and oratorio, a traditional New Year Strauss celebration, a collaboration with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (13 February 2016) and a series of celebrity appearances entitled Public Passions opening on 5 March 2016 with Joanna Lumley.
The Philharmonia bring Stravinsky under Esa-Pekka Salonen (2 June 2016), the London Sinfonietta with Martyn Brabbins and Garry Walker bring two programmes of premieres including a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1 June 2016) and a premiere by Laurence Crane (10 October) and the OAE have a regular season at St John’s in addition to their traditional Christmas and Easter St John’s concerts.
Choral and vocal music
There is also a vibrant season of choral and vocal music for the 2015/16 Season. This includes The Tallis Scholars‘ landmark 2000th concert (21 September), a celebratory event which also opens the London International A Cappella Choir Competition (22-26 September).
Other vocal highlights include performances from Polyphony under Stephen Layton at Christmas and Easter in Handel’s Messiah with the OAE (23 December) and Bach’s St John Passion on Good Friday (25 March 2016). Stephen Layton also continues his Handel oratorio cycle with The Holst Singers and The Brook Street Band, this time featuring Handel’s Solomon. Other Handel performances include the rarely heard Athalia with the Whitehall Choir, London Baroque Sinfonia and Paul Spicer (17 November).
As well as sacred choral music, Opera is a significant aspect of the 15/16 programme. There will be Salieri’s seldom-heard Trofonio’s Cave from Bampton Classical Opera (15 September), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Orchestra of St John’s (14 September), Zelenka with Bury Court Opera (20 October), Handel’s Acis and Galatea with La Nuova Musica (2 November) and Rameau’s Castor et Pollux with Olivier Award-nominated Early Opera Company and Christian Curnyn (20 November). There is also operetta with Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld from Opera Danube (29-31 January 2016) and Stephen Oliver’s realisation of Mozart’s opera The Goose of Cairo as part of the London Mozart Players’ 1783 series (14 April 2016).
Period Instrument Performances
Historically informed performance with period instruments is one of the key features of the 15/16 programme at St John’s, the UK’s only baroque concert hall.
The Brook Street Band, The Revolutionary Drawing Room, Solomon’s Knot, Arcangelo, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, La Nuova Musica, the Steinitz Bach Festival, the Academy of Ancient Music, the Early Opera Company, the International Baroque Players, The Amadè Players, Gabrieli and the European Union Baroque Orchestra all contribute to this rich vein running through the programme.
New Music and emerging talent
Across the programme there are over 30 premieres and commissions including new works from Alissa Firsova, Simon Holt, György Kurtág, Errollyn Wallen, Lawrence Crane, Martin Butler, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Tansy Davies and Christian Mason. All those selected for the St John’s Young Artists’ Scheme (Tabea Debus, the Ligeti Quartet, Joo Yeon Sir and The Gesualdo Six) also feature new music as part of their programming.
St John’s is also delighted to welcome the Park Lane Group for both a lunchtime series and their intensive festival (18-22 April 2016), featuring emerging artists and new music, and tomorrow’s opera stars get a chance to shine through Opera Danube’s training programme.
Regular Concert Series
St John’s hosts regular Thursday lunchtime concerts which, amongst others, feature Yeomen from The Musician’s Company and artists from the Dartington International Summer School. There is also a monthly organ recital series including performances by Thomas Trotter, Jane Watts and Roger Sayer, programmed by St John’s organ curator David Titterington.
St John’s other regular series is the Sunday at St John’s programme which includes mini-series such as the London Piano Trio’s complete Beethoven Piano Trios (11 October, 29 November 2015, 17 January 2016) and the Fidelio Trio’s focus on French repertoire and new works (15 November 2015, 24 January, 24 April 2016).
There is further great chamber music from the Françoise Green Duo, who have devised a fabulous series of first meets second Viennese School alongside new commissions (21 January, 25 February, 31 March, 7 April, 12 May 2016) and the return of the Henschel Quartet (6 October) following their magnificent debut last year.
The pianist Martino Tirimo, with friends including the Carducci Quartet, Minguet Quartet and Rosamunde Trio, presents a series spanning 2016 of the great piano quintets and there is an absolute tour de force of the Complete Chopin Cycle given by pianist Warren Mailley-Smith over eleven concerts.
Festivals at St John’s Smith Square
Festival programming is also central to this season. In September St John’s welcomes back pianist and composer Rolf Hind who has curated the second ‘Occupy the Pianos’ festival: a fascinating exploration of all things piano with nine concerts showcasing an eclectic mix of 20th and 21st Century music for pianos, prepared piano, voice and dancer (10-13 September).
A fortnight later Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars launch the second London International A Cappella Choir Competition with choirs battling out the prize over five days. Christmas sees the superlative St John’s 30th Annual Christmas Festival curated by Stephen Layton (11-23 December), bigger than ever before and including familiar faces, such as Ex Cathedra, Ensemble Plus Ultra and the Choirs of Christ Church Oxford, King’s College London and Clare College Cambridge as well as newcomers Siglo de Oro and the Choir of Merton College Oxford. St John’s also welcomes back the London Festival of Baroque Music (13-19 May 2016) which for 2016 has ‘The Word in Music’ as its theme.
Two new festivals for 2016 are ‘Principal Sound’: a focus on the music of Morton Feldman and those he influenced (1-4 April 2016) and DEEP∞MINAMLISM (24-26 June)* with music by Meredith Monk, Galina Ustvolskaya, Mica Levi and others.
St John’s is also delighted to be the regular home for many orchestras and choirs including the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Vitae, the 1885 Singers, the English Baroque Choir, the Collaborative Orchestra, the Orchestra of St Paul’s, Cantandum, Twickenham Choral Society, the Salomon Orchestra, the Fulham Symphony Orchestra, the City of London Choir, the London Phoenix Orchestra, the Parliament Choir, The London Chorus and the Royal Orchestral Society as well as many schools, music colleges and community organisations who use St John’s regularly.
Southbank Centre at St John’s Smith Square
Finally, there is one other exciting collaboration taking place at St John’s this season. During the period of refurbishment at the Southbank Centre St John’s will be providing a temporary home for concerts from the International Piano Series, the International Chamber Music Series and a number of the Southbank Centre’s resident ensembles. Artists appearing at St John’s as a result of this partnership include Nikolai Demidenko, Steven Osborne, Tamara Stefanovich, Imogen Cooper, the Jerusalem Quartet, Viktoria Mullova, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Nicola Benedetti, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Steven Devine, Ian Bostridge, John Butt, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the London Sinfonietta.
Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said:
“I am immensely proud of the new season programme at St John’s Smith Square. St John’s is a wonderful place; a unique baroque building, majestic and serene and situated in one of the most inspirational settings I have ever come across. Our 2015/16 programme is packed with concerts and festivals of the highest quality which, I am sure, will prove to be informative, entertaining and inspirational. St John’s Smith Square doesn’t receive any public subsidy; our income coming solely from hiring the hall, box office revenue, the restaurant and bar and the generosity of our supporters. As such, this programme would be impossible to put together were it not for the support of a huge range of partners and friends. My thanks go to everyone who has helped to put together what I am confident will be a year of musical triumphs for St John’s.”
Full concert listings are available on line: http://www.sjss.org.uk/whats-on
Final of GPP/LPE adult amateur piano competition, adjudicated by Leslie Howard. Saturday 27 June 2015, All Saints Church, West Dulwich
If anyone needed proof of passion for the piano amongst adults look no further than the final of an amateur competition which took place last weekend in south-east London. A joint collaboration between specialist piano restorer and retailer Grand Passion Pianos and London Piano Events (formerly London Piano Meetup Group), the final brought together seven pianists whose playing demonstrated a high level of technical facility, artistry, musical understanding and committment. The first round (YouTube submissions) presented the judges with the unenviable task of selecting eight people to go through to the final.
The competition final was adjudicated by acclaimed international concert pianist Leslie Howard. The finalists had to cope with a church acoustic (great for the audience, but tricky to judge for those at the piano) and little or no time to warm up, and they all rose to the challenge with poise and confidence (any nerves were well disguised!). At the end of the competition, Leslie made some helpful and encouraging general comments, and everyone left with a sheet of more detailed comments on their individual performances.
The results of the competition were as follows:
Winner – David Griffiths
Mazurka op 17 no 4 – Chopin
Etude pour les arpeges composes – Debussy
Etude-Tableaux op 39 no 5 – Rachmaninov
Second place – Michael Cheung
Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (1st movt) Beethoven
Widmung – Schumann arr. Liszt
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 no. 5 – S Rachmaninov
Third place – Claudia Lazarus
Litaney – Schubert arr. Liszt
Mädchens Klage – Schubert arr. Liszt
In Dahomey (“Cakewalk Smasher”) – Grainger
The Raymond Banning Trophy was presented to the winner by Lorraine Womack-Banning, whose late husband Raymond Banning was a concert pianist, professor of piano at Trinity College of Music, London and a keen supporter of amateur pianism.
I think I was born to play the piano. I was lucky enough to have an upright piano in our dining room. I was always in school choirs and from the age of 5 would arrive home and play the songs we had sung during the day. It was my aunt that mentioned I should have piano lessons and the seed was planted. My mother, although not a musician, sang in the home and often had classical music playing, and I myself had an extensive collection of recordings. Both parents have always encouraged me to continue my love for music and their support has been unwavering. I was taken to many classical music concerts and regularly heard the likes of John Lill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. At secondary school I took up the violin and joined orchestras, but my main love remained the piano and I considered myself a pianist.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
I studied music at the University of North Wales, Bangor. There, I had a rich and varied musical life, taking part in two orchestras, singing in the choral society and continuing with my piano and violin lessons. I went onto study at Bretton Hall to gain a PGCE qualification with a view to teaching in schools and whilst I was there I had a request to teach a boy in the village. I enjoyed this and it whetted my appetite. We also had a visit from a practising piano teacher talking about her profession and it seemed a good career to consider. I trained as a music teacher and, not finding a job, went into secretarial work and computer programming. I vowed never to give up my music and joined a choral society and played in orchestras. I decided to teach on Saturdays, cycled to student’s houses and acquired a few home pupils.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
My first teacher was fine up to a point, but had a terrible memory, and that meant I could hoodwink her as to how far I’d reached and still gain a reward toffee. I had one who gave me thirty minutes practical and an hour of theory; needless to say, this didn’t work. My greatest teacher was a Gertrude Tomlinson who I stayed with for some twelve years. We played Beethoven Symphonies as duets, she was an avid fan of Southampton Music Festival and encouraged me to enter every year. She continued to encourage me and later on I was one of two students who remained with her. It was thanks to her that I acquired my performance diploma before going to university.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
The most important influence was Mrs Tomlinson: there was a great emphasis on sight reading and I became very good at it. We often played together and I also had a regular duet partner of my own age. She became more of an aunt later on, and lived with my duet partner’s family after her husband died. Nowadays my influences are: my students (their enthusiasm, ideas and different needs), Beethoven and Debussy (composers I like to introduce students to as part of their repertoire), social media (awareness of books and resources from other piano teachers and pianists), my own experience in different genres (swing bands, soul bands, theatre bands, orchestras) and my piano tuition at university (with an emphasis on finger technique).
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
This is a difficult one … there are many teaching experiences, mostly good. Recently a student has acquired a place with the junior department at the Guildhall School of Music and she told me that it was thanks to me that she decided her second study was to be piano. I’ve also received a gift and note from a young student, something made by her and her sister. Last year I had a student who, against all the odds, gained a good pass at a recent examination, is getting a piano and is now determined to practice vehemently. My older students give me great pleasure too: I have taught two ladies who love to play duets together and a seventy-three-year-old lady obtained her grade three examination from scratch.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
Adults are usually very keen students. There have been a few who have, for one reason or another, decided it really isn’t for them but the long stayers have a determination to catch up on what they’ve missed out on. One of the biggest challenges is when a student has studied piano before and had a long break; the technique they had may need modifying and with the onset of arthritis and other matters we may have to have alternative strategies for note reaching and speed. Some are keen to do examinations whilst others just want to acquire a bank of pieces to play. We have to find appropriate tutor books for adults for many are geared to younger players and we have used the Smallwood tutor a fair amount, and we often change the names of the ‘quaint’ titles. Adults are often surprised at what they can achieve and I take this as a great compliment.
What do you expect from your students?
“Practice makes progress” is a phrase we use and “no practice, no point”. Most are willing to practice adequately and come with a guilt complex if they have not done this. I like to think I’m not a scary teacher but they do seem to feel bad if they’ve been unable or forgetful. I expect students to be my partner during the lesson …. for instance, sometimes I’ll take the top part of a piece whilst they take the bottom, or we use rhythm cups together, or we play a duet. They like the fact that we both take part and it relieves the feeling that they’re just being watched. I expect them to converse and tell me about any difficulties in their playing and I expect them to be on time. At the same time, they expect me to inspire, direct and encourage them, which I very much hope I do.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
I wish my students had more time for competitions and festivals but they often have so many other activities. A few do enter our local festival but I don’t tend to press them for anything else. Examinations are useful markers for students and parents but there is no need for them to enter every single one, and we often take a longer time to ‘skip’ to a higher grade. Some adults are keen to do examinations and, having persuaded them that they too can enter, they bite the bullet and are surprised at how welcome they feel at the venue and at how much they can achieve. I encourage students to help each other, especially if they’re learning the same examination pieces, and by playing duets. If they can collaborate on something in the school concerts, this is a really good experience. The bottom line is that I want my students to enjoy learning the piano and not to see it as an added burden.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
For beginning students, they need to know that they too can achieve as much as the person they’ve just heard next door who they perceive is playing brilliantly. My job is to convince them that they’ll get as much as they put in. They need achievable goals. Emphasis on slow, accurate playing rather than the opposite is something I tell all students, beginners or advanced. Advanced students need to be aware that there is always something else they can do to improve their playing and that perfection is something that concert pianists are still trying to acquire. In short, all students should do their best, and that is all anyone can do. I do expect students to respect other people’s abilities for there is nothing worse than feeling inferior.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
I consider myself a pianist and piano teacher. Teaching something can make you realise certain faults in your own playing you didn’t notice before. But it also inspires your students if you can play something advanced in front of them. For me, the fact that I’ve won a first and third in the EPTA composition competition last year and this, has encouraged some to consider composition themselves. Leading by example is always a good thing and many people don’t have the exposure to professional piano performances, and it’s good for them to see what can be achieved (even if I’m not quite to the standard of Lang Lang).
How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?
I ask them the question “Do you think most of those people watching you could do this?” and the answer is invariably “no”. We agree that nerves are a good thing for making you perform better and that the piano doesn’t present any danger if you make a mistake. I do have a couple of students who do not wish to do examinations for that involves playing in front of a strangers but occasionally I’ll get them to play for a teacher or another student. Any opportunity for them to play is a good thing, whether it’s in a school concert, music festival or in front of me and a few students.
It’s important for the students to realise that I too get nervous and I tell them about my own experiences, such as when my nose starts to run whilst I’m playing or I panic about a page turn. I stress that live performances involve risks and that audiences are usually very forgiving and indeed some events, such as a collapsing music stand, can be amusing ice-breakers.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
John Lill, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy are amongst my favourite pianists. I love their combination of rage and sensitivity. Going back to the issue of anxiety and the fact that performance involves risks, I remember an incident at Southampton Guildhall where the sustaining pedal came off. John Lill saw the funny side and showed his professionalism by merely restarting the piece. My tutor at university was William Mathias, a Welsh pianist and composer, and we had a visit from Ashkenazy who played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting many pianist-teachers through the European Piano Teachers’ Association and believe it’s a very necessary part of our profession.
Jenny was raised in Southampton and studied the piano from the age of 7. As a teenager she obtained her grade 6 violin, and after leaving school she worked at a bank for a year and achieved a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She went on to gain a BA (Hons) in Music Arts from the University College of North Wales in Bangor, and a PGCE from Bretton Hall.
She married, moved to Oxfordshire and had children. Unable to find a teaching job, she took office work and during that time acquired a computing certificate at Oxford University (External Studies), acquiring work Oxford University Computing Services and ABB Simcon. She eventually acquired a teaching position (Music, ICT and French), managing to reduce this to ICT at the Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury where she gained a diploma in special education. After a permanent move to Grantham in 2001, she taught ICT until her post was made redundant.
Jenny has always had piano students and when her job was declared redundant, that was the spur to make it her main career. She is now a private piano teacher at Kesteven and Grantham Girls School in Grantham and has students at home. An accomplished pianist and musician, she is in demand as an accompanist. She is Musical Director for Grantham Operatic and has overseen productions of Sweeney Todd, The Mikado and Fiddler on the Roof. She also deputises for the keyboard player in Grantham Rhythm and Blues Band and has played in the theatre for several productions.
She has sung with choral societies in the Beethoven Halle in Bonn, The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and Oxford Town Hall. She has played the violin in Sankt Augustin Musukschule (German), Harlaxton Manor and Grantham (Lincolnshire Strings Celebration). She has performed piano solos at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, Didcot Civic Hall, Harlaxton Manor, Belvoir Castle, St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham and Warwick University. She is the proud winner of a first prize in the 2014 National Composition Competition organised by the European Piano Teachers Association, of which she is a professional member. She has also learned that she has won a third prize in the 2015 competition.
Jenny loves to teach and considers her wide-ranging experience an advantage when deal with different personalities, abilities and aspirations. Many students want to take examinations but some prefer a more relaxed approach. As long as they enjoy the lessons and have some sort of goal, Jenny is happy.
For more information about Jenny please visit her website at www.jswmusic.co.uk
It may appear counter-intuitive to say that social networking, that most distracting and potentially time-wasting of modern-day preoccupations, could possibly assist in one’s piano practise. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote. A while ago, a renowned British concert pianist posted on Facebook that he was having trouble with a tricky passage in a work by Schumann and asked if anyone could suggest a more intelligent/efficient/comfortable fingering scheme. There followed a stream of replies, many of which offered alternative fingering schemes, while others took the conversation off on interesting by-ways and tangents. A few days later, the same pianist posted that, thanks to the comments, he had found a better fingering for the passage. This is an excellent example of “the wisdom of crowds in action” (to quote from another FB colleague of mine) and demonstrates how social media can, truly, assist in your practising.
When I first started this blog five years ago, I wasn’t very active on social networks: in fact, the blog was the only “social media platform” I regularly engaged with. I started the blog as a way of recording my thoughts about the music I was listening to, enjoying in concerts and studying. I found it helpful to write down ideas about what I was practising – to think about it away from the piano allowed my thoughts to crystallise. As the blog became more well known, interesting discussions developed out of these posts, as people left comments or contacted me for advice about music or technical issues they were struggling with. When I took the decision to study for my first performance diploma, I charted my progress in a series of blog posts. After the diploma was completed and passed, a colleague wrote that I had been “brave” to have been “so public” in my attempt, and that my efforts were inspiring and “liberating for so many people” (i.e. other adult amateur piansists). I was flattered that someone thought my writing and musical activities could offer support to others who were considering or actively engaged in a similar musical path to mine. In fact, in addition to writing my own blog posts about my diploma progress, I read and followed many other blogs on music and pianism which provided crucial support, especially in the final months leading up to the diploma recitals. Interacting, via comments and on Twitter, with the authors of these blogs made me feel supported and encouraged. Playing the piano is a lonely occupation (though I enjoy the loneliness) and I didn’t see my teacher that frequently for lessons. When we did meet, there was far too much work to be done on the actual music to spend time musing over more esoteric issues of, for example, interpretation, the psychology of performance and managing performance anxiety, stagecraft and presentation, and all the other myriad aspects which go into producing a slick, well-prepared and engaging musical performance. In short, my interactions with people on social networks made me feel less alone in my task.
A few days ago, I tweeted a picture of the final bars of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, which I am working on at present. This is a long-term project, but my tweet was to celebrate the fact that I had, finally, after 7 months work, learnt the entire sonata. (By which I mean, it is “in the fingers”, but is by no means finessed – that hard work begins now, and for the next half year, or more.) A number of people responded to the picture with words of congratulation and encouragement, while others expressed their liking for this sonata or offered links to their favourite performers and performances of the work. As is often the way with social media, an interesting discussion ensued, all of which, for me, feeds into my continuous circle of practise, study, discussion, interaction, teaching, listening, concert-going, and more.
Across the social networks, by which I mean the most widely-used platforms of Facebook and Twitter, there is a plethora of musicians, music teachers and musically-inclined people who regularly post about the music they are enjoying as a listener/concert-goer or studying and practising as a performer and/or teacher or enthusiastic amateur. In addition to people’s personal timelines, there are groups and forums where like-minded people can get together to bounce ideas around, often providing invaluable support, advice and solidarity for those of us who might be “stuck” in a musical impasse. Sometimes someone might flag up difficulties they are having with a particular section of a piece, or ask for suggestions for new repertoire for themselves or their students, or post a recording they have made for others to critique. Sometimes we just have a collective grumble about how difficult it all is! And often Facebook and Twitter simply provide a pleasant antidote to the enjoyable hardship of trying to refine Schubert’s “heavenly length” or get to grips with a knotty section of a Bach fugue.
On a more practical level, Twitter in particular is the place where you will daily find a wealth of links to blogs, articles, videos and other material which can assist in your piano practise – from the simplest “how to do it” videos to academic writing offering detailed critical analysis and commentary on specific works. Sifting through this material can be daunting, but both Twitter and Facebook have functions which allow you to “favourite” or save links to read later.
Out in The Real World, there is another social networking platform which has proved fertile ground for pianists to connect, share repertoire, thoughts about practising and performing, and to socialise: London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group), which I co-organise with a piano teaching colleague, brings adult amateur pianists together regularly for informal performance opportunities and social events. I have made important new friendships via the group and collectively we provide a supportive atmosphere for the keyboard-inclined.
Here are some comments from people with whom I am connected on social networks about the usefulness of these platforms to the musician and music teacher:
I have learned FAR more useful teaching ideas and techniques from Facebook groups than I did by studying for a teaching diploma!
it really helps me as practising can be lonely and it’s nice to have piano chat during breaks
Facebook has helped me considerably (and less so Twitter) both to research piano-related information and has helped me hugely with practice through the support of specialised Groups, and of pianist friends on my News flux. Even my face-to-face teacher (not a lover of the social network society) has noticed!
For me it’s solidarity!!! Knowing that I’m not the only one having problems.
We can find solutions to more than just fingering issues. Plus lots of varying opinions. Without it we’d be at risk of only teaching in the way we were taught!
I think one of the most important aspects of social media is solidarity – it’s so good to be able to share problems, find that others are experiencing the same etc. I think that has a huge influence on our own well-being as musicians.
I think there is an almost unlimited amount we can learn from each other, and social networking helps build those connections both online and (hopefully) in the real world too
Practising the Piano (Twitter @PractisingPiano)
The Musician’s Way (Twitter @klickstein)
Piano Addict blog (Twitter @pianoaddictblog)
Stephen Hough’s blog (Twitter @houghough)
Pianist magazine (Twitter @pianistmagazine)
Musical Orbit (Twitter @musicalrbiter)
Piano Network UK (Facebook group)
Professionalism in Piano Teaching UK (Facebook group)
London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group)