Tag Archives: piano competitions

Is the future of piano playing in the UK really in peril?

I wanted to write a further post in response to Dame Fanny Waterman’s piece in ‘The Observer’ in which she warns of a crisis in piano playing in the UK and blames the popularity of digital keyboards and electric pianos for the fact that UK performers are failing to compete internationally. (Read my initial response to Dame Fanny here.)

I don’t want to focus too much on the issue of competitions, which remains an area of heated debate amongst teachers, students, adjudicators and music journalists, but I would just like to quote some statistics which a colleague flagged up on Facebook in response to Dame Fanny’s article:

……a quick glance over the Leeds previous prizewinners [reveals that] of 95 names only 5 have sustained a major international career after the initial flurry of dates, only 2 of those were first prize winners anyway, and the most recent competitor from the group took part in 1987! Perhaps our British pianists have realised that there are better and more creative ways to create a career in the 21st century

Competitions should not be seen as the be all and end all, and I think we all need to get past this holy grail of “The Three C’s” – Conservatoire Competition Concerto.

In my experience, as a piano teacher and the co-organiser of a group for adult amateur pianists, I see no signs of a decline in interest in piano playing here in the UK. Far from it. I receive enquiries about lessons every week, and I know piano teaching colleagues in my own area of SW London and beyond would say the same. Most of us have healthy waiting lists. The piano remains a popular first instrument for children to learn because it is relatively easy to make a nice sound from the very first note. The members of my piano group range from people who have played the piano since childhood, returners, and adult learners of all levels. Some members are very fine players indeed, who are regular performers but who have chosen a different career path to music. What unites us is a shared passion for the piano and its literature.

In addition to piano groups, piano courses are becoming increasingly popular, offering adults and young people the opportunity to study with acclaimed performing artists and teachers. There are courses to suit all abilities and tastes from “piano retreats” in the French countryside, with five-star accommodation and wonderful food and the opportunity to study with an international artist, to weekend courses for advanced pianists (professional and amateur), courses focussing on contemporary music, accompanying, chamber music, jazz and much more.

Then there are festivals where children and adults can compete, receive constructive feedback from skilled adjudicators and enjoy hearing other people’s playing and repertoire. I am involved in the Dulwich Piano Festival – it is heavily over-subscribed with many classes filling up within days of entries opening, surely a clear indication of the popularity and enthusiasm for the piano?

The UK is host to many fine piano concerts throughout the year and attracts top-class British and international artists. Alongside concerts in mainstream venues, there are myriad other opportunities to hear piano music – but top international artists and also exciting young and emerging artists: in stately homes, churches, art galleries and museums, small regional arts centres, people’s homes, out doors….. Initiatives such as Soirees at Breinton and the South London Concert Series bring piano, and other classical music closer to the audience and make the music and concert experience more accessible and intimate.

The piano is very much alive in the UK – let’s keep it that way.

Pianist and writer Susan Tomes has made an interesting and thoughtful contribution to this debate – read her article

Wishing my readers a very Happy Christmas – and if you are a pianist, of whatever level, love your piano!

A response to Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chair and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition and grand elder stateswoman of piano teaching, has been in the news this week as she has announced that she will be standing down from the prestigious piano competition after next year’s event.

Dame Fanny is “a living institution of British music” (source: The Guardian) and her views and opinions command much respect in the piano world and music education community in the UK and beyond. In today’s Observer, she expresses her fears for the future of pianism in the UK. I read her article with interest and have enjoyed a lively discussion in response to it with members of my own pianistic and piano teaching community on social networks. Based on these discussions, I would like to offer some points in response to Dame Fanny’s view:

Electric pianos and keyboards

I don’t like these instruments either. They are not a patch on a “real” acoustic piano, upright or grand, but they do offer an affordable alternative and for beginning students, child or adult, I would not hesitate to recommend a digital piano. There are some excellent models on the market at the moment. Many people simply do not have the income nor the space to purchase an acoustic piano for their children when starting piano lessons. (And I have seen some truly awful pianos in the homes of some of music students – out of tune and badly maintained.) One of my students has recently acquired a piano, having been studying with me for c4 years. Her parents took the decision to upgrade to a proper instrument because they could see she was committed to her piano studies and they appreciate that a real piano will enable her to develop as a young pianist.

Starting young?

Some children show aptitude for a musical instrument from a very early age, some later. And some come to music in adulthood. What is important here is encouraging and supporting an interest in music. Sure, there are kids out there who “are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four”, but delve a little deeper and I think most of these proto-Lang Langs display exceptional technical facility without any proper insight or musical understanding. This comes with maturity, time spent with the  music, understanding the context in which the music was created, and listening around the music – and much more besides….

There are no great British pianists today?

Dame Fanny, I beg to differ. They may not be well known on the international circuit (yet), but I have encountered some extraordinarily talented British pianists through my concert reviewing and interviews on this blog. What about Benjamin Grosvenor, a young British artist who already shows tremendous maturity, beyond his tender years? Other artists I would cite include Danny Driver, Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Richard Uttley, Lara Melda, Cordelia Williams, Daniel Tong. There is a terrible tendency, especially amongst more senior members of our society, to continually hark back to an earlier “golden age”. But we should look to the future and nurture and encourage the talent we have.

British pianists are not entering the Leeds competition

As one contributor to the discussion on Facebook said, one needs a hefty amount of wherewithal to enter international competitions. Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK, and not many people have the financial support (including parents who will fund such ventures) to consider the risk of entering a competition. It’s not because British pianists aren’t good enough; it’s because many of them simply can’t afford it!

And competitions should never been seen as the be all and end all. Sure, winning a prestigious competition can launch one on a successful international career, but it’s not a dead cert.

Students today lack “a grounding in the instrument’s complexities”

Here I agree with Dame Fanny. In my experience as a regular concert-goer and reviewer, I come across too many young artists (of all nationalities) whose sound has become “dumbed down”, if you will. They aim for  middle of the road expression and dynamics which they believe will please audiences and critics, and (some) teachers. I think part of this is due to bad teaching – the teachers themselves do not understand the complexities of the instrument – and also the fault of exceptionally high-quality recordings whose sound artists feel they should replicate in live performances.

Young pianists have too narrow a repertoire

In fact, I think many young artists have too wide a repertoire, as they feel they must have the big warhorses of the standard piano repertoire in their fingers by a certain point in their career in order to gain recognition and respect. This goes back to my earlier point about maturity. But I agree with Dame Fanny’s point that piano students today do not spend enough time studying a composer’s complete oeuvre: one cannot study one piece in isolation. I teach context from the get go, encouraging students to understand where the music they are learning comes from and suggesting “further listening” and study to offer a broader picture.

Young people lack the discipline to study the piano seriously

In addition to the discipline that is required to practise and apply oneself to musical study, students also need encouragement and support from family and teachers. Parents also need to understand that genuine musical talent comes from day-in-day-out commitment – and on this point I agree with Dame Fanny. But children should not be pushed to the extent that they lose their childhood in the process.

Music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off

With poor provision for music education and instrumental teaching in many of our state schools, sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off.  The cost of learning an instrument is a major barrier for many. Only a relatively small sector of our society can afford to put students into specialist music schools or offer the necessary funding for their study, both at school and beyond.

Initiatives such as James Rhodes’ ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ are laudable, but I think a major shift in attitude towards music and the arts in general needs to take place, from the Department of Education down, in order for music education to be respected and accepted as a necessary part of our children’s education. My own recent research into attitudes towards private piano teaching in the UK reveal an alarming viewpoint: that music is regarded as a “soft”  subject, or simply a “hobby”. This view extends into the world of professional music making, where musicians are not properly valued and receive poor or no pay, because they are perceived as doing a job they love, or that music is not regarded as “a proper job”. This is part of a wider discussion, but it is touched upon in Dame Fanny’s article.

Another related aspect is the British attitude towards “achievement” and that peculiarly British dislike of “show offs”. Achievement and excellence have become dirty words in this country, and this dumbing down begins in primary school (at least in the state sector) where, for example, sports day has become some bland running about pointlessly with teachers cheering kids on and saying anodyne things like “everyone’s a winner!”. Culture, excellence and personal achievement need to be supported, nourished and encouraged. 

Future of piano playing in UK is in peril, veteran teacher warns

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion via my Facebook thread.

I was also interviewed by LBC in response to Dame Fanny’s article. Listen here

Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition

The HASTINGS INTERNATIONAL PIANO CONCERTO COMPETITION is a prestigious piano contest which takes place annually, and is the “jewel in the crown” of the Hastings Musical Festival, founded in 1908.

Open to pianists of ages 16-30 years, including professionals, this contest, now in its ninth year, showcases some of the most talented young pianists in the world. Chosen semi-finalists will be offered a masterclass (Friday 15th March) with members of the Jury.

FIRST STAGE – Preliminary Round 11th – 13th March

SECOND STAGE – SEMI-FINALS. Thursday 14th March
Six pianists will play their Recitals.

Three semi-finalists will play in a Masterclass at Fairlight Hall – Friday 15th March – 7pm-9pm with members of the Jury

Tickets for the Masterclass are very limited, £12 per person (with wine and snacks). To book a place call Brenda on 01424 430923 or 01424 437357

THIRD STAGE – FINAL
Three finalists will play their chosen concerti (Saturday 16th March) with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

Further information and tickets here. Children under 16 can attend for FREE when accompanied by a paying adult.

Hastings Musical Festival