Tag Archives: piano competitions

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:


Why Lucas Debargue should be allowed to develop as an artist

Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final! In an honest and touching interview with Ismene Brown of The Arts Desk, Debargue comes across as a sensitive and intellectual young man for whom music is profoundly important, not just in terms of beautiful sound, but also as a “a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations”.

Let’s just clear up a few inaccuracies. In ‘The Spectator’ article quoted above, he is described as “the man who came last”. He didn’t come last. He achieved what most can only dream of: he reached the final of the most prestigious piano competition in the world. That he did this following only four years professional study with a Russian master teacher (Rena Shereshevskaya) is remarkable. (And by the way, it doesn’t really matter that his scale fingering is unusual: there is no “one size fits all” fingering scheme, because hands and fingers come in different sizes.) Now everyone is asking what next for this extraordinary young man?

It is at this point that I start to worry for a talented and obviously sensitive young man like Lucas Debargue. He is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young artist to be thrust into the limelight before he is ready. Unlike the other competition finalists, he has not undergone the long and rigorous traditional professional training which would prepare him for the concert platform: he still needs to hone his stagecraft and, more importantly, learn how to deal with the journalists, agents, promoters, and fans who besieged him as the competition progressed – and continue to. The classical music industry is not a particularly pleasant place, and the world of international pianism is highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. At the big competitions, representatives from the big artist agencies are waiting to scoop up the winners and runners up, offering tempting contracts, a slew of international engagements, recording deals and more (look how much Martin James Bartlett, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, has done since his win, including several performances at the Proms, and he’s only just 19; he has, however, undergone a professional training in specialist music school and conservatoire). It’s true that success in an international competition can make an artist – but it can break one too. From the moment one chooses the life of the international concert pianist, one lives in the public eye: every performance and recording is held up for scrutiny, and one is under almost continual pressure to meet the expectations of agents, promoters, fickle audiences, critics and fans. The life of the concert pianist is tough, restrictive and lonely. In addition to the many hours of solitary practise, there is the traveling, nights spent in faceless hotels, fine historic cities viewed through a fog of fatigue, never having the option to be less than perfect, even if one is ill or tired, knowing that one is judged on one’s last performance (here I recall the unpleasant hoopla surrounding Ivo Pogorelich’s London concert in February). The pressure can be unbearable if one is not equipped to handle it. (Read Charles Beauclerk’s excellent and sympathetic biography of John Ogdon for some brutal insights into the life of the international concert pianist. For Ogdon, the piano was his saviour and his tormentor, and there is no question that the pressure of so much traveling to perform around the world contributed to his breakdown.)

Add to this that peculiarly British fascination with the maverick, the eccentric, the tortured genius with the unconventional “backstory”. We risk endangering Debargue further by holding him up as curiosity, instead of allowing him to develop and mature in his own time. There is something very authentic about his playing, his particular soundworld and his special and personal connection to the music which has clearly touched people.

Lucas Debargue plays Ravel – ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’

In his interview with Ismene Brown, Debargue talks of having few friends and little support from his family. His teacher was his mentor and supporter, encouraging him to take a tilt at the Tchaikovsky Competition and saying when he got through the first round “It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you.” He has yet to develop the necessarily resilience, thick skin and artistic temperament to survive the “wild west” of the international concert circuit, and I only hope that whoever he chooses to manage him, should he decide to go down that route, is sympathetic and puts his well-being before all else. Otherwise, I dread to think what might happen….

So please let’s allow him – and others like him – to develop at his own pace to emerge onto the international circuit, should he choose that path, when he is truly ready. To conclude this article, I think it is worth quoting a comment on Peter Donohoe’s piece for Slipped Disc about the competition (Peter was a juror this year):

Aside from all of this, what happens to each of these young artists remains to be seen. How will they carry on with their studies as musicians? Which repertoire will they cultivate? Will they develop chamber music careers, teaching, new works, recordings? This is what is most important as they begin to soul search and decipher how and what they will contribute to the world of music outside of the usual parameters. (Jeffrey Biegel)
Read Peter Donohoe’s thoughtful and intelligent article here

View clips of Lucas Debargue’s performances in the International Tchaikovsky Competition

An impressive debut: Antonii Baryshevskyi at Wigmore Hall

© Neda Navaee

I seldom select concerts to review based on performer. An interesting programme is usually what will pique my interest, and this was certainly true when browsing the Wigmore’s spring season of concerts: it is unusual to find Ligeti and Messiaen in the same programme. I didn’t know the performer and was unaware at the time of booking the concert that he was first prize and gold medal winner of the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

Winners of competitions are often paraded before audiences with the promise of greatness. Generally young performers poised on the brink of an international career, too many may offer a bland synthesis of music, technically polished but lacking in insight or maturity. Not so Antonii Baryshevskyi, a young pianist from Kiev, whose impressive Wigmore Hall debut combined pristine technical facility and consummate musicality in a challenging and highly varied programme.

Read my full review here

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

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