I recently attended another of Penelope Roskell’s weekend piano courses. I have been on so many of these now that I am considered an “old hand”, although I always gain a great deal from each course and I enjoy the opportunity to connect with other pianists and piano teachers and share repertoire.
Piano courses are the “in thing” right now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again. For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now in its 18th year. Inspired by Lot Music new kid on the piano course block is La Balie, also in the Lot region. Created by high-flying city exec Fiona Page, La Balie promises beautiful and tranquil surroundings, five-star accommodation and expert tuition from concert pianist James Lisney, who has had years of experience as a course leader at the Summer School for Pianists and Hindhead Music Centre, amongst others.
So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and now La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.
Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.
Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.
And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.
Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.