Tag Archives: Piano courses

La Balie – summer piano courses in the heart of France

***Dates for 2016 courses***
July 9th-16th and August 13th-20th
Booking opens September 1st 2015

La Balie is the brain-child of Fiona Page, a high-flying former CEO and amateur pianist. After a busy and satisfying career in finance, Fiona felt the tug of a change of direction as she approached a significant birthday. Here she takes up the story of how La Balie came to be:

I was CEO of another successful independent business that I’d really enjoyed building, but I was increasingly looking for other interests and a better balance – I’d started learning the piano and had been thinking for several years of buying a house in the sunshine. So at 49 I set myself the target of buying a house in France by the time I was 50. I thought I’d spend long weekends exploring different areas and looking for the perfect house: as it happened, I chose a few properties off the internet, went to France for one rainy, foggy, November weekend and came back with a house!  

The house was La Balie – a collection of 7 stone farm buildings dating from the 16th century.  

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When I bought La Balie it had three little cottages that were used for summer rentals. I continued with that for the first summer but then started to think about what else I might use the cottages for. It was an easy process for me: there were four key areas that I was interested in and when I talked to other people everyone seemed to agree that music, well-being, cooking and some corporate stuff would be interesting and fun.  

And that’s how it started! 

Along my travels I met concert pianist James Lisney, who I was lucky enough to persuade to lead the piano courses and we were off! This summer we’re offering three weeks of courses – the first open to pianists of all levels and the second and third dedicated to advanced pianists. The ethos of La Balie is to play serious music but in a relaxed environment: the day starts with a breakfast of fresh hot croissants, local breads and home-made organic muesli, class starts at 9.30 with 4 students having the opportunity to play prepared pieces for James and the rest of the group. A lazy lunch is at 1.00 with the rest of the afternoon free for sightseeing, relaxing by the pool, practice or further individual lessons with James. We gather again around 6.30 for a chilled glass of something and an evening recital either from James or one of the course participants. The opportunity to perform has been a great attraction at the La Balie courses and there has been serious competition for the available slots! Dinner is either on the terrace at La Balie watching beautiful sunsets or at one of the many local restaurants.

All the classes take place in The Studio, a beautiful old barn, now converted and equipped with air-conditioning, an acoustic ceiling and audio visual equipment which we use to record performances and some classes. We are lucky enough to have two fine grand pianos in the Studio, with four further practice pianos located in each cottage and in the main house. 

The courses:

Piano Foundations – for intermediate and advanced pianists with the aim of consolidating technique

Advanced Master Classes –  in-depth study of prepared pieces.

All classes will be limited to ten participants, giving each student the opportunity to work closely with James Lisney to enhance, deepen and improve their musical ability as well as to share musical interests with the other members of the group. More than just a “piano holiday”, La Balie offers participants expert tuition in a beautiful and convivial setting.

Each day is structured as a combination of masterclasses in the morning, private tuition in the afternoon, practice time and evening concerts. Each student can expect 2-3 masterclass sessions of 45 minutes each and 2 private lessons (also 45 minutes) during the week

For further information and booking, please visit http://www.labalie.com/about-2/

More photographs and video clips can be found on the La Balie Facebook page

Why go on a piano course?

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.

The swimming pool at La Balie

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.

Masterclass with James Lisney at the Summer School for Pianists

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.

More on piano courses and summer schools for pianists

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

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!

Courses and Summer Schools for Pianists in 2015

Is your practising getting you down? Do you need inspiration and encouragement? Would you like to meet other pianists and learn from the professionals? Then why not try a piano course or summer school this coming year…..

There are courses and summer schools for pianists of all levels, from single days and “taster” courses to piano weekends and whole weeks of piano goodness in the company of some of the finest pianists and teachers from around the world. Courses are a great way to connect with other pianists and like-minded people and are brilliant for improving skills such as technique and performance, and inspiring productive practising. Here is my round up of some of the best courses in the UK and beyond:

**NEW** Music Holiday Italy:  for pianists who love piano music, sunshine and Italy in equal measure. Part festival, part summer school, part Italian holiday, it’s a series of informal one week courses running through most of the year in the heart of the Apennine mountains. Music Holiday Italy gives pianists, teachers and students a chance to play to an informed audience and learn from colleagues. Masterclasses, more in the nature of discussions, are held each morning while afternoons are free for practise or exploring the many treasures of the region. Tutor: Gil Jetley. Further information www.musicholidayitaly.com

Jackdaws Music Trust. Courses throughout the year for pianists, singers and other instrumentalists. Piano tutors for 2014/15 include Graham Fitch, Penelope Roskell, Margaret Fingerhut, Philip Fowke, Elena Riu, Julian Jacobson and Mark Tanner. Courses to suit intermediate to advanced students, plus courses on Jazz and duets. Full details here

Chethams Summer School for Pianists. Known affectionately as “Chets”, this is probably the most famous UK piano summer school and boasts a fantastic faculty of international artists and teachers. Masterclasses, concerts, ensembles and more.  Course dates: 14 – 20 and 20-26 August 2015. Faculty still all to be confirmed but new for next year include Dimitri Alexeev, Matthias Kirschnereit, Catherine Vickers, Fali Pavri, John Byrne and Alicja Fiderkiewicz. Further details here

Hindhead Piano Course.  For those who wish to further their pianistic knowledge and enjoy four days of intensive study, with masterclasses on technique and repertoire, workshops on improvisation, faculty recitals, and participants’ concerts, with special accent on Russian music this year. Glorious setting of large Victorian country-house, with six acres of gardens, with heated swimming pool, surrounded by National Trust common and woodlands, with distant views to the South Downs. Faculty: Simon Nicholls & James Lisney. Course date: Tuesday 28th – Friday 31st July 2015. Ability: Grade 7 to post diploma – suitable for students, teachers and adult amateurs. Course fee: Performers: £400 Observers: £270 (including all meals). Further information and booking www.hindheadmusiccentre.co.uk

Piano Week Run by pianist Samantha Ward and now in its third year, Piano Week offers classes for adults and children of all abilities, combined with an international piano festival, all based at Bangor University, North Wales. Course dates: 31 July – 5 August 2015. Full details here

Penelope Roskell’s Advanced London Piano Courses. An inspiring and supportive weekend course (3 full days) focussing on repertoire, technique, and yoga for pianists. Ideal for pianists preparing for concerts, competitions, diplomas or auditions, or for anyone suffering from technical problems, physical tension, injuries or nerves. The course is run as a series of masterclasses with plenty of opportunities for discussion and exchange of ideas, and ends with a concert on the Sunday afternoon. Ability level: post-Grade 8 to post-diploma. Course dates: April 24th to 26th and October 16th to 18th 2015, 22nd to 24th April 2016.  Fee £195 (EPTA and ISM members £185); students £120. One scholarship available on application. Full details here.

Penelope also runs one-day performance and teaching workshops (next teaching workshop 8th May 2016, fee £70, EPTA and ISM members £65).

La Balie. **NEW** FOR 2015. Piano courses in July and August with pianist James Lisney in the beautiful Lot-et-Garonne region of France. Luxury accommodation and three different courses to choose from – Piano Foundations, Advanced Masterclasses and Interpretation – to suit pianists of all levels. Full details here

Article by Alan Rusbridger (author of ‘Play It Again’) about La Balie

London Piano Network. Not strictly a course, the LPN, run by myself and Lorraine Liyanage, offers regular performance platforms, informal concerts, visits to museums with musical connections and masterclasses with visiting tutors. Suitable for adult amateur pianists of all levels and piano teachers, all run in a friendly and supportive environment. Full details of all our events here

Summer School for Pianists. This popular and long-standing summer school offers courses for pianists taught in mixed ability groups. All-Steinway facilities at the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus. Friendly atmosphere, tutor recitals, and opportunities for accompanying and duet playing. More information here

Pro Corda.  Adult courses designed to serve both the keen amateur musician who has little time in a hectic lifestyle to further skills and indulge their musical passion and excitement, along with those who have never had the chance to develop musical skills but have always longed to do so. The unique setting of Leiston Abbey is the perfect place to enjoy music along with great food and wine, while getting to know other like minded people in a warm and sociable environment. Details here

Benslow Music offers residential and day music courses, and a series of chamber concerts at its beautiful purpose-built campus in Hitchin, Herts. Courses with a special focus on aspects such as sight-reading and song accompanying, plus a special session on harpsichord tuning. Tutors include Timothy Barratt and Heli Ignatius-Fleet. Full details here

CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) Immerse yourself in contemporary music for a week with options for composers, instrumentalists, singers and pianists. Tutored by some of the UK’s leading performers and composers, the summer school provides an exhilarating environment for exploring new repertoire, developing music-making skills and forging new friendships. 2-8 August. Details here

This blog post is regularly updated and reposted around my networks – please feel free to contact me if you would like me to include details of your courses

Read my Summer Schools & Piano Courses article for Pianist magazine’s e-newsletter

Students with Penelope Roskell (centre) at her October 2013 piano course

Piano Day!

On Sunday 29th June a group of pianists and piano fans gathered in the beautiful tiny church of St Mary’s Perivale for a whole day of piano goodness. Hosted by myself and my friend Lorraine Liyanage (with whom I run the London Piano Meetup Group and South London Concert Series), the aim of the event – and this is true of all LPMG events – was to provide a friendly and supportive environment for pianists to meet to share repertoire, perform and receive tuition from two visiting tutors, Dr Mark Polishook and Graham Fitch.

The small size of the church and the fact that most attendees already knew one another and the tutors, made for a very enjoyable and convivial day, with much conversation and laughter interspersed with some very fine music. (Plus homemade cakes!)

The day began with warm up exercises in the sunny church yard. These exercises, devised by my teacher Penelope Roskell, are drawn from yoga exercises and provide a very comprehensive, yet simple warm up away from the piano. It is not obligatory to do them outside, but it is very nice to do so, in the warm summer sunshine! Then we were back in the church for the first masterclass of the day – improvisation for the classical pianist, led by the enthusiastic and ever-inventive Mark Polishook.

Improvisatory fun and games with Dr Mark Polishook
Improvisatory fun and games with Dr Mark Polishook

Mark’s approach is to take one on a journey of discovery, setting tiny seeds from which more involved improvisation can grow. Sometimes he begins with a piece which the participant is working on, but at Sunday’s class, he simply asked each participant to play a series of notes, very very slowly. His emphasis is on listening and appreciating not only the sound and quality of the notes, but also the spaces in between them. He gives the classical pianist, who may have come from a background of narrow and/or rigorous training, the freedom to let go of many ingrained preconceptions, to be “thankful” for wrong notes (these can be the impetus for further improvisation or musical explorations) and to engage the right hand side of the brain, banishing the more rational voice which might say “you can’t do that!”.

Graham Fitch

Graham Fitch is a highly skilled and most encouraging teacher who has an innate knack of identifying what the student needs there and then, and can offer straightforward and practical solutions to even the most seemingly intractable pianistic problems – from creating intelligent fingering schemes to suggestions for creating vibrancy in Mozart’s semiquavers. His advice is relevant to all, whatever level and whatever repertoire, and everyone who has participated in and observed his classes can go away feeling they have the necessary equipment and, more importantly, confidence, to practise independently and creatively. (This approach is also reflected in Graham’s excellent blog – Practising the Piano.)

The day concluded with an informal concert by masterclass participants performing a range of repertoire by Chopin, Debussy, Poulenc, Liszt, Scarlatti, Pärt and Prokofiev, and a overriding sense of achievement and pleasure.

The London Piano Meetup Group hosts regular performance events and masterclasses with visiting tutors in and around central London. Please visit the LPMG website for further information about upcoming events.

Graham Fitch will give a concert with talk on Sunday 14th September 2014 at Craxton Studios, Hampstead, north London. The concert will be followed by afternoon tea. Full details and tickets here

More photos from Piano Day:


Masterchef: redefining “amateur”

The UK Masterchef competition for amateur cooks has reached its series finale, won by Ping Coombes, a 32-year-old full-time mother who wowed the judges and tv viewers with her original, flavoursome and exciting dishes inspired by her homeland, Malaysia.

2014 Masterchef winner Ping Coombes kisses the trophy

Throughout the competition, contestants’ dishes were critiqued and judged by “external moderators” in the form of previous Masterchef winners, “celebrity” chefs, including Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing, and food critics Jay Rayner and William Sitwell, amongst others, many of whom expressed surprise that a bunch of “amateurs” could produce such classy, technically complicated, restaurant-standard food. When it was Marcus Wareing’s turn to judge the semi-finalists, in a nail-biting round for he is famously acerbic and downright scary, he said of one dish “that is remarkably good – for an amateur” or words to that effect. And after that, every time I heard the word “amateur” on the programme, a little bit of me died.

I have blogged before about the definition of “amateur”. The word suffers, in the English language at least, from its association with the hobbyist, the “Sunday painter” or dilettante, and suggests cack-handedness and lack of finesse or refinement. Things which are described as “amateurish” are usually badly done or poorly put together. Not so these finalists in Masterchef: their dishes showed imagination, creativity, highly-developed technical skills and, above all, love for what they were doing. Ping’s sheer enjoyment and delight in producing delicious food for family and friends was evident from the moment she first entered the competition and remained the abiding theme of everything she did, endearing her to judges and viewers alike.

The debate about amateur versus professional is one that continues to run (and will go on running) in the sphere of music and the arts (and beyond), and particularly within the narrow sphere of classical music. I co-host a piano group for adult “amateur” pianists in which the standard of playing is quite varied, but it must be said that the majority of members plays to an extremely high standard. A number have attended specialist music schools or conservatoire but chose a different career path, not having the requisite temperament to hack it as a professional musician (and perhaps preferring a more reliable salary!). Many of us enjoy performing, and we practise and finesse and perform our pieces with a professional mindset.

In a recent post for his own blog, pianist Stephen Hough gave a perfect definition of “amateur”, citing the Latin origin of the word – the verb amare = to love:

An amateur is not someone who is less good than a professional but rather someone for whom love overcomes obstacles…. (Stephen Hough, 7 May 2014)

This sensible and, to my mind, very accurate description struck an immediate chord with myself and many pianist friends who struggle with the word “amateur”. Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this profound love for the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of my piano group and this passion is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our craft: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, memorable performances and recordings. The only difference between many of us and the pros is, as a professional pianist friend said to me recently, “the pay cheque”.

The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club
The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club

I take issue with those rather ungenerous people in the music world, and beyond, who suggest that people like me and the other members of my piano group should not be performing in public, nor posting our performances on YouTube or Soundcloud (in the same way as I take issue with “professional journalists” who seek to undermine the value of blogs such as this and many others). It suggests a certain envy or resentment – for we are not trying to touch the professionals, but we might just conceivably touch the audience with our fidelity and commitment to the piano and its music. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the amount of hard work, and anxiety, that has gone into preparing for that performance. Playing for one another at piano circles, piano groups and at people’s homes offers a supportive environment to put repertoire before a friendly audience, and many amateur pianists use opportunities like these to prepare for exams, festivals, diplomas and concerts. Many amateurs practise seriously, sometimes for several hours every day, and cite the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano, the chance to escape and lose oneself in the music, after a busy day at the office. Those who perform more regularly understand the necessity to conquer performance anxiety and hone their stagecraft in addition to pulling off a polished and convincing performance.

Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again (2013), in which the editor of the Guardian charts his learning of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, a famously difficult work even for the most seasoned pro, offers some interesting glimpses into the world of the amateur pianist. There are piano circles, performance platforms, concerts in people’s homes, informal get-togethers, courses and more which bring amateur pianists of all levels together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Meanwhile, popular summer schools at home and abroad offer amateur pianists the opportunity to study with, and gain inspiration from international concert artists and renowned teachers from some of the top conservatoires around the world. The most famous summer school at Chethams, known affectionately as “Chets”, boasts a large and impressive faculty, including “greats” such as Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Noriko Ogawa, and Boris Berman, and is held over two weeks in August. Summer schools like this offer not only specialist tuition, both one-to-one and in a masterclass format, but also performance opportunities, faculty concerts, recordings, chamber ensembles and choirs, and plenty of “piano chat” between students. Firm friendships are made on courses and piano weekends such as these as like-minded people come together to share and express their love of the piano and music-making.

And so back to Masterchef, and Ping and her fellow finalists. Just as my friends in my piano group show a deep passion for the piano and everything connected with it, so these three “amateur” cooks display a deep and consuming love for food, for creating and preparing it and sharing it with others. If Ping and the other finalists Jack and Luke go on to pursue a “professional” career in the food business, I hope they won’t ever lose that love. And just as food is created for sharing, so is music.

Practising for Lovers – Stephen Hough’s blog

London Piano Meetup Group

South London Concert Series


Masterclasses without tears




noun: masterclass; plural noun: masterclasses; noun: master-class; plural noun: master-classes


a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students.

The word “masterclass” can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the private lesson in public, with a formidable “master” teacher and a student quaking at the keyboard, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. I remember watching music masterclasses on BBC Two in the 1970s (in the good old days when BBC Two broadcast such edifying and instructive arts programmes), with eminent musicians and teachers such as Daniel Barenboim and Paul Tortelier. It seemed to my junior piano student self a most nerve-wracking experience and certainly one to which I would not wish to submit.

Fast-forward thirty odd years and I’m now a mature piano student and teacher of piano. For me, the masterclass seems one of the most normal and beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does not just a lesson with a fine teacher but also a forum for critique by others and the exchange of ideas and discussion about aspects such as technique, interpretation, presentation and performance practice. It is this element of interaction with other pianists and active listeners/participants that makes the masterclass scenario quite different from the private lesson.

For students in conservatoire and specialist music schools, the masterclass is an every day form of learning, and for the teacher it is a way of sharing and passing on information to a group. A skilled teacher will ensure that all the participants in the class feel included, not just when they play, but also when others play, encouraging comments and discussion on what they have heard. A good teacher will also make sure negative comments are delivered in the kindest and most constructive way, so that participants feel supported and encouraged.

At many of the courses for adult amateur pianists in the UK and beyond, the masterclass is also a popular form of learning and teaching. Some of these classes are called “workshops” to make them sound more friendly, but in reality they are nearly always a group of c10 pianists, seated around the piano, eagerly absorbing wisdom from the teacher.

 My own teacher’s weekend courses are organised in the form of masterclasses, usually with 8 or 9 participants, which allows everyone the chance to play at least once a day. I admit that the first time I participated in one of these courses, I found the experience very daunting. By the end of the first day, I had decided everyone was far better than I! But by the end of the weekend, I had gained a huge amount from it, and I now look forward to such classes with relish.

Masterclasses are not just for advanced pianists either. The format is applicable to students of all levels and early students, and children, can benefit from observing a teacher working with another student on advanced repertoire, and vice versa. Seemingly complex aspects of technique can usually be reframed to suit early/intermediate students, and sometimes working on quite simple repertoire within a group can shed a new light on more difficult music.

 It is also useful training for concert/competition performance and can be a huge help in learning how to manage anxiety.

Watching a masterclass is a window onto how hard the pianist works and an insight into the practice of practising. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated, recast until a new, different or more exciting interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this process can be extremely exciting and enlightening, and for the masterclass participant, the instant feedback one receives from the teacher and other participants can be highly rewarding, often producing interesting and unexpected breakthroughs.

The London Piano Meetup Group, of which I am co-organiser, runs regular masterclasses with eminent teachers in central London locations. The next class is on Friday 25th April at the October Gallery, Bloomsbury, with pianist Ernest So. Further details here

London Masterclasses – now in its 26th year, London Masterclasses offerpublic masterclasses with leading performers working with advanced classical music students and young professionals before audiences in major London venues. Further information about the 2014 courses and tutors here

More on summer schools and courses for pianists.

A BBC masterclass with pianist David Owen Norris, which I attended as an observer:


October Piano Course

Another very stimulating, enjoyable and inspiring 3-day course with my teacher, Penelope Roskell.

I’m beginning to feel like an “old hand” at these courses – this was my seventh. I keep returning, autumn and spring, because I always find the course extremely helpful, as well as offering the opportunity to meet other pianists and piano teachers, share repertoire and enjoy “piano chat” during the coffee and lunch breaks. I have nothing to compare these courses with, as I have yet to pluck up the courage to attend longer courses such as Chetham’s Summer School, Walsall Summer School for Pianists or the Hindhead Music Centre piano course. Personally, I have always found the friendly setting of Penelope’s courses very encouraging, supportive and conducive to study. A mark of the reputation of the courses is that one of the participants had travelled from Malaysia to attend this time.

The courses are held at Penelope’s spacious family home in north London. The very setting – her Blüthner grand piano is in the family sitting room – makes for a friendly atmosphere from the outset, and students congregate in the kitchen to make tea and coffee, and to get to know each other. Penelope’s family come and go as the course progresses over the weekend, and lunch breaks are punctuated by the squeaking of the guinea pigs whose home is in the conservatory. With only nine students on the course it is very convivial, and beginning each day with warm up exercises, done in a circle (in the garden if the weather is fair) also helps to break the ice.

The course is structured around masterclasses, but these are not the “private lesson in public” where a student might be subjected to rigorous tuition; rather feedback and comment from the other participants is actively encouraged, and all the teaching has a relevance for everyone. Playing for a “master teacher” and before a small audience of fellow pianists can be both nerve-wracking and easy: nerve-wracking because those of us who play at an advanced level know a great deal about the music, but we are sympathetic to the hours of practising and study that have gone into each performance. Penelope’s great skill as a teacher is to identify a number of key points for each individual participant, be they technical, artistic or interpretative. She is adept at offering simple solutions to seemingly complex problems as well as offering expert advice on performance practice, physical tension and anxiety issues. Everyone student has the opportunity to play and receive one-to-one tuition each day of the course.

This time a number of participants admitted to suffering from quite severe performance anxiety, and a good part of the course was taken up with discussions about the reasons for performance nerves and developing coping strategies. The supportive atmosphere which Penelope manages to create enables even the most reluctant performer to play for the group: by the third day, it was wonderful to see and hear how one particular student had progressed in overcoming her nerves, so much so that she agreed to perform in the concert which closes the course. I love hearing how people’s music develops over the course of the weekend, and how a few seemingly simple suggestions or guidance from Penelope can have a transforming effect on someone’s playing: sometimes just thinking about the music overnight can have remarkable results.

The courses are open to students, teachers, professionals and amateurs at post-Grade 8 level, and are particularly useful for those who are preparing for auditions, competitions and diplomas, or for anyone who suffers from physical tension in piano playing. Due to their popularity, Penelope will be running three courses in 2014.

A selection of the repertoire played over the weekend:

Bach – Two-Part Inventions in E Major and A minor, Prelude & Fugue in E minor WTC Book 1, Fantasy in C minor BWV 906

Bartok – Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, Nos 2 and 6

Brahms – Rhapsody in G minor

Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets

Messiaen – Regard de la Croix

Beethoven – ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, Bagatelle Op 126 No. 1, Sonata in A flat, Op 110

Schumann – Novelette in F

Schubert – Sonata in B flat, D960

Sinding – The Rustle of Spring

Debussy – Preludes: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, Des pas sur la neige, La fille aux cheveux de lin, Minstrels, Feux d’artifice

Chopin – Nocturne Op 72, no. 1, Nocturne Op 9 No. 1, Waltz in C# minor op 64/2

Courses run from 31 January – 2 February, 25 – 27 April 2014 and 10 – 12 October 2014

Limited to nine students per course for maximum participation.

Fee £190 (EPTA and ISM members £180); students £120. Occasionally a scholarship is awarded to an outstanding student.

Nearest tube: Finsbury Park

For further details email: peneloperoskell@blueyonder.co.uk

Penelope Roskell is an international pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.


Other piano courses in 2014 in the UK and France

Chethams International Summer School for Pianists

Piano Summer School – Walsall

Hindhead Summer Piano Course

Jackdaws Music Education Trust

Lot Music

Music at Ambialet

Piano Week – a piano course for children & adults

Piano Week is a new non-residential piano course for children and adults, set in the beautiful north Wales countryside near Bangor.

The initiative of pianist Samantha Ward, Piano Week offers courses for pianists of any age and ability. Participants will have the opportunity to perform on a beautiful Steinway grand piano in Powis Hall at Bangor University, as well as benefitting from one-to-one tuition, masterclasses and faculty recitals. The area also offers an abundance of other activities, from hill-walking in the stunning Snowdonia National Park, dry-slope skiing and go-karting.

Faculty includes: Samantha Ward, Chenyin Li, David Daniels, Maciej Raginia, Sachika Taniyama, Vesselina Tchakarova. The course is sponsored by Blüthner pianos.

Dates: 5th – 9th August 2013

Course fee: £395 per participant

Further information & bookings: www.pianoweek.com


Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales
Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales

April 2013 Piano Course

I’ve just attended another of my piano teacher’s excellent 3-day courses for advanced pianists. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of my teacher’s courses, which provide a supportive, friendly and inspiring setting for study.

The course is run as a series of masterclasses, offering plenty of input from other participants and important one-to-one tuition with Penelope Roskell, who is a highly-skilled and experienced teacher. There are regular breaks which give everyone the opportunity for “piano chat” and on the last day, we have an informal concert followed by a drinks party.

One of the things I love most of all about these courses is the transforming effect they can have on people who may arrive on the first day anxious and uncertain what to expect. Penelope is a very patient and sympathetic teacher, who is able to draw out the very best in people. One of this year’s participants was on the Autumn 2012 course, an anxious player who gradually unwound as the weekend progressed. It was wonderful to see how far she has come, following private lessons with Penelope in the intervening months, and to hear her playing with greater confidence and poise.

Some people come on the course simply to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of a concert. Others are preparing for diplomas, competitions or auditions. For me, this course was to encourage me to pick up some new repertoire following my Diploma. I felt very flat in the days immediately after the exam, and the need to prepare some music for the course was just what I needed to get me playing again. I wanted to run some pieces by my teacher to make sure I was heading in the right direction with them. A number of my pianist friends were attending the course this time as well, so in many ways it was a social event for me and the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues. And make new friends too.

As always, the range of repertoire was very wide, from Bach to Satoh (a contemporary Japanese composer), and the standard very high. But there was never a feeling we were in competition with each other. We were there to share repertoire, offer positive feedback on one another’s playing, and learn. I have compiled a playlist on Spotify of all the pieces we played (except for Fazil Say’s transcription of Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, which should be available on YouTube).