This week I had the pleasure of attending a piano meetup event organised by Fiona Page, the owner of La Balie, a beautiful 16th-century restored farmhouse in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now home to a piano summer school, launched in summer 2015.
The event was a relaxed soirée at the 1901 Arts Club, an intimate and elegant venue near Waterloo station whose cosy ambiance and welcoming staff lends itself to conviviality. Many of the guests had attended the summer courses, others were planning to attend next year, and I was there as I have been helping to publicise the courses.
Piano courses bring like-minded people together and firm friendships are regularly forged in the process of shared study and pleasure in music. I have made some very good friends through piano courses I have attended and the social aspect of such courses is a big attraction for many participants. The convivial and relaxed atmosphere which Fiona has created at La Balie is evidently infectious: when I arrived at the 1901 Arts Club there was already much lively chat and laughter coming from the upstairs bar and lounge before the concert began, and this continued into the interval and after the concert. The programme was varied, reflecting the musical tastes of the performers, and there was some fine playing.
After the interval, the course tutor, pianist James Lisney, played music by Chopin, prefacing his performance with generous thanks to Fiona and impassioned praise for the summer school concept (he is regular tutor at a number of summer schools) and its value.
“If you think you have learned everything there is to learn, think again”
He cited his own experience of attending a summer school in France, following study with Phyllis Sellick. and revealed that his own experience proved his comment: there is always more to learn.
My own experience of piano courses confirms this. Even if you study with a regular teacher, or no longer have lessons, if you are a teacher or a student in conservatoire, there is always more to learn, and piano courses offer a different way of learning which can be highly beneficial to one’s development as a pianist, as well as offering opportunities to connect with other pianists
Piano courses are incredibly popular (as evidenced by the number listed in my annual round up of courses and summer schools – and this is by no means exhaustive). Participants enjoy the opportunity of “total piano immersion”, the chance to study with top class tutors and internationally-renowned musicians, and to share repertoire and socialise. For many, the piano course can be revelatory and rewarding, but it also takes a sensitive tutor and responsible students to help make the course successful and enjoyable for all.
I have attended wonderful courses where the sense of a shared learning experience is very potent and inspiring. To get the most out of a piano course, go with the intention to take from the course what you need, not to compare yourself to others but simply enjoy the other repertoire and playing you hear. For many, the attraction of receiving tuition from a top-class pianist/renowned teacher is also very important – to return home from the course and tell your friends that you studied with So-and-So….. In fact, it is about the quality of tuition, not the “big name” who is giving it, and it can be helpful to seek recommendations from friends and colleagues who have already attended courses as to who is the right tutor for you. Some people enjoy a rigorous approach, others (like me) prefer to be treated with more kindness.
If you regularly study with one teacher, someone else’s approach may run counter to your own teacher’s and may be confusing, especially for the less confident player. And if you attend many courses and summer schools, the masterclasses may be like going to the doctor: one teacher will tell you to do with one thing, another will advise something completely different. The differing opinions and approaches of teachers can be confusing, and sifting out what is useful advice and what is not, can be tricky. Again, take from the tuition what you feel will benefit you. If others swear by Hanon exercises every morning, it does not mean you must too….. An important part of our development as pianists, at whatever level we play, is knowing what will be most beneficial to us, personally. And no teacher’s advice should ever be regarded as absolute gospel!
Because the teaching at summer schools is organised in a different way to the one-to-one private lesson, tutors by necessity may not always be able to give very detailed or thorough advice. Instead, a sensitive tutor, such as James Lisney, will be able to identify what the student needs then, at that moment. Group classes and workshops are also a useful way of sharing ideas on aspects such as technique, proper warm up routines, performance anxiety etc and such classes often become a forum for lively discussion and contributions from all participants. The great thing about being on a course is that there is time to digest this advice, act on it and come back to the tutor with it later in the week.
Being on a residential course also offers opportunities for free playing, informal concerts, plenty of piano chat, socialising, and relaxing, all of which feeds into our musical landscape and informs our playing (if we allow it to). Talking to participants at La Balie, I got the impression that people had really reveled in the expert teaching, the shared music making, the superb accommodation, fine food and general sociability of the courses. Add to that a charming hostess, a beautiful location, and the lovely sunshine, and you have much, much more than a piano holiday….
Playing too many masterclasses can be confusing for the student (article from The Strad magazine)