Guest post by Katrina Fox


The pandemic has been a huge challenge for piano teachers, not least in the inherent isolation of learning the piano being exacerbated by the lack of opportunities for group work, duets in lessons, and of course live performance. However, necessity being the mother of invention, many of us have latched onto live digital performances and performance recordings as a way of creating performing opportunities and encouraging performance. This has become a permanent part of most teachers’ offerings.

Digital exams – love them or loathe them – are here to stay, and have incontrovertible benefits such as being accessible to all pupils, including nervous adults, those living in remote areas without easy access to an exam centre, and those who simply don’t ever want to endure a live examination experience but nonetheless value the feedback. Digital festivals and events have also provided pupils with a greater breadth of musical experiences from the awesome Compose Yourself! created by Alison Matthews and Lindsey Berwin, to June Armstrong’s Play for the Composer.

So what are the benefits to pupils and teachers of a carefully thought out programme of performance opportunities throughout the year?

  • Motivation to practise FOR something – and for something perhaps more meaningful than an exam. These experiences allow pupils greater choice in what they play, but still provide a goal to work towards. The fact that this goal is not a summative assessment – a pass/merit/distinction that despite being a mere snapshot can come to be worn as a proverbial badge of honour or dunce hat – makes it all the more valuable. Constructive criticism without a numerical mark or grading is perhaps more likely to be received without invoking defensive feelings and therefore internalised and acted upon.
  • A feeling of community. Within most teaching studios most pupils never or rarely meet each other. Everyone taking part in the same event – be it digital or live – can build a sense of community and common enterprise. During the lockdowns I hosted monthly Zoom concerts. Whilst the quality was not always ideal, there was a clear motivational and social benefit. Themed sessions such as “bring your pet”, “wear your PJs” etc, built a sense of fun and allowed pupils to see each other, albeit on screen.
  • A sense of shared responsibility. This year will be my second year doing an Advent “virtual busk”. Everyone records a Christmas song which we post every day of Advent to raise money for the local homeless hostel. (Last year we raised over £1500.) All pupils know they are expected to perform well for this; there is a sense of responsibility for everyone playing their part in this event. Yes, it is a small amount of pressure, but everyone is given plenty of time, and I feel a small amount of responsibility for ensuring they are all up to scratch is a positive thing and engenders a sense of responsibility.

So if all these benefits can be drawn from digital events, which are probably more easily accessible to teachers and pupils, then why bother with live events? One important benefit of live performance springs to mind:

Taking risks. With live performance, more so in front of an audience than in front of an examiner, the sense of personal risk is an important part of the experience. My personal experience is that pupils have become increasingly risk-averse over the last few years. The reasons are probably outside the scope of this article, but perhaps reside in our education system and its focus on testing, results and “success”. I find many pupils are inclined to avoid trying rather than to risk making a mistake, especially in public. This affects their ability to communicate through their music and invest it with their own personal involvement. I’m sure we can all agree that this is not a healthy or happy mindset. Live performance in festivals seems to be a varied experience with some finding the atmosphere friendly, while others find it very competitive – perhaps not the ideal place for nervous, or dare I say it “average” performers?

It is this last point that has been bothered me sufficiently to galvanise me into action. Certainly, where I live on the south coast of England there is not a wealth of local, accessible music festivals and performance events for pupils to participate in. There is also a real lack of suitable venues with decent instruments that are affordable and available at appropriate times. All my pupil “concerts” thus far have been very tiny occasions hosted in my home for a small handful of pupils at a time. Larger, less local occasions tend not to appeal to any but the most serious students.

Hence the creation of Play Piano South – one of a handful of local piano groups that has sprung up in recent months, each with its own character, aims and events that are suited to its local profile. My vision for Play Piano South is local informal live events that pupils can participate in regularly such that performing becomes a natural and non-threatening part of their piano education. Removing any form of competition, grading and adjudication makes everything easier to administrate. It also removes the threat of judgement, allowing young pianists the freedom to focus purely on the performance experience itself, without any formal “outcome”. Mistakes due to nerves, or any other reason, can be left behind without consequence and processed appropriately and proportionately with a view to improving the experience, without the pressure to improve a grading or mark.

The Play Piano South Facebook group acts as a meeting place for teachers in the region to share their events – either for other teacher’s pupils to attend, or just to showcase their events for others to learn from. Collaborative events allow teachers to share the burden of organising and hosting an event and can make a decent venue with a good instrument more feasible as more pupils can attend and share the cost of hire. Such a model also allows a regular performance schedule to grow that is very local and easy for pupils to attend. I believe this regularity and sense of community will make performing become a natural and integral part of learning the piano for all pupils – not just the most gifted or well-resourced.

In my own studio, my pupils will continue to benefit from the many new and wonderful digital performance initiatives that have developed during the pandemic. These will be complemented by a regular programme of informal concerts which will be open to the pupils of any other teachers who wish to participate.

Do check out the Play Piano South Facebook group and get involved!


Katrina Fox is a piano teacher in Bournemouth (bhpiano.co.uk), and the founder of Piano Hub South

There’s a special nobility to B-flat Major. Open and expressive, it’s regarded as an uplifting key, full of hope and aspiration. The first movements of Bach’s Partita No.1, and Schubert’s final piano sonata share this openness and nobility. Meanwhile, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’, one of the greatest piano sonatas in the key of B-flat, is a work of huge contrasts which ends with one of the most gloriously uplifting fugues in piano literature. Like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff makes huge technical demands on the pianist in his Prelude in B-flat, Op 23, No. 2. Meanwhile, in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, we find music of great agitation and anxiety in the first movement, offset by the warm lyricism of the middle movement, and then revisited, and ramped up in the finale, marked Precipitato

Bach – Partita No. 1, BWV 825

The Partitas were among the last keyboard works Bach wrote, and they each follow the typical organisation for a suite, with the customary Allemande–Courante–Sarabande–Gigue framework plus the addition of an opening Prelude. The B-flat major Partita is the lightest, most intimate, attractive and approachable of the six keyboard Partitas, and combines grace, nobility and sprightliness, ending with a brilliant, rollicking Gigue whose jaunty hand-crossings are exciting to player and audience alike.

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 29 ‘Hammerklavier’

Dedicated to Archduke Rudolf (the same dedicatee of the Archduke Trio and an excellent pianist), the Hammerklavier Sonata begins with a big declamatory fanfare, which earned this sonata its nickname. The mood of the first movement is bold and powerful, mixing of tension and relaxation and a driving forward propulsion. The Scherzo diffuses this with brevity and humour before a long slow movement in mournful F-sharp minor, so dark that the brilliance and joy of the first movement is utterly obliterated. The finale begins tentatively, but optimistic trills then announce a shift in mood and what follows is a fugal movement full of unrestrained ecstasy.

Schubert – Piano Sonata No. 21, D 960

The opening movement of Schubert’s final piano sonata is noble and expansive. Its gentle hymn-like theme recalls the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio (also in B-flat Major), and it has an otherworldliness that has led some pianists and commentators to suggest that this is a work of valediction, a farewell. The deep bass trill at the end of the exposition only momentarily disturbs the mood.

Like Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, this sonata explores a broad range of emotions. After the serenity of the opening movement comes a slow movement infused with a meditative melancholy – a sorrowful barcarolle whose the mood is lifted by the middle section in warm A major. The third movement is as bright and sparkling as a mountain stream, its bubbling joyfulness interrupted by a minor key Trio, which sounds like an ungainly ländler with its off-beat bass notes. The robust finale, beginning on a bare octave G, turns into a quasi-Hungarian dance, flirting with C minor, before resolving in B-flat and ending with an uplifting, commanding flourish.

Rachmaninoff – Prelude in B flat, Op 23 No. 2

Redolent of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Etude with its florid arpeggios, thunderous chords and indomitable character, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in B flat also recalls the boldness of the opening of the Hammerklavier, though the textures are quite different. It’s a work which fully exploits the range and sonic capabilities of the modern concert grand piano.

Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7

Any notion of B-flat Major as a serene, uplifting key is swept away in the opening and closing movements of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. Sometimes called the ‘Stalingrad’ Sonata after the Soviet city which was under siege by the invading German army at the time of its composition, this is the second of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, composed in 1942 and premiered in 1943 by Sviatoslav Richter. A tumultuous, dissonant and mocking first movement is followed by a slow movement with a beautiful lyrical melody, verging on sentimentality. In the finale, an explosive toccata marked Preciptato, the key of B-flat is constantly reiterated by simple triads. When premiered, this movement was rather aptly named “tank attack”, and its relentless, driving movement and percussive textures certainly evoke the sounds and sights of an invading army.


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Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) has written detailed notes on all aspects of taking a diploma, from choosing a syllabus and constructing a programme to writing programme notes and presentation skills. The document includes live links to selected resources, including all the main exam board performance diploma websites.

The PDF document is available to download here


If you have any questions about performance diplomas or would like specific help or advice, please feel free to contact Frances Wilson

I’ve been writing a sister blog, A Piano Teacher Writes…. with a special focus on piano teaching, since 2011, but the time has come to streamline my writing (because I don’t have time to maintain both sites), and so from now on piano teaching related articles, including guest articles, will be posted on this site.

If you would like to contribute a guest article to this site, on any piano or music-related subject, please feel free to contact me here

Karen Gibson, MBE, director of The Kingdom Choir

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Ultimately, I have to say that it was my mother who inspired me to pursue a career in music. It was her idea for my sister and I to start piano lessons, as a means of us staying out of trouble when she wasn’t around!

I doubt if we knew then that both my sister and I would go on to pursue various musical ventures throughout our youth and then end up as choir directors for our careers!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I would have to say that the biggest influences on my musical life and career would be the church that I grew up in, as well as the classical influences that I learned from my teachers of oboe and piano, and my music teachers at school.

What drew you to singing and conducting?

The Pentecostal church, in which I grew up, had a strong musical culture where singing accompanied everything. It would have been very hard not to have developed a love of music and singing in such an environment.

Whilst I loved the singing, I never wanted to be a performer intentionally. I think it is fair to say that I fell into it, alongside my sister and friends. We would gather around the piano at church, where my sister would play and the rest of us would stand her around singing in harmony. It all came about so naturally. After doing this for a while, we decided one day that we would perform at an upcoming concert, and that’s how I started singing.

Our particular denomination had choirs up and down the country – and they were very competitive! Soon, my singing extended to one of these choirs that was London wide. It wasn’t too long before I graduated from being a choir member, to helping out with the conducting, and finally to being a main conductor. My classical training meant that I had extra tools with which to teach and impart to others.

What are the special pleasures and challenges of conducting a gospel choir?

There is nothing like the sound of voices joined in singing to me. It’s a very spiritual experience in the broader sense of the word. The best choirs will always say that they are like family, and I believe that it is togetherness and connection that actually impacts the sound a choir makes.

What did it mean to you and the choir to perform at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?

It was a wonderful honour, and hugely exciting to be asked. It was completely unexpected, seemingly coming out of the blue. We knew that we would be setting a precedent, however, as there has been no other black Gospel choir that has sung at a royal wedding.

We didn’t understand at the time how much this would change things for us. It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride, thrilling, dizzying, and sometimes challenging. I don’t think we would have it any other way.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think surviving through the lockdown and the pandemic has been the greatest challenge for the choir, and for the whole industry. It hasn’t just been a matter of being locked away in your house; I believe that so much was also locked away – creativity, connection, and the list goes on. I must say, though, we had some wonderful opportunities during the lockdown which helped to keep us hopeful, and connected.

I think it’s always important to remember your ‘why,’ and this is what we try to do. As people of faith this is quite important and we back that up with prayer and times of worship.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has got to be the whole of our US Tour in 2019. It was incredible as a gospel choir to be singing in the land where gospel music first came into being. We were so well received, it was an amazing and unforgettable time. 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally, success is always about the impact that one’s art has on other people. When I’m teaching my choirs I will often say to them that people should come to your performance one way and leave another. It’s about transformation that makes things better. I have been privileged to see the power of music do this so many times over my singing career. It’s always thrilling to me. This is what I call success.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important to love what you’re doing, but more, love the people that you are doing it with and doing it for. It makes all the difference. Fame will only last for so long, but real love is solid and true. I know that this sounds like a real cliché, but I believe it.

What is your present state of mind?

Anticipatory! I am hopeful and looking forward to great things coming to pass!

 

The Kingdom Choir’s new EP, Together Again, featuring Jake Isaac, is out now

 


Karen Gibson MBE is a choir conductor and workshop leader with London’s The Kingdom Choir, which she founded. She led the Kingdom Choir’s gospel performance of “Stand by Me” at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, after which she was described as “Britain’s godmother of gospel”.Gibson has previously provided backing vocals for acts such as Grace Kennedy and The Beautiful South. She has been involved with vocal groups and choirs since 1993, conducting gospel workshops all over the UK and Europe as well as Nigeria, Japan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and the United States.She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to music.

 

Guest post by David Gordon


I am a jazz pianist, harpsichordist, composer, as well as arranger, improviser and educator. I enjoy improvising with and arranging for musicians in the classical world – putting improvisation to work, you might say. I have collaborated extensively, including with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the London Chamber Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, London Concertante, and now the Orchestra of the Swan, whose leader and artistic director is violinist/composer David Le Page – known almost universally as DLP.

DLP and I have worked extensively and creatively on a variety of projects, and he seems to have a unique understanding of what I, as an improviser, can bring to a largely classical performance situation. So for example I’ve been delighted to engage in the underrated (and sometimes sniffed-at) art of ‘piano continuo’, perfectly suited to, for example, the melodrama of Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, which we recorded, thrillingly, in a filmed concert with the addition of a dancer; and, more in a soloistic capacity, the orchestra’s hugely successful ‘Sleep’ project, which grew out of my propensity to improvise elaborately on the second movement of Vivaldi’s Autumn. DLP’s brilliance as project creator and programme designer has also encouraged me extend my range as arranger and improviser – for example, a concert entitled ‘Mozart in Cuba’, which includes music from both these sources in roughly equal measure, inspired me to write a mash-up arrangement, and also to improvise cadenzas to the A major piano concerto K. 414 in Cuban style. We know Mozart was such a joker that I didn’t need to pause to think whether the composer would have approved.

Arranging is also an underrated art, often seen as something rather commercial, despite the fact that is inextricably linked with the more highly esteemed art of composition. Composers have always arranged: see for example Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, which he subtly brought up to date with the addition of clarinets, horns, trombones and more. For me, the most successful arrangements – not unlike the best interpretations – manage to understand, or at least convincingly speculate about, what might be behind the composition. To give two examples: in my concerto Romanesque, originally for recorder, which was inspired by the abbey church of Moissac in southwestern France, the unsurpassed beauty of the sculpture in the porch doorway of Jeremiah inspired the movement entitled ‘Lamentation’, which I based on a lament by Buxtehude, recast in a different rhythm (a version of this movement for violin on Orchestra of the Swan’s recording ‘Labyrinths’ with DLP as soloist, is out in November on the Signum Classics label). The other, oddly, is that when I’ve approached works of J.S. Bach, the unintentional result is often in an American country style! This has made more sense to me since I learned that American folk music was partly derived from émigré musicians from places such as Germany and Moravia – and in fact one of Bach’s (presumably musical) grandchildren ended up in the States. Things begin to look less far-fetched in this light.

One of the things I love about working with DLP is the way he encourages me to make things up, even when we’re playing classics of the violin and piano repertoire. Perhaps that’s because he knows if I try to play the correct notes it won’t be very good! But I hope it’s because the energy that’s transmitted from that approach can bring freedom to the whole performance. I once worked with a choral director who picked me up on playing a 6/5 chord instead of a 6 chord in the Purcell choral work we were rehearsing. That’s unlikely to be a creative working environment. And a reminder that, while the masterpieces of ‘classical’ music are amongst the greatest achievements of humankind, we cannot afford to forget our sense of ‘play’. It is after all, the word we use to say what we’re going to do when we do music.

I’d like to share with you a piece that encapsulates many of the aspects of music I’ve mentioned: baroque, jazz, arrangement, even collaboration – in this case with the composer. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mistérieuses is one of the most beguiling and delightful pieces of music for solo harpsichord. One day the idea of reharmonising it came to me, and the result is Mysterious Barracudas – which works equally well on the harpsichord or piano. You can hear a performance here with the extraordinary baroque/jazz crossover group Respectable Groove

– or better still, your own one: I’ve tried to make the score as ‘definitive’ as I can, even if it comes out with some different notes each time I play it.


David Gordon is an improviser, composer and keyboard player. Find out more at his website.

His new arrangement of Buxtehude’s Lamentation (Cantata Klaglied BuxWV76) is included on ‘Labyrinths’, the new album from Orchestra of the Swan, released on 19th November 2021 on the Signum Classics label. More information