When is the right time to start teaching piano technique?

Renowned pianist and pedagogue Penelope Roskell believes that technique should be taught from the start and her new series of books aimed at children turn learning technique into an enjoyable and stimulating series of exercises, games/quizzes and imaginative original pieces.

Author of the award-winning The Complete Pianist, Penelope Roskell is recognised as a leading exponent of healthy piano technique which leads to “natural artistry and a lifetime of pleasure at the piano”. In her new trio of books for children, from the outset Penelope aims to encourage these early piano students to explore the keyboard as widely as possible: the first volume is called ‘Hop, Skip and Jump’ (by contrast, many beginner tutor books tend to start in the Middle C position, which can be very limiting). Through a series of fun exercises and short pieces and songs composed by Aaron Burrows and Carl Heap, accompanied by delightful illustrations by Eilidh Muldoon, the student is introduced to techniques such as lateral movement, playing staccato, hand positions, playing sustained notes, legato and more – all aspects of technique which are, or should be very familiar to the advanced pianist. The final volume, ‘Leaping Ahead’, builds on the techniques learnt in the previous two books, while also introducing new challenges, including playing hands together, chords and broken chords, leaps, slurs, chromatic scales, two-octaves scales, fingering and rotation.

As the introduction to the books makes clear, these are technique books, not method books, and as such can be used alongside the teacher’s favoured method books or personal teaching approach to ensure technique is taught in an enjoyable and stimulating way.

In addition to the exercises and pieces, each book includes teaching endnotes, complete with a video demonstrations which can be accessed via a QR code or by visiting https://www.editionpeters.com/essentialpianotechnique1. Learning Objectives and Teaching Tips are concise and informative.

Drawing on the best current pedagogical practice, the books use imagery and gesture to develop ‘piano technique’ in the broadest sense of the term, and remind both teacher and student that technique should always serve the music, rather than be taught and studied in isolation. Thus, this approach ensures the young pianist is equipped with all the necessary skills to play with both technical assurance, confidence and artistry, without tension and with a rich palette of sounds.

Having studied myself with Penelope Roskell for six years (the first few months of which were a crash course in all the technique I was not taught when having piano lessons as a child and teenager), at a time when I was myself teaching piano to young and early students (children and adults), I can attest to the value and ease of her approach to piano technique. She would often demonstrate something to me and then suggest I try it with my own students, using appealing imagery and gestures, and I quickly realised that learning and teaching technique need not be complicated – in fact, it is very simple and I believe the approach laid out in these new books can be easily adapted for older students and even adult learners.

Following the success and acclaim of The Complete Pianist, Penelope Roskell continues to make a vital contribution to piano pedagogy. These new books lay the crucial foundations for a lifetime of secure technique coupled with immense pleasure at the piano and are an excellent addition to piano teaching literature. I cannot recommend them too highly.

Essential Piano Technique (Primer A, Primer B & Level 1) by Penelope Roskell is published by Edition Peters

The London Piano Meetup Group celebrates its 10th birthday on 20 May, with an event at Steinway Hall in London.

When I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group back in 2013, I knew very few amateur pianists. I’d been playing seriously for about 5 years, having returned to the piano after an absence of nearly a quarter of a century. I’d been on a number of piano courses and appreciated the value in connecting with other pianists but these were not regular interactions. I, and my co-founder (a piano teacher based in SE London) were both keen to connect with other adult amateur pianists on a regular basis – not just for the opportunity to play regularly in front of others but also to socialise with like-minded people. Thus the London Piano Meetup Group came to be.

Our launch event at Peregrine’s Pianos on 18 May 2013 was very well-attended and the young pianist Emmanuel Vass, who has been a good friend to the group over the years, was our guest performer. We were a mixed bunch, of various ages and abilities. Some people had played all their life; others, like me, were returners; some were beginners who had taken up the piano in retirement; others had been to music college but had chosen a different career path. All shared a deep passion for the piano.

The ethos of the group has always been to provide a friendly, positive and ‘safe’ environment in which people can perform and socialise. Many people want the experience of performing without the stress (as far as possible) – music is, after all, for sharing. Some find the performance platforms useful in preparing for exams or diploma recitals. Others simply come along to listen and enjoy the varied repertoire. One of the big attractions of the group is the chance to play a really nice instrument; venues are selected for the quality of their pianos, giving participants the opportunity to experience the pleasure and challenge of playing a really fine grand piano.

The group was popular from the get go – a mark perhaps of people’s enthusiasm for the piano and also an opportunity to connect with others, to share stories, discuss practising, repertoire, concerts we’ve enjoyed, our favourite professional pianists or recordings…..and much more. I’ve made some very good friends through the group (and playing the piano can be a rather lonely occupation, although something that most of us actually quite like!), and many of us bump into each other at other piano events, such as concerts, courses and masterclasses.

The group generated some offshoots too, such as an amateur piano competition, adjudicated by none other than Leslie Howard, and the very popular Diploma Days with acclaimed teacher Graham Fitch, which offer people an opportunity to play some of their Diploma repertoire and receive useful critique from Graham as well as advice on planning a diploma programme and managing performance nerves.

Members also regularly attend courses such as the hugely popular summer school, known affectionately as Chets, in Manchester, the Summer School for Pianists at Stowe, Finchcocks in Kent, Jackdaws in Somerset, and even some summer schools held in France and Italy.

The group has also inspired others to form their own meet-ups and piano clubs in the UK and beyond, and in 2015 the LPMG met up with the Vienna Piano Meetup Group at a piano showroom in Vienna (the trip also included a tour of the Bösendorfer factory).

The popularity, and longevity of the group – and its offshoots – is an indication of how many pianists there are in and around London who enjoy the opportunity to meet and explore repertoire, and to share their passion for the piano. It is also a credit to Rob Foster, who now runs the group, and who continues to give amateur pianists regular performance opportunities in a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

The London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG) meets monthly at venues such as the 1901 Arts Club (Waterloo), Peregrines Pianos (Clerkenwell), Café Yukari (Kew) and Gaspard Music Academy (Richmond). The group is run via a Facebook group and mailing list. If you would like to join LPMG, please contact the organiser at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com

1901 Arts Club music salon
1901 Arts Club

Further reading:

Dedication & Passion: The inspiring world of the amateur pianist

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

It was at school that my love for the piano blossomed because I heard it every single day in the school assembly. Also, by chance my teacher in infant school happened to have a piano in her classroom, so the tinkling sound of it just occupied me and I loved to explore it and make sounds.

I had formal training as a Junior at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff with my teacher, who I still have, Alison Bowring, who took me back to the technical basics and posture, while also understanding what repertoire would suit me. Alison has been a major influence on my career so far from many difference perspectives.

I also did courses with an organisation called Musicians in Focus, a team who focused on visual impairment, which helped to develop me as a musician.

My greatest influences are listening to opera singers so the idea of singing with the piano is always reinforced. Another influence was being a participant on the North London Piano school every summer. The guest teachers really helped me understand about tone production through physical touch. I had never really experienced that sort of connection before, so that memory will stay with me forever. It made me not only improve as a pianist but gave me ways to connect through performance. Pianistically, I love the physical interaction between keyboard and the body becoming one – it’s an amazing experience.

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

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism condition, which affects social and communication skills, so I have support assistance to help build my independence and confidence. I actually find my personal organisation to be more challenging than practising at the piano. I can feel anxious when plans change at the last minute, for example, when a train or flight that I am booked on is cancelled. Being totally blind also affects me when I have to travel for performances, as there is no time to become familiar with new locations and therefore I normally require assistance. Being a member of organisations like the Paraorchestra and RNS Moves, an inclusive ensemble based in Gateshead however, helps me to integrate and develop networks and connections with other disabled and non-disabled musicians.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Performing the Beethoven Choral Fantasia with the Royal Welsh College Chamber Orchestra and Chorus:

My final year recital for my Bachelor degree was very atmospheric and some people I knew from school also attended.

Performing at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 2019 was thrilling as I was in an open and resonant space, so I had to adjust myself to both the instrument and the acoustic.

Performing the Scriabin concerto in East Dulwich with Michael Cobb conducting the Lambeth Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, I am only able to share the encore, an improvisation on some themes suggested by members of the audience.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I have a soft spot for Beethoven’s music because both my grandmothers have developed deafness through ageing, especially my grandmother from Northern Ireland on my father’s side. The amazing thing about Beethoven’s music is that it always feels and sounds fresh, however many times you play the same pieces, especially when playing on different instruments and acoustics.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I love browsing the internet about background of the pieces and always love looking at history and why repertoire was written for specific instruments of the time, especially when dealing with Baroque or Classical period music. Also, I have a grand piano at home that has a distinctive tone colour, which helps me to transfer intimacy across to my public performances. I find that exercise keeps me moving and agile, while breathing exercises or stretches help me to relax before I go on stage.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

For a recital programme, my teacher and I like to plan the pieces in advance that will complement each other. We always talk about the relationship between each piece regarding tempo and tonality, as well as realistic timelines for learning.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I particularly enjoy St. Martin-in-the-Fields as a venue because the acoustics are unlike any other, and it allows the pianist to draw into themselves so the audience can experience the incredible sound. It’s different to a drier acoustic when it sounds like you’re on the same level with the audience when you can hear every nuance. A cathedral is a celestial atmosphere to perform in, feeling like an out of world experience.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I like the idea of pre-performance commentary by the artist involved to help make Classical music more accessible and interesting for younger generations. I also like the idea of museum tours (such as Victoria and Albert Museum in London) to explore the instruments for which music was originally written. This provides essential background as audiences are used to modern instruments as the norm.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing in Japan as one of 90 international artists in the True Colours Festival 2022, organised by the Nippon Foundation and live-streamed around the world. The atmosphere was just incredible and I loved having my hair and makeup done for me so I could just sit back and relax. Also, I had never changed into other outfits between musical items, or played with a headset in a live performance. I loved the variety on offer and working with a range of other musicians.

Rachel performing at the True Colours festival in Japan

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Music is not about competition or who can play the best, it is about connecting and sharing with the audience and developing relationships as they can be vital for the future. Have the right support like a teacher who can understand the way you work, encourage and develop your musical journey.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Embrace every corner or avenue of your instrument from physicality/technique to exploring different music styles, so it becomes a part of you. For example, I love playing Jazz which I believe is interconnected with the classical composers that came before. Patience is always a virtue especially in practicing when you don’t get things right the first time. Keep positive and make the most of every opportunity.

On Saturday 27 May, Rachel Starritt gives a concert by candlelight at the inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival, created by impressionist, comedian and actor Alistair McGowan. Rachel will perform new works by three young composers, written especially for herm, as well as her own improvisations. Info/tickets: https://ludlowpianofestival.com/

Blind from birth, Rachel was born in Bridgend, South Wales in 1994. She has received formal training on the piano since 2006 with Alison Bowring and studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) where she recently achieved a distinction in piano performance as a postgraduate student (MMus).

Rachel completed a six month Erasmus placement at the Conservatori Liceu in Barcelona under the tutelage of pianist Alba Ventura.

As a student at RWCMD, Rachel has enjoyed masterclasses with the Labèque Sisters, Stephen Osborne, Peter Jablonski, Angela Hewitt and Valentina Lisitsa. Additionally, she received guidance at the annual NLPS summer course at the Purcell school with renowned professors Dr Michael Schreider (Guildhall), Irina Osipova (Moscow), Irina Berkovich (Israel) and William Fong (RAM).

Rachel’s piano improvisation skills complement her love of jazz and she currently leads a jazz trio ‘The Rachel Starritt Trio’,  which appeared at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2020 and 2021. At Chetham’s Piano Summer School she studied with Nikki Iles and Douglas Finch and has also received lessons with the renowned Welsh pianist and composer Huw Warren.

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Image credit Daishiro Futakami

Ahead of the opening of his inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival, comedian, impressionist, actor and pianist Alistair McGowan shares his thoughts on what drew him to the piano, the pleasures and challenges of practising, the inspiration of other pianists, and how the piano has enriched his life…..

What are you first memories of the piano?

My mother was always playing the piano when I was young. She was the accompanist at the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society and was always practising the score for their latest Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan. She also played a few classical pieces which I would often ask her to play to get me to sleep. 

My older sister, Kay, learnt to Grade Eight. She didn’t touch the piano after her final exam. She is making noises about playing again and I really hope she does go back to it. She was very good!

Did you have piano lessons as a child?

I did two years and passed two grades but stopped when I was 9. I regretted it for the rest of my life and finally took up the piano again for a couple of years in my 30s until my TV show, ‘The Big Impression ’ got in the way. 

Clearing out my mother’s things after her death, I came upon my breakdowns of my Grade exams hoping there would be mention of ‘shows great promise’ but sadly they just talked of a lack of rhythm and expression!

I have really thrown myself at it again since 2016. I first conceived and performed a show about Erik Satie, then from 2018, toured with ‘The Piano Show’ (15 short pieces interspersed with stand-up routines and impressions) and released two CDs, the first of which through Sony Classical somehow briefly, in 2017, got to the top of the classical chart!

And now, I’ve put together the inaugural Ludlow Piano Festival. I’m not sure which has been the hardest but all have been incredibly rewarding !

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

I’ve always been drawn to Satie and Debussy; I keep finding new Debussy pieces I want to play. I just love losing myself in those chords and those incredible sound worlds he creates. I do like a good tune as well though! I am constantly writing down the names of pieces I hear on Radio 3 – Poulenc, Hahn, Scott, Bowen, Rachmaninov. And I adore John Field’s Nocturnes. 

Alistair McGowan

How do you make the time to practise? 

At first, it was a struggle fitting things in around other work. But I watch less television in general with no regret and play less sport too. Partly because my body doesn’t let me now!

Do you enjoy practising? 

I have to force myself to do scales and arpeggios and Hanon exercises but otherwise, yes. I had some very good advice from fellow comic, Rainer Hersch, who suggested putting a watch by the piano and making sure that every fifteen minutes you change what you’re practising. I try to do that. 

But, generally, I get so lost in hearing a piece come together that it’s never a chore. 

There are masterclasses at the Ludlow Piano Festival with leading pianist-teachers. Have you participated in any masterclasses or piano courses yourself? 

I have attended weekend courses with Paul Roberts in Sussex. And I went on his week-long piano course in France and then attended four courses in subsequent years with James Lisney and latterly Charles Owen at the delightful La Balie (in south-west France, now, sadly, no longer happening). I’ve also recently done week in West Cork with James at a new venue, Castle Townshend

As well as learning from such inspirational players and teachers, it’s great to meet other amateur pianists who share your passion. 

What have you gained/learnt from this experience?

I do feel I’ve enriched my life and my soul. And I have been a little surprised by how much I have enjoyed regularly turning my back on the modern world.

As an adult amateur pianist, what are the special challenges of preparing for a performance? 

Not letting the occasion distract you from listening to the sound you are making with every note. I have moments of being very focused but often hear myself or my late mother saying ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’. If you can keep that voice out of your head, you will generally be fine!

Also, if you breathe and practise breathing it practise, it helps. As does a touch of lavender under the nose. 

Most importantly, if you think of wanting your audience to hear the piece of music you’re playing and not to hear how well you play it, it takes your ‘self’ out of the equation and some how makes things less nerve-wracking. 

How did you prepare the pieces featured on your recordings? 

I worked very hard, bringing each of them to the boil in turn with my mentor Anthony Hewitt practically conducting me. I also went to listen to a good few pianists in concert and learnt a lot from hearing James Lisney, Lucy Parham, Viv McLean and, of course, Anthony. 

Recording yourself to see what you’re getting wrong – and what you’re getting right – is also a great help these days. 

And how did you find the experience of recording the music?

It was like a lesson, an exam, a recital and the greatest pleasure all at the same time – immensely draining and yet utterly thrilling to hear the music I had learnt and loved coming out of the best pianos in the world!

It was also terrifying knowing that this was the one chance to get each piece recorded. I read a wonderful book called ‘Piano Notes’ by Charles Rosen which has a very helpful chapter on the challenge of recording and refers especially to the need to not worry about mistakes. They can be covered. My teacher/mentor, Anthony Hewitt, was wonderfully helpful (and still conducting!) at the recordings. My producer, Chris Hazel, was unbelievably supportive, helpful and strict!

I had to pinch myself after each recording. I couldn’t believe what I was being allowed to do.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming piano lessons? 

I think learning how to learn is as important as learning how to play; it’s important to get the most from your playing time. Setting goals is also important. Perhaps organise small recitals at home, before friends, in order to give yourself a deadline.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Ah! That changes all the time. I have an eye on Debussy’s ‘Ballade Esclave’ – but think that’s still a few years away!

What are you looking forward to at the Ludlow Piano Festival?

This is like a five-day ‘Desert Island Discs’ for me: my favourite music played by my favourite musicians! I can’t believe they’ve all said, ‘Yes!’All the pianists performing at the Festival have inspired or taught me during my own piano journey over the last 8 years. This is a wonderful way to thank them and to share their brilliance with everyone in Ludlow. I hope that as well as piano enthusiasts, the concerts will appeal to people who have never heard (let alone seen) piano music and who will be as inspired by these pianists and the music that they play (as I have been) to go to this beautiful instrument and to make music on it themselves.

Ludlow Piano Festival runs from 24th to 28th May. Info / Tickets

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“This is a competition to watch” International Piano MagazineThe 17th Hastings International Piano Competition will take place from 22 Feb – 2 March 2024 and entry is now open, by video audition. The deadline for entries is 15 September 2023, and full details of how to enter the competition are here: https://www.hastingsinternationalpiano.org/2024-competition/

Vanessa Latarche

The competition is generously supported by Steinway and sons and will feature 45 entrants who will play live in Hastings over the period. A jury of 3, chaired by Artistic Director of Hastings International Piano, Vanessa Latarche, will select the entrants from the video submissions.

Hastings International Piano is delighted to announce a new partnership with Southbank Sinfonia who will accompany the semi-finals. The finals over two nights will be accompanied as before by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Both these rounds will be conducted by Rory MacDonald.

Another new departure for the competition is a commission for the solo round by American composer Lera Auerbach. This five minute test piece will be a compulsory entry for the solo round, and will be given its world premiere at this point.

Furthermore, a 2-year professional development programme has been created where finalists will receive mentoring, career advice, programming advice, performance opportunities and professional headshots from leading industry experts.

Vanessa Latarche, Artistic Director of Hastings International Piano, writes:

I am thrilled with the recent developments for the 17th Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition. Southbank Sinfonia’s involvement offers an exciting opportunity for our competitors to play with another professional orchestra in the semi -finals in addition to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the finals. We are delighted that Lera Auerbach has agreed to compose a special test piece for the solo recital round, giving the competitors the chance to showcase their skill in contemporary repertoire. I am sure that this piece will have a long life well beyond the 2024 competition and we look forward to hearing our competitors’ interpretations of it. I thank the wonderful team of volunteers, piano hosts and host families that help make the competition happen.”

CONCERTO COMPETITIONFirst Prize – £15,000 plus future performance opportunities with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Finals over 2 nights with RPO

Semi-finals over 3 sessions with Southbank Sinfonia

First round 2 pianos playing sections of 2 concertos

2nd round solo recital round including new commission


Professor Vanessa Latarche – Jury President

Paul Hughes – UK

Piotr Paleczny – Poland

Eleanor Wong – Hong Kong

Fran Cruz Plaza – Spain

Pascal Escande – France

Norman Krieger – USA

Find full details at https://www.hastingsinternationalpiano.org/2024-competition/

2022 winner Shunta Morimoto

The decision to leave one’s piano teacher and move on can be a difficult one, especially if the relationship is longstanding. I have written more about this subject here

Ann Grogan, a poet and adult pianist, contacted me after reading my article to share her own thoughts on the issues surrounding the decision to leave a teacher, and I am sharing a excerpt from her article on this subject here:

In appreciation because they help me reach my goals, I fall into a kind of deep music-love affair with each of my teachers. Music and piano lessons open up my heart and emotions, and make me feel raw, vulnerable, and exposed in a way that other kinds of art lessons have never done. Music is special in this way, at least for me.

THE DANGER OF BEING OVERLY IMPRESSED: Sometimes this specialness causes me to set aside what I note is out of place in a lesson or in the teaching relationship, in favor of long-term hopes and dreams. That is usually never a good thing to do. I’ve learned to speak up earlier and more often when I’m fairly certain I’m not enjoying something I am trying to learn or a particular approach the teacher insists I apply.

In one case, I’m certain that I was initially overly-impressed by a teacher’s many published CDs featuring original compositions and pianistic talents in a preferred musical genre that was not mine, and another teacher’s stature as a well-known professional pianist with ubiquitous “how to” vlogs. However, I failed to do my due diligence and had no clue about their teaching ability in general, or if their approaches and policies were compatible with what are certain basic requirements I have for piano lessons.

For many seniors, the process of learning the piano is critical, in that it must function in the nature of a partnership and not a top-down affair. Being overly-impressed hinders my ability to observe what is happening as lessons unfold. I stray from my desire to learn in partnership with my teacher. Sometimes I continue studying with the teacher beyond what is reasonable and productive.

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