How to get the best from a piano course

I recently attended Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (or “Chets” as it is affectionately known) for the first time as an observer and concert reviewer (read my articles here). It was a fascinating and exhausting (in a good way!) glimpse inside Europe’s largest piano summer school, and it was easy to see why people get hooked on the Chets experience – the special atmosphere, the teaching, the wealth of music to enjoy, and much more – and return year after year.

There are many piano courses on offer, from one-day events to long weekends in a quiet corner of Somerset (Jackdaws), longer courses like Chets and the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, or upmarket piano holidays in France where expert tuition by a leading concert pianist is combined with gourmet food and luxury accommodation. Of course, most people’s motivation for attending a piano course is, primarily, to improve their playing and have it critiqued by a skilled teacher. Additionally, courses offer opportunities to build confidence in performing, observe others being taught, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation, and while many of us actively enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists. Everyone I spoke to at Chets talked about the benefit of being amongst so many other pianists, all of whom understand and appreciate what makes us “tick”. At a piano course, no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade (or indeed the First, Second and Third Ballades!), and this sense of a “piano community” and shared passion is incredibly important.

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets
Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

I have been on enough piano courses myself to know why I attend them and what I want to get out of them, and I thought it would be helpful for those considering a piano course, especially one of the scale of Chets, to have some additional tips from people who are regular attendees on how to get the best out of a piano course.

Before you go on the course…..

  • If you are attending a big, busy course like Chets or the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, both of which last nearly a week and offer a full programme of activities alongside the teaching, get plenty of sleep in advance. This may sound strange, but these courses can be very tiring, as they require large amounts of physical and mental energy, emotional labour, drive, motivation and social/partying skills.
  • It can be daunting playing for other people and a different teacher, and obviously you will have to play in order to have your playing critiqued. If you are nervous about playing in a masterclass or workshop situation, consider inviting a few friends round for music and drinks and play some of your pieces to them. Paradoxically, the more distracting and self-conscious you feel when performing to your friends, the more you will learn, the less stressful and more enjoyable it will be on the course, and the more secure your performance will be in lessons or other performance situations.
  • Repertoire: Plan and prepare in advance the music you want to play at the course and bring enough music at different stages of preparation, but not music you have only just started learning (unless you want some specific advice on technique, for example, from a teacher). Bringing repertoire which is comparatively familiar avoids over-attention to basic musical understanding. Settled pieces, which are reasonably well known, allow you to work with a teacher on the more enriching aspects of the experience such as expression, gesture, personal interpretation, and performance, and make the best use of everyone’s time and money – including yours.

When you are on the course…..

  • Pace yourself. You will want to go to everything, but this can sap energy, so be selective. Choose activities outside of the teaching and workshops which you feel will be most beneficial/interesting to you. Try new things too – if you’ve never played duets or accompanied another instrumentalist, why not have a go?
  • Be open-minded and accepting of the advice given by the teachers. If you take lessons with a regular teacher, feedback and critique from a different teacher can be very helpful, offering new insights into the music, context, technical issues, performance etc. When I played the Schubert Sonata on which I had been working for over three years to a different teacher on a course at Jackdaws last autumn, he helped me find a new energy and focus in the music. Critique from other teachers – and comments from fellow students – can reframe your attitude to playing pieces you think you already know well.
  • That said, do whatever works best for you: there is no one ‘right way’ to get the most out of a piano course – take from the tuition and workshops what you feel will really benefit you in developing your playing.
  • Take advantage of all the opportunities of learning from the tutors and your fellow participants. Courses like Chets operate an “open-door” policy so that every lesson and workshop is open to all – go and observe others being taught, and attend workshops: there is much to be gained from hearing others play and watching a skilled teacher in action.
  • Watch other students and observe as many teaching styles as possible. Don’t talk during these sessions unless invited. When you are listening you are learning; when talking you are merely repeating what you already know, and it’s disrespectful to other students and teachers.
  • Don’t assume you can have unlimited time to practise once you arrive on the course. Competition is often high for practise facilities, and these are often limited. Most courses are for learning and observation rather than practising.  By all means, practise to some extent, but don’t miss out on concerts, lectures, lesson observation etc just because you have locked yourself in a practise room.  
  • Be generous with other musicians – both professional and amateur, with praise when appropriate and encouragement when they feel vulnerable. Remember other people feel nervous too and be supportive towards your fellow students.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. If it’s an all-ability course there are bound to be people playing advanced pieces. Remember they are not “better” than you, just “more advanced”. Be prepared to be surprised by the level and variety of pieces that other people bring. Draw inspiration from others’ performances and enjoy hearing a wide range of repertoire. Courses are often one of the best ways to discover new repertoire (and at Chets, Forsyths music shop can order in new music for you while you are there!).
  • Don’t worry about being judged: teachers on piano courses are generally very encouraging and their feedback is given in a positive way. Remember that these things are not competitive.
  • Do take every opportunity to play for/with other people, whether pieces you’re working on or reading through duets.
  • Don’t fret if something (be it a recital, workshop or lesson) doesn’t live up to expectations or hasn’t gone as well as you hoped. Piano courses are often so jam-packed that there is always something else around the corner to enjoy.
  • Be prepared to play something silly or light-hearted – it breaks down both social and language barriers and reminds us that music is not just a profound expression of humanity!
  • Don’t be shy about approaching other people. Remember everyone is there for the same reason – a shared love of the piano. Participants, faculty and staff always have interesting stories, backgrounds and thoughts on music, and socialising is a chance to enjoy stimulating conversations and forge new friendships and connections.
  • Don’t drink too much, or stay up too late. It can be fun to remain chatting in the bar after the final concert of the evening, but teaching sessions often start at 9 or 10 am in the morning and tiredness really does impact on your playing.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Thanks to my piano friends Marie, Claire and Douglas (all enthusiastic Chets regulars) for contributing their advice to this article – and for their company during my weekend at Chets.

 

Courses for Pianists

 

(picture: Philip Fowke teaching at Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists)

3 Comments

  1. I certainly endorse the point about pacing yourself and getting lots of rest – I am unashamed about having afternoon siestas! I also personally prefer to do my practice before I go, rather than frantically trying to polish at the last minute – I find this makes me more stressed and nervous.

    The overall positivity I find at the Summer School for Pianists recharges my batteries – everyone is so supportive and caring of each other. So it is definitely worth it for that alone.

  2. I think it’s quite important to include a slot for people to comment and ask questions at the end of a workshop session and in no way disrespectful to anyone if you are curious about someone’s interpretation or how they practise something a question and answer session would mean everyone has a chance to find out if they need to ask something especially if they are learning or playing the same piece someone has played in the workshop and we can all learn from suggestions from each other.

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