Repertoire in Focus is a new, occasional series on repertoire – and not just repertoire for the piano. The articles will take a single piece or suite of pieces and offer an overview of the music, some analysis, and commentary on practising/performance, together with reasons why this music is special or meaningful for the player and why they have selected it. For teachers, it may also be an opportunity to highlight some of the challenges and pleasures of teaching specific pieces.

Guest posts are invited, from both professional and amateur musicians. For a sample, please see this article by French Horn player Ben Goldscheider.

If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch via the Contact page.

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Death has been on our minds, collectively and individually, more than usual during this time of COVID.

A number of famous people have died during the pandemic, though not necessarily as a direct result of it but merely due to old age – writer Clive James, composer Ennio Morricone, statesman Colin Powell, and jazz musician Chick Corea, to name but a very few. The classical music community has lost some of its leading lights, including conductor Bernard Haitink, violinist Igor Oistrakh, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, French horn player Barry Tuckwell, cellist Lynn Harrell, composers Frederic Rzewski and Krzysztof Penderecki, and pianists Peter Serkin, Leon Fleisher and Nelson Freire.

But while we naturally, and properly, mourn the felling of these great oaks, fortunately their legacy does not die with them.

Recordings are the most obvious permanent legacies of these, and other musicians’ life and work, and today the archive is vast, thanks to platforms like Spotify and YouTube which offer not only recent recordings but also those from earlier eras. Thanks to remastering and digitisation, it is possible to access vintage recordings and films. This material offers remarkable insights into changing attitudes and trends in interpretation, instrumentation, performance practice, programming and musical taste, and as such is a valuable and often inspirational resource for musicians, students, teachers and commentators. For the home listener, recordings of past performers are cherished and valued as a connection to the artist and the pleasure their music-making brings.

For audiences and listeners, our personal legacy also comes through the memories of performances, many of which may remain deeply significant to us. Such memories may be enriched through recordings, but nothing can truly replace the experience of a live concert. (I feel very privileged to have heard Bernard Haitink and Nelson Freire in concerts in London in recent years.)

But perhaps the greatest legacy, especially of pianists such Leon Fleisher, is through their teaching. Here, their knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations through their pupils and those pupils’ pupils. Great pianist-teachers like Fleisher also connect us to earlier generations of pianists – Fleisher, for example, studied with Artur Schnabel and Maria Curcio – and this provides a unique window on past practices in teaching and performance. This passing on of ‘secrets’ handed down from earlier teachers enriches one’s experience of previous performers and performances while informing one’s own musical study and development.

I’ve “borrowed” this quote from the great Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. Nicknamed “the Cannibal”, Merckx, the most successful male rider in the history of competitive cycling. I reckon Eddy knows what he’s talking about when he says:

Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.

But what does he really mean, and how does this apply to musicians?

“Ride lots” – an abbreviation of Merckx’s above quote – was his simple opinion on how to become a better cyclist. “Play lots” might be a mantra by which musicians can improve their skills.

For the serious cyclist, or committed musician, training or practicing is – or should be – a habit, something we do every day, as regular as brushing one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians, or sportspeople, at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills.

Those of us who are committed to our musical development, whether amateur or professional, know that regular, intelligent practice equals noticeable progress. There are tens of thousands of articles, blogs, books and social media posts about how to practice better, more efficiently, more productively, in addition to advice one may receive from teachers, mentors, peers, friends….yet this “noise” of information can become overwhelming, to the point where one may feel stalled, unable to practice.

This is where Eddy Merckx comes in.

Merckx was an incredible cyclist. He achieved 525 victories over his eighteen-year career, including 11 Grand Tours (5 Tours de France, 5 Tours of Italy and 1 Vuelta d’Espana), all 5 Monuments (classic races which include the brutal Paris-Roubaix), and three World Championships. He attributed his successes less to rigorous training programmes or advice from coaches and more to simply riding “lots”. He believed that any time spent on the bike was hugely valuable, that there were no short cuts to winning, and that if one really desired success, one should simply “ride lots”. In many ways, his attitude mirrors that of Anna Kiesenhofer, the Austrian cyclist who won the women’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics. Both were/are driven by a fierce, all-consuming passion.

Eddy Merckx competing in the gruelling Paris-Roubaix race

Just as Merckx recognised the value of time spent on the bike, so we should recognise that any time spent at the piano is useful.

So stop procrastinating and go play! Stop analysing why you’re not progressing with that Bach Prelude & Fugue – and go play! Stop telling others that you “really should be practicing” – and go and play!

Play for two hours, or five, or for just 10 minutes – but play! Practice the pieces your teacher assigned to you, or play the music you love; but play! Reject the tyranny of “should” – just play! Don’t even think about it – just play!

“You train to ride”

This is a mantra from my husband, a keen amateur cyclist (and great admirer of Eddy Merckx). It seems obvious that training, or practicing the piano, leads to improved skill and greater executive function, yet too much time can be spent theorising and analysing methods of training or practising, without actually doing it. Is it not better to simply “play lots”?

I appreciate that this flies in the face of what most of us are taught – that intelligent, focused, “quality not quantity” practicing leads to noticeable improvement – but I also believe that the intent has to be driven by an overwhelming desire to simply spend time the with instrument. If you prefer to loll on the sofa watching Netflix, while saying “I really should be practicing”, you’re not displaying real intent or commitment. Instead, be driven by that all-consuming passion to play – and play lots

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 (, and the founder of Piano Hub South

Treble duets from Myron & Archie 

In 2020, two British teenagers, Myron and Archie, former boy choristers with the renowned Magdalen College Choir, Oxford, recorded a very special album of music arranged for the unusual ensemble of treble duet. Myron and Archie’s debut album LOVE IS…. was released in July 2020 and was met with immediate acclaim, with Sir Simon Rattle describing it as “REALLY beautiful…. This CD is, unsurprisingly, wonderfully performed.”

There’s a poignant back story to LOVE IS… and its follow up album Love Came Down at Christmas, released on 3 December. Myron’s elder brother Kasper was born on Christmas Day but at Christmas 2020 he turned 16 in hospital after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive childhood cancer. Witnessing first hand his brother’s illness and gruelling treatment, Myron and his friend Archie (a BBC Young Chorister of the Year semi-finalist) decided to record an album to raise money for childhood cancer research.

Love Came Down at Christmas is a stunning new recording of Christmas music. Combining the charm of the familiar with the excitement of new discoveries, Love Came Down at Christmas brings together folk carols and premiere recordings across five languages, specially arranged for the rare and beautiful sound of the treble duet. In addition to its fundraising aim, the album pays tribute to the loss and suffering of the COVID pandemic during which it was created. The album centres on a new setting of the text of Christina Rosetti’s poem ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, composed by Olivier award-winning composer Michael Haslam especially for Myron and Archie. This lovely setting of a much-loved poem reverberates with the anticipation, exaltation, hope and peace of Christmas.

Praised for their impressive talent and beautiful voices, Myron and Archie have been supported by musical talents including award-winning composer and arranger Michael Haslam, the Gabriel Quartet, pianist Maki Sekiya, and the producers and sound engineers who have made this unique musical project possible. 

Proceeds from Love Came Down at Christmas will go to the Childhood Cancer Research Trust (, a UK charity set up by Kasper to raise funds for childhood cancer research and to support other children living with cancer. Kasper says: “My own survival is not in my control but what is possible is making a positive difference to the outcomes of children who come after me.” A new paradigm of personal medicine is on the cusp of emerging into mainstream practices, and Kasper and his family have set up this charity to help current science develop new medicine and treatments for children with cancer today.

“…what I find extraordinarily touching is the idea of the race against time, be it to finish before voices break, or the race against the pandemic. What shines out is the determination to achieve all this beauty against enormous odds: it gives the music making an unusual depth which no listener could miss” – Sir Simon Rattle

Love Came Down at Christmas is released on CD and streaming on 3 December 2021.

Enjoy this showreel in the meantime:

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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