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.

 

Listening in not-quite-darkness, with only the dim light from my bedside clock radio, I heard An Ending (Ascent) by Brian Eno. Of course I recognise it, but not quite in this arrangement. The sounds wash gently over me and in the dark and still of the night, it’s intimate and meditative, almost a lullaby.

Listening again, in daytime, in the surround sound of my kitchen HiFi, the music floats, weightless but for a simple sequence picked out on the harp, now growing in intensity with a soaring violin line over lusher instrumental textures….

It’s a soundworld which perfectly exemplifies the ethos and approach of Orchestra of the Swan and artistic director David Le Page, and which is given full creative rein in their latest release, Labyrinths.  With its exploration of themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection, it’s an appropriate album for our strange corona times. It also explores ideas of pilgrimage, contemplation and enlightenment, filtered through a sequence of beautifully atmospheric music, imaginatively arranged and exquisitely performed.

Formed in 1995, Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) is a chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Under the artistic direction of violinist David Le Page, an innovative, self-contained musician and one of the nicest people I’ve met in the industry, OOTS is passionate about audience inclusivity and this is reflected in its imaginative and adventurous programmes which blur the lines between genres. Labyrinths is the perfect example of the orchestra and its director’s vision. Devised as a “mixtape”, it continues the spirit of the mixtape of the 1980s (something which many of us of a certain age will remember creating for friends and boyfriends/girlfriends) with a diverse compilation of arrangements and reinterpretations of works by an eclectic mix of composers, which, as the album title suggests, takes labyrinthine twists and turns through music from the 14th century to the present day, from Buxtehude to Nico Muhly, Purcell to Brian Eno, and much else in between to delight and intrigue the listener. The range of musicians is equally diverse, including tenor Nicky Spence, saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, Guy Schalom on darbuka drum, folk singer Jim Moray, and David Gordon on harpsichord.

the joy is to be found in discovering the surprising and delightful connections between culturally disparate and musically contrasting time periods. Themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection are filtered through beautifully atmospheric and exquisitely rendered sound worlds. This last year has been one in which we have all been confronted by the spectre of isolation and have certainly felt the need for face-to-face communication. Labyrinths invites the listener to immerse themselves completely in a sonically rewarding and wholly unexpected musical experience.

– David Le Page, violinist and Artistic Director of Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page, violinist & Artist Director of OOTS

Labyrinths also celebrates a long tradition of arranging and transcription. This is seen most imaginatively in Jim Moray’s Cold Genius, a modern twist on Purcell’s ‘What power art thou?’ cold song from King Arthur, which in this rendering recalls the iciness of Vivaldi’s Winter with its spikey, slicing string accompaniment to Moray’s hypnotic, pulsing vocals. Or an arrangement of Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion’, with a haunting clarinet (played by Sally Harrop) and the lush, silky strings of a 1930s cocktail orchestra.

The adventurous spirit of OOTS and David Le Page is evident throughout the album – not only in the arrangements but also the mix of instrumentation, blends of timbres, textures and colours, and the diverse repertoire. There is truly “something for everyone” on this album, and it’s an ideal intro for the classical music ingénue too, with tracks from the world of film, including Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, which has appeared in films by Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve, and pop music from Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ from one of their earliest albums to Joy Division’s ‘New Dawn Fades’.

Tenor Nicky Spence joins the orchestra in the ‘Pastoral’ from Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; this is preceded by ‘Bounce’, a new work composed by Trish Clowes during lockdown, a jazzy number with Bernstein-infused rhythms and an infectious sense of joy and freedom. Other highlights include ‘La Rotta’, in which Guy Schalom’s darbuka (a kind of drum) brings a raw, contemporary street sound to this Medieval dance, overlaid with fiddle and saxophone masquerading initially as a shawm, then drone, before taking off into an improvisatory flight of fancy.

And that ambient Eno track? It’s the perfect close to this brilliantly conceived, generous and rewarding recording. 

Highly recommended


Labyrinths is available on the Signum label and on streaming platforms including Apple Music and Spotify

Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page

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

An early 19th-century square piano, signed by Felix Yaniewicz, musician and co-founder of the first Edinburgh Music Festival, has been restored and is now at its new, permanent home at the Polish Ex-Combatants House on Drummond Place in Edinburgh, just around the corner from Great King Street, where Felix Yaniewicz lived until his death.

Dating from 1810, the ’Yaniewicz & Green’ square piano dates arrived in Edinburgh this November following its restoration and a crowdfunding campaign by The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz in partnership with the Scottish Polish Cultural Association. It was discovered in a dilapidated condition in a private house in Snowdonia 20 years ago, by the early keyboard expert Douglas Hollick, who bought the piano and restored it to its former glory.  Two years ago, by chance, the advertisement for the newly restored piano was spotted by a descendant of Yaniewicz’s, Josie Dixon.

Two concerts celebrated the piano’s arrival in Edinburgh – one on 12th November by Steven Devine, who played a programme setting Yaniewicz’s music in the context of contemporaries with whom he was associated in different ways: Haydn, Mozart, Dussek, Clementi and Beethoven. Steven Devine praised the instrument for the variety of tonal colours that give it a very distinctive voicing in different ranges – quite unlike the homogenous sound of a modern piano.

The second concert, by Pawel Siwczak, an all-Polish programme with music from Yaniewicz to Chopin, who just missed Yaniewicz in Edinburgh in 1848: Yaniewicz died in May of that year and Chopin visited in the autumn.

Square pianos have become a rarity despite their central place in domestic music-making in the 18th and 19th centuries. This gem of an instrument is wonderful and interesting for two reasons: musically beautiful and in incredible condition following an expert and loving restoration, and also historically fascinating due to the connection with this important composer” – Steven Devine, principal keyboard player, Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment

The piano will be on display to the public at the 2022 exhibition at the Georgian House, Edinburgh, which will open in late June and run until October 2022.  The exhibition will be entitled Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh: The Story of Felix Yaniewicz.