British concert pianist Daniel Grimwood is fundraising to save this historic piano, an 1850s Erard, similar to the type and make of piano Chopin, Liszt, Clara Schumann and others would have known and performed on.

Here Daniel explains why this piano is important in the study, understanding and performance of mid-nineteenth century piano music:

These instruments offer an unclouded sonority, separation of register and clarity which enliven music of the 19th Century in a magical way. Hearing music performed on the instruments for which it was written is always illuminating; it opens up aspects of a score which can often seem nonsensical on modern pianos.

See Daniel talk about and perform Liszt on a similar instrument:

Daniel is fundraising via Kickstarter. You can read all about the project, watch a video presentation and make a pledge by visiting his Kickstarter page.

Please consider supporting this interesting and worthwhile project. Historic pianos like this Erard can teach us a great deal about how music was composed and performed. They are also beautiful pieces of furniture in their own right.

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

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What is your first memory of the piano?

I was surrounded by music as a child  and I fell in love with music at a very young age. My mother would play piano many evenings and I would lie in bed and listen to Don McLean’s Vincent or Clementi’s  Sonatina  No. 4. At the weekend, my father allowed me to choose music to listen to. This was a wonderful privilege because I was allowed to touch his precious records. My favourite was Lloyd Webber’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini;  I also loved Beethoven (particularly his “Pastel”(!) [Pastoral] Symphony), Miles Davies and Elton John, whose Your Song settled my sons to sleep when they were younger.

By age 10, I was taking piano lessons and wanted to play “like my Mum”. She was perhaps my most inspirational role model because she played for her own enjoyment and seemingly without effort.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

In my mid-thirties, I found myself with a husband, two children and a deeply unsatisfying, yet very demanding, career. There was no doubt that my family needed more of my time, but I was equally certain that I needed creative and intellectual stimuli beyond pureed carrots and a 40 degree wash cycle! My husband asked me what I wanted to do when I was little. My answer was simple; “I wanted to be like Becky” – more on her later.

My reasons for becoming a teacher were mostly about the practicalities of my own life. The reasons I am still a teacher – and still love being a teacher – are the daily challenge and reward it brings; the impact I can make on an individual’s life experience; the ‘eureka’ moment when they get it; learning something new about myself, my students, teaching or music every single day; and the sheer joy of working creatively, reactively and proactively alongside children who are joyfully learning. My son (and piano student) gave me a hand-written plaque last year; it said “Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning”.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I started clarinet (age 9) and piano (age 10) with Becky, an enthusiastic graduate, who coached me to ABRSM Grade 5 on both instruments and introduced me to the alto saxophone. I adored Becky and worked hard to please her. My parents say she was an excellent role model and they rarely had to nag me to practice. Silver and gold stars were available for each piece learned and she hosted student recitals at her parents’ house. Quite simply, she made learning music fun.

My second piano teacher, Miss Faulkner, taught at my secondary school. We had musical interaction outside our regular piano lessons through the GCSE music course and other school activities. I learned about music history and the theory and structure of music, which helped me understand what I was playing. This is where I find most technical memories including using variable rhythms to perfect tricky passages, word patterns to master poly-rhythms and using well known tunes to identify intervals aurally. Miss Faulkner used metaphors, analogies and examples and asked me to listen, observe and discover techniques for myself.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

There are so many; where do I begin?

The foundations of my teaching style are influenced by Becky and Miss Faulkner – simple things like awarding stars and certificates, agreeing objectives with the students and parents and providing a progress reports at the end of each term, motivating students through the thrill of achievement, not through fear of being scolded or failing. Miss Faulkner taught me there is great value in exposing children to the wider possibilities of music making. I enjoy taking groups of students to musical experiences, from youth jazz at The Barbican to FUNharmonics with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall; from the London Mozart Players to STOMP!

I read many pedagogy books when studying for my ABRSM Certificate of Teaching and was particularly struck by Harris’ simultaneous learning approach. His book, Improve Your Teaching has been invaluable, and the concept of simultaneous learning is rather succinctly and eloquently summarised in The Music Teachers Companion: ‘integrating aural work with pieces, scales with sight-reading, aural work with scales and so on. The ingredients of musicianship can be both taught and learnt much more effectively when they are seen as being part of a whole. The objective is to make each lesson much more like an organic process. The teacher sets the agenda, is pro-active rather than re-active, and there is a considerable amount of pupil-teacher interaction throughout. This is what is meant by simultaneous learning’.

Simultaneous learning is still a relatively new concept for me and despite my best intentions I know I am still delivering hybrid lessons; combining simultaneous learning with more reactive teaching. As a teacher, it is important to realise that you can’t just wake one morning and decide that you will be teaching simultaneous learning lessons from this day forth; the transition requires time and commitment, thought, exploration and above all, experimentation.

Despite all these experiences and pedagogical experts, it’s the students themselves who have the greatest influence on my teaching. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again; every student is different and as I collect learning and teaching experiences my musical knowledge grows and my teaching style is constantly evolving. Teaching strategies that work with one student will work with others, but not all of them, and I keep a teaching diary (inspired by my CT) in which I record interesting experiences, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

One of my first students – we’ll call him Michael, now age 10 – has been with me for 5 years. Although some students have joined me at a more advanced stage, Michael is the most advanced student I have taught from the beginning of his piano learning experience and is one of my most dedicated students. He presents well-developed technique, keen attention to detail and a love of performing. His meticulous preparation and assured stage presence result in naturally polished performances. Michael has a keen interest in jazz music; he often chooses music to work on independently for his own enjoyment. He has also experimented with improvisation, composition and duets. This year, Michael has made a significant step forward in the way he communicates as he performs. As his technical ability continues to develop, he is learning notes and fingering quickly and consequently spends more time working on interpretation and musicality. He offers robust debate on the merits of his own interpretations and opinions and ultimately implements advice to good effect. We are still on a journey together, as Michael continues to push me to discover new music and challenges for him. There can be no doubt that he is exceptionally bright and very conscientious but I do feel a small amount of personal pride in knowing that I’ve taught him – and I’ve taught him well. I look forward to his lesson every week!

I try to shake up my lessons and do something different every now and then. Sometimes, the most creative ideas come from throwing away the rule book and trying something different and entirely unexpected. One memorable afternoon saw me teaching two brothers without saying a word. We did everything through the music, with call and response activities, working out scales by ear, and a constant pulse throughout the lessons. You can read the full story ‘A Little Less Conversation’ on the Articles page of my website 

Every term I run ‘doubles week’, pairing students to work together in lessons. Last term I introduced an improvising exercise inspired by the legendary Keith Jarrett’s performance of Summertime a the Royal Festival Hall, London. I was immediately struck by an ostinato bass line and resolved to adapt it for my students. In a mentoring session, Mary played the accompaniment and encouraged younger student John to improvise. This was John’s first experience of improvising but he was willing to give it a try; his melodic shape had some appeal but it was rhythmically uninspiring. I took over the bass line and encourage question and answer improvising between the two students. Mary immediately included some swing rhythms which John copied, seemingly subconsciously. When I asked them to summarise their learning experiences, they talked about listening to one another, rhythmic variety and learning from others. They also, unwittingly, hit on the infamous saying about improvising; “if you play a wrong note, play it again!”. I videoed this session and on review, the intense concentration coupled with the progress they made was quite remarkable. Sometimes, as a teacher, the best thing you can do is sit back and let things unfold without interfering. That itself is improvising in its simplest form!

There is one funny story that I simply must share. Several years ago, young beginner Graham was learning to play in triple time with a melody passing between two hands. He left the lesson having mastered the first line with the promise to learn the rest of the piece for homework. At the next lesson his performance was utterly unrecognisable; beyond the correct first note I could not connect the notes he was playing to the notes on the page. His repeat was identical – there was no doubt he had been practising, but what? I was stumped, so I asked Graham to teach me to play the piece the way he played it. We swapped seats and he calmly and logically explained that the time signature was like a fraction; the 3 on the top meant he should play every note on the top stave three times and the 4 on the bottom meant that every bottom stave note should be played four times. I believe this flawed logic was a result of learning to multiply fractions at school and playing from the grand stave for the first time!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

I have mixed feelings about teaching adults and have only a few in my timetable. I tend to avoid adult beginners completely as I had a series of mature students who were very impatient; they thought they were taking on something easy – after all children can do it! – and were reluctant to put in the basic ground work at home. Where children can take time to understand the theory of notation, adults seem to pick it up very quickly. Conversely, adult beginners are not as supple as children and they need to spend much more time developing finger control to deliver even rhythms and tone. I struggled a lot with attendance – last minute cancellations and even no-shows – and don’t get me started on lack of practice! They came with plausible but different excuses every week, ranging from a big project at work, a chicken pox epidemic amongst the kids, the spouse that didn’t cover the babysitting – and there’s not much more you can say other than “try to do more this week”. Of course, when they don’t improve they become frustrated; it’s a vicious circle!

But it’s not all bad. I have a few adult returners who gave up in their teens and have returned to music in their 40s. Susan is very driven; her husband has promised to buy her a grand piano if she can pass Grade 8 by age 50. After 4 years tuition and at 45 she is about to take Grade 6 so she is well on the way. These adult students are much more productive; they learn the notes independently so we can spend a lot more time working on the performance of a piece rather than just getting through the notes. I enjoy these lesson immensely as I can lead the students to work things out for themselves and we have interesting debates and discussions about how to improve their playing. There are still challenges of course; Frank refuses point blank to sight-read and (against my strongest advice) works towards every exam on the basis that he will score 0 for that part of the test. Peter is utterly disinterested in the theory of scales (“don’t start on that technical stuff again, Liz”) and continues to work them out by ear, trial and error.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect my students to turn up on time, with their books and clean hands! Sometimes I have to settle for two out of three!

In terms of technical ability and musical achievements my expectations are different for every student; they all have different priorities in their lives, they are different ages, at different schools, with different musical experiences at home and different learning styles. But I do expect every student to try their best. I expect them to listen in lessons, read the notebook at home and try to improve each time they play. As long as a student is interested and really giving it their best shot, I’m happy! I spend a lot of time coaching students on effective practice strategies, which encompasses time management and fitting in practice around their other commitments, eliminating distractions, the value of reading the practice notebook, the importance of warming up and technical exercises, tools for approaching a new piece of music and techniques for developing the performance of a piece they have learnt. We talk about setting small but manageable goals, celebrating (and rewarding themselves for) successes and making music with and for others – just for fun. There is a clear relationship between regular, effective practice and student success.

I’m also very clear on what I expect from parents. In the Art of Teaching Piano, Denes Agay writes ‘Music lessons are a three-way effort by teacher, student and parents’. Encouraging parents to attain Agay’s ideal of ‘display[ing] a constructive interest…without being overzealous or meddlesome’ is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of teaching. Parents should expose their children to music, facilitate lessons, encourage practice and provide support. I explore this in more detail in my article ‘Parent Power’ .

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

There is much debate about whether or not students, especially children should sit music exams. One of the main benefits of taking exams is that they are a source of motivation and they provide a strong incentive for students to continue studying their chosen instrument. Exams can be used to chart the musical and technical ability of a students against an existing set of standards which allows teachers, pupils and parents to monitor progress. The feedback received, if delivered in a positive light, can be constructive and inspiring and often reinforces comments that teachers have made. The need to learn repertoire and studies to a very high standard and experience performance pressure should not be under-rated.

Conversely, if the exam system is used inappropriately, it can be demotivating. Students should not follow a curriculum based solely on exam repertoire to the exclusion of all else as this will greatly reduce their enjoyment of playing and the range of their musical experiences. It is of great importance that students sit exams at the appropriate level; an exam that is too easy will not inspire appropriate effort and equally, an exam that is too difficult will leave a student feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Failing an exam is demoralising for both students, parents and teachers and should be avoided at all costs.

There have been limited opportunities for my students to take part in festivals and competitions, although we had a few placings at Kingston Performing Arts Festival 2013 and at Dulwich Piano Festival in June 2014. As a child, I was encouraged to play in music festivals regularly. I was never expected to win but encouraged to participate nonetheless. It is important both teacher and student have realistic goals. Had I been encouraged to compete with unrealistic ambitions, I would have been disappointed and possibly demotivated.

I think giving pianists – children in particular – the opportunity to perform and to hear their peers performing is invaluable and a critical part of musical learning. It is unlikely that many (if any) of my students will choose a career as a professional performer. But in all likelihood, every single one of them, at some stage in their life, will have to stand up and present a speech, give a presentation, or simply share an opinion amongst a group of friends. I like to think that this early experience of getting up and performing their own composition or their latest exam piece in front of an audience will sow the seeds for these invaluable life skills. Through these performances they learn the importance of disciplined preparation, focusing on the moment, keeping going (even when it goes wrong) and responding appropriately to audience applause.

I am excited to be organising the first Battersea Piano Festival in March 2015. I see this event as a celebration of musical talent in our local area and it will be open to all pianists, regardless of age and experience, with carefully defined competition classes to ensure a fair platform for all participants. A panel of respected adjudicators will join the team to select winners in each class and provide constructive feedback and inspiration to the participants.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

It is one thing to master the techniques of playing an instrument. It is quite another to experience and appreciate music.  I was taught the value of both and I strive to pass on to my students a broad musical experience. If I can teach children to love music, whether it be playing, composing or listening, then I’ve done something right. Learn to play music you love and learn to love the music you play.

When a student walks in for a lesson I want them to have enjoy it; to enjoy playing and to enjoy learning. But it’s important to be honest – there will always be moments  when it isn’t fun; I have spent many hours practising huge and painful Rachmaninoff chords and it really wasn’t the highlight of my day. The first week of two handed scales will be agonisingly slow and immensely frustrating. But these are just moments in a whole world of musical experiences and like caterpillars becoming butterflies they should morph into rewarding and uplifting experiences.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

Inspired by Becky, I host student recitals twice a year. A few years ago, one of my students asked me what I would be playing. It had not crossed his mind that I would not take part, any more than it had crossed my mind that the students (and parents) would like to hear me play. Since then, I’ve closed every student recital with a short piece and a little information about what I will be playing.

I avoided any performance for many years, but the feedback from students and parents has inspired me to re-evaluate, along with lots of encouragement from my teacher and my husband. I have found that learning a new work properly – as opposed to tinkling away purely for my own entertainment – has forced me to practise with discipline, address technical difficulties and learn more about the music which, of course, directly translates to my teaching. Lorraine Womack-Banning said in her interview that we should ‘practise what we preach’ and I think she’s right.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

I’ve been lucky that my young students don’t seem to get too worked up about performing – perhaps because they take part in the recitals right from the first term of lessons. However, I have found that adult students are generally reluctant to play in organised recitals and are much more nervous about exams. Kath (age 40) came out of her Grade 3 and burst into tears declaring it a disaster (she later discovered that she achieved a Merit), and Susan (age 44) was in such distress before she went into her Grade 5 exam that she was unable to find the opening notes of her first piece when she warmed up.

Aside from the obvious points about thorough preparation and a good nights sleep, I think the best way to tackle performance anxiety is just to do it – and lots of it. I recently completed my Advanced Performance Certificate with Trinity. I had not taken a music exam or given a serious piano performance in over 20 years so part of my preparation strategy was to practice performing the music to an audience. I took part in the Dulwich Piano Festival, joined and performed with the London Piano Meetup Group and hosted a concert for friends and family at home. At Dulwich, I was a wreck, my knees were visibly shaking and I felt that my heart was going to hammer through my chest! It was still pounding at the end and I have little memory of what I played. My second performance with the London Piano Meetup Group at the 1901 Arts Club was less nerve-wracking although I did get a fit of the giggles between movements. At my home concert I was almost too relaxed and took some of the trickier passages too quickly necessitating some quick thinking to recover. As a combined result of these experiences, I was very pleased with my performance in the exam, the initial bone shaking nerves had gone, but I was mindful of the need to stay focused. I am thrilled that the London Piano Meetup Group is hosting an event for adult beginners in January 2015, although my student, Susan is less pleased as I have insisted that she performs at least two of her Grade 6 exam pieces!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

I’m always on the look out for concerts that will inspire my students and in particular my son James (age 10). I am particularly drawn to younger performers as children find it easier to make a connection with them.

James and I regularly attend the International Piano Series at Queen Elizabeth Hall; it’s an intimate venue and I choose the seats carefully so we can see the performers’ hands. Last year, we particularly enjoyed performances by Ingolf Wunder and Federico Colli. We were fortunate to have stage seats for The Scott Brothers Duo at Guiting Festival a few years ago. They explained the story of Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre and it’s still one of James’ favourite CDs, along with Jason Rebello’s Jazz Rainbow.

In September 2012 I heard the British Paraorchestra perform at London’s Southbank Centre. All the musicians were incredibly talented and tremendously inspiring, but naturally the pianist, Nicholas McCarthy stood out for me; I wish I could play half as well as he does. I admire his tenacity, his commitment and his talent. YouTube clips of his performances can be particularly inspiring for students who have broken a finger playing netball and think they should stop lessons and practice for two months! I’m looking forward to experimenting with some of the one-handed piano music McCarthy recently helped promote in International Piano Magazine.

Liz Giannopoulos is a piano tutor and music teacher based in SW London. She founded Encore Music Tuition in 2009 and currently works with three associates, tutoring over 60 piano students. Liz provides curriculum advice and mentoring for her associates and she also teachers Foundation Stage and KS1 music at Alderbrook Primary School.  Liz is founder of the Battersea Piano Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acclaimed pianist and chamber musician Susan Tomes is also an engaging writer. I have enjoyed her previous books and her blog, which offer interesting and revealing insights into the daily life of a classical musician and her personal thoughts on the many facets of music making. Her latest book, Sleeping in Temples, continues this, focusing on subjects such as the exigencies of finding the right concert clothes to coughing and other noises made by audiences, the physical and mental strains placed on musicians in their working life, and the pleasure people gain from attending concerts.

The title comes from an Ancient Greek habit of sleeping in temples in the hope that the powerful atmosphere would “incubate dreams”. In her final chapter, Susan explains that throughout her musical life her own version of “sleeping in temples” has been the privilege of spending time with the “sacred texts” of the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al, the challenges of living and working with this music, and her great love of it, and its ability to take us on powerful emotional journeys and through varied and contrasting landscapes.

In a series of essays and musings, Susan reveals the joys and challenges of her career as well as discussing some perennial issues surrounding classical music and the musician’s day-to-day life, including what ‘interpretation’ really means, the effects of daily practise on one’s character, the benefits and burdens of memorisation, the influence of significant teachers, and the links between music and health. In one chapter she explores the fascinating dynamics that exist within a chamber ensemble and debunks the myth that the members of a string quartet, for example, are the greatest of friends outside the rehearsal room and concert hall. Another chapter ponders the (misguided) attitude that classical music “is not for everyone” (an attitude I encounter regularly and have done since an early age, having always been interested and engaged in classical music), and the pleasure and relief of connecting with like-minded people at university. The light-heartedly titled chapter ‘Fashion Parade’ explores the performer’s attire and the importance of finding the right shoes (for pedalling) and dress. The chapter has a more serious intent, however, as “appropriate” concert attire and the way solo musicians and orchestras dress is the subject of continued debate and has an impact on the way the music and the musicians are perceived by the audience: it shouldn’t matter – after all, the music is the most important thing – but somehow it does. In ‘Bullfrogs’, Susan examines that perennial irritant – coughing at concerts – and the performer’s own anxieties if struck down with a cold or cough and how adrenaline can miraculously “cure” a cold for the duration of a concert (another experience I can identify with, having played my diploma recital last April with a dreadful chest infection). The book also describes some of the challenges facing classical musicians today, including the effect of high quality recordings on live performance.

Sensitively and articulately written, this absorbing and insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music lovers, and indeed anyone with an interest in classical music. Highly recommended – put it on your Christmas list.

Sleeping in Temples – Susan Tomes. £19.99. Published October 2014. ISBN 9781843839750. Full details here

Susan Tomes’ website and blog

Let’s face it, playing a musical instrument is bad for your health.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar led by Drusilla Redman, a physiotherapist who works with BAPAM and is also Student Health Adviser and Physiotherapist for Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When Drusilla asked the participants to raise their hands if they were “in pain at the moment”, everyone put their hand up. The attendees were all musicians and music teachers – a guitarist, a violinist, several pianists, a flautist and a clarinettist.

Sadly, being in pain is a common condition for many musicians: a number of my pianist friends suffer from recurrent back problems, chronic tendonitis and other RSI-type conditions. Being hunched over a piano is not good for the body – nor is holding a violin or a flute, or humping a cello – or worse, a double bass – around.

Many of us suffer from “T-shaped pain” across the base of the neck, shoulders and down the back. In my case, this is almost certainly the result of too much time spent at both computer and piano, and not enough time spent stretching between practise sessions and when I leave my desk. Muscles don’t like being kept still, but sitting playing an instrument makes us still. For those who play instruments which need to be supported or held – for example, the French horn, trombone, cello, bassoon, violin, flute – the body can suffer from being in an awkward posture or out of alignment for periods of time.

There are many other factors which contribute significantly to pain, including:

  • bad technique
  • lack of proper warm up
  • unresolved or existing traumas/injuries
  • untreated or ignored chronic conditions such as RSI and tendonitis/tenosynovitis
  • too much repetition in practising
  • bad seating
  • tension and anxiety
  • a punishing practising and/or working schedule
  • over-practising or intense practising before a performance
  • poor choice of repertoire (the pianist with tiny hands is going to really suffer in Liszt or Rachmaninoff)
  • lack of sleep
  • poor diet

Until relatively recently, musicians were expected to simply get on with it, without complaining, and without help from specialists such as Alexander Technique, Yoga and Pilates practitioners, physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors, as well as mainstream medics. Little was really understood, or wished to be understood, about the strain playing an instrument can put on the body and students in conservatoire were given no support or advice on how to look after themselves. When I was studying the piano as a teenager in the 1980s, for example, my then teacher gave me no advice on hand health, avoiding injury, tension or RSI conditions, nor any help on managing nerves and performance anxiety. Today, music students and musicians in general can seek the support, advice and care of professionals to ensure that they keep themselves fit to play. But admitting one has an injury is still stigmatised: in a world where most of us our freelance, admitting we are unable to play can result in no work and therefore no money and musicians often play through pain – because they have to.

Compare this scenario to that of top sports players: no sportsman or woman would tolerate the kind of bodily travails the musician undergoes. Sportspeople, and their trainers, understand about the need to exercise and rest the muscles properly, to engage in a proper warm up regime, eat well, sleep well, and never, ever exercise – or indeed play – through pain.

Through a better understanding of the musician’s body and lifestyle, and the many parallels to be drawn from sport, the musician’s body is now treated in a similar way to the sportsperson’s: we should regard ourselves as “elite musical athletes”, and caring for our bodies in the way a sportsperson would can ensure we avoid injury and enjoy pain-free playing.

The following may seem obvious, but how many of us really, truly adopt these measures on a daily basis?

  • do a proper warm up and stretching session, preferably away from the instrument, if you are a pianist or keyboard player
  • practise in sensible increments (say, 20-30 mins per session) and take regular breaks
  • incorporate mental practise, away from your instrument
  • stretch between practise sessions
  • consider your posture (sit with knees lower than hips)
  • take regular exercise
  • take care when lifting
  • eat sensibly
  • drink plenty of water
  • don’t smoke
  • sleep well
  • enjoy a social life and do activities which are not music-related
  • think positively
  • if in pain, stop right away and seek help
  • By looking after our bodies properly, our practising and music making will be more productive and enjoyable.

Further resources:

BAPAM – specialist help support to performing artists http://www.bapam.org.uk/

Yoga for pianists – warm up exercises devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell

(photo credit: Ruairi Bowen)

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and make it your career? 

In common with a lot of singers, I’ve been singing for most of my life – first as a chorister for my dad at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, then at St Paul’s Cathedral. The latter part has come much more recently and still takes me a bit by surprise: for my whole teenage years I was working towards a career as a jazz pianist, but singing took over during my undergraduate degree.

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

An insultingly short list would have to include my parents and extended family; my singing teachers to date – Ulla Blom, Susanne Carlström, Philip Doghan and Ryland Davies; Ralph Allwood, Nick Goetzee and Jim Wortley at school; at Cambridge, Stephen Layton, the director of music at Trinity College, Paul Wingfield, my director of studies, Maggie Faultless, who took over performance at the music faculty, and Alice Goodman, chaplain at Trinity; hosts of generous teachers, colleagues and friends.

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

As I’m still a student, I’m hoping sure the biggest challenges are still to come, but a fair answer for now might be the two roles at Cambridge which were my operatic baptisms of fire, Pelléas and Tom Rakewell.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

When often working on the maxim that “you’re only as good as your last gig”, I’m going to go with the positive version: each project or concert, whether it’s months or hours long, is something worth taking pride in, and I wouldn’t particularly like to pick between them.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

My musical first love is Bach, and I’m lucky to have a voice which fits some of his occasionally specific challenges – all human life is there, I think, even if filtered through potentially arcane theology which is a fascinating area in itself. I need a new music fix quite frequently, and have been lucky to work with some brilliant friends in that regard – new operas by Kate Whitley and songs by Joel Rust & Jude Carlton are some recent things which have stayed with me.

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

Within vocal reason (sadly I see little Wagner in my imminent future), I’ll jump at anything which leaps off the page, makes light work of all the defences daily life throws up, and goes for the guts: recently that’s been Ives and Messiaen in the 20th century, Rameau and Handel in the early 18th, Mozart Mozart Mozart. The rhythm of the year gives a natural shape with regard to concert work – the Passions in Lent, the Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios in December, and summer throws up interesting operatic projects.

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

Not particularly: currently I’m enjoying the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, where I’m studying, which affords a mixture of grandeur and intimacy. But every venue has its ups and downs – I can’t recall any real shockers, however, which is perhaps tempting fate.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

A tricky one – I’ve mentioned the Passions, which are inexhaustibly wonderful masterpieces, but very often it’s whatever I’m involved in at the moment. Listen to is a very different matter – the last concert I went to was the LSO’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, which is up there for its extravagance, visceral thrills and blinding virtuosity, but day-to-day between me, the tube and my iPod, it’s mostly jazz, funk, soul.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

An endless list, but the letter J is a good start: JS Bach, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, John Zorn, an expensive vocal quartet of Jessye Norman, Joyce Di Donato, Jonas Kaufmann and John Tomlinson.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Turangalîla again, actually, at the Proms in 2008 with the BPO and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I’d queued my way to right in front of Aimard, and could see every single intention between score, eyes, hands and whatever else. Then in the outrageous piano cadenza in the fifth movement I fully lost track of time – that 12-second shower of notes seemed an ecstatic eternity, which was something. Seeing Dave Brubeck when I was eleven was pretty influential for the next decade, and I was lucky to see Ravi Shankar at the Proms in 2005 – I’d just started playing the sitar, and to see the global master incredibly close was wonderful. As a treble, a run of concerts with Oliver Knussen on Louis Andriessen and Elliott Carter made a lasting impression, both in terms of loving new music and having the nerve to get out on a big stage and deliver – much harder to start from scratch as an adult, I’m sure.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I’m still very much an aspiring musician, but hard work, keeping a childish enthusiasm, and a streak of punk aesthetic seems a good mix.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve been working on two different productions of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, in a tour with Ryedale Festival Opera and on the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme in Aldeburgh – a work which could take a lifetime to unpick, let alone a summer. In between those,  plenty of work preparing for my first year in the Academy’s opera school, with Gianni Schicchi, The Rake’s Progress and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Hopefully doing more or less what I’m doing now, at as high a level as who’ll have me, and 10 years into my project of writing about every song written by Schubert in chronological order, 200 years after the fact – 1824’s a fairly quiet year, actually, but doing any kind of justice to Die schöne Müllerin the year before might take a bit of work.

Born in Hereford, Gwilym Bowen is a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, having graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2011 with a double First class degree in Music. He studies with Ryland Davies and Jonathan Papp, and is due to take up a place at Royal Academy Opera from September.

Gwilym’s full biography

Interview date: 19th July 2014

 

http://www.gwilymbowen.com/

The following text formed the basis for a presentation and discussion which I led at a workshop for piano teachers held on Sunday 23rd November at Cecil Sharp House in north London. The presentation slides can be accessed here (Powerpoint presentation) or here (PDF file).

A vocation and a profession

Many people regard piano teaching as a vocation rather than a “profession”, and many do not understand or see the need for admin and business practice to enter into the craft of piano teaching. However, with a few simple steps you can organise your studio to run it in a way that is enjoyable, largely stress-free and profitable

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MARKETING YOUR STUDIO

1. Website

This is the 21st century business card and the first port of call for most people who are looking for a piano teacher.  Your website is your “shop window” and you should present a professional appearance. Pick a website design that is clear, accessible and easy to navigate. Having a website allows you to put up things like your studio policy, fees, term times (if applicable), business hours, your CV and qualifications, and teaching philosophy. Some teachers also like to include exam results and testimonials, sound and video clips and links to other sites. A well-designed website reduces time-wasting questions. You don’t even have to pay a specialist web designer to create a website: attractive and easy to build templates are available free from platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, Wix and Tumblr.

2. Get listed

Take advantage of free listings on sites such as MusicTeachers.co.uk and also local sites such as Mumsnet or a local site for small businesses (I belong to something called Teddnet). Being listed shows you are proactive and “out there”. Local music shops often have teacher listings too.

3. Use social networks

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Use both platforms to advertise your studio and connect with other teachers and music professionals etc around the world. Include links to your Twitter and Facebook profiles on your website. You can set up a Facebook page which is separate from a personal Facebook profile. Be intelligent about how much information about yourself you share on these networks, but don’t be afraid to use them: they can be a fantastic source of resources, information sharing and interaction between others in the profession.

BEING PROFESSIONAL

Adopt a professional demeanour in everything you do – from the way you dress to teach to how you interact with your students and their parents (your “clients”)

Have a clear studio policy/T&Cs and post this on your website. And stick to it! If you don’t offer catch up lessons, don’t make an exception for one or two students. Your policy must include information on payment, cancellation and make-up policies, punctuality, practising, exams and your expectations of parents and students. Some teachers ask students/their parents to sign a contract to indicate they have understood the T&Cs. Clear policies like these give credibility and confidence by setting expectations from the outset and let everyone know they are being treated fairly. You can also refer to them in the future to clarify things for anyone who may have forgotten or who queries missed lessons, payment of fees etc.

You can obtain a contract template from bodies such as EPTA and ISM.

Fees – always a tricky area as you don’t want to price yourself out of the market nor undersell yourself. Your fees should reflect your experience and qualifications but also take into account the demographic of area you live/work in. Look at what other teachers in your area are charging for guidance. The ISM publishes an annual survey of fees which gives a national average (currently £25 – £36 per hour for private instrumental teaching outside London) and London average (currently between £30-£50). How you choose to bill your students is up to you, but invoicing termly or half-termly reduces admin. Collecting fees can be a major headache so encourage all your clients to pay by direct bank transfer and give a date by which fees must be paid each term. Consider using billing software such as Music Teacher’s Helper (30-day free trial)

Tax and record keeping – be scrupulous about record keeping and keep your tax affairs in order. Use a tax accountant to help you if necessary.

Join a professional body such as EPTA or ISM if you feel this will lend credence to your professional standing. These bodies offer free listings, legal advice, , child protection, and can assist in disputes about fees etc

Get CRB checked – if you work with children you need to be completely transparent. An Enhanced Disclosure Certificate (formerly CRB check) is easy to obtain https://www.gov.uk/disclosure-and-barring-service-criminal-record-checks-referrals-and-complaints#types-of-check. State on your website that you have this certification.

Ongoing professional development – attending seminars, workshops and courses all feed into your teaching experience, allow you to connect with other teachers, and demonstrate that you are a teacher who is enquiring and interested in keeping up to date with new trends in piano pedagogy.

Personal development as a pianist – taking lessons and attending courses, masterclasses and conferences, learning new repertoire, performing, demonstrating to students that study does not end at Grade 8; that it is an ongoing process

Extra-curricular activities – enhance and add value to the teaching experience for your students by organising concerts and encouraging them to enter competitions and festivals, attend concerts and visit museums with musical connections. Student concerts are a wonderful way of celebrating your students’ achievements and allow family and friends a chance to see how your students are progressing. They are also a way of showing that piano lessons and regular practise bring recognisable achievement and progress.

Feel in charge of your own professional destiny and maintain your integrit  – for example, setting fees which you feel reflect your value and experience; being honest about who you want to tell (you don’t have to take on everyone!), setting high expectations of yourself and your students; not resting on the laurels of exam successes.

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