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

The late Jacob Lateiner (1928 to 2010) who was my teacher at Juilliard. He was an inspiration in more ways than one: as a pianist, a scholar, a collector, a gourmet, a connoisseur, and one smooth talker who could melt the heart of any woman (or so I imagine). Sometimes I wish everyone I know could have the chance of meeting Lateiner, who exerted such a big influence in my life and encouraged me to go down this rabbit-hole. Even now I still feel his presence; I step where he points.

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

Finding my own voice. Not so much about public speaking, though I do tend to speak during concerts, but in the sense of crafting a repertoire that best expresses my personal expressive character. Appreciation is very different from performing; I may appreciate many different composers but performing them convincingly is a whole other matter.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a deep affinity with the late romantics (the generations after Chopin/Schumann/Brahms) whose particular and eloquent way of writing for the piano transcends all language. They used the piano to express an endless spectrum of feelings, from unabashed romanticism to Parnassian intellectual probity, from Panglossian pessimism to spiritual elation.

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

I take inspirations from every corner of daily life. I tend to string together works that create a coherent idea for a programme, from single-composer to country-themed selections; more often I try to balance public tastes with serious historical or cultural elements. Planning a successful programme is one of the hardest parts of the job, as it requires creativity and immense knowledge. A good programme sells like a basket of fat olives, while a poorly constructed programme feels like a tangled tale.

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

I love a more intimate setting. I love the stage, and I am very comfortable on stage, big or small, but when I am physically close to my listeners I tend to be more emotionally spontaneous.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The most memorable experiences are always the best concerts and the worst venues. The best performances were those when I was completely “in the zone”. I was performing in France the poetic and impressionistic music of Louis Aubert, the pianist-composer contemporary of Ravel, when not even the most enticing French women audience (of which there were many) could have drugged me out of the “zone”. On the other hand I have had numerous concerts in less-than-desirable settings that I’ll always remember. Once I was performing in China on a piano with a rickety leg, and throughout the entire concert I was picturing different threatening scenarios and news headlines … “Pianist died during concert under a piano, literally”.

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

At the student level, learn as wide a repertoire as possible, from William Byrd to the latest sounds, from the Balkans to Buenos Aires. The next step is to find a unique voice and performing style, and specialize in it. Whenever possible, travel.

What are you working on at the moment?

Identifying the composition of grapes in different vintages of Spanish cava and from different producers. Also trying to work out my latest commission of a double-breasted suit with a Parisian tailor.

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

Alive, but not obsolete.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being interviewed.

What is your most treasured possession?

The lust for life and for beauty.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Meeting a patiently analysed situation with all the resources of thought.

What is your present state of mind?

Aching streaks of melancholy.

Ernest So performs works by Rachmaninoff and Gliere at the 1901 Arts Club on Friday 12th December as part of the South London Concert Series. Further details and tickets here

Critics have hailed Ernest So as a performer who exerts a “phenomenon presence on stage” and who “evokes the romanticism and technical brilliance of a 19th century pianist”.  Mr. So’s early manifestation as concert pianist brought prizes such as the Bes​t Performer A​ward in Singapore and later the Beethoven Trophy.  His years at the Juilliard School were spent under the artistic influence and instruction of renowned Beethoven scholar Jacob Lateiner (1928 – 2010); other teachers include Solomon Mikowsky, the late Constance Keene, and Jonathan Feldman.

Ernest So’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.ernestso.com

 

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing the legendary Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu. The concert took place in Reading, the place of my birth, and it felt strange to be returning, for the first time, to the city I left in 1969.

Radu Lupu (© Photo: Ivan Maly)

Because the train journey took over an hour, and I was meeting some friends at the concert venue, I decided to attend the pre-concert talk which was given by Chris de Souza, broadcaster, composer, music director and opera producer. Mr de Souza introduced Radu Lupu’s programme, which included Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata D894, the piece which would occupy the entire second half of the concert. Mr de Souza talked about the scale of the first movement (sometimes made, seemingly, more epic and expansive by the choice of tempo – Sviatoslav Richter’s being perhaps the most extreme, almost hypnotically slow) and how Schubert seemed to be exploring ideas about to present the piano sonata in a new way, perhaps in an attempt to free himself from the strong influence of composers such as Mozart and Haydn, and especially Beethoven. In a way, this Sonata, in particular its long opening movement, became the blueprint for the three final Sonatas (D958, 959 and 960) – and by the time Schubert came to write them he had come to a compositional conclusion about how to organise his material to create a long and compelling narrative which runs through all four movements of each Sonata and indeed connects all three Sonatas. The scale of these sonatas is extraordinary: the first movement of the D960 can take 20-25 minutes to play, around the length of an entire Beethoven sonata, and each work displays a huge variety of music and emotion.

In discussing the late Sonatas, Chris de Souza also mentioned the Impromptus, and described playing them as being akin to “driving across Canada”. This metaphor really resonated with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more while I listened to Radu Lupu’s exquisitely beautiful playing. In Lupu’s hands, with the opening movement of the D894 taken at a leisurely but never plodding moderato, one had the sense of traversing a vast landscape, but the journey was never tedious nor flat.

(Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian)

I have been working on the F minor Impromptu, the first of the D935 for some months now, in preparation for several concerts I am giving. Returning to practise the piece the day after the concert, the idea that this music was like “driving through Canada” kept returning and as I played I thought more and more about the journeys on which Schubert takes us in his music. The most obvious example, of course, is Winterreise, his turbulent song cycle completed just before he wrote the Impromptus and the late Sonatas. But in the Impromptus too there is a sense of a journey, from the chilly, bare G at the opening of the first of the D899 to the consoling warmth of the closing cadence of the A-flat Impromptu. In the D935, the sense of a narrative which runs through all four is even stronger –  Schumann suggested that Schubert had a sonata in mind when he wrote this set. The musical landscapes are highly varied, sometimes difficult to scale, with rapid shifts of mood and colour, sometimes within the space of a bar or two. As a performer, one has to be extra alert to these shifting landscapes, with an ability to carry the narrative flow from the opening bars to the final closing cadence. The word “impromptu” suggests a short, improvisatory salon piece, yet Schubert’s pieces are anything but. Tightly constructed and lengthy (the big F minor Impromptu lasts over 10 minutes), these are complex works which encompass the broad sweep of human emotion and experience. They are certainly not drawing room sweetmeats. It is worth noting that by the time Schubert wrote these works, and the final piano sonatas, he would have known he was dying, from syphilis, compounded by mercury poisoning (ironically, as the consequence of the “cure”). In early nineteenth-century Vienna, this illness would have made Schubert a social pariah. This sense of isolation and social taboo is very apparent in the music: without wishing to sound fanciful, it is as if Schubert is pouring every ounce of his personal angst, tinged with moments of pure joy and tender poignancy, into his music.

I have recently started work on the penultimate piano sonata, the D959 in A major. Here, the sense of traversing an epic landscape is even stronger than in the Impromptus, and Schubert uses motivic and structural signposts throughout the four movements to enhance this sense of a journey (for example, the opening measures of the first movement are reprised in the closing bars of the finale). In the Andantino (second movement) we return to the fremdling of Winterreise, the lonely traveler groping his way through a strange and confusing landscape, a sense of confusion which becomes even more apparent in the middle section, a psychotic fantasy which tells us a great deal about Schubert’s mental and physical health at the time of writing this extraordinary music. In the opening movement there are passages of great consolation, Schubert the songsmith coming to the fore, but these are offset by moments of almost schizophrenic hysteria. One’s duty as performer/interpreter is to find connections, within the individual movements, and the work as a whole, in order to lead the listener on a unique journey deep into Schubert’s musical landscape. It is some of the hardest music to interpret and play convincingly – yet also some of the most beautiful and rewarding.

Richter plays Schubert G Major Sonata, D894

This week I was delighted to attend the launch of an exciting new project celebrating the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, in particular his monumental and extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). The event was held at the beautiful Knightsbridge home of Lord and Lady Vernon Ellis, committed and active patrons of music and the arts. I was there as a guest of the pianist and director of the project, Cordelia Williams.

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s music has a special appeal and fascination for many musicians, musicologists, scholars and listeners. He composed the Vingt Regards in 1944 when Paris was still under Nazi occupation, yet his music is suffused with love, wonder, awe, joy, colour, quiet contemplation, passion and, above all, faith.  Messiaen drew inspiration from many sources (including many non-musical sources): colour, paintings by Durer, Michelangelo and the Surrealist artist de Chirico, birdsong, religious tracts, Buddhist philosophy, physics and the ancient rhythms of Hindu and Greek music and poetry. Yet, despite these complex and often profound inspirations, his music is accessible, full of variety and often incredibly beautiful and sensitive.

Between Heaven and the Clouds is a special collaboration between pianist Cordelia Williams, artist Sophie Hacker and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Three of Sophie’s paintings made in response to the three movements of the Vingt Regards which Cordelia performed, were on display on the stage around the piano, and the artist introduced the paintings, explaining her personal responses to the music. Michael Symmons Roberts introduced his poetry and talked about the extraordinary effect hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had had on him. His poems are a response to the music but also explore ideas of the birth of an exceptional infant in a city under occupation.

In the short concert, Cordelia performed three movements from the Vingt Regards – Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”), Noël (“Christmas”), and Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”) – and Michael Symmons Roberts read his poems which related to these movements. Cordelia’s playing displayed a deep affinity for the music – at once vibrant and sensitive, subtly nuanced to highlight the rich harmonic palette which Messiaen uses to highlight particular colours and timbres in chords. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie was an energetic expression of joy, with distinct hints of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Cordelia Williams

‘Between Heaven & the Clouds: Messiaen 2015’ is not just a series of concerts. As Cordelia explained in her introduction, the music will be explored through performances, art and poetry, as well as through talks, a study day and other events “to encourage cross-discipline collaboration between artists and academics”. The project will explore Messiaen’s compositional style, his historical and musical contexts, and his rich variety of inspiration. For those who love Messiaen’s music, this will be a rare treat. And for those who have yet to discover his music, it will be a wonderful introduction.

More about the project here

Cordelia Williams will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

Making Sense of Messiaen – an earlier blog post on the Vingt Regards

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

There was always a piano in the house, which we inherited from my great grandmother.  It was by no means a good instrument (quite a tired old upright) but I took to it immediately, apparently playing with both hands and picking out tunes before I began lessons as the age of 8.  I never practiced as such (at least not until I went to Chetham’s at 16), but just loved playing right from day one!

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

Bernard Roberts (my teacher at Chetham’s) lived and breathed music and was a constant source of inspiration.  He was a kind, warm person and never strict in the lessons – he really made me want to improve, but in a relaxed way and always with the pure love of music in mind.  Yonty Solomon at the RCM was also invaluable in my development.  He never talked about technique but the magic and colour in his playing is something I will never forget.

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

I found my first solo recording one of the greatest challenges so far.  I felt so uncomfortable when the red light went on, that it was such a stressful experience!  It taught me a lot about relaxation in performance and about the importance of focusing on the music, not just on accuracy!  Now having a few recordings under my belt, I feel much more relaxed in the studio and actually quite enjoy it.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

It’s always difficult to listen to one’s own recordings, but I am particularly satisfied with the two-volume set (on SOMM) I did with Hiro Takenouchi.  There are several world premieres of Delius works in arrangements for two pianos, recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  I thoroughly enjoyed discovering these wonderful works and the two piano arrangements (while not coming close to replicating the orchestral sonorities) provide a special clarity and transparency.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing works by composer-pianists of the twentieth century, especially Rachmaninoff.  I’ve performed the Third Piano Concerto a number of times and despite the infamous technical challenges I feel at home in this repertoire and while I strive with every performance to find something better, Rachmaninoff’s world is one in which I always feel welcome.  At the other end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early chamber works (especially the cello sonata and trios) provide such excitement and inspiration that they are always a joy to perform.

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

I guess this largely depends on who I am collaborating with (I play a lot of chamber music) and the requirements of concert promoters.  I have been part of a number of ‘composer immersion’ projects in recent seasons, such as a complete cycle of Brahms chamber music, all the Beethoven trios etc – a wonderful way to get inside the musical ‘journey’ of these great composers.  I also try to always include an element of lesser-known repertoire in all my performances so new ideas and discoveries feature high on my list of priorities when planning future concerts.

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

I have played in a number of wonderful halls (particularly the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall), but probably my favourite so far is Symphony Hall in Birmingham.  Despite being such a large venue, the feeling on stage is an intimate one and not at all intimidating, and the acoustic is the most satisfying of any of the larger halls I’ve played in.  St John’s Smith Square comes in a close second, with one of the finest Steinways ever!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I listen to quite a variety of music (not only classical but even – dare I say it – some musical theatre!) However as I spend most of my waking hours involved in music performance or teaching, I do appreciate silence when I am relaxing!  I love listening to the great orchestral repertoire (especially Mahler Symphonies) and opera also provides wonderful inspiration.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I have always admired Martha Argerich – I once commented to one of my teachers that watching her performances had taught me more about technique and musicality than any of my teachers – I don’t think this went down so well!  I’ve been to quite a number of her live performances and am always struck by the way she communicates raw emotion and energy, and by the fact that she is so humble in person.  For me, she epitomizes the musician as communicator.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There have been so many!  That said, I particularly enjoyed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto a few years ago with a wonderful amateur orchestra in London, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra.  I love performing – especially in chamber music and concertos – and the performances with amateur groups have often been the most satisfying.  I’ve played with some wonderful amateur orchestras and the fact that the musicians are there out of choice rather than to earn money means that they are constantly striving for higher standards and love every moment – something that is quite infectious!

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

Having recently returned from three weeks teaching on a course for 14-18 year olds, one thought that is very much on my mind right now is that aspiring musicians must learn how to listen to their own playing.  We spend a good deal of time playing and of course we hear the sounds, but how often do we actually listen and analyse the sounds we are producing?  I often encourage my students to record their performances and they are frequently shocked by what they hear!

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am working on some interesting repertoire for a new solo album – further details to be announced soon!  I am also learning some new piano quartets (Walton, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré, Mozart) and revising the Franck Quintet for a performance with the Edinburgh Quartet later this year.  Next year is Scriabin’s anniversary year and as such I will be playing his concerto in several performances, so this is also on my long practice list!

You have been Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts since 2008.  Tell us more about this.
As I had no experience whatsoever at the outset, it was a steep learning curve and was so grateful to be given the opportunity to see the music business from the other side!  The concert series has gone from strength to strength and we now programme around 27 concerts per season by some of the finest chamber music groups around.  We also have generous support from several distinguished patrons including Timothy West and Prunella Scales and pianist, Stephen Hough.  Working at Conway Hall is hugely challenging as well as rewarding, but I greatly value this variety in my career.

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

Doing exactly what I’m doing now, but at an even higher level and performing even more often.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A life in which I can enjoy what I love most – making music – and with plenty of time for relaxing and spending time with people close to me, and my beloved dachshund, Fergus!

What is your most treasured possession? 

Probably my Steinway Model D.  It’s a great instrument and constantly maturing, so makes practicing a pleasure!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

When not performing, I enjoy eating!  I love discovering new cuisines, and spend rather too much money on eating out at exquisite restaurants.

What is your present state of mind? 

Excited.  I’m discovering lots of new repertoire at the moment – it’s always great to have this freshness.

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts

Recognised as an exciting performer of the new generation, Steinway Artist Simon Callaghan’s recent schedule has included Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. His engagements have taken him all over the UK, throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. He has also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, ITV and BBC Television. In September 2013 he took up the Anthony Saltmarsh Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

Following his highly successful release of English piano music on the Belgian De Rode Pomp label (featuring several world premières), Simon Callaghan’s collaboration with SOMM Recordings began in 2012 with two volumes of Delius Orchestral Music in arrangements for two pianos, with Hiroaki Takenouchi. Receiving great critical acclaim, the BBC Music Magazine commented that “Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi… play with such love, panache and exact synchronisation.” Simon’s burgeoning relationship with SOMM has led to two further volumes of Brahms chamber music with award-winning cellist James Barralet, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and violist Hannah Strijbos (including the first recording of all the Hungarian Dances in Barralet’s arrangement for ‘cello and piano). He also recorded a highly-acclaimed disc of violin sonatas with Midori Komachi and will release a further solo album in spring 2015.

Simon Callaghan’s busy performing schedule has included two residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), rare performances of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and the Third Concerto of Nikolay Medtner (the first in the UK since 1946). He has also collaborated with Prunella Scales, Ilona Domnich, Timothy West, Jack Liebeck, Thomas Gould, Raphael Wallfisch and the Maggini, Sacconi, Carducci and Coull Quartets in a broad range of repertoire. Simon is a founder member of the Werther Ensemble, brought together at the inaugural Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2013. Recent and forthcoming projects for this ensemble include recitals throughout the UK, a complete cycle of the chamber music of Brahms, a return to the Whittington Festival playing works by Mendelssohn and a three-concert series at St John’s, Smith Square, exploring the jewels of the piano quartet repertoire. Together with pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Simon is also part of the Parnassius Piano Duo, which has a particular interest in championing lesser-known English works, particularly those of Parry and Sterndale Bennett.

As a teacher, Simon is Head of Piano of the Ingenium Music Academy (Winchester), a member of the faculty at Harrow School, and has given masterclasses around the world, most recently in Malaysia and Thailand. He is also Artistic Director of the renowned Conway Hall Sunday Concerts (London), the longest-running chamber music series in Europe. Alongside this work he is co-producer of MusicUpClose, a highly successful series in collaboration with sound collective, introducing non-musicians to the world of classical music. Following his studies at Chetham’s School of Music with Bernard Roberts, Simon was awarded a full scholarship to study with Yonty Solomon at the Royal College of Music, from where he graduated with first class honours and won numerous prizes.

simoncallaghan.com

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

IMG_0085

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.