This quote by English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, from a recent British newspaper article, has resonances with the philosophical statement “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course what Wigglesworth is referring to specifically is the lack of audiences for music this year, due to concert halls being closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In his article, he accepts that there has been plenty of excellent online music-making and performances, not to mention broadcasts of archive performances (for example, from the BBC Proms archive), but he makes the very important point that audiences contribute to the special atmosphere of concerts (something I have covered in a previous article), and provide “an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener”.

But does music really not “exist” if no one is listening to it being played? Of course not – and in fact, musicians are very used to playing without an audience: most of the time this is what they do when they are practicing.

Music is an act of communication whether playing to a live audience, recording equipment in the studio, or to oneself in the practice room or the comfort of one’s home. Wherever we play music –  to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home alone – we bring to life the dots and squiggles on the page, communicating the composer’s ideas.

Never underestimate the power of just playing music alone, of being able to explore a score by oneself. For virtually every musician, professional or amateur, this kind of playing is how we get to know the music intimately and through which we make the most interesting and intriguing musical discoveries. When we play alone, we play for and to ourselves, but this is still an act of communication. The player is also a listener – and if one is undertaking serious work on a piece of music, the act of communicating to oneself and feeding back on what one has heard is a crucial part of the process of practicing and refining.

There is, of course, another important aspect to playing alone and that is the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from playing without practicing – playing for the sheer pleasure of it, nothing more. At times like this, we revel in the sounds, the feel of the notes under the fingers, the physical and emotional responses the music provokes. Many of us have favourite pieces which we turn to for this kind of playing. This kind of playing is relaxing and therapeutic – a way to unwind after a busy day, or to de-stress; it is also precious, deeply intimate and personal. And for professional musicians, whose diaries are, sadly, still mostly empty, a curious benefit of the coronavirus lockdown is that many are rediscovering the joy of this kind of music-making, free from the pressures of the profession.

There is nothing more wonderful than hunkering down with a piano in splendid isolation, especially at night! – Howard, amateur pianist

Music exists the moment it emerges from the instrument, and never ceases to exist thereafter –  and someone is always communicating and listening, even if it is just the person who is playing…..


Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

Coach House Pianos is delighted to announce the opening of a ‘one of a kind’ piano showroom in London on 4 November 2020. The long established piano house has been providing outstanding service to Londoners for some time, but is now offering the largest choice of the highest quality pianos in the capital by creating the ultimate destination in Chelsea’s Design Quarter. Anyone looking to buy the ‘right piano’ will be able to choose from the world’s most famous piano brands in a relaxed atmosphere at the iconic Talisman Building on New Kings Road.

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The new world class showroom will have an outstanding choice of art cased grand and upright pianos on view to try before making the purchase of a lifetime. There will also be a custom design studio which allows clients to have input to personalize their new piano, or work with designers and manufacturers to create a unique and very personal statement piece. In addition, the showroom interior has been designed by Ken Bolan and furnished with fine art, 20-century designer furniture, antiques and objets d’art to create a truly unique atmosphere and ambience.

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Nick Rusling, Coach House Pianos’ founder, says: “We are very excited to be able to bring our expertise along with the most amazing choice of quality pianos that London has ever seen. The last few months have made everyone realise how important our homes and interests are, and we have seen a massive surge in desire to acquire better and more beautiful pianos for home environments. Our team pride themselves on being able to give unbiased advice within relaxed, homely surroundings in order to share our passion with you for pianos that are as unique as you are, both in tonal quality and aesthetic design for each individual home. There is hardly anything in the world today that carries forward the inspiration and joy of music and such happy memories like a wonderful piano. The piano has become more than just a musical instrument but a focal point of art and design within the home – maybe also a symbol of wealth and sophistication – but truly an investment in memories and moments far beyond monetary value for generations to come.”

Several of the world’s rarest, historic and most valuable pianos will be available to purchase, including brand new handcrafted Bösendorfer Vienna Concert art-cased pianos from Austria, widely considered to be the best pianos in the world. London’s own Bösendorfer Hall will be housed within the Talisman Building, which will also be the ideal venue for hosting regular online performances and – when regulations allow – live events. Other highlights include the latest hybrid ‘Silent’ pianos and stunning state-of-the art self-playing baby grand pianos for those wanting the ultimate status symbol of home entertainment operated from their smartphone.

Coach House Pianos regularly engage with renowned pianists and skilled piano teachers to hold concerts and workshops. The company works closely with many schools and colleges to provide them the all important diversity of choice of alternative piano brands that are best suited to their music departments, as well as organising a biennial inter-school piano competition and piano teacher conference.

Senior Education Manager David Halford says: “Pianos are incredibly complex instruments. This can make them daunting to our customers, but we want to remove this complexity and take away the uncertainty people have about buying, leasing and owning a quality piano. Our role is to reassure them by taking care of the detail, offering advice that helps them to make informed decisions and using our expertise to simplify and demystify regular jargon.

Piano advisor, pianist and second generation family member Daniel Rusling adds: “We literally have here the very finest pianos in the world – some of them ‘one off masterpieces’ built to incredibly high standards by skilled and committed craftsmen.

We are a family business dedicated to client satisfaction and love to see our pianos do the talking rather than any of us having to push a hard sell.”

Coach House Pianos London showroom is at The Talisman Building, New Kings Road, London SW6

www.coachhousepianos.co.uk

www.thepianistplatform.com

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(Source: press release from CHP)

Trio Sonorité’s programme took the listener back in time from a brand new piece to a Trio by Beethoven, via music by Milhaud and Colin Riley

The livestream concert has become a normal part of our musical life in this year of lockdowns and closed concert halls. Of course the format cannot replace a real live concert, with audience, but it does at least allow a greater number of people to access the performance, and also at a time which is convenient to the viewer.

It was good to have a distraction from the anxiety of the latest restrctions by government and Trio Sonorité’s concert from the lovely 1901 Arts Club provided the perfect diversion. I’ve attended many concerts and other events at this lovely, intimate venue, and its small size means that even without a live audience, it’s possible to enjoy a special closeness with the musicians. That Trio Sonorité really enjoy playing together was evident from this performance of an interesting and varied programme.

This trio, comprising clarinettist Özlem Çelik, cellist Daryl Giuliano and pianist Jelena Makarova, create diverse and intriguing programmes which combine new or lesser-known music with more familiar repertoire. The Trio also collaborates with living composers to premiere new works, and this concert opened with The Edge of Time by Lithuanian composer Rūta Vitkauskaitė. Originally scored for orchestra and choir, the piece has been reworked for the trio, and this world premiere performance included projected visuals by artist Aimee Birnmbaum. Music and visuals combined to create the overall narrative of the work.

Opening with a shimmering introductory section, the music progresses through different states and dimensions – from a punchy, rhythmic passage to a more dreamy section (with some particularly haunting interplay between the three instruments) – before reaching a major ending at The Edge of Time. The combination of instruments works very well here and each is given the opportunity to reveal their particular strengths and also use some extended techniques to create specific timbres and effects. It was an arresting and intriguing opener and demonstrated how well these three musicians cooperate as an ensemble.

This was followed by Darius Milhaud’s Suite Op. 157b for violin, clarinet and piano, arranged for cello by Daryl Giuliano. It proved a good contrast to the opening piece, with its appealing melodies and shifting moods, and Trio Sonorité gave a spirited, characterful performance.

Colin Riley’s Heads on Sticks followed, a piece premiered by Trio Sonorité in August 2019. Part of an ongoing set of lyric chamber pieces for small ensembles, it takes a small chord fragment from Kid A by Radiohead, interspersed with a lively rhythmic motif. A short, aphoristic piece which once again allowed all three instruments to reveal their individual and collaborative strengths.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Trio, Op 11, included in the programme to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.  An  early chamber work which employs what was then a novelty instrument, the clarinet, it opens with a bouncy, expansive first movement leading to an elegant, cantabile middle movement, and a finale of nine variations based on a popular aria. The overall mood of the work is urbane, relaxed and cheerful, with some playful, piquant touches – the perfect close to this interesting and varied concert, and Trio Sonorité gave an engaging and lively performance.


For more information about Trio Sonorité and their upcoming performances, follow them on Facebook and Twitter

When it’s a socially-distanced concert

I’ve been guilty of it myself, proudly trumpeting “this concert is now sold out!” for the events I have been promoting over the past two months (I work for a London-based arts organisation and a local concert series), and I know I’m not alone. For those of us who have been so bereft of live music this year – musicians, venue owners, promoters and of course audiences – the fact that live music, with audiences, has been able to resume is something to celebrate.

Government restrictions in response to coronavirus mean that venues cannot operate at full capacity, whether this is a church (capacity c80) or a major London venue (capacity c3000). Social distancing regulations require a certain amount of space to be allowed between audience members and in order to adhere to these regulations many venues are operating at less than half their normal capacity. Obviously, venues must be safe for audiences – if audiences feel safe they will come to events – but the maths is simple and very stark: fewer “bums on seats” means lower ticket revenues. And venues and concert promoters rely on this revenue in order to pay artists and cover the other costs of putting on concerts and running a venue. Additionally, venues are restricted regarding F&B service (Food and Beverages), in normal times a significant income stream.

So what to do? Obviously, venues and promoters, and of course musicians, are keen to welcome back live audiences – a concert is not really a concert without a live audience – but balancing the costs of presenting a concert against reduced ticket and other income is a significant headache.

If your venue is less than half full do you charge more than double the usual price for the tickets? Of course not. This would be unfair on audiences, and while a few would be prepared to pay more, to support venue and artists, many would be deterred by a hike in ticket prices and would choose to stay away. With current restrictions in place, many venues and promoters are struggling to break-even.

But for those of us who give or promote concerts, to be able to welcome audiences back through the doors once again is very important and I firmly believe that venues must, if they can, offer audiences something, within the limitations of coronavirus restrictions. Some venues are lucky to have generous patrons and benefactors or have benefitted from government handouts; others do not but are still willing to, in the medium term, take a financial hit and bring audiences back. But this scenario cannot last indefinitely and without proper ticket revenues, many venues and promoters will struggle, along with performing musicians.

The last properly sold out concert I attended before the first UK lockdown was at the Wigmore Hall at the end of February, when American pianist Jonathan Biss gave a thrilling performance of Beethoven Piano Sonatas (read more here). At the time, the coronavirus was not yet headline news; of course people were aware of it, and I recall a friend hugging me in the vestibule of the Wigmore before the concert and saying “oh, maybe we shouldn’t do that!” – and then we both laughed. The hall was full to capacity and the bars downstairs were busy and noisy as people enjoyed pre-concert and interval drinks and conversation. At the time, I didn’t know it would be the last live concert I would attend for seven months. When the Weymouth concert series, which I help to organise, resumed in October, we presented two shorter concerts to allow for a socially-distanced audience of reduced numbers (less than half our usual audience) and while the church looked sparse, it was wonderful to hear live music and also applause. We took the decision not to increase ticket prices and hoped to be able to at least cover our costs and pay our guest artist, without eating into our bank balance. We are fortunately in having low overheads, but we face similar difficulties to other concert organisers and promoters.

Times are tough once again for musicians as the UK is poised to enter another period of lockdown and live events must be suspended. Let us hope that the new year will bring more positive developments regarding the management of the virus, which will allow venues to operate more profitably.

Meanwhile, those of us who love live music can support artists and venues by buying concert tickets, to live and online events, and making a donation where possible.

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Header image by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

“my jump is not high enough, my twists are not perfect, I can’t place my leg behind my ear…..Sometimes there is such an obsession with the technique that this can kill your best impulses. Remember that communicating with a form of art means being vulnerable, being imperfect. And most of the time is much more interesting. Believe me.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov – ballet dancer

Music, like ballet, is a creative, artistic activity, but that creativity must be underpinned by secure technique – a range of mechanical skills, such as how we move our limbs, manage breathing and airflow, or control our embouchure, which enable us to execute musical ideas. These skills are developed and honed over time, and a large proportion of the musician’s training and practice is devoted to fine-tuning and maintaining their technical facility.

Musicians use a variety of means to practice technique, including scales and arpeggios, exercises, etudes and excerpts from the music currently being worked on. Technical skills require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.

Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which  to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire.

As the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says in the quote at the head of this article, “an obsession with technique can kill your best impulses”. The obsessive need to find perfection in one’s technique, coupled with the anxiety of achieving perfect arpeggio runs or intonation, can deaden musical and artistic expression, leading to performances which may be note-perfect and faithful to the score, but lacking in emotional depth and communication. In addition, this quest for technical perfection may lead to over-practicing and even injury. It can also rob us of curiosity and joy in our practicing and music-making.

“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
David Mamet, playwright & director

Technique must always serve the music – the two are inseparable – but if one becomes too obsessed with technique alone, one risks overlooking the expressive, communicative and emotional aspects in the music. A willingness to look beyond technique, to accept that perfection is unattainable (because we are all human), leads to greater artistry and imagination in our music-making, and allows us to play “in the moment”, creating performances which are spontaneous, exciting and memorable.


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Guest post by Amy Boyes

Especially loved in Canada, the music festival has been a fixture in our communities for decades. These are not the raucous music festivals held on lawns with big stages and four hundred portapotties that most people associate with the term “music festival.” These local competitions are hosted for the educational benefit of young performers.

Amy Boyes has adjudicated music festivals from as far east as Prince Edward Island and as far west as Manitoba. She teaches piano and theory in Ottawa, Canada.

In this guest post, Amy reflects on the sights, sounds and smells of rural Canadian music festivals while confronting out-dated practices. Both a love letter and criticism of competitive music festivals, Amy explores the history and transformative power of the music festival on developing musicians.   


“Your destination is on your right,” my phone chirps. And what a destination this old Anglican church is. Two thousand square feet of nave, chancel and vestry, capped with a turret and a bell tower, supported by buttresses in an otherwise residential neighbourhood cast long shadows over the street.

I shut off my phone’s GPS, step out of the car and look around. The morning air is fresh. Birds sing and runoff trickles from a grungy snow pile on the curb, down the street to the storm sewer. I step across an uneven concrete walk and, at the top of three steps, push open the church’s heavy wood door. Carved with a cross, the door hangs from decorative iron hinges. Despite my efforts to dull the effects of its automatic stopper, the door bangs shut.

“Good morning!” I cheerfully call to the volunteer at the admission table.

Music festivals are impossible to run without volunteers. Often seniors, these volunteers are reliable and dedicated. Unafraid of ice or cold weather, they do their bit. This particular volunteer looks nearly ninety, with paper-thin skin and a cardinal on her mauve sweater. I step around her table, heading to the main area where I expect to find the festival coordinator.

“Excuse me, Miss!” The volunteer waves a program at me frantically. “There’s an admission fee.”

I stop. “I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Amy Boyes, the adjudicator.”

“But you look too young to be an adjudicator!”

I smile and wonder how old I’ll be before my baby face has enough wrinkles to imply experience. What about the lines around my eyes? Don’t they scream “over thirty?” And if I look too young to do the job now, how many prime, productive years will I have before I look too old?

I step into the sanctuary, across thin red carpet to a desk wedged between the narrow wooden pews favoured by generations long gone. Creaky and uncomfortable though they be, pews give a certain grandeur, a reverential aura.

I find the festival coordinator and introduce myself in a low voice. We chat softly because the church is quiet. Dead quiet. As the two of us work out the details of marking, assessment sheets, certificates, and provincial recommendations, we use pianissimo voices, careful not disturb, not to give away secrets. My job is to be objective. I will listen, write comments, and give feedback. I will do my best to inspire, teach and encourage. I will be a guest teacher, of sorts.

But there’s another duty I’m not so fond of, that of judge and juror.


I sometimes wonder if by adjudicating I’m encouraging an outdated cultural attitude. The practice of identifying and rewarding young musicians is dangerously subjective. If I were to hear a class on two consecutive days, I might mark it differently. It’s just one performance, a tiny glimpse into a much larger picture. After all, I don’t know if the student began playing six months ago or has been playing for six years. I don’t know if the student has the making of something marvellous or will stop practicing forever two weeks from now.

I’m making a judgement that may be disregarded by the student or taken to heart for years to come. I can make them want to practice or I can make them never want to play again. I always hope they listen to my more constructive words, my kindest encouragements. But I never know.


Only a few people sit in the pews, just the four or five performers in the first class, flanked by parents and grandparents. But the tall ceilings and old wood act as an echo chamber for whispers and dropped books. Nerves are evident. Young performers are anxious about playing. The festival coordinator is anxious about the organization. I’m anxious the dreadful coffee I drank at the Days Inn at breakfast is going to finish my stomach.

The church is three degrees too cold, so coats are left on. Crinkly, polyester taffeta ski jackets; wool, slightly sweaty, pea coats; flannel plaid button-ups, with a few dog hairs clinging, in from the country—the coats remain. It’s only the first week of April after all, and it doesn’t matter if the festival is held in Moncton, Kingston, Boissevain, Moose Jaw, Red Deer, or Penticton, the church will be cold.

The church has a smell too, an elixir of dust, mould, old wood, and two week-past Good Friday dinner. Every church smells the same—United, Anglican, Presbyterian. Old church smell has ecumenical leanings.

I sit at the desk and begin signing certificates. As I scrawl, Amy Boyes, Amy Boyes, Amy Boyes, on one certificate after another, I imagine the back of my head being inspected. Do we like this adjudicator? I imagine people thinking. Perhaps last year’s adjudicator didn’t have much to say or too much to say. I picture them wondering if I’ll be amusing or if I’ll drone on and on about sonata form and compound metres.

At nine o’clock, the festival coordinator greets the assembled in a loud but welcoming voice. The festival coordinator is “thrilled” to introduce me. She may have had a sinking feeling at the sight of me, but she wears excitement well, like a good makeup job—brightening the eyes, widening the smile. She reads my biography, forging through degrees, institutions, associations and organizations like she practiced, which she may well have. During this recitation, I write cheerful comments on assessment sheets for performances yet to come: “Thanks so much for playing today!” or “What an enjoyable performance!” I write to distract myself from the banality of my biography and nagging self-doubt. Is that really all I’ve accomplished? What a thin biography. Never performed in Europe. Or the States. Didn’t study abroad either, for that matter.

The festival coordinator introduces Carl, an elderly gentleman sitting in the front row. Carl will announce the classes and performers. And so he does.

With a voice so profound in its depths that Sam Elliot’s would seem flippant in comparison, Carl recites the first class’s name and number, always a cryptic code filled with Ps and Ks. It’s a class of Baroque pieces. Grade 4.

“Olivia Reedman will now play ‘Rigadoon in A minor’ by Babell,” announces Carl.

Olivia knocks a hymn book off the pew rack as she makes her way from the very back of the sanctuary to the grand piano at the front of the room. She wears a sleeveless fuchsia frock with gold sequins, perhaps a recent Easter treat. On her feet, she wears bright green Sorel boots. Maybe her Sunday School shoes were forgotten at home in the early morning rush.

Olivia approaches the big and black piano with bold, gold letters, “Y A M A H A,” slowly, even reverentially. She mounts the bench and may find it too close to the keys for she looks at her little toes, jammed into the carpet, with panic in her eyes. The bench is heavy which seems to discourage her from moving it. Moving it might make noise and she’s likely terrified of that. Olivia lifts her hands onto the keys with a tentative gesture like she’s only just been given these hands and they are a bit new to her. With an E to A4 pickup, Olivia’s right hand begins with her left hand following two beats later.

BRIGHT! SHINY! LOUD! The sound seems to shock Olivia, for her head whips up and her eyes pop wide. Notes ping from the Yamaha then pong against the wood panelling in the back of the hall. The second phrase is to be played more quietly than the first, but Olivia plays the second phrase exactly like the first. It’s a stream of loudness, spirting from the open piano, spraying up into the open rafters, showering down on us.

Then new things happen. Repeated notes. Forte. More forte! The notes echo from the back wall like shots in the night. Olivia appears to panic. She speeds up. Then she must notice the hammers drilling up and down inside the grand piano, for she stares at the mechanism as she plays—up, down, hammer here, hammer there. Perhaps she’s never seen inside a grand piano before for she seems mesmerized. She’s making this huge, black beast work! All by memory! All with her own hands!

Suddenly, everything stops. And that’s it. The piece has ended.

Olivia slides off the bench looking slightly stunned. She faces the smattering of applause throughout the church, quickly dips her head in lieu of a bow, and then scampers back to her pew.

I applaud, then return to the assessment I’m writing, my pencil scratching in the now silent church. The performance was lovely, I quickly write. You have beautiful stage manners. Now, could you try to make a bigger difference in the volume between phrase one and phrase two? The two phrases are an echo of each other… a parallel construction with a slight twist on the second cadence. The ear needs contrasting dynamics. Could you also try to shape the loud, repeating notes in the second section? Again, an enjoyable performance. Good choice of tempo but aim for steadier playing. Nice memory work.

I nod at Carl, who has been steadily watching me. I’m ready for the next performer.


The first music festival in Canada took place in Edmonton, Alberta, in May 1908. Over two days, musicians from Edmonton and throughout the province competed at the MacDougall Methodist Church. The final evening’s mass choir concert saw over two thousand people packed into the charmingly-named Thistle Rink. Eager volunteers had decorated the walls with bunting and bear skins, of all things.

Undoubtedly it was a mixed event, staged long before the era of television and YouTube. A sample of Handel, for example, was followed by a rousing rendition of “Annie Laurie.” Mendelssohn; by “I Sing to Thee Songs of Araby.” Regardless, Alberta’s thirst for culture was evident and contagious. Following the successful 1908 event, music festivals sprung up across Canada. Alongside grain elevators and oil wells, lumber mills and fishing shacks, communities only boasting two struggling churches, a school, a post office and a grocery store mounted music festivals. These events were good for the students, and they were good for the town.

However, Canada’s oft-capricious weather often conspires against culture. In the dead of winter in Manitoba where I grew up, someone must blow snow out of the laneway, hope the municipality plowed the highway, start the four-wheel-drive truck, bundle everyone up and head to town in a howling blizzard. Whether it be for music lessons, coffee house performances, choir practices, band rehearsals, or music festivals, every trip to town is an investment. Every action is deliberate.

It is this deliberateness, however, that drove volunteers in Edmonton in 1908 to turn a curling rink into a concert hall and hang bear skins on the walls. It is what keeps music festivals alive today.


After all five students play, Carl asks them to come up to the front pew. They are more relaxed now, chatting and smiling at each other. They sit in the same order as they performed which is a god-send for me. I can never keep performers straight unless they’re in order.

Olivia Reedman. Emily Foster. Cayden Johnson. Xiao Chen, and Olivia Boyd. I review their names in the program as I walk to the front of the room.

“Well, what a treat it is to be with you all this morning!” I begin. I speak in the general direction of the performers in the front row, but with a loud enough voice to carry to the rest of the audience. None of the performers return my smile. They look wary, suspicious even.

This segment of the festival is generally my favourite part. I talk with the kids, asking questions about themselves and the pieces they play. I talk about key signatures, harmonic scales, leading tones. I work slowly—they are still quite young, after all, out of their comfort zones and likely feeling a bit stressed. I have to gain their confidence before they’ll respond.

“So what key this piece is in?” I ask, assuming the title of the piece, “Rigadoon in A minor” has illuminated them already.

I get blank stares, so I turn the score around and lower it to their eye level.

“Do you see a key signature?” I ask, pivoting the book slightly so everyone can see.

After a moment of excruciating silence, Emily says, “There isn’t any.”

“Very good, Emily!” I congratulate. “So what scales or keys only use the white notes?”

“C?” says the boy named Cayden with noticeable doubt in his voice.

“Absolutely!” I respond. “C major only has white keys.” I walk over to the piano and play a C major scale. “It sounds rather cheerful, doesn’t it?” I play it again and all the performers in the front row politely nod. “Now, let me play its sad cousin, A minor. It uses all the same notes as C major, but it begins on an A.”

I play the A minor scale in natural form and suddenly Olivia R. pumps her hand up into the air.

“I know now! I forgot before!”

“Go ahead, Olivia,” I say.

“Rigadoon is in A minor and it uses a G# because it’s in harmonic form which means you raise the 7th note of the scale!”

Most of the heads bob up and down enthusiastically. This was common knowledge after all. Everybody knows this stuff, I’m sure. We had to dig for it.

I push further. The G# disappears in the middle section as the piece modulates to the relative major, C major. Suddenly, the piece is lighter, brighter. Forte is marked as the tonality is uplifted, cheerful even. This section could be played more brightly.

I walk them through all the dynamic markings on the score, demonstrating a variety of sounds on the piano as I go. I ask for a volunteer and Olivia R. returns to the bench. I give her some suggestions for dynamic changes and phrase shaping. She makes an attempt and although the results are not wildly better than her initial performance, at least she’s worked with a new teacher and a different perspective, even for a few minutes. She smiles when she’s finished. Perhaps she enjoyed herself.

I’m already running two minutes behind schedule as I tack on a few words about the importance of a steady tempo and consistent articulation. Then I finish with my least favourite part—announcing a winner.

The practice of marking is subjective and outdated, a surviving feature from an era where all effort was quantified and marks were printed in the local newspaper. In reality, I know Olivia R.’s missed dynamics are no worse a sin than Cayden’s rushed tempo or Emily’s tiny memory slip, or Olivia B.’s detached legato line. All these errors are typical for a young performer. Anyone of these students, with consistent practice and good teaching, has the capability of becoming a solid, dependable performer. The concept of a winner at this stage is absurd. However, Xiao’s performance was as close to perfection as one hears at the elementary level. It was steady and clean, with well-shaped phrases and crisp, lively tempo. She probably practices twice as much as everyone else in the room and should be rewarded for her effort. She deserves a first place ribbon and the applause that comes with it. There’s nothing subjective about that.

I take a big breath and call out the results. Third place for Olivia Reedman. Second place for Cayden Johnson. First place for Xiao Chen.

There is enthusiastic applause from the audience and a mixture of expressions from the students. Elation. Disappointment. Typical reactions in competitions.

I hand out certificates and ribbons, congratulating and confusing names and books as I often do. We shake each other’s cold hands and I wish them a good day at school. They thank me and that’s it. One class down. A full week’s to go.


I return to the adjudicator’s table and signal the start of the next class. However, there’s a slight problem, I’m told. The first student is running late; their country road flooded this morning with spring runoff. They’re taking a circuitous route into town so that the student will perform at the end of the class.

No problem, I say, then smile. I picture myself, twenty-five years ago, being driven into a minuscule prairie town from a hog farm in rural Manitoba. Parka zippered over an Easter dress. Sunday school shoes under my arm. Bulky Sorels on my feet. Humming my little piece under my breath.

And so it continues.


profile_photoAmy Boyes is a private music teacher in Ottawa, Canada. Her time is split between teaching, examining, adjudicating, and writing. Her work has been featured in the American Music Teacher Magazine, the Piano Magazine (Formerly Clavier Companion), the Canadian Music Teacher Magazine, No Dead Guys Blog, Melanie Spanswick Blog, The Columbia Journal and The Humber Literary Review. Amy holds a Bachelor of Music from Brandon University, Master of Music from the University of Alberta and diplomas in piano performance and teaching from the Royal Conservatory and Trinity College, London. 

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