London Piano Festival 2016 – a feast of five-star pianism

I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend some of the events and concerts at the inaugural London Piano Festival, conceived and directed by pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen. For the opening edition of the festival, the directors invited artists who they admired and worked with personally. As Charles and Katya stated in the Festival programme:

“Pianists met each other far too rarely in the real world, mostly at auditions and competitions when we take our first steps in the music profession, and then at each other’s concerts. The professional soloist’s life is, by its very nature, a demanding and often solitary one. [The festival] is especially designed to bring these soloists together…..”

And it was perhaps a mark of the organisers’ success in achieving this aim that so many eminent pianists and music lovers were in the audience for the concerts, including Stephen Hough and Alexandra Dariescu, amongst others.

Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen

The festival was held in the stylish, contemporary concert spaces at London’s Kings Place, fast becoming a popular hub for culture and arts in the newly-redeveloped area around King’s Cross station. The sense of “music by friends and for friends” was very clear from the warm atmosphere in and out of the concert halls, and the two-piano gala concert on Saturday evening, which was at the heart of the festival, was a wonderful celebration of musical friendship and collaboration. I attended two concerts with pianist friends, always enjoyable as we discussed what we had heard during the intervals and after the events. As one of my pianist friends remarked when I met her for the two-piano gala concert, “I feel completely intoxicated by music!”. I can think of no better endorsement for this wonderful weekend of piano music.

My reviews are on the site – follow the links below to read them:

‘Liszt’s b minor Sonata – from exuberance to asceticism’: lecture by Alfred Brendel and performance by Denes Varjon

A feast of phenomenal pianism: two-piano gala concert



Meet the Artist……Jakub Hruša , conductor


(photo credit: Zbynek Maderyc)

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

There were lots of influences. Examples of many famous and less famous conductors. Among all, I’d mention the American Leonard Bernstein and in my own country Jiří Bělohlávek, whose conducting I could observe personally. It happened when I was a teenager. I found out for myself then that I wanted MUSIC to be a central point of my life. My psyche and specific talents somehow indicated conducting would be the best path, although at that time I could imagine to go into many other professions.

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

Definitely my parents and grandparents at first (even though no one in my family is a professional musician), then my music teachers (especially my trombone and other brass instruments teacher at a primary art school Jiří Vrtek who was also a very skilled and passionate leader of many sorts of wind bands in which I played already as a kid), then the conductor of my student symphony orchestra in Brno Tomáš Krejčí who gave me my first, highly desired conducting opportunities and found me a conducting teacher – and finally aforementioned Jiří Bělohlávek with whom I studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague after I had graduated from what we call “gymnasium” (a grammar school in English). And obviously a lot of splendid (and less splendid) recordings – LPs, cassettes, later CDs.

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

There is a lot of details which I cannot mention. Difficult to choose. Some of my “jump-in” experiences (Carmen or La bohème without rehearsals), some of the difficult operas, even if rehearsed (Mihalovici’s Krapp or The Last Tape, for example), some of the contemporary premieres (lately Olga Neuwirth’s percussion concerto Zero-Zone, for instance), first Le Sacre also wasn’t as easy. These particularities shouldn’t cover the substantial challenge, though: to find the most direct and inspirational way how to communicate with every orchestra one leads so that both the players and the audiences are enriched and happy…

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I think both Má vlast recordings I’ve made so far – the first with The Prague Philharmonia, taken live in 2010 at the Prague Spring Festival, and the second the brand new now with the Bamberg Symphony – are both quite representative. That’s as for recordings. I cannot say about the performances. There were too many (and too many details!) which I really loved. I was rather proud as I graduated ambitiously from the Academy in 2004, performing my beloved Asrael Symphony by Suk by heart. I kind of tasted where my abilities could go.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Works with great intelligence and highly emotional contents.

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

It’s always a complex decision. I’m personally putting a great deal of new pieces for me to learn each season, to make progress in my knowledge (and enjoyment) of a wide repertoire. “My” orchestras (such as Bamberg now) have their own portfolios with which I’m working closely and sensibly. As soon as the main focuses are clear, I’m also trying to enable myself (and my orchestra[s]) to get deeper in the pieces – and that means repeating them, also at various places. And I have been trying to find the right balance for years now between orchestral stuff and opera. Some seasons are more operatic, some less. (I think my programmes are very well balanced in terms of Czech/Slavic/European/international music now. The same for all possible styles, even if, roughly put, years 1750–1950 prevail.)

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

Several of them. I would definitely mention some of the older halls in Europe and America, above all my national “home” at Rudolfinum in Prague, Musikverein in Vienna, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or Severance Hall in Cleveland. And then some of the newer marvels: Suntory Hall in Tokyo and the Symphony Hall in Osaka, Philharmonie in Berlin, Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the new Helsinki Music Centre, the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall… I like my professional home in Bamberg, too. And I’m looking forward to performing at the Philharmonie in Paris where I haven’t been on stage yet. I liked it in the audience a lot.

Who are your favourite musicians?

So many that it wouldn’t fit on one page.

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

Never to stop working hard – but in a relaxed manner. And to be personal – without wilfulness.

What about your new position at Bamberg excites you the most?

The amazing and open-minded musicality of the players there – combined with great characters (in playing/music and in psychology). And the city’s devotion to culture.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A complete balance – of mind (brain), emotions and spiritual connections, of work and doing nothing, of pleasing myself meaningfully and serving others, of Dionysian and Apollonian……And that also accompanied by sounds of blissful music.

Born in the Czech Republic and described by Gramophone as ‘on the verge of greatness’, Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of Bamberg Symphony, Permanent Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO), and served as Music Director and Chief Conductor of PKF–Prague Philharmonia from 2009 to 2015.

He is a regular guest with many of the world’s greatest orchestras. Recent highlights have included Bohemian Legends and The Mighty Five – two major series specially devised for the Philharmonia Orchestra; a two-week focus on Martinů and Roussel for Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France; and performances with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, Vienna Symphony, DSO Berlin, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last season, he made his débuts with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Filarmonica della Scala.




Less is more: Marginal gain learning

“Marginal Gain Learning” (MGL) is a training concept employed by the British cycling team which has reaped brilliant rewards, as their success in both the London and Rio Olympics has demonstrated.

The concept was developed by the team’s coach Dave Brailsford, who believes that by breaking down and analysing every tiny aspect of a cyclist’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area, the cyclist’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. This approach included obvious things like adjustments to the cyclist’s diet, the weekly training regime, the ergonomics of the bicycle seat. But it also included tiny, less obvious details such as the kind of massage gel the cyclists used, or the thickness of the fabric of their racing skinsuits. Brailsford and the team searched for 1% improvements everywhere and this approach resulted in Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012, the first British cyclist to do so, Chris Froome winning it in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and an impressive medal haul by Britain’s track cyclists at the London and Rio Olympics.

This “aggregation of marginal gains” approach is incredibly simple and very effective – as Team GB’s success attests – and it can be used in any learning/teaching environment as it is highly adaptable and easy to implement. In short, it provides a tool for sustained improvement: from musicians looking to improve their overall performance, to students improving their learning and teachers enhancing their pedagogical skills. I have used concepts drawn from MGL in my teaching and also in my own practising and performing.

Learning music is hard: from the junior student faced with just three or four lines of music to the advanced pianist embarking on a full-length piano sonata or multi-movement work, the learning and upkeep of all those notes is a daunting prospect and requires many hours of consistent, thoughtful practise. For me, MGL is a way of “being kind” to yourself as a musician while also enabling one to practise and process music in a meticulous and mindful way. The trouble is, we tend to define achievement through one significant moment – learning a whole page or movement of a piece of music, for example – and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis which accumulate to create a significant whole.

For the musician, the MGL approach can reap important rewards. As a teacher, I encourage students to focus on very small aspects of their pieces at a time. We might take a single phrase and look at things such as shape, dynamics, articulation, mood. Each aspect is examined, played, evaluated, adjusted and re-evaluated. The various elements are then gradually aggregated and eventually the student plays the whole phrase with all the elements present. What might appear to be an overly nitpicking approach results in the student gaining security in the all notes and nuances of that phrase. And anything learnt in one phrase or section of a piece of music can be applied elsewhere, within the same piece or in other works. In this way, one creates a “knowledge bank” of information and details in music, while the process of MGL becomes almost habitual through repeated use. Because the student has been encouraged to work through this process slowly and carefully, they gain confidence in their abilities to apply the knowledge gained elsewhere in their music without constant reiteration from the teacher.

In order to achieve this, brain, eyes and ears must be engaged at all times – and it’s amazing how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves as they play! – to assess what one sees and hears and to make small adjustments based on that judgement. Evaluation, reflection, adjustment and re-evaluation are important elements in the process and I am careful to ensure that students understand what they are doing and why. What is so satisfying about this method is that it produces noticeable progress through small increments which aggregate to create meaningful overall improvement. It also enables students to work (practise) independently because they have the knowledge and confidence to understand what needs to be practised and how. Thus, they come to their next lesson knowing they have made progress, which is one of the best motivators I know to continue practising!

I use the same approach in my own study and learning of complex/advanced repertoire and have found that it results in my ability to learn music more quickly and more accurately. It has made me more alert to the details and subtleties in a score, which in turn allows me to play with greater confidence, expression and musicality. I find the process of evaluation, reflection and adjustment deeply satisfying as the rewards are consistent and noticeable. The MGL concept can be applied in performance too as one makes small adjustments, evaluations and improvements each time the programme is performed.

On a more general level, one can apply MGL to aspects such as warm up exercises, noticing and reacting to tension when one plays, practising a phrase slowly and relishing the beauty of it, and playing in a non-judgemental way. The positive adjustments one makes are small but significant, and in this way MGL complements a mindful approach to practising and playing.

Mindfulness and Piano Playing


U is for……

letteruUna Corda

Una Corda is the direction to the pianist to apply the left-hand or soft pedal. The function of the soft pedal was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the piano had evolved to have three strings on most of the notes. When the una corda pedal was applied, the action of the piano would shift so that only one string was struck – hence the words “una corda”, or “one string”.

On a modern grand piano the strings are placed too closely to permit a true una corda effect: the left-hand pedal shifts the whole action, including the keyboard slightly to the right, so that hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. The resulting sound is softer and also has a duller quality due to the two strings being struck making contact with a part of the hammer felt which is not often hit and which is therefore slightly softer in density, creating a different quality of sound. On an upright piano, the mechanism is arranged so that when the left-hand pedal is applied, the resting position of the hammers is moved closer to the strings so that they have a shorter distance to travel and therefore the strings are struck with less force, creating less sound.

While the una corda pedal can be used to achieved wonderfully soft, muted and veiled effects in piano music, it is not simply a “quiet pedal”, any more than the right-hand, sustaining pedal is the “loud pedal”, and just as there are “degrees” of sustaining pedal, depending on the repertoire, so the una corda can be depressed in a variety of ways to create multi-faceted musical colours and sonorities. As with all pedalling, an acute ear, practise, discretion and experimentation will lead to greater confidence and expertise, resulting in truly wonderful effects.

Here is Beethoven giving very specific directions in the use of the una corda pedal: he stipulates lifting the left pedal so gently that only bit by bit are all the strings sounding again – only two initially and ultimately all three again:nbs-4




An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. (Wikipedia)

The source materials for Urtext editions include the composer’s autograph (the manuscript produced in the composer’s hand), hand copies made by the composer’s students and assistants, the first published edition and other early editions. Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music, and interpretive editions, which offer the editor’s personal opinion on how to perform the work.

Urtext scores came into being as a reaction against the many (and often incorrect) editorial liberties which were taken when editing and publishing music. Phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and sometimes even the notes themselves were altered as the editor saw fit, and so long as it made musical sense, this kind of editing was considered acceptable. Editors guilty of this kind of tampering include Busoni (in Bach) and von Bülow, amongst many others. These days, the urtext score is a must-have for the serious student, teacher or performer, offering as it does a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful record of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

I still have my old ABRSM editions of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions and “the 48”. Heavily annotated by the ABRSM’s editors, the manuscript is distorted with the kind of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation markings which would probably horrify Bach.  In an urtext score, particularly a Baroque urtext score, the absence of performance directions offers the performer choice, versatility and expression.

Urtext editions, in particular those produced by established music publishers such as Henle, Wiener and Barenreiter, tend to be high-quality publications, with detailed and insightful prefaces and notes, descriptions of sources (usually in German, English and French), useful fingerings, and aesthetically-pleasing design values: durable bindings, heavy cream paper, and clear music engraving optimised for efficient page turns. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, resources such as Piano Street and IMSLP also offer urtext editions in their catalogues.


Henle Verlag

Wiener Urtext


Edition Peters

Dover Publications


Meet the Artist……Lucia Caruso, composer and pianist


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? 

My father, Alberto Caruso, was a surgeon and the son of an Italian violinist, my grandfather Salvatore Caruso (both my paternal grandparents were Italians from Calabria). He took me to my first piano recital when I was four, then to my first opera, ‘Rigoletto’, when I was six. I grew up listening to classical music at home and going to concerts thanks to my father and my mother, who is also a doctor, and she enjoyed listening to Bach and Mozart while looking at the microscope. My parents told me that when I was a baby, they put me to sleep listening to Chopin Nocturnes. My grandfather used to play the violin for quite a lot when I was a child, and I listened to him for hours delighted. I inherited his violin, the most precious possession he took to Argentina, when he emigrated before World War II started.

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

As a pianist, I have always been very influenced by Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires, and Sviastoslav Richter. My first piano teacher was a big influence too, Gustavo Gatica, with whom I studied for about ten years until I moved to New York. Even now, I still think of everything he taught me when I practice or teach piano to others.

As a composer, my strongest influence has been Portuguese composer and guitarist Pedro Henriques da Silva, my husband. I had my first composition lessons with him when we were just friends, and he prepared me to audition for my masters in composition and film scoring at New York University, where he eventually became a member of the composition and film scoring faculty. I learned the most of composition, counterpoint and orchestration with him. Pedro, in his doctorate thesis, compiled more than two thousand modes and scales from all around the world, which I use a lot in my compositions. I learned a great amount of world music and how to compose including many unusual world instruments with their exotic tunings. Pedro has a collection of 25 plucked string instruments from different parts of the world, which certainly influenced my music. For example, I based a few of my compositions on the magical sound of the open strings of the Portuguese guitar (D-A-B-E-A-B), an instrument that is normally just used to play fado music from Portugal.

Film Composer Miklós Rózsa was a huge influence in the way I write my melodies, the modes I use with their modulations, and in the way I orchestrate. He is the film composer I admire the most, especially for his music for the biblical epics of the 50s and 60s. The scores to ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘King of Kings’ were the reason I decided that my life would be music and made me fall in love particularly with the idea of being a film composer. I even started dreaming then that I could be able to make my own films. I was 12 when I discovered Miklós Rózsa, and I feel he opened the door to the film world for me. Tchaikovsky is also a big melodic and orchestral influence in my compositions. Ravel and Liszt would be probably the strongest influence in my piano writing. Ravel is also my favourite orchestrator to learn from, especially for his brilliant orchestral special effects.

My film scoring teacher Ira Newborn during my masters at New York University was a very important influence in my scoring techniques. Ira wrote the scores to ‘Ace Ventura’, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, and ‘Naked Gun’, among others.

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

Balancing being a composer and being a performer is always a challenge. But the biggest challenge of all has been how to describe the style of music Pedro and I compose. To classify it in a genre has always been a challenge. So, after many years of trying to fit our music into a style I came up with the idea that I needed: to create my own musical style: “Transclassical Music”. I coined this term to describe exactly the kind of music that my husband and I compose and mostly perform with the chamber orchestra that we founded together in New York: the Manhattan Camerata. Pedro and I work most of the time as a team, I am the Artistic Director and Pedro is the Music Director of the Manhattan Camerata, being both the founders of the ensemble. Transclassical Music, is music that is grounded on classical techniques of performance and composition with the influence of elements from different cultures from all around the world, including improvisation and world instruments. The Manhattan Camerata is the first chamber ensemble to perform Transclassical Music.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I am very proud of the recording I did together with my husband of our orchestral music with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the Abbey Road Studios in London 2012. Besides having our compositions recorded, we also played as soloists on our works for piano and orchestra, and Portuguese guitar and orchestra, respectively. These compositions were commissioned by the Ahae foundation.

Another recording I’m very proud of, is the one Pedro and I did together of two commissioned film scores for full orchestra and choir for two of Georges Méliès’s masterpieces: “Joan of Arc” and “Trip to the Moon”. We recorded the two film scores with an extended version of the Manhattan Camerata to make it a full orchestra, together with Voices of Ascension, one of the best choirs in New York City. We composed the scores together, however the score of “Joan of Arc” is a little more mine and “Trip to the Moon” is more Pedro’s. We recorded at one of the best studios in the U.S., the Dolan Studios at the New York University.  We have the mission to score as many films as we can from 1928 and earlier, because since they were silent films they did not have a score composed for them. We want to help to revive many lost, forgotten, undiscovered, or damaged masterpieces, through music. The idea is to bring old films back to life with newly composed scores, so they can be projected again in theatres. This is one of our main goals with the Manhattan Camerata. Maria H. Connor was the executive producer of this project and recording, with Pedro being the music producer.

I am very proud as well of our latest album of our Tango Fado Project with the Manhattan Camerata. We recorded it also at the New York University Dolan Recording Studios and it was executive produced by Maria H. Connor, and the music producer was Pedro. We had special guests artists: Nathalie Pires, one of the best fado singers of our generation; legendary Daniel Binelli, one of the best living Bandoneon players, who used to perform alongside Piazzolla and Aníbal Troilo, the great masters of Argentinean tango; and Polly Ferman, Uruguayan virtuoso pianist and musical ambassador of the Americas. Pedro and I also perform as soloists on the album, with him on Portuguese and classical guitars, and me on piano. The album was taken by the Sorel Classics label and by Naxos  for international distribution. We are extremely proud of this recording.

I am very proud of two performances at the Versailles Palace of our compositions with a string quartet formed by members of the Orchestre the Paris and the then assistant concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, Tomo Keller, as first violin. The first one of these performances was on June 23rd 2013 and the second one on September 9th 2013. Another performance I am very proud of, is the one we performed of other works of ours with the same string quartet at the Louvre Museum in Paris on June 26th 2012. In most of these compositions, Pedro and I performed alongside the string quartet with me on piano and harpsichord and Pedro on Portuguese and classical guitars. Pedro and I also performed at the Kew Palace in London together with violinist Tomo Keller on August 25th 2011. Totally unexpectedly, they gave me a harpsichord instead of the piano I had asked. So the day of the concert I had to just think fast and rearrange the whole repertoire to be able to play what I could and I improvised solo harpsichord pieces and in duet with Pedro on the Portuguese guitar. Since that day I got new commissions to compose for the harpsichord and I started my studies of harpsichord with one of the most respected harpsichordist of America, Kenneth Hamrick.

Most of our compositions performed at all these concerts I just mentioned, were commissioned by the Ahae Foundation to accompany his photographic exhibit that took place in many countries in the world, including the Louvre Museum and Palace of Versailles in France, Kew Palace in London, Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and Magazzini del Sale in Venice.

I am also very happy to perform and donate my concerts as a fundraiser to the Breast Cancer Foundation “Fundafem”, in Mendoza, Argentina, whose president is Dr. Francisco Gago. The first concert for this foundation was at the Independencia Theatre, the most important theater in Mendoza, Argentina, on May 14th 2014.

Lastly, I am particularly happy about the two concerts we did with the Manhattan Camerata of our Tango Fado Project at Kennedy Center in Washington DC on March 13th 2015 and at Lincoln Center in New York City on August 3rd 2016.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have a great affinity with Mozart, his piano concertos, especially No.13 K415 and No.20 K446. The same goes for Mozart sonatas such as the ones in G Major K.283 and C Major K. 330.

I would say that Debussy’s ‘Estampes’, Chopin ‘sBallade No 1, Ginastera Tres danzas argentinas, Grieg Piano Concerto, Beethoven Sonata No 6, are among the pieces I perform best.

But in the last several years, I have focused on performing my own compositions and Pedro’s, and those are the pieces that I always have ready in my fingers, and if you to ask what pieces I play best, I would have to say that it is our works.

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

I plan according to the concerts I have to play. I mostly perform my own works because of the limited time I have to learn new repertoire besides all the composition commitments I have.

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

Yes, I love performing at le Poisson Rouge and in Lincoln Center in New York City, and at the Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Le Poisson Rouge has one of my favorite sound systems and a great piano. I also love the nature of the venue, which is quite creative and multicultural. It looks like a jazz bar or restaurant with tables where you can eat and drink while you enjoy the show, but you don’t necessarily listen to jazz or music that would suggest that kind of ambience. You can listen from classical to any other style of music there. This is for me one of the perfect ways to enjoy classical music: in a more relaxed and enjoyable environment than in a strictly serious one. I love to listen to classical music while enjoying a glass of wine, and not always sitting stiffly in a concert hall. When we perform there, the set up of the tables and the stage creates an intimacy that connects the audience with the performer in a very Close and warm way. It is also located in the heart of the West Village in Manhattan, one of the most alive neighborhoods of the city.

Lincoln Center is just one of the best venues I’ve ever performed in. Great acoustics, fantastic piano, great stage, huge, perfect for a big audience. Another special place where I love to perform is at the music room in the Monserrate Palace in the middle of the Sierra of Sintra (20 minutes from Lisbon) in Portugal. This last one is my favorite in terms of Magic. The room is round and has a gorgeous cupola with the most astonishing decoration, including busts of the nine muses and famous female poets all around it. The acoustics makes the sound go up and swirl around you and everything sounds even more beautiful. It is impossible not to get crazily inspired…This room has one of the best Steinway pianos I have ever played, which belongs to my dear British friend Emma Gilbert. Before Emma owned this piano, it previously belonged to Vianna da Motta, one of the most important Portuguese composers of the 19th century, and a disciple of Franz Liszt. It is a big honor for me to play on that piano. I feel it has a soul and has become one of my closest friends. I don’t only perform at the Monserrate Palace, but I also compose there most of the time when I’m in Portugal (my husband is Portuguese and I have also adopted the Portuguese nationality by marriage, that’s why I often visit). The fact that this palace is kind of hidden in the middle of the forest of the Sierra of Sintra, most of the time surrounded by a fantastical fog, typical of the sierras, it makes the whole experience absolutely magical. The Monserrate Palace is one of my favorite places to work in the world.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

From the standard classical repertoire I love to perform Mozart concertos, I would actually love to play all of them if I had the time. I also love to perform early Beethoven sonatas, Chopin Ballades No 1, 2, and 4; Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’ Op.9, Schumann ‘The Prophet Bird’ from Waldszenen op.84.

But lately I’ve been more focused on performing my works and Pedro’s works. We’ve been composing difficult music that requires all our focus, such as a piano concerto, other works for piano and orchestra, and chamber and solo pieces that often include difficult virtuosic writing. I love creating something that I will enjoy performing.

I love listening to Medieval and Renaissance music a great deal, some of my favourite pieces of the period being “Viderunt Omnes” and “Beata Viscera” by Pérotin; Cantigas de Santa Maria (12th C.), “Moro lasso al mio duolo” by Gesualdo; Dowland’s “Lachrymae”; Tallis’s “Spem in alium”; and I love everything by Josquin des Prez. My music is somewhat influenced by Medieval and Renaissance music in its colours, modes, and in instrumental timbre. Some of my music has a medieval flavour within the “modern” compositional techniques I use.

I am also a big lover of Celtic music. I am in love with the Celtic harp and bagpipes. I have a big collection of Celtic music from Ireland, Galicia, and Portugal, one of my favourite ensembles being “Strella do Dia” from Portugal.

The classical pieces I like to listen to the most are both of Liszt’s piano concertos; Brahms’s piano Concerto No.2; Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique Symphony” (which in my opinion contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever written); Puccini’s “Turandot”; “El Amor Brujo” by Manuel De Falla; Wagner’s Ring Cycle; Ravel “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand”; Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, “Le banquet Celeste”; Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna”.

In film music, my favourite scores are: Miklos Rozsa’s “Ben Hur”, “King of Kings” and “Quo Vadis”; Bernard Hermann’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”, “Vertigo” and “Psycho”; Max Steiner’s “Gone with the Wind”; John Williams’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban”, “The Empire Strikes Back”; John Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

Pop Rock and other music I love listening to: Nils Frahm’s albums “Spaces” & “Felt”; Bjork’s albums “Vespertine”, “Post”, “Homogenic” and “Vulnicura”. I like some of the most unusual songs of the Beatles: “Blue Jay Way”, “Within Without You”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and also “Girl”, “Norwegian Wood”, and “Dear Prudence”. I am crazy about the song “Nobody Does it Better” by Marvin Hamlisch.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Pianists Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires, Radu Lupu, Daniel Barenboim; violinists Nathan Milstein, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer; conductors Georg Solti, Carlos Kleiber, Alondra de la Parra; bagpipe player Patricia Pato; guitarist Pablo Sainz Villégas; bandoneonist Daniel Binelli; cellist Sol Gabetta. I have the honor and privilege of being friends with the last five, and have collaborated with most of them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable and beautiful concert experiences Pedro and I had was at the Louvre Museum/Jardin des Tuileries with the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris. We were commissioned the orchestral and chamber music for a big photography exhibit at the Louvre Museum and performed it live outdoors in two concerts at the Tuileries Garden in front of a crowd of thousands in beautiful Paris in summer. My husband and I both played as soloists with this orchestra: him on his Portuguese guitar and orchestra composition “Snow”, and I played as a soloist in my piano and orchestra piece “Clouds”. More orchestral works of ours were performed while beautiful photographs were shown on two giant screens on a huge stage that was built just for these concerts.

The other great experience in performance was the one we had last month at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in New York City. We performed our Tango Fado Project with our chamber orchestra, the Manhattan Camerata. We also had more than four thousand people in the audience – with a few dozens more standing – and had one of the most positive and effusive reactions from the crowd and the Lincoln Center authorities. An unforgettable evening!

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

As a composer, I think that the purpose of music is to touch people’s hearts and to be able to produce goosebumps as a symptom of emotional catharsis. This is more important than trying to be original or complex. As a performer, simply enjoy every musical line as if you are making love to your instrument.

Where would you like to be in 10 yearstime?

I want to keep doing what I am doing now, but more so. I want to have more concerts, more compositions and commissions and more recordings at Abbey Road, and more important concerts like the ones I have done at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Palace of Versailles, Louvre Museum, etc. I just want to write more pieces and complete my Portuguese opera and my novel about Sintra. I am at the happiest place I could possibly be right now. Of course I could always have more fame and money, but I am doing exactly what I love: composing and performing concertos and my own music, and I see myself doing the same but more so in ten years. But my greatest ambition is to be able to have a child and being able to continuing doing what I’m doing. I have talked to many artist mothers, and they just wrap their child and play piano, paint, write, and travel with the child to tours and everywhere.

I want to always live in New York, the city where all my dreams came true, but I also want to have a home in the countryside. I see myself in 10 years composing in my own studio or house either in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate NY, or in Rhode Island (US East coast) or somewhere in the countryside in England or in the south of Argentina, in Patagonia… It is crucial and vitally important for me to have a home in the countryside and in the middle of nature, so I can be fully creative.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being able to be eternally in love with the loves of your life, such as romantic love, platonic love, special friends and family members. I love spending time with friends who are as close as family and with family members who are as close as friends. To fall in love with what you do as a profession, and being able to make a living or make that your everyday responsibility, has no price.

What is your most treasured possession?

My grandfather’s violin.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Besides making music, I love traveling around the world and learning as many languages as possible. I love being in the countryside and wilderness. I love riding my bike next to the ocean in Portugal with my father in law, Francisco H. da Silva. I love going to art museums with my mother, Lucia Morales, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and discuss art and painting for hours. I love spending time with my sister Carla, one of my closest friends and favourite people. I love being a Druid and praise nature constantly. I love climbing mountains, as I used to do since I was a child with my father and sister in the Andes Mountains. I love fencing, reading and writing. I love going to Burning Man. I love laying on the ground in the fields, mountains or on the beach to watch the millions of stars above me and look for shooting stars. I love doing wild things… I love being free…

What is your present state of mind?

Constantly in love…

Argentine-born pianist and composer Lucia, will demonstrate her technical and emotional mastery of a concerto premiered by Mozart himself, one of three designed to be accessible and a happy medium between the easy and the difficult, the brilliant and the pleasing, on Tuesday 11th October in ‘Mozart and Friends’ with the Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon, details here, and further concerts in Birmingham and Cheltenham on 12th and 19th October.

Lucia Caruso’s website




Musician, heal thyself…..

Injury, like performance anxiety, is something musicians tend not to discuss. Admitting to an injury (or anxiety) can be perceived as a sign of weakness, and as most musicians are self-employed, peripatetic and freelance, without the cushion of statutory sick pay or health insurance, injury can mean loss of work, which means loss of income.

Musicians, like sportspeople, put their bodies under a great deal of stress, but unlike with sportspeople, it’s rare to see a musician stretchered off the stage. Musicians go to great lengths to make their playing appear effortless and free, which can put additional strain on one’s body. However, until fairly recently the idea that one should care for one’s body in the manner of an athlete was not discussed nor seriously considered. I think this has a lot to do with a now rather outdated view that musicians are “artists” and don’t need to concern themselves with such prosaic issues as keeping fit. After all, it’s all about the music, isn’t it?


But if you’re not fit, you can’t play and make music or make a living from making music. Musicians are prone to a range of injuries from simple aches and pains to more significant problems such as tendonitis, RSI, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and focal dystonia. Many of these injuries are related to posture. In fact, pianists come off relatively lightly – other musicians contort their bodies (violinists, flautists) or carry heavy instruments (French horn, tuba) which can put tremendous strain on ligaments and muscles. Injury can also be caused by bad technique (in part related to posture), insufficient warm up, too much repetition in practising, playing too loudly, suddenly increasing practise time (perhaps to prepare for a recital or audition), poor choice of repertoire. The website Musical Toronto quotes some alarming statistics: “The lifetime prevalence of injury for musicians is 84 percent, and the chance of a musician playing while injured is 50/50, which is much higher than for athletes.” Musicians are playing complex, virtuosic/technically demanding repertoire much younger (mid-teens), which also affects their health.

One’s emotional health can also impact on physical health: psychological stress caused by practising, performing, traveling, financial insecurity, competition can lead to physical problems (last year, for example, I had stress-related tendonitis, which was cured surprisingly easily by making some simple changes to my working life as a musician).

Conservatoires and music colleges are now offering courses in yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique, mindfulness and general well-being for musicians in recognition of the importance of caring for one’s body, and many musicians I know do daily yoga and other keep fit regimes which help both body and mind.

We can, of course, put in place habits which can protect our bodies from injury. I like the term “Pre-hab“, which was coined by Sir Chris Hoy, cyclist, multiple Olympic gold medal winner and a commentator on the track cycling at the Rio Olympics. For the musician, Pre-Hab should include:

  • Adopt the correct posture when playing
  • Do a proper warm up: this can include exercises at the piano or exercises done away from the piano (which I personally prefer)
  • Don’t start your practising session with your most difficult music – work up to it
  • Take regular breaks between practising (c45 mins then a 10 minute break is sensible)
  • Do light stretches between practise sessions to loosen arms, shoulders and neck
  • Take extra care when lifting
  • Practise away from the instrument – this can include memory work, and listening and reading about the music you are working on
  • Take time away from the instrument to unwind and don’t feel guilty about it – allow yourself a social life!
  • Listen to your body and take seriously any pain, tension or tenderness in any part of the body
  • Never play through pain and seek specialist help as soon as possible if you are in pain
  • If recovering from an injury return to playing gradually and don’t practise excessively


Musicians’ Health Resources

BAPAM (British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) offers advice and help for musicians and performing artists including physiotherapy, counselling and referrals to specialist medical practitioners

The Healthy Pianist – fact sheet especially for pianists written by Penelope Roskell and Dr Hara Trouli (PDF file)

Other BAPAM fact sheets

Playing Less Hurt

Back to School for Elite Musicians – Musical Toronto article

Recovering from Injury – article by Alicja Fiderkiewicz






Meet the Artist……Ayako Fujiki, pianist & composer


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

I hardly remember when I first started to play the piano. I remember that I used to have a red toy piano. My mom bought it when my older sister was born. I grew up playing this toy piano, played some songs which I just learnt by singing. When my grandmother saw me she decided to buy a piano for me.

My family is pretty musical family. My father plays the guitar and sings opera, my mother used to play the Koto (japanese traditional instrument), and my sister played the piano, the clarinet and a bit of the violin. For me it is pretty normal to play some instruments. But I was passionate about the  piano and loved the piano’s sound. But also I played percussion in the kids orchestra and played little bit of the violin.

I have always felt passionate about the beauty of piano sound and the piano pieces composed by others. I tried hard and explored how to get better, how to play that sound, how to express music and I enjoyed those processes…  I love it and I feel restless if I don’t;  so I thought I might as well make it my profession.

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

Alicia de Larrocha definitely comes on top – I used to listen to her Granados/Goyescas and Albeniz/Iberia all the time before studying with her. I became a huge fan and fought for the privilege of becoming her pupil in Barcelona. I succeeded!  I also owe a lot to Carmen Bravo Mompou  – a great pianist and the widow of Frederic Mompou – one of my favourite composers, and Carlota Garriga – also a great pianist and the widow of one of renown conductors, Igor Markevich.

When composing I think I am between Japanese and some mixture of those countries I  was stimulated by  – I intuitively belong to Japanese culture because I grew up there but at the same time I absorbed lots of mixed cultures. I like Japanese composers, such as Toru Takemitsu, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Joe Hisaishi etc. and the most of classical music composers like Debussy, Mompou, Chopin, Granados lots more..

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

To find my own way and stick to it.  Combining ambitious classical performance with being a composer is not always easy.  I try hard at my composing and my performing leveraging each other.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Finishing my ‘Brightwater’ CD gave me a great sense of achievement – I worked on it really hard for more than a year with the help of a number of people, including OBC concertmaster Christian Chivu and the Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu the 1st soloist-cellist Cristoforo Pestalozzi.  I should say, as well, that felt really emotional when I played one of my pieces in a full Barcelona’s Palau de la Música in the context of a charity event to raise funds to support people affected by Japan’s big earthquake.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Probably French and Spanish classical.  I also get carried away with romanticism in music such as Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn lots more… And my own pieces!

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

I think carefully about how the pieces tie with one another.  I think about the concert as a whole, trying to give it different moments, different emotions and would usually challenge myself to leverage on my cross-cultural musical background to choose the pieces.

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

I might say there is a venue in each city of each country. I like those places because they are fruits of cultural heritage from there. I especially like Palau de la Música in Barcelona, beautiful architecture, the size of the place and the acoustics are perfect.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Beyond classical, I listen to lots of electronic and ambient music – I like Anohni (Antony Hegarty), Tori Amos, Sigur Ros, etc.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I would go for Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires, Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida, Joshua Bell, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Playing Schumann Piano Concert in Bulgaria. I hardly communicated with most of orchestra members because of the language barrier, but on with the conductor, Sir Palikalov who is great musician and speaks English. But through music, we communicated very well and we understood each other. That process was a wonderful experience.

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

I guess be ambitious with the quality of the product and be yourself. Never give up making steps ahead.

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

I would like to have made an impact in the musical circles – big or small – but an impact which I feel proud of.

What is your most treasured possession?  

My Steinway…….

Ayako Fujiki’s new album ‘Brightwater’, featuring her own original pieces, was released on 30th September in UK. Ayako composes her own music, incorporating classical and electronic music techniques.

Born in Tokyo, Ayako Fujiki started playing the piano as a young child and performed her first concert at age seven, playing Beethoven and Chopin.  She has performed in Japan, Spain, UK, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Colombia and Bulgaria.

Picture this

Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can help them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieiving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple visualisation exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

Earlier this year I gave a concert to a music society in the home of a noted British pianist based in the north of England. The pianist and his partner were very welcoming when I arrived and immediately made me comfortable with cups of my favourite tea and a room where I could change and sit quietly to prepare myself ahead of the concert. The piano itself was a very beautiful Steinway D which had previously belonged to the Halle Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli and which had been played by some of my pianistic heroes, including Ashkenazy and Richter. I was pleased with my performance and received warm congratulations from audience and hosts afterwards. The entire experience was very positive and enjoyable. When I went to give a concert of the same programme some weeks later, I tried to recall the sensations, physical and emotional, I had felt while playing Andrew’s beautiful Steinway. I used these sensations to help me focus on the task ahead and to settle my anxiety. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy 

Further reading

Proprioception and Visualization

Igor Levit launches his Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the more romantic virtuoso repertoire.

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is a Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.

On Wednesday night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall, bringing his intelligent and distinctive approach to these great works. 

Read my full review here 

(Photo © Igor Levit)

‘How to Play the Piano’ by James Rhodes

6129wygd2byl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Can you learn to play J S Bach’s wondrous Prelude in C BWV 846 in just 6 weeks? The pianist James Rhodes thinks you can – and to prove his point, he has written a book to help you achieve this, the first ‘Little Book of Life Skills’ in a new series by Quercus Editions.

I come across many people who, on discovering I am a pianist and piano teacher, tell me they wished they had continued with the piano into adulthood. Many were put off by bossy, overbearing, unpleasant or just plain useless teachers; or by the daily grind of practising; or being put an exam treadmill, one a year until they could bear it no longer. Happily, I also meet many people who have either returned to the piano in adulthood or who have taken it up from scratch, and who find playing the piano a rewarding and therapeutic activity.

James Rhodes can fully attest to the therapeutic powers of music in general and the piano in particular. In his memoir ‘Instrumental’ he explains how hearing Glenn Gould’s recording of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations marked the first stage in his gradual recovery from a devastating mental breakdown. Not just a career, playing the piano for Rhodes provides significant emotional nourishment.

But ‘How to Play the Piano’ is not some new-age self-help book, extolling the “power of now” – though the author does discuss the benefits of pursuing a creative activity, describing it as “a kind of stillness meditation for the soul”, and reminds us that we need such stillness in today’s fast-moving, instant gratification-led world. As both a musician and writer, it’s a view I definitely concur with. Rhodes’ book promises to equip the reader with “all the tools necessary to have you playing a piano masterpiece…..within six weeks”, and it’s written in a chatty, conversational style – almost as if Mr Rhodes is seated by your side at the piano offering cheery words of encouragement. The format of the book, in keeping with the recent penchant for updated Ladybird Books for adults, is quite small with a retro typeface suggesting an old-fashioned manual or piano tutor book, and hand-drawn illustrations, including some rather gnarly pianist’s hands. The score of the Prelude comes in two pull-out sections, smaller than A4, which most people, cross-eyed or otherwise, might find a little small to work with. But no matter, you can download a copy of the score from James Rhodes’ website, where you can also view instructional videos on the music.

After the introduction, there is a whole chapter on “the basics” – the layout of the keyboard, how music is written, numbered fingering for each hand. As a piano teacher, I was a little troubled by Mr Rhodes’ exhortation to the newbie pianist to start in the Middle C position, as this immediately encourages elbows to be jammed in against the body, not a good tension-free position from which to begin, but he does later suggest one explores the full range of the keyboard. Chapter 3 introduces the Prelude with some background about Bach and the music itself, before it’s time to start playing. The directions are generally clear and simple and the chatty, encouraging tone continues throughout, but I immediately spotted a discrepancy in the text and the diagram for the first bar of the music: the player is told to put their right-hand “thumb, third and fourth” fingers in position for the first bar of the piece, but in the diagram the thumb, second and fourth fingers are shown in the same position on the keys. There is also no mention of how we all have different sized hands and that one cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all fingering scheme. Further on, brief mention is made of “rhythm”, but up until this point nothing much has been said about the note groupings in this music.

The book continues in the same vein with a bar-by-bar walk-through of the music, with similar diagrams and fingering schemes. The fourth chapter, The Performance, discusses aspects such as pedalling, an area of piano technique which is regularly mis-used and abused. I would be very wary of suggesting a novice pianist try pedalling a piece as sophisticated as this Prelude, and I know Bach purists would be appalled at the idea of the feet going anywhere near it. I would also have liked to have seen some discussion about how this piece is constructed from a series of chords which have been broken up: encouraging the student to play each bar as a chord and then to separate the notes is helpful in establishing both a good fingering scheme and understanding the harmonic structure of the piece which, as one of my students is discovering, has a significant bearing on how one shapes this piece in terms of dynamics and phrasing. I was, however, pleased to see a section on interpretation and the reader is encouraged to seek out recordings of the piece which can be a useful way of discovering how individual musicians shape and interpret the music and make it their own. Often beginner piano students are nervous about doing this in case they “get it wrong”.

The final chapter encourages the reader to keep going with the music and maybe try performing it for friends, with some rather simplistic commentary about performance anxiety. Finally, Mr Rhodes suggests the reader try some other repertoire or seeks out a piano teacher – which is possibly the best advice I’ve read in the whole book.

James Rhodes is a passionate advocate of the piano and music education, and one can only admire his enthusiasm and commitment. If his book encourages someone, anyone, who has always longed to play the piano to have a go then that is surely a good thing. But I would caution against using this book as the only “how to” guide for learning this piece or indeed a good basic introduction to the piano and reading music. Playing the piano is so much more than simply placing your fingers on the keys in the right place at the right time, and in this respect the title of the book is misleading. The book lacks detail about simple technique, such as lateral arm movement (which can be explained easily for the beginner as a “polishing movement” on the keyboard and which would help the player get round those right-hand semiquavers with ease and without tension), and I did not find the small format particularly practical for use at the piano.

How to Play the Piano is published by Quercus on 6th October 2016. RRP £9.99



Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture