Stephen Reck, guitarist

Who or what inspired you to take up the classical guitar, and make it your career?

The rage to master happened after hearing a recording of the Concierto De Aranjuez during my teenage years. There were no classical guitar teachers in my native town of Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland so I had to travel an 8 hour roundtrip to Dublin every other weekend to study to renowned Irish classical guitarist John Feeley. Up to this point I had played electric guitar.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

Andres Segovia, John Williams, Johann Sebastian Bach. My influential teachers were John Feeley, Carlos Bonell and Ricardo Iznaola

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

Adapting to the many skills that are required of the musician today.

Which performances are you most proud of?

Performances that were against the odds when either the material or the emotional state proceeding the performance has been challenging

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

National Concert Hall, Dublin

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Chaconne BWV 1004 Johann Sebastian Bach, Scarlatti Sonatas, music of Albeniz, Granados,

Who are your favourite musicians?

Those who manage to transcend the technique and make each phrase sound loved. Segovia, Benedetti, Rheinhardt, Gould, Horowitz, Pollini

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Nigel North playing BWV 1004 on the lute

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

Practice smart not hard, enjoy the challenges and take risks.

What are you working on at the moment?

Various new compositions by French composer Colette Mourey and a second CD

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A good equilibrium between teaching and performing goals

Irish born classical guitarist Stephen Reck is regarded as one of the foremost players of a new generation of artists emerging from Ireland. Born in Dublin, Stephen grew up in a small town called Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. He holds a Bachelor in Music Performance from Trinity College, Dublin and a Masters Music from the London College of Music. Initially he studied with Irish virtuoso John Feeley before leaving Ireland to study in London with Carlos Bonell. Stephen also did advanced guitar studies over two years with Cuban guitarist Ricardo Iznaola in at the University of Denver, USA who said of Stephen’s playing “Great technique and beautiful sound”.

Based in London, Stephen has performed in Ireland, UK, France and America. He has made regular appearances at the John Field Recital Room of the National Concert Hall in Dublin and venues throughout the UK and has also performed and taught at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Maine, USA performing such contemporary works as Mundis Canis by George Crumb and Tan Dun’s as part of the Gamper Music festival.

He has recently premiered two works written for him by renowned French composer Colette Mourey in Paris. Colette who recently won first prize in the 20th International Competition for Instrumentalists and Composers 2012 said “Stephen Reck is a complete, very sensitive, marvellous musician, with a great quality of inspiration in all the pieces he interprets; beautiful sound, very varied colours…and a great concentration in all his musical and guitaristic effects”.

Distributed by Con Brio recordings, his first album of recorded work “Saudade” was released early in 2007, and has been featured on many radio stations including RTE Lyric FM and WNYC radio New York. According to Jeremy Nicholas of Classic FM Magazine said “An imaginative choice of 12 works sensitively played, intimately recorded and nicely presented ” (June 2008), and American Record Guide “Clean pleasant tone….. his best work is the most challenging piece, Dodgson’s ‘Fantasy Divisions’, which he navigates with involvement and imagination…”

In addition to his solo work Stephen has collaborated for several years with the highly regarded flautist David Cuthbert as part of the group Flautarra and Gina Kruger as part of the Kruger-Reck Piano Guitar Duo

Detail from Richard Hamilton’s ‘Portrait of a Woman as an Artist’, 2007, oil on inkjet on canvas, 100cm x 123cm. Photograph: courtesy of the estate of Richard Hamilton

In a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery, the late Richard Hamilton, doyen of the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and a leading British artist with an international following, has left a beautiful and startling legacy in an exquisitely executed visual study of the fundamentals of the artist’s craft.

Read my full review here

Stephen, one of the students on the course

Another excellent weekend on Penelope Roskell’s Advanced Piano course – my fifth course run by my teacher. Three friends were there, including Stephen Gott, who I met nearly three years ago on the first course we both attended. (Stephen has just entered his second year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.) With a total of just six students, instead of the more usual eight, there was plenty of time for discussion and appreciation of the repertoire we all brought to the course, to play and to share: it was supportive and inspiring. The standard of playing is usually pretty high, which means we get to enjoy quality music, every day.

I have blogged before about how useful I find my teacher’s courses: the small number of students (a maximum of eight to allow plenty of participation), the intimate setting (the course takes place in the spacious sitting room of Penelope’s home) and the (reasonably) relaxed end of course concert on the Sunday afternoon make for an atmosphere that is both stimulating, challenging and friendly. By Sunday, when we’ve all got to know each other better, the atmosphere is relaxed and we often spend the time simply playing music for one another. Sometimes all we need as pianists is to play for others. Helen Burford, a pianist based in Brighton, whom I’ve met a couple of times on these courses, and I even played a suite of tiny duets for beginner students, bringing a touch of elan to each miniature, to the accompaniment of laughter from our fellow students.

By the third day, people are transformed by the experience and someone who may have said at the outset that there is no way they are playing in the concert, feels secure enough to perform. And this, for me, is the major benefit of the course, to give confidence to nervous or shy performers, and to bring out the very best in people through gentle yet focused tutoring.
The course is organised as a series of masterclasses, and begins each morning with yoga-based exercises especially devised for pianists to help loosen shoulders and back, and warm up arms and hands, legs and feet. Everyone gets the chance to play at least once every day, and students can select when in the day they would like to play – some people prefer to play early on “to get it over with” and then sit back and enjoy others playing through the day. We take our lunch in the garden if the weather is fine, or in the conservatory, our musical conversations accompanied by the squeaking of the pet guinea pigs!

I took Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor to the course. Both pieces form part of my LTCL Recital programme and I really just wanted to put them before a small audience for some feedback. The Mozart in particular was very well-received, which was most gratifying since I’ve spent such a long time with this piece – playing it, studying it and reading about it. I also played it in the end of course concert.

Another lovely aspect of these courses is the great variety of repertoire one can encounter. Helen always brings interesting pieces, this time ranging from Bach to Chick Corea. On Saturday afternoon, at the very end of the day, she played the evocative Lotus Land by Cyril Scott, a piece we had both, coincidentally, heard, and liked, on the Radio Three recently. It has echoes of Delius, Debussy and Satie. We also enjoyed music by Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Haydn, Schumann, Shostakovich, Brubeck, and Vask. Hear a selection of the music we played here:

Autumn Piano Course (a Spotify playlist)

Live performances:

For more information about Penelope Roskell’s advanced piano courses and workshops for pianists and piano teachers, please visit http://www.peneloperoskell.co.uk/

I’m flagging up this interesting collaboration on behalf of trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, a recent Meet the Artist interviewee……

On Monday 8th October, Simon will be performing with the Ligeti Quartet at Holywell Music Room, Oxford, in two works for the unusual combination of trumpet and string quartet. Both pieces are new commissions, and receive their world premiere on Monday evening: Quintet for Trumpet and Strings (2009) by Robert Keeley, and Simultaneously Sovereign and Invaded (2011) by his student, Steve Hicks. Completing the cycle, music by Keeley’s former composition teacher, Franco Donatoni, will also feature with works for solo trumpet and viola.

The concert will also feature music by Gyorgy Ligeti, including his Poeme Symphonique (1962) for 100 clockwork metronomes. If you have a clockwork metronome, the Ligeti Quartet would love to hear from you. Go along to the concert, and in exchange for the loan of your metronome, you will receive a free ticket.

This promises to be fascinating and unusual evening of music. Further information about the concert here

My Meet the Artist interview with Simon Desbruslais

What is your first memory of the piano?

I don’t think I’d really come across the piano seriously until I started school. I was very lucky to go to schools where music was a valued and important part, not just of the curriculum, but of the life of the school. At the infant school I attended, the headmistress was musical, and the deputy head played the piano; after I’d seen her play, I was hooked! I started lessons shortly after, and nearly 25 years on, I’m still in touch with that teacher; I’m always pleased to be able to go back to her and say “You’re the one who started it all off…”

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Like many teachers, I ‘fell’ into teaching almost by accident. When I was in the 6th Form at school, I was asked by a friend at church who knew I played whether I’d be willing to teach her daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed, and within a couple of years, several other pupils had come via the same route. Initially, I didn’t see teaching as a job, or even a career; the inspiration for teaching didn’t come until several years later when I no doubt concluded that maybe it was a good idea! Although it’s had many ‘ups and downs’, I’m glad I made the decision to continue, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. I was lucky to have had good teachers at all the schools I attended and I suppose that my inspiration would rest with several of them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

There have been so many… As I mentioned earlier, I attended schools where music was seen as important; whether the teachers were musical or not was largely irrelevant as they all supported and encouraged us, whatever we chose to do. The larger-than-life music teacher at the grammar school I attended certainly proved a lot about the value of music. In the days before any sorts of government initiatives, he found no problems in organizing school concerts several times a year; 90% of the boys, right through from Years 7 to 13 took part in the choirs who sung. Although I had some misgivings about the academic side of his teaching, there was no denying his passion for music and I feel very grateful for having experienced such an inspiring foundation to my musical studies.

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

It has to be the pupils themselves; without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Their enthusiasm, commitment and enjoyment have shaped my teaching over the past 11 years, and I’m enormously grateful for the support they’ve given me.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have always been concerned that learning an instrument should be about more than the weekly one-to-one lesson. Some of my most memorable experiences have come from events such as concerts and workshops in which pupils have had the chance to work with and share their music with other pupils. In addition to these, there will also be particular pupils who’ve been both significant and memorable (not always for the right reasons!). It might have been their personalities (giving the sight-singing test back to examiner and saying “I don’t like this one, can I have another one” must surely rank high on the list!) or their individual achievements.

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

Whilst I know not all teachers feel the same, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adults; currently, around 80% of my pupils are adult learners. They do present their own particular challenges and it’s often necessary to take a different approach to the one you might take when teaching children. I’m always very conscious that as well as the time and financial outlay required for learning an instrument, there’s an enormous emotional investment to be made too. Many adults, particularly those coming to it later in life, have already been successful in their chosen careers; starting again learning something from scratch requires an almost infinite amount of patience (also on the part of the teacher too!). It can be very frustrating, and as a teacher, you have to strike the balance between enjoyment, encouragement and progress.

What do you expect from your students?

Above all, to get anywhere with learning an instrument, you have to be committed; there is no denying that enjoyment and progress will be lacking for those whose music doesn’t feature regularly in their everyday lives. I’m keen that all pupils take some responsibility for their learning; after all, for most, the lesson itself accounts for a tiny percentage of the time in each week. Overall, I want to ensure that pupils remain adaptable, that they’re open to new ideas and that they retain a willingness to experiment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Generally, not all pupils wish to take exams and I entirely respect their decision. That said, and without me exerting any pressure, I’ve come across very few who don’t wish for an independent assessment of their ability at some stage or another. We are very lucky that there are so many options out there in terms of external assessments. While a large number of pupils still follow traditional graded exams, many have opted for other assessments such as the LCM Leisure Play exams and the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment. I want any exam taken to be as positive an experience as possible, and therefore it’s very important to match the requirements of the pupil to the exam most suited to them. I am very clear though that I do not teach to exams; where required, I use exams along the way as a benchmark for progress, but they do not form the basis for my teaching.

For me, I have never seen music in a competitive sense and so I have mixed feelings about festivals and competitions. As a child learning the piano, these weren’t things I was exposed to and consequently, they’re not something I’ve explored with my own pupils. Unfortunately, even when I’ve sought to look into these options further, I heard too many negative stories which only went to further put me off! I’m sure there are some fantastic festivals and competitions out there… For me, music is a sharing activity, whether that is playing in an exam, performing in a concert or simply entertaining family and friends.

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

For me, above all, the most important concept, whatever the level, is that the learning should be enjoyable. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be easy and that we’re only going do the things the pupil wants to do, but that we should never lose sight of the wider enjoyment of not just our chosen instrument, but of music in a much more general sense.

I am particularly concerned that beginners need a good grounding in basic musicianship. The ability to understand, explain and experience such basic concepts as pitch, pulse and rhythm is hugely important and paves the way for far quicker progress in the future. I’m particularly interested in the way in which Dalcroze and Kodaly principles can be introduced into the individual lesson, and whilst I don’t advocate any one method over another, I feel that they have an important role to play. In terms of the piano itself, a solid technical foundation is important; this is what I lacked when I had lessons. Such basic concepts as posture, hand shape and arm weight will provide the pupil with a real solid basis for future progress.

When it comes to more advanced students, this becomes a harder question to answer. The important concepts which need to be imparted will largely depend on their own particular needs at that time. Generally, as pupils progress there is likely to be a greater emphasis placed on interpretation and musicality. There’s still a lot of technical work to cover, and as the pieces become more demanding, the more pupils need a solid technical foundation to support and underpin their playing.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

The most satisfying part of the job has to be seeing pupils achieve things which they didn’t think were possible. This is particularly the case for adult learners where the littlest step forward is often a huge milestone. I have always been concerned that above all, pupils should be enabled to reach their potential: for some it will be that elusive Grade 8 distinction, and for others it might be simply playing a piece in front of other people.

Teaching isn’t as rosy as perhaps people think it might be! Private teaching is a lonely business, and this combined with the inevitably unsociable hours means that it’s hard to maintain any kind of work-life balance. People often tell me how wonderful it must be to be able to do something I love, to be able to work from home, and to be able to pick and choose my work as if choosing from a menu…I doubt that many have experienced the world of self-employment. The uncertainty and lack of stability which this brings can be overwhelming. For 99% of pupils, music lessons are a luxury, and when money’s tight, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside. As a teacher, you have to attempt to be everything to everybody; you’re not just a teacher, but also an accountant, marketing specialist, record-keeper, researcher, mediator and a whole host of other things too…it’s hard work!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I suppose that in a very twee sort of way, I enjoy teaching music which inspires pupils. I want them to enjoy the pieces they’re learning and I want to ensure that each piece presents something with which they can engage with. In terms of my own playing, I enjoy a whole host of things; if I like a piece, I’ll probably learn it but very rarely do I get fixated on having to play all the works of one single composer. For many years I was led to believe that you weren’t a ‘proper’ pianist if you didn’t play ‘this’ sort of music, or music by ‘that’ composer. Now I enjoy the music for what it is and am not in the slightest bit bothered about whether I’m considered a ‘proper’ pianist! At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying the piano music of Ernest Moeran which is much-neglected!

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

I suspect it’s a generation thing, but I don’t really have favourites. I’m probably more interested in the music, and will simply look for a recording which I like. I rarely buy recordings because it’s a particularly artist. Come to think of it, I’m the same with concerts; I look first at what’s being played, then at who’s playing it! I’ve seen many pianists over the years, but for me, the versatility and sensitivity of Imogen Cooper stands out.


David Barton runs a busy private studio in Lichfield, Staffordshire where he has taught flute, piano and singing for the past 11 years. In addition, he is a piano accompanist and composer, with music published in the UK, USA and Canada. More information about David’s work can be found at www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk

Paul Smith of VOCES8

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

I think everyone in VOCES8 was very lucky to have some amazing music teachers as we grew up. Many of sang in cathedral choirs and 3 of the founding members were choristers at Westminster Abbey. When you get so completely immersed in choral music from such an early age, I think you either fall in love with it or move away from it completely, and we were the former! We’re very lucky to have a full time job making music with VOCES8 – it’s a wonderful career to have!

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

With 8 different musicians in the group, there are always plenty of musical influences flying around, and that’s what makes working together as an ensemble so exciting. Where Barney or Charles might revel in our early music, and Emily would probably sing Bach all day long, we also all love different genres of music too – Paul loves jazz, and Dingle has a very eclectic musical palette…. All of this feeds into our music making. While we’re an a cappella group, it also helps that some of us play musical instruments too. Rob is a professional organist whenever he has a spare minute to play.

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

Musically, I think our first couple of recording projects were really challenging, but for different reasons. We recorded ‘Aces High’, an album of jazz, pop and James Bond songs, in 2009 in California, and the process was incredibly challenging for all of us. Then, when we recorded the Bach Motets album in 2010, we were challenged, musically, in an entirely different way. We love both discs, but as we look back on those recordings, I think we’re so proud of them because we know how much effort went into them.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

We spend a lot of our time teaching – we work with about 25,000 young people every year! – and last night we were talking with a group of singers about this very topic in Bedford!

Being a full time performer is wonderful, but there’s something special about being part of a small team. I love being onstage with the same group of people each night, sharing with our audience a concert that we’ve spent months piecing together in the rehearsal room.

Having a vibrant rehearsal environment in which we can all share artistic ideas and then bringing that to life on stage is just great fun! In VOCES8 we have 8 very different personalities too, and that can sometimes be a challenge! We’ve been together now for such a long time that any arguments are always resolved, and I suppose we feel rather like one big family! I know I’m lucky to be surrounded by such a talented and passionate group of people!

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Ha ha! I think I’ve answered this one – if I had to choose one, it would be ‘Aces High’. I think, looking back on this in years to come, we’ll realise that we created something completely new with that album, and I don’t think I’ve found another album in that genre that I prefer, which means I must be happy with how it turned out! It was also amazing to be recording in California and working with the most amazing production team you could possibly imagine.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

In VOCES8 we’ve been really lucky to perform in some fabulous venues…. And while it’s hard to beat some of the top London venues (nothing is ever quite as scary as performing in your home town!), the NCPA in Beijing was just staggering, and the outdoor amphitheatre in Vaison-la-Romaine was a joy to sing in.

Who are your favourite musicians?

So many that I couldn’t even start to name check them all, but I’d go for Miles Davis as one…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Headlining the first ever classical music festival in Kenya on a huge outdoor stage will live forever in my mind I think! But we’ve had so many inspiring, emotional, spiritual and sometimes simply funny places to sing… every day is different!

What is your favourite music to perform? To listen to?

That depends entirely on my mood. This week in rehearsal we’ve been looking at Byrd, Panufnik, Marcello and Simon and Garfunkel…. All for different upcoming projects, and all great in different ways.

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

Be open to as much as possible, dedicate yourself to what you want to achieve and then work out how you’re going to get there. Don’t every worry about someone telling you that they don’t like what you’re doing. Art is subjective. And in the world that we live in, being as multi-faceted as possible is always going to be helpful for you.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’ve just finished recording the music for the Olympic Mascots with our composer-in-residence, Thomas Hewitt Jones; we’re working on music by Roxanna Panufnik for a recording linked with our publishing house, Edition Peters, next month; we have a recording project in France with our good friend Patrick Ayrton in the summer and then a busy touring schedule to France, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and Italy to keep us on our toes! Oh, and we’re publishing our first VOCES8 Songbook in July too… then throw into the mix all of the education projects that are coming to an end as the school holidays beckon, and you can imagine we’re not getting to sleep very much at the moment!

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

Happy wherever I am!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

That changes by the day, but feeling like I’m enjoying my life and also able to contribute to the happiness of others.

What is your most treasured possession?

My iPhone and I are pretty inseparable…!

What do you enjoy doing most?

When I’m not making music, I love sport…. And food, wine, films, books…! Hmm.

What is your present state of mind?

I need another coffee!

Like several members of the group, Paul’s musical life began as a treble in Westminster Abbey. His singing continued at Bedford School, where he held a music scholarship, and later at King’s College, Cambridge, during his gap year. Whilst studying PPE at the University of York, he spent much of his time performing musical theatre and jazz, most notably appearing in a production of Candide. At this time he was also a member of the RSCM’s Millennium Youth Choir. Upon graduating in 2004 he embarked upon a successful career in corporate training and events with the New London Orchestra and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In August 2006 Paul assumed the position of CEO for Voces Cantabiles Music.

Paul’s light baritone has made him the perfect choice for VOCES8′s early repertoire. An experienced performer in jazz and music theatre, he also provides the group with the American twang for the lighter repertoire. A height-based comedic partnership with his fellow bass, Dingle, has amused audiences the world over.

Alongside his singing duties with VOCES8 Paul leads the Hatch My Ideas! initiative run by Voces Cantabiles Music. Paul shines both as a Workshop Leader and Manager, and the projects he and his team have designed have innovated music education in UK.

Visit www.hatchmyideas.co.uk for more information.

VOCES8

The international award-winning octet, VOCES8, has established itself at the forefront of British a cappella. Performing a repertoire ranging from Renaissance polyphony to unique Jazz and Pop arrangements, the group has been praised for stunning performance, exquisite singing and creating a sound that spans the entire range of vocal colour.

Founded in 2003 by ex-choristers of Westminster Abbey, VOCES8’s career has developed both in the classical choral scene and the world of a cappella with an annual touring schedule that takes the group to Europe, the USA, Africa and Asia. Highlights include performances at the Royal Festival Hall, the Wigmore Hall, Tel Aviv Opera House and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

With an ongoing programme of recordings and live broadcasts VOCES8 is heard regularly on international television and radio including Deutschlandradio Kultur, ARTE TV and the BBC.

VOCES8 plays a key role in the education work of the non-profit foundation VOCES CANTABILES MUSIC. The group leads innovative workshops as part of larger outreach projects in two hundred schools throughout the UK and internationally. VOCES8’s education work extends to workshops and master-
classes for people of all ages and abilities with the aim of inspiring creativity through music.