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

My recorder teacher and my godfather were jointly the ones who nudged me towards getting my first piano lesson at the age of seven. None of my family play and I wasn’t brought up listening to a great deal of Classical music, but as soon as I started lessons, I took to it like a duck to water and digested every new thing I learnt with a great enthusiasm. Surprisingly, for once, my habit of impetuously discarding the latest hobby in exchange for a new one didn’t happen; something was a little different about playing the piano, and it stuck with me and I with it. I still can’t quite put my finger on what it is I love so much about playing. Maybe it is the very essence of intangibility itself; the idea of crafting something so magical and beautiful for an instant, passing moment. Who knows? But it captivated me then and still does now, and that’s why I have chosen to pursue music as a career.

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

My teachers, for me, have always been the most wonderful influence on my playing, not because they have dictated what I do – what does anyone actually learn from that, after all? – but because I have been lucky enough to have grown up and continued to study with teachers who have encouraged me to question everything I do and to do it my own way. I think finding your own path of understanding with music is essential because, at the end of the day, it’s an art form and art is a very personal thing.

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

Starting to make the leap from amateur to professional has definitely been a difficult one – playing for family and friends and people in the local area who support you is one thing; playing for a new and unfamiliar audience in a venue you’ve never been in, and knowing your reputation is at stake, is entirely another. As with any transition, it requires gently testing the water at times, and at others just jumping on in and not fearing the consequences. I seem to have struck the balance fairly successfully so far, but it is most definitely a tricky one to strike!

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

Ensemble playing is (mostly) a wonderful experience for me because as pianists, we spend far too much time cooped up on our own, and getting to explore music with other people is a refreshing change! A spectrum of different but equally valid viewpoints to consider is exciting beyond measure, but of course, with conflicting viewpoints comes scope for disagreement and if you’re not working with open-minded individuals, deciding anything new can be like banging your head against a brick wall. I seem to generally have been lucky on this front so far, but I do have one or two unsatisfying experiences of working with less flexible musicians. It seems to me that the vital thing is to have the same vision of where the music is heading and what it’s about. If you can connect with others musically and conceptually in the macro sense, the little details fall into place pretty much seamlessly.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I absolutely delight in going to watch concerts at the Royal Festival Hall; it is quite simply my favourite venue in the whole of London. I particularly enjoy sitting in the choir seats when an orchestra is playing because you can feel the buzz of the excitement from being in such close proximity to the performers and see every nuance on the conductor’s face. To play in the Royal Festival Hall would be an absolute dream-come-true, and is something I aspire one day to do.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have to say I think Marin Alsop is an incredible musician. I went to see her for the first time last year conducting Liszt 1 and Liszt 2 with Stephen Hough and was so bowled over I bought a ticket for her next concert two days later! She’s incredibly animated and passionate about what she does, and I find that inspiring. I also adore Murray Perahia’s recordings of Mozart – he just captures the cheeky yet graceful nature touch that Mozart playing requires sublimely and his recordings are always an absolute joy to listen to.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’d probably have to be the Medway Young Musicians Awards Finals 2006, the first year I got into the finals, which take place in The Brook Theatre in Chatham. It’s not exactly a large venue, but monumental to a fourteen-year-old who used to practise on a Clavinova in her dining room, and stepping onto a real stage with a real spotlight and performing live to an audience was absolutely captivating. The playing itself didn’t go so well from what I remember – I played Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and made a bit of a mess of it due to being wracked with nerves – but the experience itself was addictive beyond measure and that’s probably the first time I was truly awakened to how thrilling a performance experience can be.

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

My favourite music to play has probably got to be Mozart or Purcell, Mozart for its deceptive simplicity (such detail and intricacy hidden within such seemingly uncomplicated music!) and Purcell for the tortuously beautiful harmonies. To listen to, I’m currently obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies (the first three are indeed delicious, but 4, 5 and 6 absolutely blow my mind) and I also love Louise Farrenc – I think she’s sorely underrated as a composer, and it’s a shame more of her works aren’t played and recorded.

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

I think the concept that music is an art and not just a skill and, as a result, is something that you mature into; the process simply cannot be rushed or artificially induced. By all means, practise hard, listen, play, perform, read as much as you can, broaden your mind in every possible direction, but don’t expect to magically blossom into a fully-formed artist overnight. Allow yourself time to grow and while challenging yourself at every turn, don’t have completely unrealistic expectations you’ll fall short of and grow bitter about. I myself am only a young pianist, and I know that with time to grow and mature, I’ll have a deeper insight into what I’m doing and a broader base of knowledge and experience to draw from when approaching new music, but that’s something I accept and feel strongly is an important part of the process. If there was a magical ‘cure-all’ solution to all our technical and musical problems, the beauty in the process of feeling your way into music would be completely meaningless. We have to take it for what it is and, though it can be frustrating at times, it’s ultimately more rewarding for it.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I’m tackling the Strauss Cello Sonata, among other things, with my duo partner cellist Daniel Edwards. We’ve just aired the programme for the first time, and have concerts coming up in Birmingham and London over the coming fortnight. I’m also starting a new programme for a recital at the Maritime Museum, inspired by the current Ansel Adams exhibition: the programme will be officially announced shortly, but it’s going to be an interesting mix of miniatures including some rarely played pieces by MacDowell.

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

Tricky one. Not sure I know how to answer that! I would like to think I’d be a better musician and have a better sense of self. But as to where that will take me? On to bigger and better things is the most specific answer I can give. I don’t like the idea of being too single-minded about the future; I’d far rather make sure I’m prepared as I can be and just see where it all takes me and what exciting directions I end up going in.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano, of course, though primarily for sentimental reasons. It was given to me by a gentleman whose wife sadly passed away, and he let me have it on a long-term loan since he personally had no use for it. A few months later, after I had sent him a few update letters and CDs to show my gratitude and so that he could see how I was getting on, he sent me a letter and told me wanted to give me the piano as a gift as he wished it to go to a young musician who would use it regularly and treat it well. I’ve simply never been so touched and surprised, and the gesture was made even more wonderful by the fact that the letter arrived about two days before my birthday – a coincidence, but a fantastic one. We still keep in touch with each other, and if you’re reading this, Michael, thank you very much, I am forever indebted to you!

What do you enjoy doing most?

I assume you mean aside from music? Learning, in whatever shape or form that comes. When I’m not devouring music, I love devouring books. I also love talking (anyone who has ever met me face to face will tell you that, I’m sure!), giving speeches to audiences is something that lights my candle – I’m most definitely a performer at heart! Writing is also a passion of mine. I used to write a lot of poetry, but sadly don’t find the time so much nowadays. But obviously I still get to exercise my pen a lot, what with reviewing for Bachtrack and writing for various other websites and blogs.

Madelaine’s full biography, and details of forthcoming concerts and her writing can be found at


Madelaine performing at Normansfield Theatre, 20 May 2012
Madelaine performing at Normansfield Theatre, 20 May 2012

1359142475A group of Durham musicians are planning the first performance in Durham for fifteen years of an opera written for young people. In the first of two events this year to mark the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten, the Durham Singers are leading a project with local children to mount a fully staged performance of Noye’s Fludde.

This short opera is based on a 15th-century mystery play, and tells the familiar Bible story of Noah’s Ark. Britten wrote the opera with the idea that people of all ages and musical abilities should be involved, from the young children who sing the parts of the animals, to the audience themselves, who have the opportunity to join in with rousing settings of three well-known hymns. The animal parts will be played by Durham Cathedral’s outreach choir – the Durham Cathedral Young Singers, and by younger pupils from Durham Johnston School. Forty-nine different animals are named in the text, from rats and mice to lions and camels, and including a number of bird species. One member of the cast will be enjoying spectacular promotion: The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham Cathedral played the part of a goat in one of the very first performances of the work, and he returns to the work now to play The Voice of God.

The opera is accompanied by an orchestra that includes parts written specifically for young, inexperienced players. These parts will be taken by musicians from Durham Johnston School, giving them a unique opportunity to play alongside professional orchestral players. They’ll also be playing some other rather unusual instruments; a set of mugs hung on a string is used to create the effect of the first raindrops. A group of young singers drawn from the recently launched Samling Academy will take the major solo roles, with 20-year old mezzo-soprano Charlotte Heslop from Spennymoor singing the part of Mrs Noye. Charlotte is currently studying voice with Miranda Wright on the Young Musician Programme at The Sage Gateshead and has previously appeared as Second Witch in the Miranda Wright Singers production of Dido and Aeneas and as alto soloist in the Durham Singers’ performance of Mozart’s Requiem, and this is her first major role.

They’ll be joined by professional bass-baritone Richard Strivens as Mr Noye, who won’t just be leading his flock into the ark – he’ll be leading them musically too, as Mr Strivens will be spending several days prior to the concert working with the young singers coaching them and guiding them in their roles. Musical Director of the Durham Singers, Dr Julian Wright, explained how the idea of sharing musical knowledge and experience is central to this piece:

“Britten wrote this piece specifically to engage young people – both players and singers – with music and drama. Like Britten himself, the groups involved are dedicated to spreading the message of great music and drama to communities and age groups that had not benefited from this. But one of the most important messages will be that of musical humility. Noye’s sons and daughters are up-and-coming singers in their early twenties. They will learn, from Britten’s musical generosity, about how music can be shared with amateurs and children; and that is the message for the Durham Singers as well, as we support this huge collaboration between different musicians of different levels of experience.”

The opera will be preceded with two shorter works by Britten. In keeping with the theme of God’s blessings on his creation, the Durham Singers will sing Rejoice in the Lamb, a vivid setting of an eighteenth-century poem written by Christopher Smart. The concert will open with the Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, a work for three solo trumpets, dispersed around the cathedral.

The concert has been supported by a grant from the Britten Pears Foundation

Date: 2 March 2013

Durham Cathedral, 7pm

Fanfare for St Edmundsbury
Rejoice in the Lamb
Jubilate in C
Noye’s Fludde

Tickets: £18 adults, £12 students/children, available from the Gala Theatre box office (www.galadurham.co.uk tel 0191 334 4041)

In the summer, Durham Singers will join forces with an up-and-coming chamber choir called Renaissance to will explore the links between Britten, Purcell, Britten’s contemporaries and those who have come after him. It will include “Where is thy God” by Ben Rowarth, which won the NCEM composition prize last year, conducted by the composer.

Durham Singers is a chamber choir of about 40 adult amateur singers who enjoy performing an adventurous repertory of mostly unaccompanied choral music, to the highest possible standard. In recent years, they have performed music by contemporary composers, such as Richard Rodney Bennet, Paul Spicer and Julian Anderson, alongside a core repertoire of English renaissance and romantic music.

Full details at www.durham-singers.org

“The hand should be quiet, tranquil, floating. It is supported by the spine, whose stable strength is cantilevered through the shoulders and elbows, which, in turn, support the weightless and buoyant hand at rest. But in motion the hand channels the torso’s energy, echoing and concentrating the body’s disposition, the heart’s disposition toward contraction and release.” Russell Sherman ‘Piano Pieces’

from ‘The Craft of Piano Playing’ by Alan Fraser

The hand is a complex bio-mechanism, comprising some 27 bones, not including sesamoid bones which number varies between people. The metacarpals are the bones that connect the fingers and the wrist. Each human hand has 5 metacarpals and 8 carpal bones. The anatomy of the hand, and wrist, allows a range of motions, large (gross motor skills) and small (fine motor skills), and the fingertips contains some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body, are the richest source of tactile feedback, and have the greatest capability for positioning of all the parts of the body.

For the pianist, like the surgeon, the hands are the ‘tools of the trade’, that take signals from the brain and translate those signals into a vast range of articulations, gestures and – most importantly – sounds.

The hands need to be looked after, and many pianists are obsessive about the care of their hands. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was famously neurotic about his hands. He would refuse to shake hands with people, for fear of damaging his hands (so he claimed, but I wonder whether this was just another manifestation of his OCD?). He liked to soak his hands in hot water to warm them before he played, and he wore gloves (and scarf and hat!) in all weathers. Professional pianists are often asked whether they insure their hands, but as the British Paul Lewis once said, if one did that, one would have to insure the arms, shoulders, back, neck…. as well, for all these parts are crucial in the production of sound for the pianist. When asked if he did anything special in the care of his hands, a professional pianist I interviewed some years ago while researching a book, replied “no, but weeding it useful”, an activity which offers a range of movements to assist suppleness (I suppose – I am not a gardener!). He seemed very cool about the care of his hands, but for some of us being a pianist means a lifelong fear of carrying heavy things, sharp objects, boiling water……  British pianist Peter Donohoe suffered a serious accident to one of his fingers, thanks to a hotel window, which could have cut short his career (read more about it here). I admit to being slightly precious about my hands, especially if I have a concert coming up, refusing to carry heavy shopping or do DIY; and the cold weather plays havoc with my hands, making the skin dry and sore. I have to remember to take gloves and emollient cream with me whenever I go out, and I always have hand cream by the piano.

As a pianist, one is constantly aware of one’s hands, checking them, massaging them, drumming the fingers, playing a silent keyboard on a table top or one’s knees when away from the piano. We are aware, too, of the arms, shoulders and back. An injury higher up the arm, in the shoulder, neck or back, can affect the health of the hand too (as I found to my cost, and considerable pain, before Christmas when I damaged my left shoulder playing Rachmaninov too energetically). If you’ve had an injury, you become hyper-sensitive to the slightest twinge or ache. In autumn 2007, I was diagnosed with tenosynovitis in my right hand, the result of using an electric screwdriver (a no-no for the pianist: I should have known better!) and playing octaves too rapidly and without the necessary softness and “spring” in hand, wrist and arm. My hand ballooned into a red, painful useless thing and my osteopath ordered I rest it immediately. I spent three months with my hand in an orthopaedic brace, unable to play the piano, frustrated and miserable. When the brace came off, despite seven sessions with my osteopath (and some considerable expense), my hand was stiff, sluggish and unresponsive. The rehabilitation process was slow. I steered clear of music with octave passages, fast or slow, and the slightest extension of the hand – even a sixth – terrified me, in case the condition returned. Then I met my current teacher, a specialist in relieving tension in the hand and body, and through her guidance, I learnt how to relax, how to make the hand “weightless”, how to support it with the arm, shoulders and back, how to sense instant control and softness. And, most importantly, how to warm up properly. Five years on and I’m playing Liszt and Rachmaninov, composers who famously put huge demands on the hands (and the body in general) – pain free and without tension. Now, the hand problem is nothing more than a minor irritation, one I am aware of, but not something I obsess about.

Non-pianists are often fascinated by the idea of the pianist’s hand, imagining that one must have a special shape or size of hand to play the piano. In reality, there is no “proper” shape or size of the hand for playing the piano. Long fingers are not necessarily an advantage, though having a reasonable hand stretch (at least a 9th or 10th) is useful. Rachmaninov had very big hands (he could stretch to a 12th on the white keys), and for this reason many people think his piano music is unplayable. In fact, because he was a pianist himself, his music is so well written, it is not impossible to navigate, and there are ways around some of the bigger stretches, such as splitting them between the hands. Liszt also had large hands and unusually long fingers with very little web-like connective tissue between them, which allowed him to make wide stretches. Meanwhile, Chopin had surprisingly small hands, and had to come up with some imaginative fingerings for his music in order to be able to play it.

The athleticism of the pianist’s hands is also a source of fascination for the non-pianist, and anything involving crossed hands is often thought to be incredibly difficult or virtuosic. (My students love it if I play something with a crossed hand passage; even better if they get to cross their hands!) In reality, crossing the hands is almost never done for virtuoso showiness, rather for practical purposes: a particular passage may simply be easier to manage with crossed hands.

Repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and focal dystonia, are, sadly, common for pianists and have afflicted a number of well-known artists, including Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Wanda Landowska, Artur Schnabel, Alexander Scriabin, Ignaz Friedman, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Clara Schumann, Glenn Gould, Michel Beroff, and Richard Goode. Fortunately, injuries rarely end the career of a pianist, but they can lead to cancelled concerts and time out for recuperation, in some cases a very long recovery process: Leon Fleischer has only recently returned to the concert platform after many years suffering from focal dystonia. When we play, our hands and fingers are under constant pressure, and are prone to overuse, but we can use various techniques to protect the hands (see resources below). Learning how to relax between notes (especially when playing large spreads, or octaves) is crucial, also ensuring one observes the correct posture at the piano. Take care of yourself, physically (the great teacher Heinrich Neuhaus expected his students to train in the gym at the Moscow Conservatory to keep themselves fit). Perhaps the most important advice is to understand and listen to your body, and never play through pain.

Researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, are engaged in a fascinating project using 3D motion-capture technology to understand the mechanics of piano playing. Led by Dr Cheryl Metcalf, the team hope to build a database of hundreds of piano players to understand the variations in technique, style and playing habits. The information gathered will be useful to understand why and how some pianists develop repetitive strain injuries, and, hopefully, to advise pianists how to better protect themselves against such injuries.

Yoga for Pianists – a sequence of exercises devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell

www.pianomap.com – website of the pianist and teacher Thomas Mark, author of What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body

Craft of Piano – website of renowned teacher Alan Fraser, author of The Craft of Piano Playing

Yoga for Musicians – a DVD by my teacher, Penelope Roskell

Stress in Piano Playing

Thoughts on the hand and fingers from pianist and teacher (and author of Piano Pieces) Russell Sherman

And for fun:

The Top 10 pianists showing off their hands

I’m a pianist. Look at my hands – from the perenially entertaining site Awkward Classical Music photos

Nina Kotova

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

Listening to my father play double bass as a soloist made me consider becoming a musician. Cello as an instrument was chosen for me by my parents.

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

Composing has come easily to me as the method of expression when I started reading music scores at age 7.

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

It is a challenge to understand the laws of interaction and the conflict between the world of musicians and the world of classical music management.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

Considering how much we value each performance, performances that were the most important were the ones that brought the sense of accomplishment.

The audience today is taught to be guided mostly by physical expressions during performance instead of detecting the hidden movements of a soul. It would be incorrect to be solely guided by the reaction of the audience.

What do you consider your most important achievement?

Although I consider premièring and recording my Cello Concerto ten years ago an achievement, I think that the most important achievements are in the future.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Concert venues with the best acoustics are definitely preferred.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have absolutely no favorites. To have favorites would mean to put artificially-created limitations on yourself. It is a powerful feeling to consider it all possible (even mastering less interesting works).

Who are your favourite musicians?

Musicians who are capable of giving their crystal clear souls away to the maximum are the musicians for whom I feel the most respect.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Red Square, Carnegie Hall, Berliner Philharmoniker.

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

Focusing on the inner expression in music and not the purely physical effect will eventually bring the art of performance into a more balanced state.

Creating your own creative world around yourself, learning and understanding how concerts venues and management work, meet people, establish relationships, create opportunities for yourself to perform.

Music says what a word is incapable of expressing. It uses the language of sound, pattern and form and masterful emotional input of the individuals involved .

Discussing the emotional charge as well as realizing what emotions music evokes in you is going to help you to appreciate classical music.

The most important thing is to cultivate the taste from the youngest age, develop curiosity to the arts and study.

What are you working on at the moment?

I often come back to the standard ‘cello repertoire, which is indispensable in putting recital programs together and performances with an orchestra as a soloist.

This season I am also premiering another newly completed concerto written by an American composer for ‘cello and orchestra.

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

I have received a very specialized type of education in the classical music – to keep unraveling my talents, achieving and fulfilling myself in other sectors of art.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Balance. A sense of accomplishment.

What is your most treasured possession?

My talent.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being with my family.

What is your present state of mind?

Lev Tolstoy: ”But my life is now”

Russian-born cellist Nina Kotova has been hailed “passionate and inspiring”. According to Newsweek magazine, “she‘s a fantastically gifted cellist.” “Very expressive, imaginative, and she has a powerful stage presence.” Time magazine states: “She is a musician of high seriousness and real talent”.

Ms. Kotova studied at the Moscow Conservatory and Musikhochschule in Cologne, Germany, giving her first performance as a soloist with orchestra at age 11. She made her Western debut in Prague with the Prague Radio Orchestra in 1986 after winning the Prague International Competition, and followed with debuts at Wigmore Hall, the Barbican Centre in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Ms. Kotova has since then performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras across the globe including the Czech Philharmonic, the Russian National Orchestra, the State Symphony Orchestra, the China Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House orchestras, the BBC Orchestra, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra in Lisbon, and the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg. She has performed on the Red Square in Moscow, for the Imperial family of Japan, and at Buckingham Palace. Upcoming highlights include performances in South America and the Al Bustan Festival.

Ms. Kotova has collaborated with musicians such as violinists Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell and Nikolaj Znaider, flautist Sir James Galway and pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Lang Lang and Hélène Grimaud, with Sting, and conductors Teodor Currentzis, Stephane Deneve, Vladimir Jurowski, Claus Peter Flor, Nicola Luisotti, Antonio Pappano, Libor Pesek and Tamas Vasary.

As a composer Nina Kotova has written numerous works for cello and orchestra. Her first Cello Concerto premiered in San Francisco in 2000. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Like Wolfgang Rihm in 1974, so Kotova in 2000 stands in defiance of both the emotional austerity of last century’s modernism and the new simplicity of so much recent music.”

Although perhaps most acclaimed for her performances and recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Ms. Kotova has a keen interest in expanding the repertoire available for cello. A composer herself and a champion of contemporary music, Ms. Kotova commissioned several leading composers to write a Cello Concerto for her, including another recent collaborator composer Christopher Theofanidis. In 2009 Ms. Kotova performed the world premiere of the Theofanidis Cello Concerto with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, following with the Asian premiere of the work in Singapore with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap Van Zweden.

Ms. Kotova co-founded The Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona in Italy and Festival Del Sole in Napa Valley. She calls the Festivals “a mecca and meeting place for artists and admirers of the arts alike”.

Now performing with the instrument that Jacqueline du Pré made famous in the early 1960s and that Lynn Harrell played over the last two decades, she explains, “The cello is a unique instrument with the capability to reflect the most mysterious qualities of the human soul. As a solo instrument, the cello must have new works written for it that emphasize its virtuosity, powerful energy and lyrical impact.”

Ms. Kotova has taught as a visiting artist at the University of Texas and has been the subject of numerous features in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Elle and the Wall Street Journal, as well as being on the covers of Classic FM, Gramophone China, Il Venerdi Italia and Reader’s Digest and appearing on television on A&E “Breakfast with the Arts” and the “Charlie Rose Show”.

She is carrying on the tradition of not only her legendary father, Russian double-bassist Ivan Kotov (1950-1985), but her teachers and mentors, which include Igor Gavrysh, Valentin Feigin, Boris Pergamenschikov and Mstislav Rostropovich.

An internationally acclaimed and celebrated performer and composer, Ms. Kotova is well on her way to inspiring today’s musical community-classical and beyond. In addition to a CD release of her own Cello Concerto recorded with the Philharmonia of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian (Delos, 2002), other recordings include her chart topping, self-titled debut album (Philips Classics, 1999), a recent recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (Sony Classics, 2006) and inclusion on the compilation Masters of the Bow (Deutsche Grammophon, 2003), which pays homage to the greatest cellists of the last 50 years.


bisphamHow long have you been playing the piano? 

I started when I was about six years old or thereabouts, but gave it up when I went off to study Physics at University. Coming back to music years later was tricky at first but I seemed to get the hang of it again. I doubt the same would be true if I ever went back to Physics.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

It might sound shallow, but I like a tune you can whistle. I tend to stick to solo piano works and I’ve always particularly liked Liszt and Debussy. If I’m honest there’s a lot of the standard repertoire that does little for me, which is useful really as I haven’t the time to learn all of it! Away from piano music I love to listen to a good singing voice, but dislike the tendency I hear in some singers to embellish absolutely every note.

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising? 

Normally I find time here and there when I can. If there’s something on the horizon my family help me find the time to practise more and I’m very grateful to them. I find short bursts of practice are great for polishing pieces but I need longer sessions when learning new repertoire in order to actually get anywhere. My piano is digital so I can practice at unsociable hours using headphones, although a former neighbour once mentioned the strange late-night clunking sound of the keys going down ‘silently’. I enjoy practising if I’m in the mood and not too tired. If I’m not enjoying it I do it anyway.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience? 

Plenty! Masterclasses have ranged in value from total wastes of everyone’s time right up to unforgettably inspiring experiences. On the high-quality end of the scale we have sessions with the late Yonty Solomon which were an absolute joy, and also Martin Roscoe, Noriko Ogawa and my present teacher Jeremy Siepmann.

I recommend the Chetham’s Summer School very highly. If you’ve ever wondered whether there are other people on the planet like you, there are and they all descend on Manchester once a year. Chetham’s has just opened a stunning new music building with a lovely footbridge leading to the old school. It looks like a spaceship has landed and lowered its gangplank.

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons? 

Jeremy makes me concentrate so very hard! It’s challenging, but in a good way. The most enjoyable part is invariably leaving his house with a headful of ideas. We both wish we could meet more frequently than we do.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing? 

I try to enter amateur piano competitions from time to time as a means to get myself on a stage somewhere. There are so many of them now. I get emails about events in Warsaw, Boston, Vienna, Berlin etc but I could never enter them all.

I’ve been to the Paris competition a couple of times some years back and am returning this year (2013). Even turning up will be a major achievement as I’ve acted as an unofficial sponsor of theirs for the last few years by paying the application fee then not turning up. They should dedicate one of their piano keys to me… perhaps one of those that I missed when they last heard me.

The competition is imminent and if anyone wants to follow my progress I’m sure I’ll have the time to tweet while I’m there. Follow @peterbispham

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

I try not to hold up any single piece as “the unattainable dream”. I find that if a piece is very technically demanding it also has to massively appeal to me as a piece of music or I get bored of it by the time it’s in my fingers. There are some very difficult pieces that I think are just not worth the effort, though perhaps I’d feel differently if I practised eight hours a day.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons? 

It’s never too late. That’s a phrase I use a lot about a number of things. If it’s what you want to do then set yourself a goal and go for it.

Jeremy and his wife bought me Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again for Christmas. Although I haven’t read it yet, it looks very interesting and potentially inspirational to adult amateurs. Perhaps I’ll read it on the train to Paris…

Peter started piano at around age six, taking lessons in his home town of Rainhill from esteemed local teacher Raymond Murray, who had studied with both Gordon Green (Royal Northern College of Music) and Douglas Miller, a pupil of Godowsky.

Choosing to read physics at university and follow a technically-oriented career path, piano study fell largely by the wayside as Peter attained a degree and PhD in physics. On leaving academia he started piano study once more, gaining his Licentiate Diploma in Music Performance (LRSM) in 2003.

Since 2005 he has been fortunate enough to study with internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher and broadcaster Jeremy Siepmann, who Peter credits with having transformed his approach to playing the piano.

For more information about Peter, please visit his website.


What is your first memory of the piano?

My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.

I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.

Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.

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

The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.

It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.

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

I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!

What do you expect from your students?

A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.

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

For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.

For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.

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

Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.

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

Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.

South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Read Nico’s full biography here