Most of us tend to focus on the things that didn’t go so well in a performance – the misplaced notes, the smudged runs, the memory slips. Analysing why these things happened and exploring solutions to problems or finding ways to “future proof” our music for the next performance are important aspects of the “practice of practising”.

When a performance goes well, we might simply shrug and say “that went well” and briefly bask in the inner glow of success, the satisfaction of a job well done before moving on to the next task and preparing for another performance.

Reflection and critical self-feedback are important aspects of the process of learning and practising, and being able to pinpoint why a performance went well is as useful in the process as identifying and rectifying problem areas.

In early December 2017, I took part in a really delightful concert at the home of Neil Franks, chairman of the Petworth Festival. I had been invited to join him and two other pianists to play music for 2 pianos/8 hands, 6 hands and some solo works. Potentially, this was a nerve-wracking situation for me: I had given only a couple of public performances during the year and felt slightly out of practise as a performer. Added to that, I had to learn the ensemble pieces in a matter of a week, I would be working with people whom I had not met before, on pianos I had never played before. Ok, this was not the Wigmore Hall, but my naturally perfectionist nature wanted to ensure I was well-prepared for the concert so that I did not let down the others and played to the very best of my ability.

As it turned out, the concert proved to be the best thing I have done, musically, since I returned to playing the piano seriously about 10 years ago, and the entire evening was hugely enjoyable and rewarding for all sorts of reasons (read more about the event here). I was on such a high after the concert, I couldn’t sleep that night and spent the entire train journey back to London from Sussex the next day alternately grinning and admiring the lovely flowers I was given at the end of the evening. The following Monday, I had coffee with a pianist friend, and she asked me about the concert – had I been nervous and if so, how did I handle my nerves? What did I play? And – and this is important – exactly why I felt my performance had gone so well. “I really couldn’t say,” I replied. “It was just that it was all perfect!”.

I’ve subsequently allowed myself some time for proper reflection on the performance and drew some useful conclusions:

Choice of repertoire – I selected solo miniatures (works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Benjamin Britten and William Grant Still) which I knew well (apart from the Corea, of which more in a subsequent post), and had performed several times before. I spent quite a lot of time at home deciding in which order to play the pieces to create the right sense of flow, connection and atmosphere in my solo performance, for the audience and myself. Above all, these are all pieces which I absolutely adore and always enjoy playing.

The other pianists – highly capable, enthusiastic, intelligent, kind and supportive during our rehearsals, and positive in their feedback. The sense of a shared experience and mutual cooperation was so important in creating a really fine concert.

Ambiance – playing a beautifully set up Steinway B in Neil’s lovely country home, with views across the downs and friendly labradors wandering in to see what we were doing, undoubtedly helped take the edge off any performance anxiety

The audience – warm, friendly, enthusiastic, and very generous in their comments, both during the interval and after the concert.

Of course it is not always possible to have such a perfect combination of circumstances to enable a performance to go well, but we can try to go some way to recreating them each time we perform. This is something the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski says he does to allay his own performance anxiety: try to recall the positive feelings of a previous performance that went well and use this to build confidence and positivity about the next performance. To this I would also add playing repertoire in one which feels totally comfortable (not only have you prepared it carefully but you also like it). Above all, try to enjoy the experience – because sharing music with others is a truly wonderful thing to do.

My husband took my rather throwaway suggestion regarding my Christmas present seriously this year – and bought me a Theremin.

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My son trying out the Christmas Thermin

The Theremin was created by mistake by Russian inventor Leon Theremin: he was trying to make a better TV set and ended up creating the world’s first electronic instrument, and possibly the oddest (along with the Ondes Martenot).

I first encountered the eerie Sci-Fi sounds of the Theremin on Portishead’s song ‘Mysteron’s and then on songs by Alison Goldfrapp (who, it is said, can play the Theremin “with her crotch”; I’ve got some way to go before I can perfect this particular technique of controlling the instrument…..!). I’m not a big fan of pop music, per se, but I do like singers and bands who use utilise unusual harmonies and instrumentation (Kate Bush, Radiohead, Goldfrapp) and the spooky, haunting sound of the Theremin definitely adds a certain je ne sais quoi to any piece of music….. It’s no surprise that it has been used in Sci-Fi film and TV scores, notably Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, Ed Wood, The Machinist, and of course, Star Trek. What is more surprising is that a number of classical composers have used its curious swooping sounds in concert music, including Bohuslav Martinu. Percy Grainger and Fazil Say. A quick search on Spotufy threw up all manner of Theremin albums and playlists, including Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album, which contains such “gems” (!) as Dvorak’s Humoreske and Schubert’s Ave Maria, as well as a version of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, from Porgy and Bess, the swooping, wailing Theremin providing a rather poignant melody line to this well-known number. In some works, the Theremin has the haunting, melodic qualities of a klezmer fiddle or gypsy violin – such as in the ‘Melody’ by Joseph Schillinger, performed by Lydia Kavina, Leon Theremin’s grand-niece.

It’s going to take me some time and a lot of patience to master the Theremin and so until I am ready to post some of my own tracks, please enjoy some of my Theremin discoveries:

 

 

 

 


Further reading

Weird Science – Billy Bailey on the history of the Theremin and one of its leading exponents, Clara Rockmore

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I have watched pianist Lucas Debargue with interest since he burst onto the international music scene as the “runner up” in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. Described as a “maverick” and a “late starter” because he didn’t have a traditional musical training in conservatoire and doesn’t wear the customary concert attire, he interests me because he has a very personal artistic vision and creative freedom – almost certainly the result of not following the traditional well-trod path of the young concert pianist. (The cover photo on his latest disc seems to reflect this – the artist treading a lonely, snowy path.)

Since then, he’s released two impressive recordings in quick succession. Now this much-anticipated third disc presents a brace of familiar Schubert sonatas – the so-called “little” sonatas in A minor (D784) and A Major (D664) – with a rarely-performed piece, Karol Szymanowski’s second piano sonata, also in A Major. Debargue brings a dark emotional intensity, poignancy and rugged earnestness, when called for, to the first Schubert sonata and also the Szymanowski, thus creating some interesting and satisfying links between two works which on first sight may not appear connected. He fully appreciates the bleak  melancholy inherent in the D784 with its mysterious spare opening motif and the portentous trills and rumbling tremolandos, offset by passages of tender wistfulness (Schubert can feel even more tragic when writing in a major key). The Andante is elegantly paced, but not without its passions, while the finale is frenetic and anxious, its scurrying triplets tempered by sections of bittersweet lyricism.

Ostensibly more “cheerful”, the little A Major has its share of heartrending moments, not least in the second movement to which Debargue brings a desolate intimacy, without ever losing sight of the natural poetry of this music. The finale is sprightly with melodic clarity aplenty and much rhythmic verve.

Any pianist who records Schubert must be very sure of his or her ground, and in these sonatas Debargue displays a musical maturity and thoughtful insight to give a performance which is both convincing and personal.

There’s a brooding melancholy and blistering restlessness in the opening movement of the Syzmanowski sonata which recalls the dark clouds of Schubert’s D784, while the middle movement has a quirky Schubertian tread to it, initially dance-like then more sombre and funereal, and its unusual harmonic language, fluctuating tonalities, and expansiveness also recall Schubert’s writing. It’s a rewarding work, with its full-blooded passionate late-romantic textures (which have gone by the time Szymanowski wrote his third piano sonata), and Debargue is alert to its shifting palette and dark intensity, as well as its monumental structure and narrative thrust.

There’s nothing youthful or unformed about Debargue’s playing in all three works on this disc. There’s a genuine, uncontrived naturalness in his playing, especially in his use of tempo rubato, and his overall approach is mature and thoughtful, suggesting an artist who has not only fully immersed himself in this repertoire but also informed his playing via a wider cultural landscape and interests.

Recommended


Review of Lucas Debargue’s debut disc

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

I don’t really remember deciding to be a musician, it’s just something I always did, and always knew I wanted to do. It did take me a while to discover that I wanted to be a composer, however. I only really knew about performers, so that’s what I thought I’d be at first. (Of course the music we played was by composers – but they mostly seemed to be dead men from Europe!) At first I thought I would be a pianist, and then an oboist. I entered university as an oboist, and though it was a fantastic time, and I’m glad that I had those years of performance training and experience, it was never quite the right fit. I didn’t love practising, and I didn’t love performing: I loved the music itself, and those were the only ways I knew to get close to it. When I was 18 I went to a music summer camp and signed up for the composition class simply because it fit my schedule and the teacher seemed interesting. As soon as I started, I knew that I needed to be a composer.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

There are so many it’s hard to list, but one huge influence on me has been the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. I’ve interacted with him, his music, and his writing in so many different ways over the years, and I think my own work would be quite different without his influence. Growing up in Canada, I sang many of his pieces in choir. These are pieces that can be sung by children or amateurs, but are really successful and interesting as new music, often using beautiful graphic notation to help non-music readers to create fantastic sound worlds. This has very much influenced my approach to writing for children and amateurs: music doesn’t have to be simplified or trivialized to be made accessible to performers of all experiences and abilities. In 1992 I attended a workshop by Schafer called Environmental Music Week. This got me started really listening to the sounds of the natural world, and thinking of music as something that belongs outdoors just as much as it does in the concert hall. And from 1992 until 2003 I was part of Schafer’s large-scale collaborative music-theatre work And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, which involves camping in the wilderness of Ontario for a week every summer, and co-creating the work with about 50 other participants (who are also the only audience). This has influenced me in so many ways that it’s hard to even know who I would be without having participated in it, but a few things that come to mind are the importance of community, the importance of creating for the people you are with, the importance of participating in all kinds of art forms even if you specialize in on, the importance of storytelling, and the way music and performance can serve as a ritual to deepen our connections with people and the natural world.

Other strong influences that come to mind, in no particular order, are my piano teachers, medieval and renaissance music, Ravel, the book Music, Myth and Nature by French composer François-Bernard Mâche, the two years I spend studying with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam, traditional music, starting to play fiddle when I was 30 (and playing in a klezmer band and French Canadian traditional music band), Bread and Puppet Theater, and my interdisciplinary research on bird and other animal songs. And, more recently, becoming a parent!

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

Overall I feel very satisfied and lucky with my career: I’ve been able to compose, collaborate with fantastic performers, have some great performances of my music, and pursue my interdisciplinary animal song research with some wonderful biologists. At the moment, I have my dream job, a 4-year research fellowship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. I’d say the first greatest challenge is simply composing itself! Though I find being a composer immensely satisfying, I’m not one of those (rare) composers who always finds the act of composing easy or pleasurable. I love having written a piece, but getting there often involves a lot trusting in the process even when I feel like I’d rather be anywhere than sitting at the piano or the desk! There’s also the ongoing frustration that it can be so hard for composers to earn a living. I’m ok at the moment, but it’s always precarious, and there have been times when I’ve had to live on almost nothing, or when I’ve had to rely on the help of family. I’ve been lucky so far: but artists shouldn’t have to be lucky to survive. We need security just as much as anyone else does!

My current biggest challenge is getting used to being a parent-artist. I had my first child when I was 40, so I had had quite a long time to get used to my schedule being my own: following the needs of the music I was writing, working on evenings and weekends as necessary, getting a slow start to my days, and so on. During the 5 years I was a freelance composer, I’d take all day to get myself into the right headspace for composing, and then have a brilliant and focused 3 or so hours to compose between 4 and 7 or so. Now I’m lucky to have 3 consecutive hours in a day. I need to focus immediately, even if I’ve been thinking about something completely different previously. And I’m always interruptable now – if the kids get sick, if the babysitter cancels, etc. I actually think that getting used to new ways of working is a good challenge – perhaps it will stimulate new kinds of ideas – but its not always easy!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve combined these questions, since they’re related. I only write pieces for specific performers or performance contexts: sometimes they’re commissioned by the performer, sometimes they’re initiated by me. An essential part of music for me is the communicative aspect. Ultimately I want to communicate with the audience (it doesn’t have to be everyone in the audience, but I want at least someone in the audience to have a meaningful experience with the music!), and the performers are the ones who are communicating the music to the audience: so having a good relationship with the performers is necessary! It’s always a great pleasure when performers just “get” my music without me having to say anything. But equally, it’s a great pleasure if they don’t “get” my music at first, but are willing to work together with me until they do!

Of which works are you most proud?

This is always changing, but at the moment I’m feeling most proud of my chamber opera ‘Jan Tait and the Bear’, which I was working on on and off since 2012, and which was premiered in 2016. I wanted to write something engaging and interesting for audiences of all ages – not a children’s opera, but an opera that both children and adults could enjoy equally – and I think I succeeded with that. I wrote the libretto myself – something I had never thought I could do – and discovered that I actually really enjoy writing lyrics. And I hadn’t really thought that I would be able to write something as large-scale as an opera, but I did, bit by bit, and here it is! The whole process of working with the ensemble, the singers, the narrator, the stage director, the costume designer, and everyone, has also been really fun: it’s so wonderful to see what an entire creative team comes up with.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Oh dear, this is always the hardest question to answer! I like notes, melodies, harmonies (tonal and non-tonal), sounds, colours, patterns, irregular rhythms, narratives, stories, words, silences. My pieces use these in various different combinations and to varying degrees. On average my work is tonal-ish, though some of my pieces are not. Many but not all of my pieces are influenced by my research on bird and other animal songs.

How do you work?

This is constantly changing. I used to take hours – hours spent wandering, reading, cooking, biking, napping, daydreaming – to settle into the right headspace for composing. This is not currently possible, so I’m working on becoming better at just sitting down at the piano or desk and getting right to it. When starting a piece, I often improvise at the piano until I come up with the ideas I want to follow, or I start out with verbal or pictorial sketches. When I look back at the initial sketches, they usually have very little to do with what the piece ends up being – but I guess they’re essential as the way into it. I’ve never had a great concentration span, so composing for me is a continual process of redirecting my attention back at the music. When I get stuck, I like to sight read piano music or go for a walk. (I’m considering getting rid of my smart phone so I don’t have to constantly fight off the temptation to check facebook or the news!)

I never compose without a cup of coffee. Even if it has gotten cold and I am no longer drinking it, I find it reassuring to have it there!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many, so this list is by no means comprehensive! From the classical/new music world, certainly Machaut, R. Murray Schafer, Ravel, Meredith Monk, Bach, Xenakis, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Stravinsky, Andriessen. I also love listening to the music of my peers – though I won’t name any because I don’t want to risk leaving people out! And I listen to a lot of traditional music, from all over the world. At the moment (as a relative newcomer to the UK – I moved here 2 years ago) I’m listening to a lot of English and Scottish traditional song – the Copper Family, Annie Briggs, Ewan MacColl, and so on.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think the most memorable experiences have been large-scale, multidisciplinary, outdoor works: Murray Schafer’s And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, the summer circuses of Bread and Puppet, Hanna Tuulikki’s Away With the Birds, the Environmental Art Festival in Scotland. Though those were not just about music – they were about theatre, community, and environment as well.

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

Keep listening and learning, and don’t let setbacks set you back. Everyone fails or is rejected sometimes. The successful musicians are the ones who learn and keep on going.

And look for as many ways as you can to build the kinds of musical communities you want to be part of. Some people try to get ahead by thinking only of how to further their own careers, but I think we’re all happier and healthier when we’re looking for ways to help others as much as we’re looking to help ourselves.

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

At the moment I have a number of composition and research projects that I’m really excited about – and I basically hope for the same thing 10 years from now! I do have some nascent ideas for future operas – larger scale than anything I’ve done so far. Perhaps these will be outdoor or site specific pieces, perhaps with a larger cast that I’ve written for previously – and I hope I am in the position to be making some of those happen then.

 

Canadian-born, Scotland-based composer Emily Doolittle grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was educated at Dalhousie, Indiana University, Princeton University, and the Koninklijk Conservatorium in the Hague, where she studied with Louis Andriessen with the support a Fulbright fellowship. From 2008-2015 she was an Associate Professor of Music at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, UK, where she is an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Doolittle enjoys writing for both traditional and less standard instrumentation, and has been commissioned by such ensembles and soloists as Symphony Nova Scotia, the Vancouver Island Symphony, Orchestre Métropolitain (Montreal), the New York Youth Symphony, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, the Motion Ensemble (Canada), the Paragon Ensemble (Glasgow), soprano Suzie LeBlanc, viola da gambist Karin Preslmayer, and alphornist Mike Cumberland. Upcoming projects include a chamber opera called Jan Tait and the Bear, which will be performed in Glasgow by Ensemble Thing in October, 2016, and a concerto for Canadian bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson.

An ongoing interest for Doolittle is the relationship between music and sounds from the natural world, particularly bird and other animal songs. She has explored this in a number of compositions, as well as in her doctoral dissertation at Princeton and in interdisciplinary birdsong research with biologists and ornithologists. In 2011 she was composer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, where she collaborated with ornithologist Henrik Brumm in researching the song of the musician wren and presented a concert of her birdsong-related works, performed by members of the Bavarian State Opera.

Other recurrent interests include folklore, musical story-telling, and making music for and with children. These interests are combined in her piece Songs of Seals, based on Scottish folklore and written in collaboration with Gaelic poet Rody Gorman, for the Voice Factory Youth Choir and the Paragon Ensemble (Glasgow), which was premiered in the fall of 2011 in Glasgow and Skye.

Doolittle has received a number of awards for her music, including the 2012 Theodore Front Prize for A Short, Slow Life (commissioned by Suzie Leblanc and Symphony Nova Scotia), two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, and the Bearn’s Prize. Her work has been supported by grants and commissions from the Artist Trust (Seattle), the Eric Stokes Fund, The Culture and Animals Foundation, ASCAP, the Canada Council, the Nova Scotia Arts Council, FIRST Music, the Montreal Arts Council, and the Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Québec, and with artist residencies at MacDowell, Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, Banff, and the Center for Contemporary Art in Glasgow.

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Guest post by Alison Mathews

During my career in music, I have always tried to find ways to balance the inevitably large amounts of time spent working alone – whether that be practicing, writing, preparing lessons or as now, composing works aimed at the intermediate pianist. Collaboration has always felt like the key to a healthy working life! At college, that meant a large amount of accompaniment and duet work. In private teaching, I developed and ran workshops with a like-minded colleague. As the focus of my career shifted to composing I naturally looked for ways to continue collaborating. This was not so easy to achieve!

True collaboration means inviting another individual into your creative process, which of course, requires trust and mutual respect. You need to have a shared vision that allows room for the expression of personal ideas. This of course, is true in many forms of musical collaboration, but in composition, where you essentially begin with nothing but an idea, perhaps something fairly abstract, it takes a special form of relationship for a partnership to be able to grow and flourish.

I was very lucky to make contact with the composer Barbara Arens through Facebook about two years ago. Over a few months we developed a friendship, which quite quickly became a working partnership. We discovered early on that we had many things in common, both musical and non- musical! Significantly, despite our differences in compositional style, we have a similar aim in composing, linked to our long experience as teachers. We both know that in setting a goal for a pupil, the imagination needs to be engaged through the music learnt. Progress through meeting technical challenges is important but above all it must be achievable – it cannot be out of reach. Engagement provides motivation and allows for expression, success leads to progress and development. To this end, we both aim to write music that is appealing, that uses the wide tonal range of the piano and encourages expressive playing. We take care to write as pianistically as possible, using shapes that fit well under the hand with potential technical challenges carefully placed. For example, my pieces may use wider stretches or leaps and Barbara’s may use cross rhythms.

So how does this partnership work in a practical way? Barbara lives in Germany and I live in the UK so we rely heavily on email and messenger, along with the regular sending of pdfs and mp3s. The free exchange of ideas early on in a project can spark creativity, which is especially motivating when perhaps one of us needs a push or a little inspiration! Very happily, similar things, for example art, history or literature, often inspire us, which will lead to time spent researching. This is an important part of the process as I know we both feel that no matter what level we are writing for or what the subject matter or theme is, background knowledge lends authenticity to the finished project.

When it comes to the actual process of composition we tend to send each other “work in progress” or pieces in various stages of completion. This is the point at which we invite each other into our individual process of creativity. This is where trust and respect is vital. We both value honest feedback and suggestions to improve the work shared. We both have a similar view on criticism – it can be healthy and constructive when balanced with a dose of encouragement or praise! Accepting that the joint goal is more important than the individual is so important. There has to be give and take and very often compromise! After some misgivings, I ended up rethinking the keys of several pieces to ensure they balanced with Barbara’s – a good decision. We would both be prepared to rewrite or discard work if ultimately it didn’t fit well within a book.

This summer, we did get the chance to work together at the same piano. I spent time with Barbara at her home, where we were able to explore new ideas for future projects. As we both compose at the piano and develop ideas through playing and listening, we naturally spent some time “noodling” as well as discussing and bouncing ideas between us. This was a particularly enriching experience. Not only in terms of working on specific ideas, but just the chance to play other music together and develop our friendship.

There is only one occasion so far when we have both independently wrote a piece at the same time, on the same subject matter without the other knowing! Not so much of a coincidence perhaps, when you consider the project was an exploration of the joys of winter, but interesting as the outcome differed so much. We both wrote a piece of music inspired by frost. For Barbara, this was after an early frosty morning walk. For me it was seeing the wonderful patterns created by frost on a windowpane. We both used similar compositional techniques such as ostinato patterns and syncopated rhythms as well as a similar tonal range with the higher register of the piano and yet each piece is individual in style. Barbara makes use of rhythmic devices such different groupings in each hand, which propels the music forward as well as giving a light, fresh, extrovert feel. Although mine also begins with an ostinato-like pattern in the left hand, it relies much more on harmonic shifts to provide colour and is more thoughtful and introverted.

These differences are another important feature of a good collaboration. Although we do consider aspects of our composing jointly, such as the keys we use, difficulty levels and the style or character of a piece, we are well aware our differences create variety within a similar genre of writing. Pieces which are complimentary but distinctly our own work best. There are plenty of differences between the way we work – Barbara much more quickly and usually late at night. I’m the opposite! Early morning can be a productive time for me and I find Barbara’s meticulous approach, especially to detail in scores, keeps me on my toes!

With any form of collaboration, if you are open and generous in your approach then it can be an excellent learning experience and a real opportunity to improve and develop. We began with a book of arrangements of ancient Christmas carols, transformed into contemporary, lyrical solos. Our second book mixed arrangements with original works and the following projects (one just complete, one planned) will be only original compositions.

As I said in my opening, collaboration provides a healthy balance to my work. I enjoy my solo projects and continue to work on more personal ideas but have found that working in partnership has increased my confidence, sharpened my critical ear and given me a far more objective and questioning approach to my own compositions. No matter what area of music you may be working in, collaboration and if you’re lucky, the development of a longer working partnership can be very rewarding and lead to personal development.


dscf5710_1Alison Mathews is a classically trained pianist and composer living and working in Surrey, UK. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, she holds both a Teaching Diploma and an Honours degree. Alison went on to complete a Masters degree at Surrey University, with the aesthetics of music at the heart of her studies. This led to a wider exploration of the links between art, myth and music with the award of a scholarship for a Doctorate at Surrey University. She was unable to complete this, as having a family intervened and a career in music education came to the forefront. Alison has been running a thriving private teaching practice for over 25 years along with workshops integrating art and music. Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide students at all levels with imaginative music to play and the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Alison’s solo and collaborative works are published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

http://alisonmathewspiano.weebly.com/