Pianist friends Alison Bestow and Claire Vane have set up a brand new adult piano course. I caught up with them to find out more about their new venture….

Why did you decide to establish a new piano course?

Claire: We wanted to have the opportunity to attend more piano courses, and we were looking for a course in the Easter holidays, but there were very few available. We decided to run our own course, with all our favourite ideas from the other courses that we have enjoyed. We love big, exciting projects, and this is our latest joint enterprise.

How did you go about finding the venue?

Alison: We approached many venues in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire that we thought would have the facilities that we were looking for, including the right number of pianos, a concert hall and comfortable residential accommodation on site. Initially, we had huge difficulties finding a venue because most schools and Cambridge colleges are booked several years in advance, often to bigger courses. We were really lucky to find the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, which ticks all the boxes. We have been given full run of their state of the art music block, and the staff there have been very helpful.

Claire: The location is really beautiful, on the side of the river Orwell with spectacular views, so the environment should be inspiring as well.

Who are the tutors and how did you go about finding them?

Claire: Warren Mailley-Smith has been my teacher for the last 3 years and he is very keen on master classes and teaching adults.  Penelope Roskell has been a friend of mine since I was a young teenager and we were both Saturday morning exhibitioners at the Royal Northern College of Music. Penelope has subsequently pursued a professional career in music as a concert pianist and later Professor of Piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  Penelope is particularly interested in posture and tension-free playing and is a great exponent of yoga too.

Are there any other tutors at the course? 

Alison: I currently have yoga lessons with Izzy Ixer and I was talking to her about the course and she thought it was a great idea and had lots of ideas for using yoga to help with relaxation and performance nerves.  Another friend of mine, Claire Weston, was a principal soprano at ENO and she offered to come along to teach about being an accompanist as this is a skill that lots of pianists don’t get chance to practise. They are both highly experienced teachers and I know that their lessons will be great fun.

What are you going to be doing on the course?

Claire: Well, apart from masterclasses and individual lessons in piano, accompanying and yoga, there will be a lot of socialising, eating, drinking, practising and some relaxation.  The facilities at The Royal Hospital School in Ipswich are amazing so we’ll have the opportunity to walk in the grounds and even the chance to swim if there is any space between master classes and having fun.

Alison: I am hoping to meet lots of other piano-mad people, make some new friends and play some piano duets. I’m looking forward to playing one of the grand pianos in the beautiful recital hall at the school.

I am very intrigued by the name Pianissimi’ – how did you arrive at that name?

Claire: We wanted a name that conveyed the piano, and as music notation is largely in Italian, we wanted something with an Italian element.  We thought that as this was a group event, we’d go for Pianissimi, signifying the plural rather than Pianissimo, and thought it was a bit different and the Italianates amongst the pianists would smile.  It also conveys a sense of gentleness and softness, which is the atmosphere we’d like to convey – one of informality and security rather than loud and brash.

Is this a profit making venture?

Alison: We are doing this just for fun, and we have decided that any surplus made will go to Cancer Research so no, this is not a profit-making enterprise.

Who is this course aimed at?

Alison: We want the course to be very inclusive for anyone who loves the piano as much as we do, so we are suggesting that attendees are grade 7 onwards and including diploma level and post-diploma.  The levels of experience and performance will be varied, but we want to ensure that everybody feels comfortable and confident playing in a group. The course is also ideal for those with a specific aim, such as preparing for a graded or diploma exam, or getting ready for a particular performance. There will be lots of performance opportunities for those who want them. But there won’t be any pressure on people to perform if they don’t want to.

Where can we find out more?

Claire: All the information about the course is on our website:

http://pianissimi.wordpress.com/

Our contact details are also on the site, so I hope people will get in touch if they want to participate and if they have any other questions. If you, like us, are a piano nut, do come and join us at Pianissimi during the Easter holidays in 2017. 

Pianissimi

Course dates: 5.30 pm on Thursday, 20th April 2017 to 4 pm on Sunday, 23rd April 2017.

Location: Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk IP9 2RX. There are good rail connections from London

Cost: £450 per person to include all tuition, full board and accommodation in the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk.

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The Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk

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/

Another excellent three days in the company of other advanced pianists – some students, some piano teachers like me, and some professional pianists – on the piano course run by my teacher, Penelope Roskell. We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, from Scarlatti to Stephen Montague, and discussed and practiced aspects of technique such as soft hands and forearms, ‘Mozartian’ staccato (what Penelope descibes as “detached legato”), ‘orchestrating’ sonatas and piano works by Haydn and Mozart, and how to achieve a beautiful cantabile sound in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat (D899 No. 3) and Chopin’s ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude (Opus 25, No. 1). And much more besides….. Our coffee and lunch breaks were full of interesting ‘piano chat’ and it was both instructive and enjoyable to exchange ideas with other pianists and teachers. The next course is on September – details at the end of the post.

Despite finding the first course (in April 2009) very daunting, because of the very high standard of the other participants, I have always gained a huge amount from these courses: they are instructional, inspiring, very supportive, and non-competitive. Everyone comes to the course with different needs and interests, from help with tension or performance anxiety, or simply a desire to play through some repertoire to other people in a relaxed setting. The course always ends with a concert, to which friends and family are welcome. The performance aspect of these courses has done wonders for my confidence and I have lost any shyness I had about performing, and now actively enjoy it. The 30 seconds of contemplative silence which greeted my performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Opus 62, No. 2 was the ultimate compliment at the concert yesterday afternoon, and I was flattered and touched by some of the comments I received afterwards.

What we played during the course:

Debussy – Preludes Book I: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Villa-Lobos – Prole de bebe No. 1: ‘O Polochinello’

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in F minor, XII, WTC Book 2

Chopin – Nocturne in E, Op. 62, No. 2 (me)

Mendelssohn – Variations Serieuses, Op. 54

Chopin – Berceuse, Op. 57

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No. 4, in F sharp major, Op. 30

Mozart – Piano Sonata in A minor, K 310 (1st & 2nd movements)

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat, No. 59, Hob. XVI:49 (1st movement)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in D, K 576

Chopin – Waltz in E minor, No. 14

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 10 No. 2

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 5 (1st movement)

Dave Brubeck – ‘Dad Plays the Harmonica’

Henry Cowell – ‘Exultation’

Stephen Montague – ‘The Headless Horseman’

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974 (me)

Chopin – Etude, Opus 25 No. 1 ‘Aeolian Harp’

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511 (me)

Scarlatti – Sonata K.215

Martin Butler – ‘After Concord’

Joanna MacGregor – Lowside Blues

Diana Burrell – ‘Constellations’

Schubert – Impromptu in G flat, D899 no. 3

Chopin – Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp major, WTC Book 2, III

Prokfiev – Piano Sonata No. 3 (1st movement)

Liszt – Concert Study: ‘Un Sospiro’

Charles Tebbs – ‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ (Charles is a pianist and composer who attended the course and performed some of his own pieces for us)

You can hear most of the pieces via this Spotify playlist

‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ by Charles Tebbs

More on piano courses here (includes details of Penelope Roskell’s September course)