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Pianissimi! An exciting new course for adult pianists

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:


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. 


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.

The Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk

Meet the Artist……Samantha Ward, pianist


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

My mother was the first major influence in my pianistic life as she saw me fiddling away on our terrible upright piano at home (which had actually been sitting in flood water in a freezing cold garage!) and decided to take me to lessons.  Her idea of taking piano lessons for a term to see how I would take to it was something I wasn’t all that enthralled about and I was convinced I wanted to learn the ‘cello instead.  The rest is history!  Later on, I was inspired by such artists as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Emil Gilels and many others.

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

I was lucky enough to have fantastic teachers throughout my early years in particular (Leslie Riskowitz who started me off on the piano and Polish pianist AlicjaFiderkiewicz at Chetham’s.  I then went onto study with Joan Havill at the Guildhall).  The people I work with are also wonderful influences, in both chamber music groups and those who I have met and played to in masterclasses.  Stephen Kovacevich and Boris Berman both inspired me immensely.

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

Balancing everything in life and finding enough time to be with the instrument as well as remaining resilient against the odds a lot of the time.  A pianist’s life is a tough but rewarding one and simply managing to find the necessary time to practise enough whilst financing life in London and building a career is a real challenge.

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

I find it extremely rewarding to work with orchestras and ensembles and as a pianist, there are so many wonderful concerti and chamber music works out there.  It is a truly great feeling to make music with someone else and to share the whole experience together on stage.  This is something which solo pianists can sometimes miss out on a little, generally needing to spend a lot of time alone in practice rooms to learn all those notes!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I was lucky enough to give my solo debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2007 and this was a truly wonderful experience.  Last year, I performed Dora Bright’s piano concerto with Charles Peebles and the Morley Chamber Orchestra, which was the first performance since the nineteenth century as well as the first ever recording of the work.  The same will be true of the ‘Variations for Piano and Orchestra’ which we are going to be recording later this year.  I was also proud to be asked to record Rory Freckleton’s piano works recently and am looking forward to the CD being ready.

How do you make repertoire choices from season to season? 

Specific concerti are usually requested by orchestras but in terms of solo repertoire, I tend to play to my strengths as much as possible, whilst trying to create a balanced and varied programme.  At the current stage in my career, I am also trying to learn and perform as much new repertoire as possible, so that I come back to it having already learnt it rather than starting it afresh when I am older.

What repertoire do you think you play best? 

I feel most at home with the Germans!  I particularly enjoy playing Brahms and love the bigger works such as the F minor Sonata and the two concerti.  I also think Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Gershwin and Ireland suit me quite well.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

The Wigmore Hall would have to be my favourite!  I also very much enjoy performing at Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall, the De Montfort Hall in Leicester and at St John’s Smith Square in London.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Well this is a very hard one to answer as there are so many!  To name but a few, I would have to say Mischa Maisky, Martha Argerich, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emma Kirkby and Daniel Barenboim.    On a more personal level, there are also many musicians with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the years.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

It would have to be playing at the Wigmore Hall. I also loved playing on the Greek island of Paros.  I played the inaugural recital in the new piano festival which was launched there a few years ago.  It was amazing to perform in such an idyllic setting in the most beautiful surroundings to people who had rarely been exposed to live classical music concerts.

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

I love playing Brahms and Beethoven in particular and also have fun playing Gershwin.  In terms of listening to music, unless I am going to a concert, I tend not to listen to all that much classical music.  I love jazz and could listen to Oscar Peterson all day.

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

Practise like mad when you are studying as there is never the time to do so later on.  I would also suggest learning all the major works of the repertoire and get first performances done as soon as possible, as this helps greatly when returning to them in the future.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and Mendelssohn’s 1st for forthcoming performances.  Then a solo recording in September.  Also, I am working at duo repertoire for a recital with the wonderful ‘cellist Brian O’Kane and at trio repertoire for a concert again with Brian and Fenella Humphreys with whom I love performing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having good health, a busy life as a concert pianist and having a flat on the Greek island of Paros with my partner, Maciej.  The island, despite being small, has an airport so travelling to concerts wouldn’t be a problem and the food, weather and people are wonderful there!

You are artistic director of Piano Week, launched in 2013. Tell us more about Piano Week…. 

Piano Week is my new festival and summer school for pianists of all ages and abilities which takes place this year at Bangor University in North Wales from 10th-15th August 2014.  I wanted to create something new in the piano world and to build an international concert platform for pianists from around the world.  I decided to launch it in North Wales as I grew up there and hadn’t heard of a pianistic venture such as this in the area before, so I decided to make it happen!  We have an international faculty lined up to give recitals and master classes throughout the 2014 festival and we are lucky enough to be supported by Blüthner who are lending us a brand new concert grand for the duration of the festival this year.  Pianist magazine recently included an article about the festival in their April/May issue and Schott Music publishers will once again be presenting a showcase at Piano Week 2014.  Please go to www.pianoweek.com for more information on the summer school and how to apply.

British pianist Samantha Ward has performed extensively around the UK and in Europe and has appeared on British television and radio several times.  In October 2007, she gave her solo debut recital at London’s Wigmore Hall and has given solo recitals in such venues as St Martin in the Fields, St John’s Smith Square, St David’s Hall Cardiff and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, as well as in concert halls around Europe.  Most recently, in February 2013, Samantha was invited to become a Bluthner Artist and was installed as a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. 

Samantha Ward is also the artistic director of Piano Week, a festival and summer school at the University of Bangor, north Wales. Full details here  

Samantha Ward’s full biography