On Saturday 24th May I attended a workshop for piano teachers hosted by the Faber Music Academy/Faber Music, in association with Alfred Music and Edition Peters, as a guest of Edition Peters. The all-day event featured lectures by Pam Wedgwood, Andrew Higgins and Roy Howat, and concluded with a recital by pianist Daniel Grimwood. My friend and teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight accompanied me – and we met a number of other teaching friends and colleagues at the event. Rebecca has co-authored this review of the day with me (her comments are in italics).
The morning session offered opportunities for two publishers (Faber Music and Alfred Music) to showcase their method books. Pam Wedgwood from Faber used her slot to introduce her new 3-volume ‘Piano Basics’ Course (a 2-level course with accompanying ‘workout’ book offering technical exercises). Pam is well known to UK piano teachers as the composer of many engaging and popular pieces in a variety of styles which are accessible to children and adult learners. Her session included entertaining examples of games that can be played in lessons to reinforce rhythmic and pitch awareness away from the piano bench and I expect that all teachers present gained some fun ideas to take back to their studios. She also played some of her own compositions which would certainly appeal to young learners. However, ultimately I was left with the feeling that the session was little more than a marketing exercise for her own books, particularly towards the end as one book after another was presented. Overall the overt marketing undermined what was otherwise a fun session.
Andrew Higgins from Alfred Music followed, a refreshing change in that the Alfred books were used purely as examples to illustrate a truly inspirational session. ndrew’s focus was the teaching of harmony – in particular chords and chord progressions – to allow students to fully explore musical concepts, develop improvisation and composition skills, and to gain a deeper understanding of repertoire. He demonstrated a wide variety of teaching ideas that would enable students to fully understand how harmony works across music of all genres – a highlight being how a popular Adele song used the same harmonic progressions as Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata!
The contrast between the two morning sessions reflected the dilemmas faced by UK piano teachers today: I speak as one relatively new to the profession, having been teaching for just over a year, and as a current student of EPTA-UK’s Piano Teachers’ Course. Although Andrew Higgins did not push the Alfred books to the participants, in response to a question he did state that Level 3 of the Premier course equated roughly to a Grade 1 standard. The first two levels of this course each contain two method books. Therefore, a teacher using this course (myself included) would go through five books before their students reached an approximate Grade 1 standard. In doing so, Andrew Higgins’ presentation made it clear that they would receive a good introduction to the use of chords, chord progressions and harmonic knowledge and be well on their way to being well-rounded musicians who could use this knowledge in improvisation and composition as well as being able to tackle the standard of repertoire needed at a Grade 1 level. In contrast Pam Wedgwood’s Basics book (in common with other UK methods) contains only two volumes and states that this will get a student to Grade 1 standard. However, there is less in the way of work on chords and their progressions (a knowledge of which is not a prerequisite for passing early exams) and a scan through the books revealed that new concepts appeared to be introduced very quickly with little reinforcement before moving onto the next. Whilst I have no doubt that in the hands of a good teacher this method would be successful in getting a student to Grade 1 standard I do feel that this can be rather a narrow objective for beginning piano students. On the EPTA course we are told that it should take roughly three years from being a complete beginner to passing Grade 1 in order to develop really secure musical concepts. This is roughly how long it would take to work through the Alfred method books and other, similar methods from the US (e.g. Piano Adventures). However, in the UK many teachers feel pressure from parents to enter their children for exams earlier and it is common for grade 1 to be reached in 18-24 months or less. Books such as Pam Wedgwood’s will appeal to teachers who aim to move their beginning students through the exam system quickly – which is a really valid approach for many students, particularly those for whom music is (or will become) a serious subject of study. But it was refreshing to be reminded that there are other, very different, approaches available for teachers who want to take more time with their students in the early stages of their learning to explore many different musical ideas and concepts, not only those necessary for passing formal exams.
The afternoon session began with a fascinating talk by renowned pianist and scholar Roy Howat, who has recently edited new Editions Peters editions of works by Debussy, Ravel and Faure. His highly erudite yet accessible talk focused on the piano music of these three great French composers, and highlighted the difficulties encountered by editors, and pianists, in trying to produce a ‘definitive’ urtext edition. By examining scores and earlier editions, Roy demonstrated how detailed analysis of source material and editorial notes can impact on the performance of these works, and how certain markings on the score have often been misunderstood or misinterpreted by performers. I found his comments on meter in Debussy’s music particularly interesting in which he showed how Debussy “wrote in” rubato, thus negating the need for exaggerated rubato or obvious adjustments to tempo by the performer. His talk was peppered with amusing anecdotes and pictures of the composers as well as demonstrations at the piano.
The event closed with a short recital by pianist Daniel Grimwood (who is an Edition Peters artist). His enjoyable, varied and engaging programme began with a work by Czerny, a composer more usually associated with piano studies and exercises, and included shorter pieces by Liszt, Blumenfeld and Henselt (also a composer of studies and exercises). He concluded with a crystalline and atmospheric encore of ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.
This was a most enjoyable, stimulating and inspiring day, and an excellent opportunity to connect with other teachers and friends and colleagues in the profession.