I am continually impressed and inspired, and occasionally truly humbled, by the passion and commitment of adult amateur pianists, and in the last month this has been brought home to me powerfully yet again, first at Chetham’s (“Chets”) Summer School for Pianists (read more here) and then on Friday evening at the monthly gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG).

Although I work in music, I do not regard myself as a “professional” pianist and I am also quite comfortable now with the title “amateur”. While some may think this means “cack-handed hobbyist” or “Sunday pianist”, I prefer the French definition of the word: “one who loves” because all the amateur pianists I know absolutely adore the piano, myself included.

I co-founded the LPMG in 2013, in part as an opportunity to meet other like-minded people. Playing the piano can be a lonely activity and while many of us enjoy the solitude, the special time with the instrument and its literature, it is also very helpful to meet and talk to other pianists. At the time, I had been playing seriously for about 6 years (having returned to the piano after an absence of 20 years), and had been taking lessons with a concert pianist and teacher in one of London’s leading conservatoires for 5 years. I didn’t know any other pianists, apart from the handful of people I encountered fleetingly through my teacher’s courses. The LPMG filled a big gap in my pianistic life – and I know it has done the same for many others whom I meet through the group. It has also inspired the formation of several other meetups and piano clubs in the UK and beyond: in 2015 our London group had a joint meetup with the Vienna piano meetup group in the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – a very special experience indeed.

Through the LPMG I have made a number very good friends and connections, while the activities of the group have extended to include workshops and events such as the annual Diploma Day with the very popular and highly skilled teacher Graham Fitch, all of which are designed to support and encourage adult pianists.

Now run by my piano friends Claire and Rob (whom I met through the group), the LPMG hosts monthly performance events for adult pianists in London venues with good grand pianos. Many amateur pianists aspire to own a really beautiful instrument but cannot afford to do so, or are constrained by space in their home. To have the opportunity to play a really splendid instrument, such as the two expertly-maintained Steinway Ds at Henry Wood Hall, where we met last Friday, is a real treat and a chance to experience the capabilities of a big piano.

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Marie playing music by Billy Mayerl at Henry Wood Hall (photo by Iain Gordon who looks after the two Steinways there)

LPMG performance platforms are social events too and always finish in a local pub or wine bar where much “piano chat” takes place – people congratulate one another on their performances, discuss repertoire and the exigencies of fitting practising into one’s working life, courses, concerts we have enjoyed, professional pianists we admire, and much much more…. We come from many different walks of life – the group includes several medics, a mathematician, an accountant, a video games designer – but we all have a common interest and we know that no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. This sense of a “piano community” with a shared passion is incredibly important.

When it comes to performing, which is primarily what the group is for, we have players of all ages and abilities. Some have had a formal musical training but chose a different career path, others are self-taught. Some have played all their life, others, like me, have returned to the piano after a break. None of that really matters – because we all adore the piano. I have met a number of professional pianists who envy the passion of the amateur – we can choose what we play and when, and we don’t have to make a living from it. It gives us great freedom, and hours and hours of pleasure.

Many LPMG participants are self-effacing and modest: uncertain of their abilities or anxious about playing for others, performances may be prefaced by self-deprecating comments or throwaway asides about what the audience can expect – “It’s work in progress”, “I haven’t been learning this very long”, “We only rehearsed this together yesterday afternoon!”, “It’ll probably all go wrong!”. Everyone at Meetup appreciates the feelings of inadequacy or exposure when playing for others – we all experience this to a greater or lesser degree, and playing to a roomful of other pianists can be both highly stressful and also extremely supportive. I tend towards the latter when I play at Meetups – we all understand how hard it is and appreciate the effort and hours required to bring the music to a certain standard.

After the performances, people are generous with their praise – “I loved your piece!”, “You played so well”, “I really enjoyed your Debussy!” – and this too is an important part of the group’s ethos.

To conclude, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who feels anxious about performing in front of others:

  • Don’t pre-empt your performance with a negative comment, such as “It will probably all go wrong”. This immediately prompts a negative mindset, making you more vulnerable to nerves. It also makes the audience more anxious!
  • Instead, go to the piano and take a few moments to think yourself into the music. Hear the opening phrase in your head and imagine playing it. Don’t rush to begin. Remind yourself that you have done your practising and you are well-prepared – see below
  • Bring music to performance events which is well-learnt and about which you feel pretty confident. Good preparation through consistent, intelligent practise is more likely to lead to a successful performance, and if you are well prepared you are less likely to be derailed by errors or slips. The Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say, before a concert, “I know my pieces” meaning he had done the right kind of practising and preparation – it’s a good mantra to follow!
  • Remember these events are non-competitive and no one is judging you.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Performance, like the piano itself, can – and should – be practised. The more times you perform, the “easier” it becomes, so take every opportunity you can to play for others, from a few family and friends at home to events like Meetups. Reaching a state of “acceptance” about performance anxiety can go a long way to relieving and coping with the symptoms. And remember that it’s a normal human response – the pros get it too!

 

 

 

Diploma Day 2018, hosted by the London Piano Meetup Group, was held at Morley College on Sunday 10 June. Now in its third year, this one-day workshop for people taking, or considering taking, a Performance Diploma is proving very popular and successful. Six pianists participated in masterclasses with renowned teacher Graham Fitch, and everyone benefitted from Graham’s wisdom, insights and friendly teaching style. There were some nerves, both spoken and unspoken, but one of the key aims of the event is to create a supportive “safe space” where people can perform part of their diploma programme and receive useful critical feedback. Anyone who has studied with Graham, or has attended his classes and courses, will know that he has a particular knack of identifying a few key areas in each piece and giving the student useful suggestions to implement in practising. What is very gratifying too is hearing the changes that occur in someone’s playing with just a few suggestions from Graham, and everyone can learn from watching others being taught in such a friendly and accessible situation.

In addition to the masterclasses, regular breaks throughout the day allowed people to chat about repertoire, the exam process, anxiety and more, and I gave two brief talks on Choosing a Performance Diploma (of which more below) and managing performance anxiety.

a great gathering of like-minded people!

Neil, performer

“Another fabulous day and Graham Fitch was superb. I have picked up so many technical and practising tips

Janet, observer

Had a fabulous day yesterday playing at the London Piano Meetup Group’s Diploma Day. An expert masterclass taken by Graham Fitch and workshops on all sorts of other related topics.

Kate, performer

We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, including music by Scarlatti, Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Fauré, Debussy, Grainger, Webern and Sculthorpe, and it was clear from each participant’s “mini recital” that much thought had gone in to selecting pieces which fulfilled the criteria of the performance diploma while also creating a contrasting and interesting programme.

A compilation of live tweets from the event offers many nuggets of advice from Graham- including a National No Pedal Day which was endorsed by concert pianist Stephen Hough.

Read the tweets here

Judging by the popularity of this year’s Diplomas Day, the event will run again in 2019. To keep up to date with London Piano Meetup Group events, please join the mailing list by contacting londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or by joining the LPMG Facebook group

Huge thanks to Graham Fitch for inspirational teaching and to Claire Hansell of LPMG who organised the entire day and ensured it all ran like clockwork.

CHOOSING A PERFORMANCE DIPLOMA

  • Be very aware that the lowest, Associate level diploma should not be considered as “Grade 9”. Unlike grade exams, Diplomas are recognised professional qualifications and as such require a significantly higher level of musical competency. The expected standard of playing for an associate diploma is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in conservatoire.
  • With a variety of diplomas on offer, select the format which you feel will suit you best as a musician. There is a lot of snobbery surrounding certain exam boards – but don’t feel that one exam board’s Diploma is necessarily “better” than another, rather that there are “different” diplomas on offer. All are recognised professional qualifications and the Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas across the three main exam boards (ABRSM, Trinity and London College of Music) all share the same RQF levels (4, 6 and 7 respectively). The repertoire lists for each level of Diploma are almost identical across the three main exam boards and the diplomas accrue the same academic points.
  • Consider also why you are taking a diploma. Is this for a personal challenge or to enhance your professional career, as a performer or teacher? This may also influence the diploma format you choose. For example, you may feel you don’t wish to be tested on sight-reading in which case the Trinity Diplomas, which are heavily weighted towards performance and include no sight-reading/quick study, may suit you better.
  • Once you’ve selected the exam board, read the regulations very carefully and ensure you can fulfill the criteria. Note that some exam boards require evidence of a pass at Grade 8, for example. Details such as the timing of the programme are very important and attending to these details demonstrates your professionalism. If you’re submitting a programme comprising own-choice repertoire, seek approval from the exam board in good time.
Choosing a programme
  • Unlike in grade exams, you don’t have to offer a chronological programme that includes music from specific periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc). Instead, create a programme which is contrasting in terms of tempi, moods, styles. You could, for example, create a programme entirely from 20th-century music and still fulfill the exam criteria. Consider how the pieces work as a concert programme rather than as an exam.
  • Select music that you know you will enjoy studying and playing rather than pieces which you think will impress the examiner. We all play better if we like the music we’re playing!
Further reading
Many more articles on Diplomas, including my own Diploma journey, can be found on this site – type Diploma in the Search box.

Back by popular demand……

“A hugely valuable day”

The London Piano Meetup Group is holding its third Diploma Day on Sunday 10th June 2018 at Morley College, London SE1. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are considering, or planning to take, a post-Grade 8 performance qualification, or piano teachers and pianists who would like to observe several hours of inspirational teaching with acclaimed teacher, writer and pianist Graham Fitch.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

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The day will include:

  • Performances of diploma repertoire from participants preparing for their exams
  • Feedback in a masterclass-style format from acclaimed teacher and pianist Graham Fitch
  • Workshops, discussions and Q&A sessions with Frances Wilson (a.k.a. The Cross-Eyed Pianist), covering the planning, preparation, practice and execution of a performance diploma, plus supporting components including understanding and managing performance anxiety, presentation skills and stagecraft, and writing programme notes.
  • Q&A session with a senior representative from one of the UK’s leading exam boards.

Performer places cost £85 for the full day. Apply to perform here (deadline 15 April)

Observer places cost £17 – book tickets

There is much value in observing others being taught together with the opportunity to discuss repertoire, practising, preparation and more with other pianists

Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

“The introduction was helpful as I’m at the planning stage of my diploma”

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”

For any questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Claire Hansell at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com.

 


graham-fitch-750x750Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013. She has hosted and participated in workshops, masterclasses, courses and meetups for adult pianists, and completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after a long break. Frances has acted as a syllabus consultant for the London College of Music’s graded piano exams and has written teaching notes for the new ABRSM piano syllabus (to be released in summer 2018).

The second Diploma Day, brilliantly organised by Claire Hansell, who with Rob Foster, runs the London Piano Meetup Group, was held at Morley College on Sunday 9th July. As with last year’s inaugural event, the day was designed to give those taking performance diplomas a chance to perform selections from their diploma programmes to Graham Fitch and a small friendly audience, and receive expert tuition and guidance from Graham. In addition, Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) discussed the benefits of taking a performance diploma, which diploma to choose (all the main exam boards – ABRSM, TCL and LCM – offer a variety of diplomas), how to select repertoire and create a varied programme, and offered advice on stagecraft and presentation skills, and managing performance anxiety (see the end of this article for a link to download Frances’ notes). In the afternoon, Peter Wild, senior lead examiner from Trinity College London, joined the event and took questions from the audience.

There were fine performances, including a most impressive rendition of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mozart’s Sonata K310, and a delightful Scherzo Humoristique (‘The Cat and the Mouse’) by Copland which closed the event on a very light-hearted note. Graham Fitch offered plenty of excellent advice on practising, technique, projecting one’s vision for the music, and good preparation, as always peppered with colourful metaphors and presented in an accessible and articulate manner. It was a most inspiring and supportive day, of benefit to adult amateur pianists and teachers alike.

Claire and Frances live-tweeted during the event – find a compilation of the tweets (plenty of pianistic wisdom) here

Download the DIPLOMA DAY 2017 notes (Word doc)

London Piano Meetup Group

The London Piano Meetup Group’s first Diploma Day, an event for people taking or considering taking a Performance  Diploma, took place in the Holst Room at London’s Morley College on Sunday 12th June. Six performers were invited to play some or all of their Diploma programme to an audience of c25 people and then receive a 30-minute one-to-one lesson with Graham Fitch. The event was intended to be friendly, supportive and inspiring to ensure that people felt as comfortable as possible when performing for others (for some this was the first time they had played in this kind of setting). The day was organised so that during breaks between teaching there was time for people to meet to discuss repertoire, performance anxiety and piano playing in general. I gave an opening talk on the need to treat a performance diploma with a professional mindset (including a full understanding of the exam syllabus and regulations, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety) and the day concluded with a Q&A session at which we discussed various points which emerged from the day.

A number of themes became apparent in Graham’s tuition during the day, including:

  • Taking ownership of your music and playing with conviction
  • Playing with vibrant colour and expression to bring out the individual characters of each piece
  • Being pedantic about one’s preparation

Graham is an inspiring and empowering teacher – as one of the participants said “he is fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and it is hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike” – and everyone came away from the event with many gems of advice and nuggets of information to digest and act upon in practising.

Some comments from attendees:

“A really valuable and inspiring day”

“Really enjoyed it, especially watching Graham teach”

“A great experience for anyone around diploma level whether interested in the actual exam or not”

“It was such useful preparation

“Extremely valuable insights and advice from Graham Fitch

“Frances’s intro was a lovely welcome and very useful

Thank you to Claire Hansell of the London Piano Meetup Group for organising the event and to Graham Fitch for his expert and encouraging tuition.

A transcript of my introductory text can be downloaded here, and I’m also including links to other resources which are useful for those taking or thinking about taking a performance diploma.

Useful resources:

From these links to the three main exam boards you will find:

  • Syllabuses
  • Regulations
  • Information about exam sessions, deadlines for entry, entry fees and exam centres
  • Links to other useful resources for diploma candidates

Trinity College of London Diplomas (including information on teaching diplomas)

ABRSM Performance Diplomas

London College of Music Diplomas

Writing Programme Notes (ABRSM document)

Coping with Performance Anxiety

Why take a Performance Diploma?

For more information about the London Piano Meetup Group please email londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or join the LPMG Facebook group

I was delighted to rejoin the London Piano Meetup Group (a friendly and supportive group for adult amateur pianists in London which I co-founded in 2013) for the March performance event. We met in the airy upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos where we had the opportunity to play a medium-sized August Förster grand piano (one of the many attractions of the group is the chance to play different pianos). There was, as usual, a varied range of repertoire from Scarlatti to contemporary British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, with some impressive and enjoyable Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Bach, Howells, Liszt, Mayerl and even a drop of “cocktail jazz” (‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’). Afterwards, we repaired to The Clerk and Well pub for a jolly lunch and lively piano chat.

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Upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos

The original motivation for forming the group remains very strong – to provide a supportive and relaxed environment for adult pianists to meet, play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I’ve made some very good friends via the group, as have others, and it was very nice to reconnect with old friends and make new ones too. The popularity of the group – and others like it – is an indication of how many pianists there are in and around London who enjoy the opportunity to meet and explore new or familiar repertoire. The chance to exchange ideas about practising, taking exams, performing, teachers and teaching, courses, concerts and more is also very important, and many people use the informal performance opportunities as a place to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of an exam, diploma, competition or festival performance.

Being sympathetic towards nervous players is a crucial component in creating a “safe place” where nervous or inexperienced players can perform without fear of criticism or negative comments: everyone’s performance receives warm applause and appreciation.

For further information about the London Piano Meetup Group or to join the mailing list to be kept informed about upcoming events, please email londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or find the group on Facebook

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