If you are an adult amateur pianist who has attended a piano course this year (1-day course or workshop, weekend course, or longer residential course in the UK or abroad) please consider taking part in my survey which explores the reasons why people attend piano courses and what they hope to gain from them. I will collate the responses and include them in my round up of piano courses for 2016. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence. Thank you in advance for your help.
Piano courses are very popular now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again. For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now in its 18th year.
So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.
Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.
Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.
And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.
Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.
I wanted to write a further post in response to Dame Fanny Waterman’s piece in ‘The Observer’ in which she warns of a crisis in piano playing in the UK and blames the popularity of digital keyboards and electric pianos for the fact that UK performers are failing to compete internationally. (Read my initial response to Dame Fanny here.)
I don’t want to focus too much on the issue of competitions, which remains an area of heated debate amongst teachers, students, adjudicators and music journalists, but I would just like to quote some statistics which a colleague flagged up on Facebook in response to Dame Fanny’s article:
……a quick glance over the Leeds previous prizewinners [reveals that] of 95 names only 5 have sustained a major international career after the initial flurry of dates, only 2 of those were first prize winners anyway, and the most recent competitor from the group took part in 1987! Perhaps our British pianists have realised that there are better and more creative ways to create a career in the 21st century
Competitions should not be seen as the be all and end all, and I think we all need to get past this holy grail of “The Three C’s” – Conservatoire Competition Concerto.
In my experience, as a piano teacher and the co-organiser of a group for adult amateur pianists, I see no signs of a decline in interest in piano playing here in the UK. Far from it. I receive enquiries about lessons every week, and I know piano teaching colleagues in my own area of SW London and beyond would say the same. Most of us have healthy waiting lists. The piano remains a popular first instrument for children to learn because it is relatively easy to make a nice sound from the very first note. The members of my piano group range from people who have played the piano since childhood, returners, and adult learners of all levels. Some members are very fine players indeed, who are regular performers but who have chosen a different career path to music. What unites us is a shared passion for the piano and its literature.
In addition to piano groups, piano courses are becoming increasingly popular, offering adults and young people the opportunity to study with acclaimed performing artists and teachers. There are courses to suit all abilities and tastes from “piano retreats” in the French countryside, with five-star accommodation and wonderful food and the opportunity to study with an international artist, to weekend courses for advanced pianists (professional and amateur), courses focussing on contemporary music, accompanying, chamber music, jazz and much more.
Then there are festivals where children and adults can compete, receive constructive feedback from skilled adjudicators and enjoy hearing other people’s playing and repertoire. I am involved in the Dulwich Piano Festival – it is heavily over-subscribed with many classes filling up within days of entries opening, surely a clear indication of the popularity and enthusiasm for the piano?
The UK is host to many fine piano concerts throughout the year and attracts top-class British and international artists. Alongside concerts in mainstream venues, there are myriad other opportunities to hear piano music – but top international artists and also exciting young and emerging artists: in stately homes, churches, art galleries and museums, small regional arts centres, people’s homes, out doors….. Initiatives such as Soirees at Breinton and the South London Concert Series bring piano, and other classical music closer to the audience and make the music and concert experience more accessible and intimate.
The piano is very much alive in the UK – let’s keep it that way.
Pianist and writer Susan Tomes has made an interesting and thoughtful contribution to this debate – read her article
Wishing my readers a very Happy Christmas – and if you are a pianist, of whatever level, love your piano!
The UK Masterchef competition for amateur cooks has reached its series finale, won by Ping Coombes, a 32-year-old full-time mother who wowed the judges and tv viewers with her original, flavoursome and exciting dishes inspired by her homeland, Malaysia.
Throughout the competition, contestants’ dishes were critiqued and judged by “external moderators” in the form of previous Masterchef winners, “celebrity” chefs, including Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing, and food critics Jay Rayner and William Sitwell, amongst others, many of whom expressed surprise that a bunch of “amateurs” could produce such classy, technically complicated, restaurant-standard food. When it was Marcus Wareing’s turn to judge the semi-finalists, in a nail-biting round for he is famously acerbic and downright scary, he said of one dish “that is remarkably good – for an amateur” or words to that effect. And after that, every time I heard the word “amateur” on the programme, a little bit of me died.
I have blogged before about the definition of “amateur”. The word suffers, in the English language at least, from its association with the hobbyist, the “Sunday painter” or dilettante, and suggests cack-handedness and lack of finesse or refinement. Things which are described as “amateurish” are usually badly done or poorly put together. Not so these finalists in Masterchef: their dishes showed imagination, creativity, highly-developed technical skills and, above all, love for what they were doing. Ping’s sheer enjoyment and delight in producing delicious food for family and friends was evident from the moment she first entered the competition and remained the abiding theme of everything she did, endearing her to judges and viewers alike.
The debate about amateur versus professional is one that continues to run (and will go on running) in the sphere of music and the arts (and beyond), and particularly within the narrow sphere of classical music. I co-host a piano group for adult “amateur” pianists in which the standard of playing is quite varied, but it must be said that the majority of members plays to an extremely high standard. A number have attended specialist music schools or conservatoire but chose a different career path, not having the requisite temperament to hack it as a professional musician (and perhaps preferring a more reliable salary!). Many of us enjoy performing, and we practise and finesse and perform our pieces with a professional mindset.
In a recent post for his own blog, pianist Stephen Hough gave a perfect definition of “amateur”, citing the Latin origin of the word – the verb amare = to love:
An amateur is not someone who is less good than a professional but rather someone for whom love overcomes obstacles…. (Stephen Hough, 7 May 2014)
This sensible and, to my mind, very accurate description struck an immediate chord with myself and many pianist friends who struggle with the word “amateur”. Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this profound love for the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of my piano group and this passion is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our craft: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, memorable performances and recordings. The only difference between many of us and the pros is, as a professional pianist friend said to me recently, “the pay cheque”.
I take issue with those rather ungenerous people in the music world, and beyond, who suggest that people like me and the other members of my piano group should not be performing in public, nor posting our performances on YouTube or Soundcloud (in the same way as I take issue with “professional journalists” who seek to undermine the value of blogs such as this and many others). It suggests a certain envy or resentment – for we are not trying to touch the professionals, but we might just conceivably touch the audience with our fidelity and commitment to the piano and its music. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the amount of hard work, and anxiety, that has gone into preparing for that performance. Playing for one another at piano circles, piano groups and at people’s homes offers a supportive environment to put repertoire before a friendly audience, and many amateur pianists use opportunities like these to prepare for exams, festivals, diplomas and concerts. Many amateurs practise seriously, sometimes for several hours every day, and cite the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano, the chance to escape and lose oneself in the music, after a busy day at the office. Those who perform more regularly understand the necessity to conquer performance anxiety and hone their stagecraft in addition to pulling off a polished and convincing performance.
Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again (2013), in which the editor of the Guardian charts his learning of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, a famously difficult work even for the most seasoned pro, offers some interesting glimpses into the world of the amateur pianist. There are piano circles, performance platforms, concerts in people’s homes, informal get-togethers, courses and more which bring amateur pianists of all levels together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Meanwhile, popular summer schools at home and abroad offer amateur pianists the opportunity to study with, and gain inspiration from international concert artists and renowned teachers from some of the top conservatoires around the world. The most famous summer school at Chethams, known affectionately as “Chets”, boasts a large and impressive faculty, including “greats” such as Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Noriko Ogawa, and Boris Berman, and is held over two weeks in August. Summer schools like this offer not only specialist tuition, both one-to-one and in a masterclass format, but also performance opportunities, faculty concerts, recordings, chamber ensembles and choirs, and plenty of “piano chat” between students. Firm friendships are made on courses and piano weekends such as these as like-minded people come together to share and express their love of the piano and music-making.
And so back to Masterchef, and Ping and her fellow finalists. Just as my friends in my piano group show a deep passion for the piano and everything connected with it, so these three “amateur” cooks display a deep and consuming love for food, for creating and preparing it and sharing it with others. If Ping and the other finalists Jack and Luke go on to pursue a “professional” career in the food business, I hope they won’t ever lose that love. And just as food is created for sharing, so is music.
a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students.
The word “masterclass” can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the private lesson in public, with a formidable “master” teacher and a student quaking at the keyboard, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. I remember watching music masterclasses on BBC Two in the 1970s (in the good old days when BBC Two broadcast such edifying and instructive arts programmes), with eminent musicians and teachers such as Daniel Barenboim and Paul Tortelier. It seemed to my junior piano student self a most nerve-wracking experience and certainly one to which I would not wish to submit.
Fast-forward thirty-odd years and I’m now a mature piano student and teacher of piano. For me, the masterclass seems one of the most normal and beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does not just a lesson with a fine teacher but also a forum for critique by others and the exchange of ideas and discussion about aspects such as technique, interpretation, presentation and performance practice. It is this element of interaction with other pianists and active listeners/participants that makes the masterclass scenario quite different from the private lesson.
For students in conservatoire and specialist music schools, the masterclass is an every day form of learning, and for the teacher it is a way of sharing and passing on information to a group. A skilled teacher will ensure that all the participants in the class feel included, not just when they play, but also when others play, encouraging comments and discussion on what they have heard. A good teacher will also make sure negative comments are delivered in the kindest and most constructive way, so that participants feel supported and encouraged.
At many of the courses for adult amateur pianists in the UK and beyond, the masterclass is also a popular form of learning and teaching. Some of these classes are called “workshops” to make them sound more friendly, but in reality they are nearly always a group of c10 pianists, seated around the piano, eagerly absorbing wisdom from the teacher.
Masterclasses are not just for advanced pianists either. The format is applicable to students of all levels and early students, and children, can benefit from observing a teacher working with another student on advanced repertoire, and vice versa. Seemingly complex aspects of technique can usually be reframed to suit early/intermediate students, and sometimes working on quite simple repertoire within a group can shed a new light on more difficult music. It is also useful training for concert/competition performance and can be a huge help in learning how to manage anxiety.
Watching a masterclass is a window onto how hard the pianist works and an insight into the practice of practising. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated, recast until a new, different or more exciting interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this process can be extremely exciting and enlightening, and for the masterclass participant, the instant feedback one receives from the teacher and other participants can be highly rewarding, often producing interesting and unexpected breakthroughs.
Piano Week is a new non-residential piano course for children and adults, set in the beautiful north Wales countryside near Bangor.
The initiative of pianist Samantha Ward, Piano Week offers courses for pianists of any age and ability. Participants will have the opportunity to perform on a beautiful Steinway grand piano in Powis Hall at Bangor University, as well as benefitting from one-to-one tuition, masterclasses and faculty recitals. The area also offers an abundance of other activities, from hill-walking in the stunning Snowdonia National Park, dry-slope skiing and go-karting.
Faculty includes: Samantha Ward, Chenyin Li, David Daniels, Maciej Raginia, Sachika Taniyama, Vesselina Tchakarova. The course is sponsored by Blüthner pianos.
I’ve just attended another of my piano teacher’s excellent 3-day courses for advanced pianists. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a great fan of my teacher’s courses, which provide a supportive, friendly and inspiring setting for study.
The course is run as a series of masterclasses, offering plenty of input from other participants and important one-to-one tuition with Penelope Roskell, who is a highly-skilled and experienced teacher. There are regular breaks which give everyone the opportunity for “piano chat” and on the last day, we have an informal concert followed by a drinks party.
One of the things I love most of all about these courses is the transforming effect they can have on people who may arrive on the first day anxious and uncertain what to expect. Penelope is a very patient and sympathetic teacher, who is able to draw out the very best in people. One of this year’s participants was on the Autumn 2012 course, an anxious player who gradually unwound as the weekend progressed. It was wonderful to see how far she has come, following private lessons with Penelope in the intervening months, and to hear her playing with greater confidence and poise.
Some people come on the course simply to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of a concert. Others are preparing for diplomas, competitions or auditions. For me, this course was to encourage me to pick up some new repertoire following my Diploma. I felt very flat in the days immediately after the exam, and the need to prepare some music for the course was just what I needed to get me playing again. I wanted to run some pieces by my teacher to make sure I was heading in the right direction with them. A number of my pianist friends were attending the course this time as well, so in many ways it was a social event for me and the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues. And make new friends too.
As always, the range of repertoire was very wide, from Bach to Satoh (a contemporary Japanese composer), and the standard very high. But there was never a feeling we were in competition with each other. We were there to share repertoire, offer positive feedback on one another’s playing, and learn. I have compiled a playlist on Spotify of all the pieces we played (except for Fazil Say’s transcription of Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’, which should be available on YouTube).
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)