“Heaven on earth for pianists”

Now its sixth year, La Balie, nestled in beautiful rolling countryside in south-west France, offers a very special kind of experience to adult pianists. The brainchild of former investment banker Fiona Page, in just a handful of years La Balie has become a go-to musical destination for pianists from all around the world, and the summer courses are now an established part of the piano calendar, a fact recognised by Pianist magazine in 2019 when it named La Balie in its top 10 piano courses and festivals around the world.

Much more than a ‘piano holiday’, La Balie offers unrivalled luxury accommodation, gourmet food prepared by an in-house chef, a friendly convivial atmosphere, excellent practice facilities and, above all, expert and supportive tuition from internationally-renowned pianist-teachers.

Created with taste, expertise and passion, the secret of La Balie’s success is an emphasis on personal attention and exceptional teaching. With three masterclasses, two individual lessons and recital opportunities for each guest, everyone is scheduled to play on each day of the course – an important consideration for anyone attending a piano course. Guests usually choose three pieces to study in their masterclass sessions with additional pieces selected to perform in the evenings and at the end of course concert. The courses are devised to be intensive and to equip each guest with a meaningful set of skills to encourage confident independent learning and productive practising on returning home. They are also designed to be fun and to provide plenty of time for both practice and relaxation – and who can resist La Balie’s gorgeous saltwater pool on a hot summer’s afternoon, the air heavy with the scent of lavender?

The atmosphere is in no way competitive….but instead full of mutual support and pleasure in the progress of others

Graham

Teaching and concerts at La Balie take place in a light-filled, air-conditioned studio, complete with a magnificent Steinway D piano (a rarity amongst piano courses in France), and a second quality grand piano for demonstrating and piano duos. The room also has a superb recordable acoustic, which only enhances the quality of live performances, and offers students and tutors a really special space in which to play.

The Studio at La Balie

After daily tuition and practising or relaxation, evenings begin with an informal “aperitif concert” where guests can hone their performance skills and enjoy playing to a friendly, sympathetic audience. Dinner follows, taken al fresco in the attractive garden with delicious freshly-prepared food, fine local wines and a magnificent cheeseboard. There are also two tutor recitals during the week, one of which is held, atmospherically, by candlelight later in the evening, the piano’s sounds dissolving into the night sky….

Concert by candlelight with Noriko Ogawa

One of the chief attractions of a piano course is the opportunity to connect with other pianists. Playing the piano can be a solitary activity and a course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, hear one another play, share repertoire, indulge in piano chat, and have fun while learning. Firm friendships are forged at La Balie, with many participants returning year after year, not only to enjoy the expert tuition but to catch up with piano friends. This conviviality is further enhanced by piano meetups, performance platforms and masterclasses hosted by La Balie in London throughout the year.

There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie and solidarity….. everything was beautifully done and impeccably organised: an artistic achievement in itself

Conrad

I felt the luxury of learning with an inspired teacher/performer who really drew his students into this magic of the piano

Lynnette

For 2020, La Balie boasts an impressive quartet of tutors – Charles Owen, Noriko Ogawa, Vedrana Subotic and Martin Cousin – who between them will run six courses from early May to the end of August. Guests are guaranteed a warm welcome, superb tuition, wonderful accommodation and food, and, above all, the chance to indulge a passion in a truly magical, inspirational setting that will send you home with renewed focus and enthusiasm.

2020 Courses

6-13 May – CHARLES OWEN

24 -31 May – 2020 VEDRANA SUBOTIC

4 – 11 June – 2020 NORIKO OGAWA

17 – 24 June – CHARLES OWEN

10 – 17 July – MARTIN COUSIN

23 – 20 August – MARTIN COUSIN

Booking is now open – please visit the La Balie website for full details


The adult ‘returner’ pianist

I’m a returner pianist – and maybe, if you’re reading this article, you are too and therefore what follows will chime with you. Or perhaps you are thinking of taking up the piano again after a long absence (as I did), in which case you should definitely read on…..

I played at a piano club recently and during the coffee break someone asked me if I was “a professional pianist”. This gave me a momentary glow of pride – evidently I had “made an impression” – and I know that many amateurs dream of reaching the dizzy heights of ‘professional standard’ in their playing. It’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to practice; alone with that box of wood and wires we dream of playing to a full house to the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.

So I replied that no, I was an amateur pianist, an adult ‘returner’ and that I had given up the piano at the age of nineteen, returning to it just shy of my fortieth birthday with an all-consuming passion for the instrument, those who play it and its vast and varied literature. (You can read more about my return to the piano at the end of this article.)

The world of the adult amateur pianist is a curious one – at once rich, vibrant and varied, but also obsessive, anxious and eccentric. But above all, it is inspiring, and in my encounters with other adult pianists, through my piano group and on piano courses, I come across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and failures, the frustrations and pleasures of practicing, and the fear and thrill of performing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

When you tell people you’ve taken up the piano again they always ask, “Are you any good?” And I never know quite what to say. Some days when my spirit and fingers are in sympathy with each other, I think I make a reasonable sound. On other days, spirit and fingers aren’t on speaking terms and the result is fumbling, dismal, depressing.

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and amateur pianist

When I put out a call for contributions to this article via Twitter, I was deluged with responses, as varied, fascinating and moving as the literature of the instrument we play. What follows are just a few of the responses, but what they demonstrate is that, while there are some obvious common threads, our reasons for returning to and playing the piano are often deeply personal and hugely meaningful to us as individuals, and that our passion for the piano is all-consuming. Never forget that the word “amateur” derives from the Old French word meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator: all the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it. Our love drives our commitment to the instrument – amateur pianists are possibly the most dedicated practicers – and many of us are absorbed by a compelling need to get better, to progress, to master. It’s a lonely road to travel, which is why piano clubs and courses are so popular for the opportunity to meet others who are similarly driven and obsessed. Those of us who commit to the journey do so willingly; it’s an ongoing process, one which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.

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That is not to say that professional pianists don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed and know personally have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Now, back to those inspiring adult returners…..

My primary reason for returning was that both my parents had lived the last ten or twelve years of their lives with advancing dementia, as well as some second degree relatives. I thought the best way to really work my brain was to go back to playing music. The secondary reason was to help relieve stress which was something my piano teacher had told me I would need at some point in my life……For me, having started to suffer the lacunar strokes in my family history which have a type of dementia related to them, I keep hold on the fact that the part of the brain the works with music is usually the last to fail. I still feel that playing the piano is probably one of the best avenues to take to keep working the brain. Apart from that I simply love playing again. – Eleanor

It was the death of an uncle which prompted me to return to the piano. He was very musical, and after he died my other uncle asked me whether I would like his piano, a rather fine Steinway grand which had been in the family for ages. However, grand pianos are somewhat incompatible with the three bedroom semi in which I live, but it did remind me how much I’d enjoyed the piano. I was lucky enough to be left some money in his will, and with that I bought a Yamaha upright with silent system fitted. I wanted a proper acoustic, but I have young children so a silent system means I can practice at night after they are in bed. I have lessons once a fortnight and they are completely indispensable for my enjoyment

– Sarah

I studied music at university and did two years of a performance major but struggled with various chronic injuries and dropped out as a result (I had two operations and had seen many medical specialists in attempt to resolve these problems). I then “sold my soul” to capitalism and started a business, following which I continued along a corporate career. I had always dreamed of getting back into playing but my schedule was punishing and not at all conducive to playing. I started to play again and unfortunately ended up with RSI (tennis elbow) which swiftly ended my return to playing. Then a few years later I managed to extricate myself from the corporate world and…..I managed to start playing again and although I had some niggles from the RSI, was able to play around 0.5 – 1 hrs a few days a week. I also started going for lessons with [a teacher who] focussed very much on reducing tension…..and I realised how much of my injuries came down to poor technique and tension. I wish a greater emphasis had been placed on this when I was a music student because while [my teacher] helped me find a much more natural, comfortable way to play, it was already too late and my RSI flared up again to the point where a few minutes of playing would leave me in agony for days. It was devastating after so long of trying to be in a position to have the time to play that I wasn’t able to. A few years later (whilst consistently seeing medical specialists and trying various approaches) I managed to have a breakthrough in which I was able to slowly start playing again, a few minutes every second day and was able to gradually build up. This was a useful exercise in that I had to be more focussed on practising effectively given the limited time available. Despite being told by numerous doctors that I wouldn’t play again, I’m now able to play for up to an hour on some days. This has been sufficient to learn some new repertoire and to perform in some amateur meet-up groups which has really been a wonderful experience. In fact, once I was able to let go of the inner critic (as a former music student, the inner critic remains highly developed even though one’s technical ability wanes without practice!), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed playing. It would have never have occurred to me all those years ago when I dropped out of university that I’d be able to derive so much enjoyment out of playing as an amateur.

– Ryan

I originally started piano lessons aged 13, of my own volition; I’d had one of those 80s electronic keyboards that were all the rage back then, and wanted to progress to something more substantial. My progress was very slow, however, and ultimately not very fulfilling. I managed to pass my Grade 1 but found the exam experience stressful. I think a lot of it had to do with the prescriptive way children are typically taught: everything was just scales, sight reading and set pieces that weren’t especially fun or engaging to play. Nearly twenty years later, I was in a piano bar on holiday, and the pianist was playing modern music set to piano. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of regret that I had abandoned such a beautiful instrument. On returning home, I did a spot of research and found that digital pianos had come on a long way in the intervening years and were now touch-sensitive with weighted keys and even a sustain pedal. I took the plunge, ordered a decent model (the Yamaha P115) and signed up for lessons with a local teacher. It’s been a wonderful decision, and I have fallen in love with playing. It’s still small steps, but I practice regularly and have actively witnessed improvement in my own playing.

– Colin

I discovered classical music as a teen (Bach) and started taking lessons. I wanted to be a composer, and eventually became a composition major at a local university. Having started late, and not having received family support and good advice from those who did support me, I let my insecurities defeat me, and I ended up getting a degree in English. Decades later, we inherited a spinet from a relative, and I found my passion once again. I finally have a good teacher, and am making progress toward being the pianist I wanted to be.

– Bob

And what of me, the author and creator of this blog who through my activities tries to support and advocate for amateur pianists? Discouraged from applying to music college with the suggestion that I wasn’t “good enough”, I threw myself into other studies (Medieval English), followed a non-musical career path for 10 years, while setting up home, getting married and starting a family. But in my late thirties, when my son was about eight, my mother bought me a digital piano and urged me to start playing again. So I dug out the music I had loved as a teenager – music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy – and also some I had hated: Chopin’s Nocturnes. I fell in love with Chopin’s music; coming at it as an adult with a greater degree of life experience, I found it vivid, beautiful, passionate, poignant – and incredibly satisfying to play. I also returned to Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, music I’d first started playing (badly!) at the age of about 12 when my mother bought me an Edition Peters score of this music, having heard Alfred Brendel play the Impromptus in concert. Within a couple of years, I was teaching piano to the children of friends and acquaintainces I’d met via my son’s primary school, and in 2007, my husband bought me a proper acoustic piano. The instrument arrived, and I spent hours and hours playing it and learnt the first movement of Schubert’s final sonata – in a day. Within eighteen months I was having lessons again with a sympathetic teacher who improved my technique beyond recognition and built my confidence. When she suggested I start looking at Chopin’s Etudes and Ballades, I knew I had reached a significant point in my piano journey – I felt I was now a “real” pianist – and she supported my decision to take a professional performance diploma (in fact, I took two and passed both with Distinction, under her guidance). Meanwhile, I had started writing this blog, initially to record my thoughts about the experience of playing the piano again, music I was enjoying at home and at concerts. (I had no notion of how successful and popular this blog would become in the subsequent 10 years.) Today I work in music: I’m not a professional pianist, but I am a ‘music professional’ (a writer, blogger, teacher and, more recently, a publicist working with musicians, and concerts manager), and everything I do now goes back to that decision to return to the piano at the age of 39. I’ve forged firm friendships through piano courses and clubs, and made significant connections with professional pianists, teachers, bloggers and others, and I know I would not given up this life for anything now.

My piano journey has been relatively straightforward compared to some of the accounts of other adult returner pianists, but we are all on our own personal path, some of us supported by teachers, others choosing to “go it alone”, but all driven by a common, consuming passion for the piano.


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Finchcocks has announced 20 new piano courses for 2020

* Courses will be taught by internationally recognised tutors, including Graham Fitch and concert pianists Warren Mailley-Smith and Tom Poster

* Choose from a range of beginner, intermediate and advanced adult courses, from ‘Music and mindfulness’, ‘Managing Performance Anxiety’, ‘Chopin and Rachmaninoff’ and many more

Learning a new skill is the 6th most popular New Year’s resolution according to YouGov; so this new year, why not try a piano course at Finchcocks?

20 piano courses for 2020

Finchcocks has released 20 piano courses for 2020, ranging from complete beginner classes to those for intermediate and advanced players.

For those looking to work on self-care, the Music and Mindfulness retreat in February will take your worries from major to minor. The course focuses on the relaxing nature of playing piano with the restorative effects of yoga to provide a blissfully relaxing weekend escape. It’s hosted by internationally recognised concert pianist Tom Poster and his wonderful Yogi wife, Elena Urioste.

Looking to hone specific skills? The Managing Performance Anxiety or Applied Theory Course may be just the ticket. Neil Nichols, owner of Finchcocks, said: “For anyone feeling like they need to brush up their understanding of harmony and notation, we have also created a dedicated music theory weekend – based on the ABRSM grade 5 syllabus – and brought to life with practical examples and tips on how it can make you a better player.

Warren Mailley Smith, who famously became the first British pianist to perform Chopin’s complete works for solo piano from memory back in 2016, is also hosting composer-specific courses at Finchcocks, ideal for those who love the music of Chopin or Rachmaninoff.

No summer holiday plans just yet? Why not combine piano practice with a staycation and enroll in one of Finchcocks’ five day summer courses. Guests of the piano school stay in complete tranquility and are free to roam the picturesque manor grounds between practice.

The majority of courses take place Friday to Sunday (unless otherwise stated). All courses include boutique accommodation, delicious food cooked by Finchcocks’ private chef, wine and world-class tuition.

Full details of all 2020 courses here

Finchcocks piano courses allow adults to revisit an old hobby and rediscover the enjoyment all over again. It’s extremely easy nowadays to get lost in the hustle and bustle of life, but taking some time out for the piano is really good for the soul – as well as our memory and mental health

Neil Nichols, owner of Finchcocks


Finchcocks has had an interesting cultural and musical history over the years.

After standing for two centuries in the midst of glorious parkland and surrounded by hop-gardens in idyllic tranquillity, the arrival of the twentieth century and the First World War brought tougher times. Siegfried Sassoon was a regular guest, and adored “the wide and slippery oak stairs” and the “gracious red brick front of the house”. But the house was eventually requisitioned by the army during the Second World War and suffered a period of prolonged neglect.

Its fortunes improved dramatically when Richard and Katrina Burnett purchased the house in 1971, and set about restoring the property to its former glory. Their interest wasn’t just in the historic Grade 1 listed building, but in establishing a collection of historical keyboard instruments, which over the course of the subsequent 50 years, gained an international reputation and uniquely offered visitors from around the world the chance to play every instrument on display.

When the museum closed in 2015, many feared the music might stop and the lights might go out forever.  But in 2016, Finchcocks was purchased by Neil and Harriet Nichols, who were determined to keep the music going.

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Since establishing the piano school early in 2017, the newly established musical venture has received rave reviews. The BBC music magazine described it as “Paradise for pianists”, with the Sunday Times, the Spectator, the Pianist magazine and Classic FM all enthusing about the “luxury rooms”, “fine dining” and “incredible collection of grand pianos”, including the newly acquired Steinway Model B.

AndrewDunlopDinner2Feb19

Weekend course or summer course?

Finchcocks offers both weekend and summer courses at all levels. Guests come from all over the world – some seeking to re-immerse themselves in the world of piano playing after a gap of a few decades, and others working hard towards and exam or a performance diploma.

Weekend courses consist of a mix of workshops to develop technique, masterclasses (focussing on performance) and individual tuition. Each course includes an evening recital on Saturday night, locally sourced food prepared by the in-house chef, delicious wine and beautifully appointed en-suite bedrooms.

Each guest has will have the opportunity to play each of the 10 grand pianos at Finchcocks, and the chance to be inspired by some incredible tutors in the most magical of settings.

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To find out if there is a course that might suit you, email jenny@finchcocks.com, call 01580 428080 or have a look at the forthcoming piano courses on the Finchcocks website.


 

This is a sponsored post. All information and images are supplied by Finchcocks.

Disclaimer: The Cross-Eyed Pianist does not necessarily endorse organisations that provide sponsored posts which link to external websites, and does not endorse products or services that such organisations may offer. In addition, The Cross-Eyed Pianist does not control or guarantee the currency, accuracy, relevance, or completeness of information found on linked, external websites. However, every effort is made to ensure such information contained on this site is accurate at the time of publication.

Guest post by Howard Smith, Adult Amateur Pianist

My first Chetham’s. The International Summer School & Festival for Pianists, that is. Manchester, UK. Two hundred and thirty participants. Forty tutors and staff. Phew!

What is Chetham’s? A holiday? An experience? A dream? Deep learning? A festival? Camaraderie? Joy? All these and more. Mental exhaustion? Yes. Tutorials throughout the day. Recitals each evening. And practice rooms open 6am til 11pm. Seven days (fourteen if you can do it) of end-to-end piano madness. Non-stop. Punctuated by meals and coffee breaks. And for those with stronger metabolisms than I, late nights in the bar or around town. I needed sleep. Lots. Be prepared to pace yourself.

So what is Chetham’s? A privilege. Yes. A shock, also. So much talent. I feel … inadequate. My journey just beginning, despite the last years of obsessive practice. I am … nowhere. Visceral. I feel it keenly as I watch the young people and experienced ‘adult amateurs’. It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, despite the modest progress I have made. So little for the effort expended. Like a heavy weight bearing down on me, I hardly dare to imagine what will happen if, in the end, I find the journey too onerous.

Day 0: Registration. Check in. Unpack. Explore. And in the evening (from 5pm) three recitals! Three!! Nearly four hours of music, including Peter Donohoe CBE (Haydn programme).

Day 1: Tai chi (optional) Breakfast. 1-to-1 and group workshops. Coffee break. Workshops or practice. Lunch. Workshops. I play on stage, on a grand, for six minutes, to over seventy people. I am first to volunteer. Not bravery. Far from it. Desperation. Unless I do this my performance anxiety will kill whatever progress I have made. Dinner. Then three more recitals. Top international talent. 10pm. Bar. Wine (large glass). Sleep.

Repeat for six days. And *everyone* gets a piano.

Day 2: 9am. I am sitting in (observer) on a composition class. A young man, clearly ambitious (and knowledgeable) is explaining to a faculty tutor that he wishes to write a toccata. His  tutor opens a copy of Spectrum, book IV (ABRSM) and invites the young man to accompany him at the keyboard in selected ‘miniatures’. They discuss style and compositional ideas. Exploring. There is a poster on the wall of the tutor’s office: Peter Maxwell Davies. My mind returns to 1975.

What is Chetham’s? Memory jogger and nostalgia generator.

Time for my second 1-to-1. Schubert. I learn how to play big chords, softly. And how Schubert requires far less pedal than I was using. Somehow Tippett enters the conversation. My tutor has a close relative now occupying the house where Tippett lived and composed. He tells me about the garden path he trod while writing Child Of Our Time. And as the lesson ends, my tutor tells me – based on what he heard and the way I took instruction – that I should be playing more advanced music: Grade 8 music. Music to my ears …  but he does not know just how much work I do at Grade 6. LOL.

Still day 2. Lunch. I sit down by myself. A lady a couple of chairs away seems eager to introduce herself. We exchange stories. As a student, she studied Jazz, at Leeds, and now teaches. I start listing some of my musical heroes, starting with Corinne Bailey Rae. Her face lights up. “I was at college with Jason and Steve!” Oh my. My new Chetham’s friend (Leeds accent, there’s the clue) shows me photos of herself and the gang.

Is this musical world smaller than we imagine? Is that because being ‘musical’ is rare? Or weird? Does it require a particularly high IQ, or is it just a niche innate ‘talent’? More evidence emerges … I am in the school shop (Forsyths, who also ship-in additional grand pianos for the summer school) and ask a question about the Spectrum series of ‘contemporary music’ I heard about in the composition class. A man standing nearby asks, “Ah. Do you like contemporary music?”

“Britten and Tippett,” I reply.

“Oh, not contemporary then,” he says. “Britten would be 106 this year.” He smiles.

(He has a point. I have some catch-up to do.)

And then explains he has “worked with Britten”, and “lived for a while at The Red House”. Wow.

“And did I mention that I also worked with Tippett. Nice man.”

And the young woman behind the book counter joins in. “Yes, Tippett came to conduct our school orchestra. I agree, really nice. Fun. Britten was a but stuffy.”

Racing ahead with more connections the man (a Faculty tutor I now see from his badge) adds, “I taught Ed Sheeran you know. Lovely family. Must catch up with him some day.”

So there we are. What is Chetham’s? The centre of things.

How can this still be Day 2? But it is. A (much anticipated) evening recital in the gorgeous Stoller Hall (perfect acoustics). Angela Hewitt. Bach. The monumental Goldberg (30) Variations. Four (four) standing ovations! A once-in-a-lifetime performance. Superhuman. Truly. Everyone agrees.

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Stoller Hall

Day 3. The afternoon class introduces a wonderful idea. We are each asked to i) walk to the piano (applause), ii) improvise “anything” (no more than thirty seconds), iii) take a bow and iv) walk offstage. It works like a dream. Those who were reticent to play before are, by the end of the course, playing to the group.

Day 3. Evening. The bar. Chatting. We have just been treated to not one but TWO concertos. Brahms No. 1 and No. 2, with full orchestra (the first performed by Murray McLachlan, founder of the summer school, the second by the french-American pianist Eugen Indjic). A quiet lady joins us. I ask her what she has played to her group. In an accent I don’t recognise she explains she is too nervous. She has travelled to Manchester from Brazil. And not played! (other than to her tutor) Well, that has to end. Gathering up a colleague, and despite it being late (11pm), I suggest that we grab a room with a couple of grand pianos and play to each other for an hour or so. And we do. And my little plan works. She plays a complex piece by Villa Lobos. Slow and hesitant but lovely. And half an hour later she is showing off another piece, rich in Brazillian rhythms. Mission accomplished.

(Later in the week I repeat this trick for an IT Project Manager who had previously only played to his teacher at home … not even to his family and friends. But he played for me, at Chetham’s, and later found the confidence to play in his final group workshop.)

So what is Chetham’s? Mutual support network. Agony aunt for performance anxiety limited international piano tourists.

Day 4. I sit in on an ‘Improvisation” lesson. The pupil is a lady I met on the bus from the station. She has spotted my music bag and introduced herself. Her first Chetham’s, just like me. To the surprise of her tutor, she breaks down, tearful, before the lesson gets underway. The explanation: the first two days had shown her a new world: what it *really* means to be a musician. She explained that her musical education at school, and with various ‘teachers’ thereafter, was little but rote learning. No creativity. No authenticity. I understand her. My childhood experience was limiting. Decades pass and along comes Chetham’s to show us what the journey is really about. Two minutes later she has recovered her composure as she listened to the kind, empathetic, words of reassurance from her sensitive faculty teacher.

Day 4. Just before lunch. A friend from a London-based piano circle I attend (LPMG) emerges from class. We decide to help each other and find an empty practice room. He helps me with my sight reading. We exchange notes on Bach minuet style. We play Satie to each other, wondering how to achieve evenness.

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Adult student receiving tuition at Chethams Summer School for Pianists

Day 4. Afternoon tutorial. More input. Listen. Apply. This is good. I am learning. I hope it sticks. I’ll try.

Quote of the week:

Pupil: “I always get these bars wrong.”

Tutor: “I see. Have you tried playing them right?”

Evening concert. Sarah Nicolls’ ‘Outside-In-Piano’. Difficult to describe. Sarah builds vertical pianos, exposing the strings. The keyboard is sawn off and put back at a ninety degree angle. (No reaching over to get to the strings and the audience sees everything) Sarah uses this ‘instrument’ and a pile of electronics to compose new music. Tonal music washed in pads of sound coaxed from the unusual piano using her box of toys. What is this music? Part theatre, I could call it acoustic-electro-Dada’esque art. The hour with Sarah bewitches the audience. I meet up with her after the show, and she gives me an old piano-key from one of her construction projects. Apparently it contains a secret download-key to her digital album.

Sarah turns out to be an ex-student here at the school. So what is Chetham’s? Creativity incubator. And talent attractor.

Sarah is building a new InsideOutPiano (grand) using high-tech light weight components. The unique #StandingGrand will be built by FuturePianoLtd. The design will occupy no more space than a traditional upright and be able to be carried by two people. This will allow Sarah to perform more wildly and perhaps open the market for more musicians to own such a beautiful and unique instrument. Please consider supporting this project here on Kickstarter.

Day 5. Late (after an evening of recitals). Cabaret!! Not the musical; rather an end of summer school tradition. We assemble in the hall for the end of week celebration. A few have been roped in to provide the ‘entertainment’. A talented student plays the ubiquitous Bach Prelude in C major from the WTC Book 1. He is sitting on the ground, facing away from the keyboard, hands over his head and swapped left-right. This and a host of other entertainment closes the night. And before you ask … yes, I volunteered. It went down OK (for a first timer). Enough said of that the better.

Day 6. The following morning. Bit-of-a-head after late night wine. But I had signed up to play in the ‘leaving day’ recitals at 10AM. Without music! Memorization. Satie. Gnossiennes No. 1 and No. 2. Six minutes. That should be enough of me for this audience.

So what is Chetham’s? Unique. Essential. If you want to find out what lies ahead, just around the corner, waiting to pop up and poke fun at you. I’m back at school, where I need to be. The stepping stone.

What was the oddest thing I learnt? Clementi lives in Croydon. His name is Chris and he is a bellringer. Yes, Clementi’s great great (etc) grandson lives not too far. I knew there was a reason I found those exercises a little too close for comfort….


 

I first visited Dartington back in the mid-1980s when I was a student at Exeter, reading English with Medieval Studies. The Medieval element of my degree course included a module on Medieval art and my tutor group visited Dartington to see the splendid 14th-century Great Hall. I recall a special atmosphere on the Dartington estate and in the courtyard in which the Great Hall is an imposing feature. The place was imbued with tranquility, undoubtedly enhanced by the beautiful setting, but also a sense of purpose.

For four weeks during the summer, that sense of purpose is chanelled into making music as young professional and amateur musicians, leading artists and tutors come together at the Dartington International Summer School (DISS). The Music Summer School was founded in 1947 at Bryanston School, Dorset, by William Glock, and moved to Dartington in 1953. It has been host to some of the greatest musicians and composers, including Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, Imogen Holst, Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ravi Shankar, amongst many others, and continues to attract leading artists.

The Summer School arrived at a place which was already rich in innovation, experiment and vision. In the 1920s Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst purchased the neglected 14th-century Dartington estate and set about restoring the buildings and regenerating the land. Their pioneering ‘Dartington Experiment’ saw the creation of a wealth of farming, forestry and education projects, and early initiatives included the progressive Dartington School, Dartington Tweed and later Dartington Glass. The place quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, poets, architects and musicians, and was a hub for creativity, innovation and learning. The Elmhirsts believed that people thrive best in an environment which nourishes the whole self and Dartington Hall Trust continues to promote this ethos with a broad learning programme including courses on the arts, ecology, food and crafts with an emphasis on cooperation, collaboration and ‘learning by doing’.

Now in its 71st year, the Dartington International Summer School sits comfortably with the philosophy of the Dartington Experiment: in the idyllic tranquil surroundings of Dartington Hall, musicians hungry to explore new musical landscapes come together to collaborate, create and learn by doing. Since its foundation, thousands of participants have shared in Dartington’s magic, from renowned musicians such as Imogen Holst, William Glock (the first Artistic Director), Peter Maxwell Davis, Nadia Boulanger, Richard Rodney Bennett, Anne-Sophie von Otter, Alfred Brendel, Natalie Klein, and Tamara Stefanovich (to name but a few) to keen amateur musicians who go to learn, be inspired to play at the highest possible level, mingle with other musicians and like-minded people, and thoroughly immerse themselves in its compelling and diverse community of performers, composers and thinkers. For many it is a wonderful musical “retreat”, and they return year after year. The summer school is unique in that it brings together amateur and professional musicians, particularly young professionals, who are taught by world-class artists (including, this year, Joanna Macgregor (outgoing Artistic Director), Tom Randle, Adrian Brendel, Skampa Quartet, Florian Mitrea and Sarah Gabriel). In addition to over 30 taught courses each week, there are more than 90 concerts and music-related events, with most taking place in the wonderful Medieval Great Hall. Each of the four weeks of DISS has a specific theme, including early music and piano (week 3, which I attended for a few days).

Everyone I spoke to during my all-too-brief stay at Dartington mentioned the “special atmosphere” and it is very palpable – yet also quite hard to explain! The setting undoubtedly helps, but there is something else, a sense of common purpose and intent, a desire for self-improvement, to learn, and forge friendships, the unifying thread of course being music.

Music is also a great leveller and at Dartington there is little sense of demarcation between amateur and professional players, no “them and us”, for we are all equal in the face of the music. Nor did I encounter any of the hero worshipping I have observed at other piano courses. Instead, there is a mutual appreciation and respect between students and teachers, and I observed some of the most inspiring and generous teaching in the workshops and masterclasses I attended. Florian Mitrea, a young Romanian concert pianist and a regular at Dartington, teaches in such a way as to give each student some useful nuggets to enable further independent practising/self-teaching, but also encourages the student to think in terms of personal artistry, intepretation and performance rather than simply focusing on technique. This approach is too often lacking in the realm of the amateur pianist and I felt Florian’s approach gave each student, regardless of ability, the confidence to explore their own personal approach to their music. Joanna Macgregor is an equally generous teacher, whose infectious energy and commitment resulted in some incredibly transformative playing on the part of the young professionals she was coaching.

The opportunity to explore other music is also a hugely important part of the DISS experience. One is not confined only to one’s chosen course and all the classes are open so that one can drop in on conducting, chamber music, percussion and singing. Learning from other instrumentalists is so important and gives a broader, more informed approach to one’s own music making.

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A concert in the Great Hall

By 5pm a small queue has formed outside the Great Hall for the first concert of the evening (usually about an hour long). The concerts are open to the general public and it was very encouraging to see the Great Hall full for both of the concerts I attended (a fascinating Liszt lecture-recital by Florian Mitrea and Rev. Iain Lane, and Haydn and Beethoven trios by Trio Opal). There is a deliberate effort on the part of DISS organisers to ensure the local community is made to feel welcome too, and at next year’s summer school, in addition to public concerts, there will be a greater emphasis on participatory projects to bring people together, including listening clubs, family-friendly workshops and open choirs, initiatives by the incoming Artistic Director, Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who stressed the need to ensure those outside of the wonderful enclave of Dartington feel included.

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Sara Mohr-Pietsch

Talking to Sara in The Green Table, a friendly café close to the gardens, she expressed a strong desire to build on what Joanna Macgregor has put in place during her five-year tenure as AD, to remain faithful to the original concept of DISS, while also bringing fresh initiatives, including public masterclasses in the Great Hall, opportunities for conversations about music, including concert presentation and programming, and the listening experience, and the creation of daily ‘open space’ session within the course programme to give participants time to step back and reflect on what they have been doing, to generate new work, create taster sessions and curate their own time. With Sara’s own keen advocacy for new music, there will be a new course on composition, with Nico Muhly as composer in residence. Sara feels this will also reflect DISS as a “laboratory” where attendees can experiment, explore and collaborate in a safe space. With artists such as Iestyn Davies, Stile Antico, Dunedin Consort, Rachel Podger, Joseph Middleton, Tom Poster and Aidan O’Rourke on next year’s roster of artists, DISS 2020 promises to be busy, vibrant and inspiring.

Practicalities:

Course participants can opt to stay on site on a full-board basis, with meals taken in the White Hart next to the Great Hall. There is a choice of accommodation, which is allocated on a first come, first served basis. The meals at the White Hart are very good and there are other places to eat on site, including The Green Table.

Dartington is easily accessible by car off the A38 Exeter-Plymouth road. There is ample parking on site and participants are entitled to free carparking. Totnes is the nearest railway station (direct service from London Paddington).

Further information:

Dartington International Summer School and Festival website


Thank you to DISS staff for making me so welcome, to Damson PR for organising my trip, and to my piano friends Neil and Julian who have been urging me to visit Dartington for the past two years. I look forward to returning next year as full participant.

Better get practising……!

Guest post by Marie McKavanagh & Julian Davis

Thoughts on Lot Music 2019: participants’ perspectives

Amateur pianists come from a diverse range of backgrounds. We are frequently viewed as benign mavericks, eccentric and obsessive hobbyists who spend many lonely hours detached from family and friends with a shiny wooden box containing hammers and strings. Because it is a solitary activity, we duly seek out the company of others who understand the compulsive nature of our pastime. Always on the look out for opportunities and safe places to perform the music we have learnt, we find places of pianistic sanctuary where we celebrate and reveal our musical triumphs, sharing our mistakes and aspirations in an unfettered and experimental manner, supporting each other with kindness, encouragement, technical solutions, musical ideas and compassion.

It was with these hopes and aspirations we attended Lot Music, a piano course for advanced and committed adult amateur pianists held annually in July over two consecutive weeks in the South of France. We had heard about it for a few years from friends who had previously attended and they felt we would enjoy the experience. It is now in its 21st year, organised by Anne Brain, a retired plastic surgeon, and held at Le Vert, a large hostellerie in the tiny remote village of Mauroux, owned by Bernard and Eva Philippe.  Anne leaves her piano there through the year, a well-maintained Yamaha grand, easy to play with a consistently beautiful clarity of tone and full range of sounds. Some participants also stay at Le Canel, a gîte located a few miles away from Le Vert.  Practice pianos are scattered around both sites, including one rather dangerously positioned in the wine cellar next to some fine French claret! The tutors for this year were Martin Cousin and Leon McCawley.

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One of the joys of being a pianist is the endless volume and multifarious range of repertoire written for the instrument. There is available literature for all levels of skill, representative of so many countries, spanning over four centuries, illustrating all musical genres and magnitudes of composition. We played music written between the 17th and 21st centuries. We were two happy gangs of none adult participants in week 1, and another 9 in week 2. A few had persuaded their spouses and partners to join us, perhaps lured by the promise of superb food and hospitality, the swimming pool, the beautiful French countryside and the many moments of wonderful piano music.

What can we say about those professional pianists who offer us their time? They are away from their homes and families, prepared to live with and work with a group of diverse adult personalities, musical dilettantes from other professions with all the usual baggage of grown-up life experiences. We remain in awe of their pianistic skill and are grateful for their generosity.

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Our tutor on the first week was Martin Cousin. His teaching was insightful, detailed, tenacious and always encouraging. He was a respectful and supportive advocate of our often unrealistic personal ambitions. Fundamentally, he never suggested any of our music should only be played by those with a professional training. There were tear-jerking moments for all us when we made technical and musical changes suggested, facilitating our fingers and opening up worlds of harmonic and orchestral sound previously not considered.

He had taken time to examine the scores we brought before coming to Lot. Much of it he had played during his career, but we were always amused when he told us he didn’t know a particular piece of music well, and then proceeded to sight read it accurately and beautifully! Most importantly, we experienced tremendous joy, fun and laughter through the week, and we shared two piano and duet repertoire in some performances.

Martin played two evening recitals during the week, treating us to Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin Opus 22, Chopin’s Sonata Opus 58, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli and Prokofiev’s Sonata No 7, Opus 83. There is no room for inertia when playing this repertoire, and he served the music with complete technical security and artistry throughout. The audience were captivated by his range of sound and the triumphant and exhilarating virtuosity displayed. However, it was in the quieter more contemplative moments of the Chopin sonata and the Corelli Variations that we were witness to real musicianship, suspended in a beautiful and reverent sound world of hope and contentment. It was as good as it gets, and both recitals demanded stamina and poise in the ambient intense heat.

One participant compiled a collection of ‘Martinisms’, amusing us all at the dinner table with quotations from our lessons that were entertaining and insightful. One comment that particularly resonated was the suggestion about how to deal with a repeated passage in a piece of music; “it’s the same picture, but the sun is in a different place”. Wonderful imagery. In music, as in life, we should continually keep looking for where the light is coming from.

During the second week, our tutor was Leon McCawley. Like Martin, he was thoughtful, energetic and kind, and tremendously helpful in his coaching to a disparate bunch of pianists, all with our different ambitions and challenges. He was a fount of advice and guidance on a wide repertoire of works, and we enjoyed his gentle good humour and wit. All of us took away lots of sound advice, such as “get to really know the piano keys, they are your friends”. He very indulgently played some duets and duos after dinner with some of us, including some very impressive sight-reading of the Lutoslawski Paganini variations!

Leon treated us with two recitals, including a deliciously sparkling Haydn sonata (G major, Hob XVI/40), and an enthralling performance of Schubert’s C minor sonata (D958); in the second recital we enjoyed some rarely heard lovely Sketches by Hans Gál, together with Brahms’ Op 119 Klavierstücke, Schumann’s Abegg variations, and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, Op 61. Every performance was musically inspiring, exciting, beautiful and thought-provoking, and we felt extremely privileged to be such closely involved listeners.

So why do many of us continue to play piano as adults? We could bore you with the robust scientific evidence about how playing the piano maintains cognitive reserve and is a safe and intellectually stimulating hobby to entertain mature adults. But we won’t do that. Music is indeed a source of intellectual and emotional nutrition, a universal language crossing continents and cultures.

We continue to play the piano in adult life because it opens up the heart and re-calibrates the soul, realigning our lives in a way that helps us function with renewed enthusiasm and with the resilience needed to handle the vicissitudes in our professional and personal lives. We meet interesting people and make many real and meaningful friendships when we share music with each other. But mostly we express all that it means to be human when we play.

So many thanks again are due to both tutors, but special thanks are due to Anne Brain, without whom Lot Music simply would not happen. She masterminded and has run this wonderful French musical house party for over two decades, liaising with our hosts Bernard and Eva, who allow us to invade their home and kept us regularly supplied with excellent French food, aperitifs and fine wines. We shall be returning.

Lot Music website

Piano courses in the UK and Europe


Dr Marie McKavanagh grew up in a musical family where playing an instrument, singing and dancing were viewed as essential social skills rather than accomplishments. These were troubled times in Northern Ireland and the Performing Arts was one of the few areas of 1970s life to freely cross the political divide. At 17 she won a scholarship to Queens University, Belfast where she read Medicine. She continued her piano lessons with Nancy Patton-Scott at the Belfast School of Music during her undergraduate years, and has continued to have lessons and play the piano as a compelling and uplifting hobby throughout her adult life. She holds an LTCL in Piano Performance. She moved to Cheshire in the late 1980s and worked as an NHS GP in Nantwich for 28 years. She completed her MSc in Performing Arts Medicine at UCL in 2018 with Distinction and won the BAPAM award and the Dean’s nomination for her research into the cognitive functions of adult amateur pianists. She now works as a BAPAM practitioner at Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, a freelance locum GP and an NHS England GP Appraiser. She is married to Dr Richard Leigh who works in Bolton A/E and flies biplanes when she is practising. They have two grown up children who remain the centre of their universe.

Julian Davis has played piano since childhood and passed the LRAM Piano Performer’s examination in the 1980s. He worked until recently as Professor of Medicine at Manchester University and Manchester Royal Infirmary, while remaining active as an amateur musician. He has regularly given recitals as a soloist, in 2-piano duos, and in chamber music ensembles, and has enjoyed recent recitals with violinist Simon Evans, cellist Eva Schultze-Berndt, and his sister, soprano Nicola Stock. He has taken part in masterclasses and workshops at Dartington Summer School in recent years with Christian Blackshaw, Steven Osborne, and Florian Mitrea. He currently has piano lessons with William Howard (pianist and founder of the Schubert Ensemble) in London.