Tag Archives: Piano courses

An intensive piano week in Italy

Guest post by Claire Vane

If music be the food of love….play on….(but please let it be in Italy)

I know Italy well, and in particular central Italy – Le Marche – which is not, as imagined, anything whatsoever to do with marshes. It is a wonderful and prosperous area of Italy which brings together the mountains and the sea, greenery and sunshine, as well as many concerts and wonderful performances and, in addition, a Sferisterio in Macerata where operas are staged every summer in the most magnificent surroundings.

I decided that I would indulge myself by having a week of playing the piano in total peace and quiet in central Italy at Music Holiday Italy. Gil Jetley, who won the second edition of the prestigious triennial International Chopin Competition for amateurs in Warsaw in 2012, has set up a piano school in Italy. Although Gil has in the past run a number of group courses, he has now decided to focus on one-to-one tuition. If you think you’re going on a total relaxation holiday, forget it. But, I must admit, the food was delicious and the surroundings couldn’t be better. I adore the piano and take it very seriously… My children, who are now grown up, joke that it is at the top of my priority list… I perform as much as I can, and always for charity. I have been back at the keyboard for about ten years after a thirty-year gap and have been learning for the last three years with Warren Mailley-Smith, who is a marvel.

It’s late Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting in the Italian sun on a hill in southern Le Marche, contemplating the view and recovering from the physical exertion of playing the piano for 6 days, 6 hours a day. I agree that this is not a particularly huge amount if one is preparing for a recital and, in actual fact, I find 6 hours of practice, perhaps broken into two lots of three hours, not so physically demanding, but where this time is made up of six days, consisting of four hours of onte-to-one tuition, followed by 2 hours of practice, then the mental energy seems much greater.

The proof of the pudding….

I arrived in Ancona airport at Falconara to be whisked away in Gil’s Jaguar, into the mountains near Amandola and not far from Ascoli Piceno. Apart from speaking to Gil and the local grape farmers and restaurateurs whom we met in the evening, I did not speak to another adult, except on the telephone, for an entire week. It is a great place to avoid distractions and it is in sharp contrast to living in the middle of Cambridge where we ride bicycles because there are no hills.

What could be better doing the thing you love for a whole week? The only problem comes with everybody thinking that you’ve been on holiday. Do not be deceived by the name of the website!

Gil’s expertise in the kitchen is as excellent as his technique on the piano.

Every evening we ventured out to dinner, again in the beautiful Jaguar, and experienced the rewards of the region, including delicious salamis, wonderful mushroom risotto and the local restaurants around Montefalcone.

I was a little shocked to find that another piano nut such as myself did not have a name for his piano. My own piano, Charlotte, a Schimmel C189, would have been shocked to find that Gil’s mellow 7ft Italian Kawai did not have a name until I arrived.

I took with me a number of pieces including the Mozart Rondo K511, six Schubert Impromptus, the slow movement of Schubert D960 and the Mendelssohn Rondo Capriccioso… Gil is a man of detail and does not let anything pass. Though we did not always agree on interpretation or even sometimes on technique, Gil had me analyzing works in a way that I had not done for years and reminding me of harmonies long forgotten since my days at Junior College at the Royal Northern under Marjorie Clementi.

I stayed in the room called ‘Mozart’, which was a good choice for me, situated next to ‘Bach’, which was not occupied that week, and Mozart provided a lot of peace for me in a week when I was taking a break from the heat – both physical and mental. All in all an excellent learning experience, which I can recommend.

Gil is a man of many parts, and is pretty handy with screwdrivers, saws and other tools required to turn an old property into a very comfortable home. Be warned that if you wish to go for walks in the afternoon; if you descend to the local village 5km away you have to come back up the hill again…and the hill is steep. This is also, of course, an opportunity to get very fit. If you want to do some touring and take your family then this is also possible, though I would imagine that that this takes some of the focus away from the purpose of going in the first place – mainly to play the piano intensively and to enjoy being solitary and focused.

If you would like a week of intensive piano learning and practice in a peaceful environment with glorious walks in the hills of Italy, then this is the place to be.

One-to-one tuition 

Further information about MusicHolidayItaly

 

14657451_10154312353421773_4844777016158226596_nClaire Vane read Classics with Languages at Cambridge. She was a Saturday exhibitioner at what was the Royal Manchester College of Music and was taught by Marjorie Clementi, and over the last three and a half years by Warren Mailley Smith. Claire holds an Associate Diploma in Piano Performance and performs for a variety of charities. She is a Human Resources Consultant by day and is the founder and MD of a bespoke HR and Recruitment Consultancy, Integrated Resources Ltd. She describes herself as a “piano nut”, and enjoys courses which help her develop musically on the piano.

Impressionist Alistair McGowan to release solo piano album 

Best known for his BAFTA-winning comedy show, ‘Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression’, in which he delighted audiences nationwide with pinpoint-accurate impersonations of celebrities such as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross, Alistair McGowan is now preparing for his most demanding role of all – that of pianist – as he releases an album of solo piano works for Sony Classical. 

This debut album features McGowan performing several short classical pieces, all chosen and learned by the actor/impressionist (who could only ever play two pieces) but who then practised for up to six hours a day over a nine month period in his attempt to finally conquer this beautiful instrument, despite already being in his early fifties. Says McGowan: “By taking on the idea of making an album, I hope to encourage people of any age to play the piano, but perhaps particularly those at an age where it’s easy to think that it’s all too late”.

McGowan had started out playing the piano as a boy, but gave it up after only two years in favour of tennis and football. He went on to train as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked for many years on television, on radio and in the theatre (being nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006), as well as successfully performing around the country for almost thirty years as a stand-up comic. 

Having always yearned for the piano, in 2016, McGowan devised the one-man stage show, ‘Erik Satie’s-faction’, based on the French composer’s comedic writings, letters and music, for which he had to learn to play some short piano pieces by Satie and Debussy as an integral part of the show – the first time he had ever played in public. Emboldened by this well-received first public experience, it was not long before he was enthusiastically identifying and learning other short pieces which he felt that he – and others with similarly limited playing experience – could realistically manage.

McGowan notes: “I have become so passionate about the piano over the past three years. It has really taken me over and I have made the time to practise (time I never thought I had) with a few simple lifestyle changes. This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination. Learning to play the piano has been an incredible challenge – often frustrating – but, ultimately, hugely enjoyable and emotional. It’s so satisfying when you realise that you are improving daily. I hope this encourages everyone who harbours a secret ambition take up music -it really is never too late!

McGowan was mentored by concert pianist and ‘Olympianist’ Anthony Hewitt and he has also attended exclusive piano summer school La Balie in south-west France. He practised on friends’ pianos and used ice packs to relieve tension and pain in his hands and legs, the result of his long practise sessions.

His solo piano album features music from composers as diverse as Bach, Chopin, Glass, Grieg, Liszt and Satie, together with vocals by Alistair McGowan’s singer wife, Charlie.

Alistair McGowan: The Piano Album is released on 29 September on the Sony Classical label

 

Eralys Fernandez Piano Masterclass weekend, 6-8 April 2018

A weekend course for advanced adult pianists run by Cuban pianist Eralys Fernandez and Professor Nigel Clayton from the Royal College of Music. The course takes place at the Purcell School in Hertfordshire and runs from 6th to 8th April 2018 The course comprises individual lessons, workshops and student and teacher concerts.  Accommodation and meals are all part of this exciting weekend which aims to create a great social and educational atmosphere.  Reduced rate for observers.  Ability level: Grade 8 to post-diploma.

  • High-level piano lessons focusing on technique, sound, interpretation, style.
  • Analysis of pieces and their structure.
  • Advice on performance and controlling nerves

The course will run from Friday evening until early Sunday evening.   There will be 2 workshops,  a Q & A session, at least two individual lessons taught by Nigel and Eralys and potentially a third lesson with another teacher.  There will be a student and teacher concert to complete the course.  There is also the option of having a harpsichord lesson with Eralys. The Purcell school has extensive practice facilities and a concert hall.

During the weekend 6 meals are provided with prosecco, wine, tea, coffee, ice cream, cake and biscuits to help proceedings.  There is accommodation at the Purcell school on the Friday and Saturday night.  Please note it is basic student accommodation and is not ensuite, although some rooms will have a piano.

Course fee: £420 (including accommodation and meals), observers £180

For further information and booking please visit:

 

Introducing…… MusicHolidayItaly

MusicHolidayItaly (MHI) was created by Gil Jetley, a pianist/teacher with a lifetime experience in music as a second career. (In 2012 he won First Prize at the prestigious International Chopin Competition for amateurs in Warsaw which takes place every three years.). I recently met up with Gil to talk about his piano courses, pianists, repertoire and the pleasures and challenges of playing the piano……

Piano courses and summers schools seem to be more popular than ever now, and MHI is coming up to its third year of summer masterclasses for amateur pianists. What makes yours different from other courses and summer schools?

Well, first, no-one else is doing this in Italy, and secondly, we run not just one masterclass a year but several from Easter to the end of October. We offer both traditional group masterclasses and our unique One-on-One courses which have the added flexibility of participants being able to choose their own dates. Another aspect that makes us different is that we think in terms of “guests” rather than “students” or “participants”. We’re focussed on music coaching of course, but as well as a valuable musical experience we aim to give guests a truly authentic Italian experience.

You mention One-on-One courses – what is a One-on-One course?

It’s a unique concept as far as I know, and ideal if you are shy about performing to a group. A minimum of four hours personal coaching every day, unlimited practise time, and pampered attention from dawn to dusk. We even chauffeur you to and from the airport. It’s a stress-free way to learn a lot in a short time. Actually, our One-on-Ones are more in demand than the more common group masterclasses, possibly because there’s nothing else quite like them.

Who are the tutors?

The main tutor is Course Director Gil Jetley, a pianist/teacher with a lifetime experience in music as a second career. Guest tutors for 2017 still to be confirmed include Martin Roscoe and for 2018 we anticpate having Noriko Ogawa.

What’s new for 2017?

Teacher Symposiums: a chance for piano teachers to meet and learn from colleagues, contribute their own teaching  experiences, and support each other in a relaxed inspirational setting.  Learn what repertoire others use, review piano methods, discuss how to teach adults, see how your colleagues deal with technique, how they teach theory, prepare students for exams, and which syllabuses they favour. Further information here

For a week in July we are offering a special dedicated course for adult amateur pianists with arthiritis – further details here

You mention you aim to give truly authentic Italian experience. What do you mean by that?

Local cuisine is of course central to any Italian experience. On both group masterclasses and One-on-Ones, we wine and dine guests each evening at locally renowned restaurants. If there’s a piano on hand our guests are welcome to give an impromptu cabaret – the locals love it, and it makes for a great social evening out.

Equally important is our location in the very heart of the Sibilini National Park. Even Italians consider this one of the most beautiful, unspoilt parts of Italy. After the morning masterclass is over we encourage guests to spend at least one afternoon sampling local life through a range of ‘add-ons’ we can arrange.

What kind of ‘add-ons’?

Italian cooking lessons at a local restaurant are very popular, as are guided wine trails. Also visits to the countless mediaeval hilltop towns, many with priceless art in their museums, galleries and churches. For the energetic we can take you on lakeside walks, through forest trails, or up mountain scrambles, all impossibly photogenic with a chance to snap a golden eagle, porcupine, wild boar or even a loan wolf! For a highlight to the week, how about opera under the stars in a Roman amphitheatre? There are so many attractions, often guests follow up a week of music with a few extra days holiday experiencing life the Italian way.

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What about the accommodation?

As well as ensuite bedrooms at Montemuse (where the masterclasses take place) there is an organic farm with a restored farmhouse, family chalets and pool just five minutes away. So the whole family can come along on holiday too.

When is the best time to enrol?

Now! It’s really important to enrol early, ideally before Christmas, before the holiday booking season gets into gear. Remember the Sibilini Park is considered one of the most beautiful, unspoilt parts of Italy, and even though it’s far away from the tourist crowds, this region quickly gets booked solid for the summer. We’ve even had to cancel a scheduled course because all nearby accommodation was snapped up. So the earlier you enrol, the sooner we can reserve (and guarantee) your accommodation.

A word from previous participants?

We justly proud of the comments from our guests. You can check out more reviews on our website but here’s a sample from both our groups masterclasses and the One-on-Ones.

“Stunning, peaceful and inspirational”

“Great Director, made me feel incredible happy”

“Great teacher, patient, full of good energy, formidable”

“Perfect organisation”

“Lovely piano”

“Awesome meals, every evening a feast”

“Very, very enjoyable”

“Excellent value, both teaching and food!”

“Very satisfied, a fantastic musical experience”

And a final word from you, Gil?

There’s plenty of information and photos on our website so do take a look and explore the site. Especially do browse the reviews which should give you a good idea what to expect!

For further information about and booking please visit the musicholidayitaly website

Pianissimi! An exciting new course for adult pianists

Pianist friends Alison Bestow and Claire Vane have set up a brand new adult piano course. I caught up with them to find out more about their new venture….

Why did you decide to establish a new piano course?

Claire: We wanted to have the opportunity to attend more piano courses, and we were looking for a course in the Easter holidays, but there were very few available. We decided to run our own course, with all our favourite ideas from the other courses that we have enjoyed. We love big, exciting projects, and this is our latest joint enterprise.

How did you go about finding the venue?

Alison: We approached many venues in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire that we thought would have the facilities that we were looking for, including the right number of pianos, a concert hall and comfortable residential accommodation on site. Initially, we had huge difficulties finding a venue because most schools and Cambridge colleges are booked several years in advance, often to bigger courses. We were really lucky to find the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, which ticks all the boxes. We have been given full run of their state of the art music block, and the staff there have been very helpful.

Claire: The location is really beautiful, on the side of the river Orwell with spectacular views, so the environment should be inspiring as well.

Who are the tutors and how did you go about finding them?

Claire: Warren Mailley-Smith has been my teacher for the last 3 years and he is very keen on master classes and teaching adults.  Penelope Roskell has been a friend of mine since I was a young teenager and we were both Saturday morning exhibitioners at the Royal Northern College of Music. Penelope has subsequently pursued a professional career in music as a concert pianist and later Professor of Piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  Penelope is particularly interested in posture and tension-free playing and is a great exponent of yoga too.

Are there any other tutors at the course? 

Alison: I currently have yoga lessons with Izzy Ixer and I was talking to her about the course and she thought it was a great idea and had lots of ideas for using yoga to help with relaxation and performance nerves.  Another friend of mine, Claire Weston, was a principal soprano at ENO and she offered to come along to teach about being an accompanist as this is a skill that lots of pianists don’t get chance to practise. They are both highly experienced teachers and I know that their lessons will be great fun.

What are you going to be doing on the course?

Claire: Well, apart from masterclasses and individual lessons in piano, accompanying and yoga, there will be a lot of socialising, eating, drinking, practising and some relaxation.  The facilities at The Royal Hospital School in Ipswich are amazing so we’ll have the opportunity to walk in the grounds and even the chance to swim if there is any space between master classes and having fun.

Alison: I am hoping to meet lots of other piano-mad people, make some new friends and play some piano duets. I’m looking forward to playing one of the grand pianos in the beautiful recital hall at the school.

I am very intrigued by the name Pianissimi’ – how did you arrive at that name?

Claire: We wanted a name that conveyed the piano, and as music notation is largely in Italian, we wanted something with an Italian element.  We thought that as this was a group event, we’d go for Pianissimi, signifying the plural rather than Pianissimo, and thought it was a bit different and the Italianates amongst the pianists would smile.  It also conveys a sense of gentleness and softness, which is the atmosphere we’d like to convey – one of informality and security rather than loud and brash.

Is this a profit making venture?

Alison: We are doing this just for fun, and we have decided that any surplus made will go to Cancer Research so no, this is not a profit-making enterprise.

Who is this course aimed at?

Alison: We want the course to be very inclusive for anyone who loves the piano as much as we do, so we are suggesting that attendees are grade 7 onwards and including diploma level and post-diploma.  The levels of experience and performance will be varied, but we want to ensure that everybody feels comfortable and confident playing in a group. The course is also ideal for those with a specific aim, such as preparing for a graded or diploma exam, or getting ready for a particular performance. There will be lots of performance opportunities for those who want them. But there won’t be any pressure on people to perform if they don’t want to.

Where can we find out more?

Claire: All the information about the course is on our website:

http://pianissimi.wordpress.com/

Our contact details are also on the site, so I hope people will get in touch if they want to participate and if they have any other questions. If you, like us, are a piano nut, do come and join us at Pianissimi during the Easter holidays in 2017. 

Pianissimi

Course dates: 5.30 pm on Thursday, 20th April 2017 to 4 pm on Sunday, 23rd April 2017.

Location: Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk IP9 2RX. There are good rail connections from London

Cost: £450 per person to include all tuition, full board and accommodation in the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk.

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The Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk

Why go on a piano course?

Piano courses for adult amateur pianist 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.)

So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most adult 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. Some courses aim to combine expert tuition with a “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. Other 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 nerve-wracking 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 stressful, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, 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.

Piano Courses in the UK and Europe

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

Is the future of piano playing in the UK really in peril?

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.

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….. These initiatives 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

 

Masterchef: redefining “amateur”

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.

2014 Masterchef winner Ping Coombes kisses the trophy

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”.

The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club
The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club

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.

Practising for Lovers – Stephen Hough’s blog

London Piano Meetup Group

South London Concert Series

 

Masterclasses without tears

masterclass

ˈmɑːstəklɑːs

noun

noun: masterclass; plural noun: masterclasses; noun: master-class; plural noun: master-classes

1.

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 – a piano course for children & adults

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.

Dates: 5th – 9th August 2013

Course fee: £395 per participant

Further information & bookings: www.pianoweek.com

www.samanthaward.org

Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales
Tal y Llyn, Snowdonia, North Wales