Back by popular demand……

“A hugely valuable day”

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

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

screen-shot-2015-10-22-at-15-49-10-e1445945525634

The day will include:

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

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

Observer places cost £17 – book tickets

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

Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

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

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

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

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

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

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

 


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

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

The London Piano Meetup Group is holding its second Diploma Day on Sunday 9th July 2017. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are considering, or planning to take, a post-grade-8 performance qualification, or piano teachers who want to observe several hours of inspirational teaching.

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

screen-shot-2015-10-22-at-15-49-10-e1445945525634

The day will include:

  • Performances of diploma repertoire from participants preparing for their exams
  • Feedback in a masterclass-style format from acclaimed teacher and pianist Graham Fitch
  • Workshops, discussions and Q&A sessions with Frances Wilson (a.k.a. The Cross-Eyed Pianist), covering the planning, preparation, practice and execution of a performance diploma, plus supporting components including understanding and managing performance anxiety and stagecraft

Feedback from participants at last year’s Diploma Day:

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

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

“A hugely valuable day”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

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

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

The organisers are looking forward to seeing familiar and new faces at this event, and hope that it will be a valuable and useful day for all attendees. For any questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Claire Hansell at londonpianomeetup@gmail.com.

Tickets for participants (to observe) are £17 each

BOOK TICKETS

Please book by midday on Wednesday 5th July, as there is unfortunately no facility to pay on the door on the day.

Link to Facebook event

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

avatars-000208691703-0he3lq-t500x500Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013 and is co-administrator of Piano Network UK on Facebook. She has hosted and participated in workshops, masterclasses, courses and meetups for adult pianists, and completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after a long break. Frances writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for Pianist Magazine’s online content and is a guest blogger for classical music website InterludeHK.

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of time-management, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regular to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the kind of gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stage craft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

Despite the rather glib title, there is a serious intent behind this post. As someone who has taken two performance diplomas in fairly quick succession (less than 18 months apart), I want to offer some advice and support to those who are preparing for diplomas.

First and foremost, don’t be under any illusions about these music diplomas. The first, Associate level diploma is not a simple step up from Grade 8 – and the Licentiate is not a simple step up from Associate (a glance at the repertoire list will confirm this). My teacher was quick to point this out to me from the outset and continued to do so right up until the day I played my LTCL programme to her 10 days before the exam (she regularly examines and adjudicates at this level, and higher, and I fully trust her judgement on this issue). Diplomas are professional qualifications and require a professional approach and preparation.

Repertoire: you can select repertoire from the syllabus, or choose a mixture of own-choice and repertoire from the syllabus, or a programme entirely comprised of own-choice repertoire. Be sure to have your programme approved well in advance if you are including any/all own-choice repertoire. Select repertoire which you like – after all, you are going to spend a long time with these pieces (up to 2 years, or more, depending on your learning rate) – and steer clear of pieces which you think will impress/please an examiner (Chopin Ballades, the well known Études etc. – examiners hear a lot of these!). Select pieces which interest and excite you, but be sure to choose a programme which reflects a variety of styles, moods and tempi, and showcases your strengths. You should also consider how the pieces work together as a programme (I put all my pieces into a Spotify playlist to hear how the pieces worked as a programme). The programme does not have to be chronological, and indeed some contrasts can add an interesting angle to a programme.

Practising: taking a diploma teaches you how to practise deeply and thoughtfully, and you need to get into good, consistent practising habits from the get-go. I practised every day for at least 2 or 3 hours, starting at 8am for c1.5 hours and then doing another session after lunch. If I knew I wasn’t going to have time for a full practise session, I made sure I covered the things which needed the work (cadenzas, memory work). Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention and ruthlessly stick to a plan. I kept a detailed practise diary in which I noted 1) what I planned to achieve each day and 2) what I actually achieved.

Musicianship: I was praised for this aspect in my LTCL recital (and a colleague who heard my programme a month before the exam also highlighted it). This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to learn, or be taught, and in my own case, I felt it came from a deep knowledge and appreciation of every single note of every single piece in the programme. I did a lot of background reading and further listening, and really steeped myself in the repertoire, as well as understanding the historical, literary and social contexts surrounding the works and their composers. For anyone studying Rachmaninoff, for example, the recordings of him playing his own piano music are invaluable and fascinating (available on YouTube and Spotify).

Performance practice: get as much performance experience in as possible in advance of the exam. This can include performing at home for friends and family, taking part in local music festivals, courses, and other performance platforms, or organising a concert in a local venue or for a music society. Having a dress rehearsal (in the outfit I intended to wear for the exam) was really helpful: it highlighted areas which needed tweaking or adjusting, it was a dry run for the page-turner, and it helped to allay performance anxiety. It is also important to practise being a performer: how you behave before an audience is often very different to how you work at home alone. You are judged on your stagecraft as well as your playing in a Diploma recital.

Playing through the entire programme: at least a month before the exam, get into the habit of playing the complete programme through every day without stopping to correct mistakes. At Associate level, the programme lasts for c40 minutes, double the length of the pieces for Grade 8, and this can take some stamina if you have no previous experience of playing for that length of time. Playing through also allows you to judge how long the pauses should be between the pieces. For example, I wanted to segue straight from the fading final low D of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II into Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511, but there needed to be a longer pause between the end of the Liszt (Sonetto 104 del Petraca) and the Rachmaninoff E-flat Étude-Tableau. Demonstrating that you have thought about this is another important aspect of programme planning and musicianship.

Programme notes and timings: Don’t leave writing the programme notes until the last minute. Take time to write the notes in a considered way and avoid overly high-blown musicologist-speak language and exhaustive musical analysis. The style of programme note you might read at a concert at the Wigmore is what you should be aiming form. Be sure to include accurate timings for each individual piece as well as for the complete programme. Remember, you can be marked down for inaccurate timings.

Different pianos, different places: don’t confine your practising to your own piano. Get in as much practise as possible on a variety of grand pianos (there are practise rooms in and around London which offer baby grands right up to full-size concert Steinways – go and play all of them!). If you have been used to practising on an upright, a grand can feel very different at first. Also, you need to know how to respond to a variety of acoustics and room sizes.

Be over-prepared: this is the single most important experience I drew from the first diploma and applied to my preparation for the Licentiate. On the day of the exam, I felt on top of every single piece and I knew that any slips would not throw me off course or upset me. However, being over-prepared should not equate to over-practised and in the final weeks before the exam, be careful not to over-practise as this can kill a piece and allow strange new errors to creep in which are then difficult to erase. You need to go into the exam feeling you have something extra to give on the day.

Keep body and brain rested: in the last 24 hours before the exam, allow yourself time to rest body and brain. We often forget how much mental effort is involved in playing the piano. If the head is fresh, the body will respond accordingly. Get a good night’s sleep, and avoid alcohol and rich food. On the day of the exam, do some light practising, and allow yourself plenty of time to get to the exam centre.

And after the exam? Don’t post-mortem your performance. What’s done is done, and the best thing you can do is move onto new repertoire or return to favourite pieces. Above all, enjoy playing the piano!

(I offer consultation lessons for people preparing for advanced grade exams and diplomas, including advice on repertoire and coping with performance anxiety. Further details on my website).

More on diplomas here:

Why take a music diploma?

 

And so, on the day I received confirmation of my Diploma recital date (16th April, at Trinity College in Greenwich, where I took my ATCL), I gave a lunchtime recital at the NPL Musical Society (NPL MS), at Bushy House on the National Physical Laboratory campus in Teddington.

When I booked the concert, it was intended to be the “dress rehearsal” for the actual Diploma recital, for me and my page turner. I have played at the NPL MS before (with a violinist), and have attended a number of concerts there, all of which have been most enjoyable with high-quality programmes and performers. The audience, mostly NPL staff and former staff, is very supportive and friendly, and the society has a rather nice 100 year old medium-sized Steinway.

By the time I’d got dressed up, put my lipstick on, applied some “lucky perfume” (Jo Malone ‘Red Roses’), and warmed up on the piano, it stopped feeling like a dress rehearsal and began to feel like a real occasion, a ‘proper’ concert, the programme chosen entirely by me, without consultation with teacher or mentor, the notes written by me (a requirement for the Diploma): it was ‘my’ concert.

For all three levels of Diploma – ATCL, LTCL and FTCL (and the equivalent Diplomas with other exam boards such as DipABRSM and LRSM) – the candidate is required to give a recital lasting between 35 and 50 minutes, depending on the level of diploma. The material should be prepared to a very high standard (from LTCL on, the exam criteria state “to a professional standard”) and one should display musicality, technical assuredness, understanding of the composer’s intentions and an ability to convey these to the audience, communication skills, and stagecraft. Doing a “dry run” concert, either at home to friends, or in a more formal setting, is invaluable – not so much to flag up errors or inconsistencies (there were very few in my concert, I’m glad to say), but more to check the flow/energy of the programme and to hear how it all fits together. There is always a heightened sense of tension when one plays before an audience, whatever the venue, which can be extremely useful not just in learning how to cope with performance anxiety but also drawing on the release of adrenaline to help one raise one’s game and play better. I have to admit I was so excited about the concert (coming as it did the day after an extremely positive session with my teacher) that I couldn’t sleep the night before.

On the whole, I was extremely pleased with my performance. Rather than slog through the ‘Presto’ of the Bach Concerto (which is still in need of some housekeeping), I skipped the repeats, and no one was any the wiser. The Takemitsu was super on a bigger piano, and I deliberately allowed more “stasis” in the music, a sense of repose and waiting in the rests and silences. The turner missed the second turn, and even tried to take the music away (!) when he realised his mistake: he admitted to me afterwards that he had got rather caught up in the mood of the piece, which I suppose should be seen as a sign of my ability to “communicate”! A couple of things to fix in the Mozart, but nothing serious. And so to the Liszt, the big virtuosic piece of the programme……well, when someone came up to me afterwards and said “the Liszt was particularly haunting” I felt I’d really achieved something with that piece.

Other useful factors? The piano had some “squeaky” keys, but I simply ignored these. At one o’clock someone’s watch alarm went off, and was not immediately silenced (a capital offence at the Wigmore Hall!), but although I was aware of it, it didn’t throw me. Rustling programmes, someone coughing, the general ambient sounds of people and the park outside the window, all entered my peripheral consciousness but did not distract me from the task in hand. All good signs – I have worked very hard on my concentration (in particular using techniques in The Inner Game of Music and The Musician’s Way).

So, with exactly three weeks to go to the exam, I feel focused and excited. Of course, having been there and done it once before helps enormously because I know what to expect, but this Diploma is a big step up from the previous one (it’s the equivalent of 3-4 years in Conservatoire) and requires a greater level of commitment. I think I’m ready for the challenge.

An earlier article I wrote on the value of performing

Now in its 62nd season, the NPL Musical Society hosts regular concerts throughout the year with a wide variety of performers and programmes. Concerts take place in The Scientific Museum in Bushy House, an elegant 18th century house overlooking Bushy Park.For further information please contact Stephen Lea (stephen.lea@npl.co.uk)

This morning I had a lesson with my teacher, the last one before my Diploma exam, and I played the entire programme to her (I felt ever so slightly daunted to arrive at her house in north London and find her Blüthner grand with its lid up). This was a very useful exercise and one I would recommend to anyone who is preparing for an important exam, diploma, festival, competition or recital. It’s not the same as simply playing the programme through to family or friends: knowing one’s teacher’s critical ears are listening carefully makes one especially alert, and forces one to raise one’s game. Fortunately, I didn’t feel I was coming into the lesson completely cold, as ten days ago I played the programme through to a colleague, who is both a busy concert pianist and a skilled teacher. The intervening days between that play through and today’s gave me time to attend to various suggestions.

My teacher commented before I started that my programme is “big” (it lasts just under 40 minutes), but the strange thing is that having played it through in its entirety several times now, it doesn’t feel big to me. I used to worry that I would feel tired by the time I got to the last two pieces (two of Rachmaninov’s Op 33 Études-Tableaux) but today I felt I had enough energy left to see the pieces successfully through to the very last note – and I wasn’t holding back today either.

I was pleased that I was able to hold everything together, without any serious lapses of concentration or focus. I clocked a number of errors or places where some adjustments were needed, but these didn’t throw me or interrupt the flow. Personally, I was very pleased with the Takemitsu (my favourite piece in the programme) and the Mozart (second favourite!). My teacher’s comments were largely details concerning quality of sound (some of my fortes were too strident) or rhythmic issues – the sort of things an examiner is likely to pick up. There were one or two stylistic issues (flow in the LH of the G minor Étude-Tableau, for example), but overall I received plenty of positive feedback, and my teacher finished the lesson by saying “I think you deserve to do really well”.

So, with three weeks to go until the exam (I think – I’m still waiting for a confirmed date), there’s still plenty to do finessing and housekeeping my pieces, attending to the little details which could make the difference between a pass and a good pass, or a good pass and a distinction. It would be very easy to rest on my laurels at this point, but I want to go into the exam with everything as secure as possible. This is also one of the best insurance policies against performance anxiety, and lends a positive frame of mind to every performance I will give before the actual diploma recital.

Tomorrow is the “dress rehearsal”, a concert for my local music society and a chance for me and my page turner to check that we are working together as a slick team. The audience tomorrow will be friendly and supportive (a number of my friends will be attending) so I hope the experience will be positive and enjoyable.

And now, I really should be practising……