Encore – your favourite ABRSM piano exam pieces

There are numerous anthologies of piano pieces which sit comfortably alongside the exam syllabuses, many of which are published by the ABRSM. Encore is a new compilation, in four volumes covering Grades 1 to 8, of over 70 favourite exam pieces from timeless classics to contemporary classical music and popular songs and show tunes or TV themes. Selected by Karen Marshall, one half of the team behind the Get Set! Piano series, the opinions of teachers, educators and piano students were sought in deciding which pieces to include. The result is a collection of music which will appeal to all ages and abilities.

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By necessity such a selection is quite subjective, but overall I find the range of repertoire is interesting and stimulating and will suit most tastes. The earlier volumes are particularly strong, with some of my personal favourites (and favourites of my students too) such as African Dance, A Song of Erin, Vampire Blues and Top Cat featuring in the first book.

The clear, spacious layout of the pieces is familiar from the ABRSM exam books and each piece includes a footnote with concise information to help the student’s understanding of the piece, from details about the composer to guidance on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and ideas for further exploration which include practical musicianship, an area often overlooked in tutor books and anthologies. These include, suggestions on how to memorize, further listening, identifying musical patterns or motifs, simple structural analysis, keyboard spatial awareness, and in the later grades guidance on comparing different interpretations of the same piece or understanding how a fugue is constructed. There is no accompanying CD for the books, but I suspect most repertoire can be found online, on YouTube or via a music streaming platform.

I have already begun to use pieces from the Encore series to broaden my students’ repertoire. Far too many students “go through the grades” without learning any additional repertoire: thus by Grade 8 they will have learnt only 24 pieces. The Encore series offers an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to explore new and varied repertoire which will suit individual abilities and preferences, and hopefully encourage enjoyed and engagement with the piano and its literature.

The Encore books can be ordered direct from the ABRSM or other sheet music retailers.

 

The impartial teacher

I believe that our personal musical tastes should not influence the way we teach, and that we should not impose our preferences or prejudices on our students. Our role as teachers should be encourage students to explore as wide a range of music as possible – whether it is purely ‘classical’ music (actually a very broad term which encompasses music from the Renaissance to the present day) or a mixture of classical music, jazz, world or pop. This is not to say that I do not enthuse to my students about the kind of music which interests and excites me, and the “what is your favourite composer/piece of music?” conversation takes place regularly in my piano studio. But I wouldn’t dream of dismissing a piece of music a student had, for example, discovered and learnt by themselves just because I didn’t like it or I thought it was “bad” music. I have on occasion pointed out that pop music tends to be built on simple harmonies, but this exercise often becomes the jumping off point for some free improvisation as the student explores the traditional pop harmonic progression of I–V–vi–IV and discovers they can play a fair imitation of a song by Adele!

It is very interesting as a teacher to find out what kind of repertoire makes students tick. For example, I find that boys tend to prefer lively, rhythmic, jazzy music. One of my teenage boy students has developed a real fondness for the music of Kabalevsky, while another, the older brother of this student in fact, is showing remarkable sensitivity towards a piece by Chopin which he is learning for Grade 6 (and I admit I was surprised when he selected this piece to learn). Other students like music with clear melodic lines and opportunities for expressive playing. I encourage my students to develop their musical taste by exploring a variety of repertoire and suggesting music for them to listen to as well (easy to do since many of them like to use YouTube or music streaming services), but I also encourage them to learn music which is outside their normal comfort zone to enable them to explore different technical and musical challenges. Of course, if they really dislike a piece there is no point in continuing with it as there is no pleasure or usefulness to be gained from playing music you don’t enjoy.

Interpretation is a far more complex area, and more advanced/mature students and adults often have firm ideas about interpretation, either based on their own musical experience or their listening, knowledge and appreciation of music. Sadly, I have come across teachers who try to impose their own interpretation on students, sometimes to the extant that they seem to want the student to sound like they do: in such instances, this, to me, seems to be nothing more than an exercise in self-aggrandisement. It serves no real pedagogical purpose, nor does it allow the student to develop their own musical voice. (As the pianist Stephen Hough said in one of his blog posts, he would be worried if he listened in on a class of students at a conservatoire to discover that they all sounded identical to their teacher.)

The majority of my students are now intermediate and early advanced level players who are beginning to be able to make their own judgements about interpretation in their pieces based on their ongoing musical development and knowledge. In this case, I feel my role is to guide them into making decisions about interpretation which are stylistically in keeping with the genre and period of the music they are working on, faithful to the score, and also tasteful. However, I would not dismiss a more romantic reading of the music of Bach or Scarlatti, for example, provided the interpretation offered is both consistent and, above all, convincing.

I am fortunate to be working with a teacher who does not impose his interpretation on me, but who sets the bar for me to explain and justify every interpretative decision I make in the music. Nearly all of this is based on detailed examination of the score, rather than preconceived ideas about how the music should sound or any attempt to imitate great/famous performers (which could lead to an insincere and inauthentic version). He allows the music making to be my business and encourages me to take ownership of the music and make it mine (more on taking ownership here). Thus, I feel I am offering a reading which is both personal and also faithful to the score.

Fundamentally, our teaching should be about imparting our musical values rather than our preferences, and encouraging our students to be curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. In addition to offering them a wide variety of repertoire, we should also be encouraging “listening around” the music they are studying to familiarise themselves with, for example, the very distinct soundworld of Chopin, as well as what I call “lateral listening” – a case of “if you like this, why not try?”, which I use a lot with students who enjoy the music of Ludovico Einaudi (I encourage them to sample the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman). Thus students can develop their own individual tastes and opinions about the music they are playing and enjoying.

 

Wolfie makes piano practise made fun

The ‘Wolfie’ piano app (named after who else but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) offers students and teachers an interactive and supportive learning tool using up-to-the-minute score-reading software plus a whole host of other features.

Developed by music tech company Tonara, who first launched an interactive score-reading app back in 2011, the team behind Wolfie appreciate that piano practise can, at times, be lonely, dull, repetitive and disheartening. Teachers expect their students to practise between lessons as regular practising is proven to bring noticeable progress, and there can be nothing more dismotivating for student and teacher to have to sit through a lesson going over all the same things as last week. Through interactive, colourful features, Wolfie makes practising fun, young piano students feel supported and inspired, and teachers can set targets and track the progress of their students (this feature is available with the full, paid version). Children today generally love technology and many are very comfortable with using a tablet or smartphone. Wolfie taps into knowledge: the app looks like a game, but it also offers an intelligent learning environment for children of all ages. In effect, it provides a bridge between the old-fashioned paper music score and 21st-century tech. Download the app here here

The most significant feature in the app is the ‘Magic Cursor’, which follows music being played by students in real-time on the score itself (in effect, the app “listens” to the student playing, via the iPad’s microphone; this also provides the option to record oneself playing). The magic cursor (whose colour can be customised according to your preference) enables students to really focus on the music, encouraging notational and rhythmic accuracy, and improving sight-reading skills. The magic cursor works with any level of music (though it is less consistent in more advanced music) and because it “listens” to the music as it is being played, it is sensitive to tempo changes. As the magic cursor tracks one’s progress through the score, it also turns the pages, avoiding the need for additional devices, such as bluetooth page turning foot-pedal. There is also the option to listen to the piece being played (in a rather expressionless MIDI format, but useful nonetheless), and a synchronized recording feature allows the user to simply touch the relevant note in the score to advance playback to tricky passages. For those who prefer a visual cue, integration with YouTube allows you to see and hear the music via a selection of videos, including performances by famous pianists such as Daniel Barenboim.

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Alongside this, users can make recordings of themselves playing, which can be shared with teacher and others. The app also gives instant feedback to the player on fluency, pitch, rhythm and tempo, with cheerful emoticons and motivational statements, and awards badges for time spent practising, dedication and completeness. There is also an option to “challenge a friend” by issuing an email invitation to download the app and join in the fun. The attractive, easy-to-use layout of the app makes it enjoyable to use, and if practising is fun, children will more readily engage with it.

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From a teacher’s point of view, the app offers positive reinforcements to encourage students to practice more, and teachers can track their students progress via the app (by adding students to their account).

The app has its own music store from which a wide variety of music can be downloaded and played, all using the magic cursor and other features within the app, including an adjustable metronome. There are popular classics, exercises, pop songs, jazz standards and film soundtracks, and all the scores are organised by level from ‘First Steps’ to ‘The Master’. Once downloaded into the app, scores can be annotated. You can also upload your own scores (in PDF format), though these will not work with the magic cursor.

In addition to all of this, there are helpful guides and a video tutorial on how to use the app. I’ve really enjoyed using Wolfie myself, and also with some of my students, who gave it a very positive endorsement and deemed it “a lot of fun”!

Wolfie for Piano is available to both teachers and students in one-, three, nine- and twelve-month subscriptions beginning at as little as £3.75/month. A free trial version allows potential users to try the app before committing to purchase. Requires iOS 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPad.

For more information, visit www.wolfiepiano.com

 

(This is a sponsored post)

Dulwich Music Festival 2016

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The Dulwich Music Festival is now in its fifth year. It is an annual event that takes place several times during the year to provide performance and feedback opportunities for pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists. In 2016, the Festival comprises two separate events:
  • The Clementi House Piano Competition – a chance to perform in the London home of pianist and composer Muzio Clementi. Alongside the competition, there will be concerts by leading harpsichordists and fortepianists. 6th March 2016
  • The Piano Competition – a full day of classes from beginners to advanced and adult recital classes. 11th June 2016

These events are designed to celebrate the piano (and harpsichord and fortepiano) and to encourage enjoyment and progress amongst players of all levels.

Repertoire has been carefully chosen to allow complete beginners the chance to gain their first experience of performing to a friendly and welcoming audience. We seek out innovative repertoire by contemporary composers who also adjudicate the classes. In addition to the contemporary repertoire, we also have graded classes and recital and exhibition classes. The piano competition is well established and fully booked months in advance. We recommend early booking. Some of the June classes are already fully booked.

I am delighted to be involved with the Dulwich Music Festival once again in 2016 as an adjudicator, a role which offers me the opportunity to hear young pianists in action in a variety of repertoire.
Full details about the Festival can be found here:

http://www.dulwichmusicfestival.co.uk/

Learning Curve

Two of my students, siblings as it happens, are working on pieces which include a continuously moving left hand, scored in triplets. One is a Rondo by Diabelli, the other a Sonatina by Clementi. I am also working on a movement of a Schubert sonata which includes the same figure. The other day, during a lesson with one of these students, I showed her the Rondo from Schubert’s D959 and said, “look, I’m working on something similar”. Her eyes opened very wide and she looked absolutely astonished, as if she couldn’t believe that there could be two pieces of music which were so similar. “I’ve encountered some similar technical issues with this,” I said to her, meaning that I too had had to work on forearm lateral movement (a “polishing” movement in the wrist and forearm) to achieve evenness in the notes, and to prevent my hand and arm becoming tired (also an issue for the student).

This episode highlights two important aspects for me: first, that students should never study music in a vacuum; and secondly, that I think it’s helpful for students to know that their teacher is also studying.

Dealing with my second point first, I firmly believe it is crucial for teachers to continue to study, whether this is independently of a teacher or mentor or by continuing to take formal lessons, and through attending seminars, workshops and courses for continuing professional development (CPD). Learning new repertoire, revising previously-learnt repertoire – no matter how easy or difficult it is – sharpens and informs our teaching skills and enables us to reference such music within the context of simpler repertoire when working with our students. And just because our repertoire may be “harder”, I do not see why we should not share it with our students, to demonstrate aspects as described above, to highlight scale and arpeggio patterns or other technical issues, or simply to share music with our students. Sadly, in my experience, many young people who learn a musical instrument have very little exposure to classical music outside of their lessons: they do not go to public concerts and have limited contact with music in school (and this is not going to improve with continual government attacks on the arts in the UK state education system). I believe one of the crucial roles of the music teacher is to broaden students’ cultural horizons by encouraging them to explore as much music as possible – whatever the genre. I also believe that by demonstrating to my students that I am also studying, there is the sense of a shared experience, that I understand how to practise properly, or prepare for a performance or exam. And for me as a teacher to be taught myself by a master teacher is incredibly useful as I draw on my own teacher’s vast knowledge and experience, and distil his wisdom into easily comprehensible nuggets for my students. And a good teach will teach in such a way that seemingly complex concepts or technical issues can be simplified for students of any level.

Music should never be studied in a vacuum. And yet I come across students I have inherited from other teachers who have not been taught the context in which the music was created. They may be playing music from the Baroque period, but they have no idea what this means: for them, the music is simply a collection of dots on the page. Some students go right through to Grade 8 having learnt only exam repertoire (a total of 24 pieces) and come out of the process with a limited understanding of the very broad canon of classical music and its historical context. Giving students the opportunity to explore a broader range of repertoire outside the narrow confines of the exam syllabus allows them to experience different styles and genres but also to reference and put into practice technical and artistic aspects learned from their other pieces. Thus their learning – and mine – becomes a continuous process, a learning curve.

From Start-up to Steinway

More than a quarter of a century ago a family of piano enthusiasts in Swansea had a simple dream – to establish a local specialist business for pianists looking for something truly special. It all started in an unassuming 250 year old coach house with fantastic local historical charm with room for just 23 pianos. However, for the aptly-named Coach House Pianos, it was the perfect place to starting building a business that was set up to give pianists simply the best instruments for a variety of different players.

It’s clear to see that the company has always focussed on nothing less than excellence – from Steinway to Zimmerman and Yamaha to Bechstein. By building its reputation over the course of over twenty years, Coach House have housed everything from brand new Kawai baby grands to genuinely antique, century-old Steinways.

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Every pianist will agree that when it comes to meticulously crafted handmade pianos, like Steinways and Yamaha’s, that there’s an air of uniqueness and almost personality around each individual instrument. They all carry a story; develop their own sounds; create their own tonal qualities and offer an experience that’s different for each pianist.

That’s always been the dream of the family behind Coach House pianos, which is why their appointment as an official Steinway & Sons stockist was so important to the company.

Not only was it vital from a business perspective but it gives validity to what they do and what they offer players; pianists know that these instruments are more than just ‘buying a product’ but help start a journey towards unique musical experiences.

 

“Today, little has changed, apart from the size of our establishment!”

Fast forward to 2015 and the firm prides itself on being the UK’s largest stockist of new and used Steinways – irrefutably revered instruments that most pianists would consider themselves honoured to even play. The company was forced to move its premises from the small converted coach house into something more practical and fitting of the illustrious international Steinway name.

Now sitting in a purpose-built two storey showroom, Coach House Pianos has transformed the premises into somewhere that Steinways feel more at home. Marble floors, crystal chandeliers and the perfect acoustic environment house literally hundreds of pianos.

“Today, little has changed apart from the size of our establishment,” say the company. “Same family, […] same standard of service!”

Coach House Pianos links to: http://www.coachhousepianos.co.uk/

This is a sponsored post which first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog

 

You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing

The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded are “wrong”.

Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.

I encourage all my piano students to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part. Many students say to me “the examiner will mark me down if I play wrong notes”. In fact, examiners are looking for playing which displays musicianship and musicality, expression and communication. Of course an accurate performance is desirable, but it is not the be all and end all.

I go to many concerts and hear many pianists, amongst them some of the finest on the international piano circuit. I have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but I have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. I have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, are over-thought, or just plain dull.

How to be amazing:

  • Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety
  • Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
  • Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as “I played this so much better at home” etc.
  • Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
  • Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
  • Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!

People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener.

Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music!