Spectrum 5 – 15 contemporary pieces for solo piano

The ‘Spectrum’ series, published by ABRSM, and compiled by acclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, holds a special place in piano repertoire in helping many pianists, young and old, discover the world of new music for piano, what might loosely be termed “contemporary classical music”. The first Spectrum collection appeared in 1996. Commissioned by Thalia Myers, it was a response to the dearth of serious contemporary piano music accessible to the amateur and/or student pianist. The latest volume, Spectrum 5, is now available, making some one hundred and seventy seven contemporary piano pieces available to pianists and piano teachers. Works from the series (5 volumes for solo piano and 1 for piano duet) now appear in exam and competition syllabuses, and are used by teachers of piano and composition as important reference materials. Perhaps what is even more significant is that the series showcases the work of contemporary classical composers around the world, allowing them to distil in miniature, characterful pieces the essence of their compositional language and style.

As in previous volumes, Spectrum 5 offers a broad range of pieces by composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Helen Grime, Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka. The pieces have appealing, evocative, and witty titles – Imaginary Birds, Schrödinger’s Kitten, The Jig is Up, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, Commuterland – to fire the imagination, and range in difficulty from around Grade 6 to Diploma level. The wonderful range, originality and variety of pieces prove that contemporary classical music is not “plinky plonky”, atonal, inaccessible or lacking in melody, and as such as Spectrum series is the best introduction I know to encourage young students in particular to explore contemporary music.

The book contains biographies of all the composers and in most instances, the pieces are accompanied by footnotes by the composers giving background information about their music and guidance on interpretation. There is an accompanying audio download of all the pieces, elegantly and characterfully performed by Thalia Myers.

Recommended.

Further information

‘Spectrum for cello’, compiled by William Bruce, and ‘Spectrum for Clarinet’, by Ian Mitchell, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

 

 

The Mindful Pianist – Mark Tanner

Mindful

adjective

1. attentive, aware, or careful (usually followed by of): mindful of one’s responsibilities.

2. noting or relating to the psychological technique of mindfulness: mindful observation of one’s experiences.

41czgktnuml-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Mindful Pianist by pianist, teacher composer and examiner, Mark Tanner is the latest volume in the Piano Professional series published by Faber Music in association with EPTA, UK (the European Piano Teachers’ Association). “Mindful” is the word du jour, and the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic technique of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations – has become increasingly popular in today’s stressful and busy world. This book, however, is not some groovy, new age, Zen guide to piano playing, but rather takes its inspiration and approach from the definitions of the word “Mindful”at the top of this article. With contributions from a number of leading pianists and piano pedagogues, including Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, Margaret Fingerhut, Penelope Roskell, Leslie Howard and Madeline Bruser, the book draws on the author’s and contributors’ own experiences of playing and teaching the piano, and explores ways in which pianists, amateur or professional, can be more attentive, careful, self-compassionate and mindful in their day-to-day engagement with the piano and its literature.

Written in an engaging and accessible style, yet clearly supported by many years of practical experience as a teacher and performer, and academic research, the book encourages the pianist to take a fresh perspective on playing and performing by applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano. Through 4 distinct parts, Mark Tanner explores the crucial connection between mind and body, and how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined and ultimately more rewarding. He begins with simple breathing exercises which enable one to focus while at the piano before a note has even been struck and includes practical advice on overcoming feelings of inadequacy when a practise session goes less well, or the self-esteem issues which accompany performing. He tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam with wisdom and gentleness – throughout the text, one has the sense of Mark encouraging us to be kind to ourselves and to show self-compassion. The section of exams (‘The View from the Examiner’s Chair’) is written from a wealth of personal experience and is particular helpful in offering perspective to those teachers, and students, who may feel exams place undue pressure on aspiring young pianists. There is also a section on “mindful listening” (‘The Virtuoso Listener’) which encourages us to sharpen our listening abilities, both at the piano and when we hear music on the radio, in concert, on disc etc.

‘The Mindful Pianist’ is a long, detailed and highly satisfying read, and I will be extracting Mark’s wisdom to share with my own students as well as putting into practise some of his methods in my own playing and performing.

Recommended

Interview with Mark Tanner

Further details and ordering

Adventures in Interpretation

There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience

Graham Fitch, ‘Practising the Piano’

I recently did an interesting exercise with all 12 of my students (young people whose ages range from 13 to 17) in which we examined and played a short piece of contemporary piano music by British composer Paul Burnell called ‘Just Before Dawn’. At this stage, I gave the students no more information about the piece.

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On first sight, the music looks both incredibly simple, yet also slightly confusing since there is only one stave with an arrangement of notes whose tails point both up and downwards. Most early and intermediate piano students probably have not encountered a score like this before. Initially, I asked each student to sight-read the music (the notes are not difficult). This in itself presented a challenge to a couple of students who found their left hand creeping down into the bass to play the notes whose tails pointed downwards. At this point, I simply highlighted the fact that there was only one stave marked with a treble clef and then left the student to work out how the notes should be shared between the hands.

After the piece had been played through once, I read the student the composer’s programme note for the piece

The music attempts to evoke a magical time just as as summer day is about to break, but when the stars can still clearly be seen in the sky

I then asked the student to play the piece again with the composer’s description in mind. The result was 12 distinct versions of the same piece – descriptive, expressive and personal. I then asked each student how they felt the composer indicated particularly aspects, such as the rays of the sun or the stars still visible in the sky. Some students felt the dotted minims with fermatas represented the sun, while others thought these notes were the stars still twinkling in the sky. One student referenced John Cage when we were discussing the simplicity of the music (this student “performed” Cage’s 4’33” at one of our concerts); the same student couldn’t believe I was playing ‘Just Before Dawn’ in a concert the day after his lesson and queried why one would play something “so easy” in a public concert. This led on to an interesting conversation about what constitutes “difficult” or “easy” music and what kind of music is “appropriate” for public performance (the subject of a forthcoming blog article).

I found the exercise really interesting (and I hope my students did to), for it offered an intriguing insight into the notion of musical “interpretation” and how one’s personality, perception, musical knowledge/musicality, life experience etc comes into play when we make music. As I said to each student, “there is no right way, I’m simply interested to hear what you make of this piece”. When I went to perform the piece in a public concert, my students’ individual performances and views of the music came to mind and I found myself shaping the music in a different way.

I am looking forward to repeating this exercise with some adult pianists at a later date.

Download the score of ‘Just Before Dawn’ here

Explore more of Paul Burnell’s piano music here

 

Faber Music Piano Anthology

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This attractive anthology contains a wealth of favourite piano pieces and gems of the repertoire, including Fur Elise, Gymnopedie No. 1, Solfegietto in c minor, La fille aux cheveux de lin, To A Wild Rose, and many other popular works by leading composers for the piano. There are also pieces by lesser-known composers such as Alkan, Guilmant, Lyadov and Maykapar. Many of the works will be familiar to teachers from piano grade exam repertoire, and for the student pianist it is a real treat to have such a rich selection of piano music compiled into a single volume. The pieces are organised by ability, starting with Bach’s evergreen Minuet in G, BWV 114, which is roughly Grade 2 level, and closing with Fauré’s Romance sans Paroles (Grade 8) thus offering a progressive and varied overview of popular classical piano repertoire. Compiled by pianist and teacher Melanie Spanswick, this large-format hardback  collection is presented with an eye-catching cover illustration (‘The Concerto’ by Cyril Edward Power) and coloured endpapers, high-quality paper and a ribbon marker.

I have to admit I found the format of the book slightly cumbersome when actually trying to play from it at the piano: the hardback cover is rather unforgiving. I would have also liked  more twentieth-century and contemporary piano repertoire included in the selection (pieces by Bartok and Prokofiev wouldn’t go amiss, for example), but the pieces are selected from Faber’s own music collection and perhaps some composers’ works were not available due to copyright constraints. Overall this anthology would make a very pleasing and long-lasting gift for pianists of all levels and ages.

To win a copy of The Faber Music Piano Anthology, please answer the following question

Who composed the piano miniature ‘To A Wild Rose’?

(Please use the contact form to reply)

Publisher: Faber Music

ISBN: 0571539572

RRP £22.00

Further information and ordering

Practising the Piano Online Academy goes live

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources such as musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

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Piano Masterworks – a smart new app from Tido Music

Tido, in partnership with renowned music publisher Edition Peters, has created a smart new iPad application for pianists which takes the educational app to new heights. Tido has already developed the Mastering the Piano app with Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, and therefore already had a stack of tech and musical know-how with which to build its latest app, Tido Music.

Most iPad music education apps are designed for children and young people, or for teachers to use with their students (such as Wolfie). Others, such as Tomplay, encourage independent learning combined with piano fun, but few offer detailed historical context, analysis, and instruction in the way Tido Music does.

What makes it special?

Tido Music is a platform for the discovery and performance of music. To achieve this, Tido has used Music Encoding Initiative’s open source framework which supports the development of dynamic notation. Put simply, for the end user, the app delivers interactive sheet music seamlessly layered with audio, video and text to allow musicians to feel more immersed in the music.

‘In designing Tido Music, our starting point was to find an architecture which could unite all the varied ways of experiencing music: notation, audio, literature, video and more…….We’ve created an app that does just that. Not only does it bring all the facets of music together in one place to create a truly immersive experience; it also features the very best content from some of the world’s leading performing artists and scholars.’

Brad Cohen, founder of Tido Music

The app has an attractive clean design and is very easy to navigate. Music is stored by composer in “volumes” – for example, Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, Chopin’s 24 Preludes – and for each piece, the user may listen to the music (played not by a MIDI player but beautifully by a real live pianist) and view the score. Tido’s technology includes a magic cursor, a mauve shadow which guides the user through the music (and which is far more comfortable on the eye than a coloured marker which some other music apps use). Within the score, the user can adjust the pulse and annotate the score, and there’s a useful help option too. The app also offers a revolutionary automatic page-turning facility that works by allowing the app to listen to the player. Page turns can also be programmed depending on how far ahead you read/memorise what is coming next – and the app will turn the page for you even if your performance isn’t 100% accurate.

So far so similar to other score-reading apps….but the real achievement of Tido music is the inclusion of filmed live performances of the music being played. The audio and visual quality of these films is really striking, and the user can enjoy multi-angle performances of the pianist’s hands at work. While the video plays, you can also read the score at the bottom of the screen with a cursor which moves in sync with the performance. In addition, there are masterclasses where the user can explore the piece in the company of a real concert pianist or musicologist who offers their own insights into the music and how to play it. In future, the app will include masterclasses of multi-movement works as well.

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Concert pianist Daniel Grimwood introduces a Bach Two-Part Invention

There is information about the composer’s compositional style and techniques, and an in-depth guide to the music in each volume, including social and historical contexts. It is this additional content which, for me, makes the Tido app far superior to anything else I have seen. To be able to watch, close up, the music being played, and hear the pianist talk about it, is a compelling learning tool – in effect, one can enjoy a private masterclass with a top-flight pianist in the comfort of one’s living room or piano studio.

Tido has secured an impressive roster of international pianists for the app, including Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Adam Tendler, Richard Uttley and French piano music scholar Roy Howat. Each brings their own personal insights and “pianistic hacks” to the pieces (Richard Uttley, for example, has a neat “fix” for dealing with a tricky flourish in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 119, no. 3). These are the sort of details one would normally only expect to obtain from a master teacher.

Tido’s partnership with music publisher Edition Peters gives them access to a vast archive of scores for use in the app, from J S Bach to John Cage. Some of these are free, others can be purchased singly or in volumes. Those downloading the app can experience and explore its many features by signing up to a free, 30-day trial, and take advantage of a special introductory £2.99 monthly subscription. Tido promises that the app, “will continue to grow with a range of content from leading publishers”. The first collection, Piano Masterworks, offers a great selection, including popular favourites such as Beethoven’s Für Elise, Ravel’s Pavane, Chopin’s Preludes and Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, but it is cheering to also find music by Cage, Field, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Clementi and Janáček, thus offering the user a wide variety of repertoire to explore and play.

This is an impressive and innovative music app, particularly suited to amateur pianists or piano students who are looking for the opportunity for independent but supported study of the piano and its literature.

Recommended

Key features:

  • acoustic audio recordings, aligned with interactive scores from Edition Peters
  • exclusive video performances and in-depth tutorials from leading experts and concert pianists
  • historical context and critical commentary from established scholars and editors
  • powerful practice tools, including annotation and auto-paging

http://www.tido-music.com

ipad_screen_perspective_03_downsize(pictures: Tido Music)

Picture this

Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can enable them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing and helps them understand that playing music is about communicating their personal vision to others. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Teenage students also respond to visualisation. A number of my students are also string players and I ask them to imagine how they might bow or articulate a certain passage and to then try and recreate this on the piano. This is particular useful when teaching music by Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven and Schubert (and their contemporaries) for so much of their piano writing is influenced by and reflects string writing.

I also ask students to suggest words which describe the music – not musical terms but other adjectives which spring to mind when considering the piece. Sometimes a student might writer these on the score as an aide memoir. One of my students had an remarkable clear personal narrative for C P E Bach’s Solfeggio which in turn allowed her to play the piece with great variety of expression. For more on descriptive words inspired by music see the wonderful Musical Adjectives Project conceived by Dr Gail Fischler.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Take time before you play to “imagine the sound” – you may be surprised by the results!

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

We know that being well-prepared, knowing that we have done our practising, thoughtfully and mindfully, can go some way to allaying the anxiety of performance. Visualisation can help too. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Sometimes it is helpful to “channel” a musician whom you admire. I used this technique with one of my students who was preparing for auditions for the junior departments of some of London’s top conservatoires. She was, understandably, quite anxious so I asked her to imagine she was her favourite violinist (Nicola Benedetti) and to think “what would Nicola do?” ahead of her performance. We talked about aspects such as good preparation but also stagecraft, poise, deportment and greeting the audience/audition panel.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly leaving the green room and walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy

Further reading

Proprioception and VisualizationPerformance anxiety and pressure relievers