‘Sooner or Later?’ BBC Masterclass

Here is an interesting and informative film of a masterclass I recently attended at the BBC. Presented by pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris, the masterclass explores how to play with greater expression, emotion and ‘poetry’.

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Conservatoire Life: A look through the (Practice Room) keyhole

Thinking about studying at music college? This guest post by Madelaine Jones, a third-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, will give you a flavour of student life at a top London conservatoire…..

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in Greenwich

“So where do you study, then? What subject?”

“Oh, I’m a piano student. I study at a conservatoire.”

Cue either the hostile look of ‘that’s not actually a degree, is it?’ (unfortunately, I have experienced this), the confusion at the fact that I attend an alien type of institution that sounds shockingly similar to something you grow plants in (amusingly, I have also experienced this), or the look of sheer terror at the fact that I clearly must spend 14 hours a day chained to a piano and have no shred of a life away from a keyboard. To fellow musicians who’ve never experienced conservatoire life, there is this strange misconception that conservatoire musicians are work-machines who never do anything but practice, practice, practice – and while I’m sure there are some music students out there whose lives resemble something of the sort, the vast majority of conservatoire students have far more varied and interesting lives than you’d ever given them credit for.

Over the last three years of college, I have met people who work consistently throughout the year, putting a few hours in every day, come rain or shine. I have also met people who won’t touch a piano for weeks at a time and will wing their exams after cramming furiously at the last minute. Similarly, I’ve met people who study avidly, listening and reading as much as they possibly can. I’ve also met people who haven’t touched a book since they left school and who would far rather go to a Lady Gaga concert than a Wigmore Hall recital any day of the week. The spectrum of people, abilities and ambitions at a music college is simply staggering, and to cast a blanket over the average conservatoire student and their experience of college life would be absolutely impossible.

Personally speaking, the most important part of any conservatoire education is Principal Study time (or, to scrap the jargon, one-to-one instrumental lessons with a teacher). During your time at college, your teacher is your mentor and probably the biggest influence you’re going to have musically – I do even know some people who picked their college solely for their instrumental teacher. As with scary practice myths, there seems to be this misconception that all teachers at conservatoires are incredibly hard taskmasters who crack the whip incessantly and have ridiculous expectations. True, there are some teachers like that – and generally it’s the pupils who want to be pushed who opt for those teachers. But equally, there are plenty of empathetic teachers out there. My Principal Study teacher is quite simply one of the most understanding and patient teachers I have ever had (given my somewhat temperamental disposition, she’s got the patience of a saint!), and the lack of pushiness doesn’t in any way deter me or make me want to work less. If anything, it inspires me to work harder so that I can try and repay her for her kindness and understanding by becoming a better pianist. But there are some people I know who would hate to have a teacher that, frankly, didn’t kick them up the backside every five minutes, else they’d get complacent.

The freedom to do what you want at a conservatoire is, without any shadow of a doubt, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of timetabled activities, I don’t actually have a lot of classes: there are a few academic classes every week, a few optional ensemble classes, a performance tutorial, but in terms of compulsory lectures to attend, there’s really not much to pin your day around. This can be a blessing if you’re motivated enough to use it wisely: you can practice, read about music (or anything else), go to concerts, widen your view on the world, and still have time to get all your work for college done. You can also fill your time with extra-curricular projects and performances. Over the past two years, I’ve taken harpsichord lessons and occasionally participated in Early Music projects, which has been a great experience. Other people I know have signed up for various orchestral projects or completely saturated their timetable with chamber music. So, for people who really want to get involved, having a sparse timetable with access to practice facilities and a whole range of optional classes is a blessing. However, the question of motivation is always an issue. Let’s face it, if you had nothing but a couple of hours of classes on your timetable every day, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak more than the odd lie-in too? Wouldn’t that picnic in the park, mid-June and gorgeously sunny, sound more appealing than a day in a sweaty practice room to you? Where there is freedom, there is always the temptation to stray off the path of hard work. It’s just up to the individual how much they want to let themselves stray.

So when people ask me what a conservatoire is like, as you can see, there’s such a giant scope of different experiences that it’s difficult to pin down a single explanation. It will vary from person to person, conservatoire to conservatoire (experiences in other colleges may be different – those of you who attend ridiculously competitive institutions, berate me if you wish). To sum up the average experience, given those I know and see on a day-to-day basis, I would say this: a conservatoire is strange little bubble of a world where everybody talks about Schumann like they know him personally, drinks coffee incessantly, finds it normal to spend more than 10 hours in college and only have spent half of them actually practising and fills the rest of the time either frittering away their life in the café, avoiding work, or, if they’re one of the blessedly motivated few, reading and listening and broadening their mind. It really is a truly wonderful – if a little surreal – place to study, and even in the stressy exam periods, I am very happy to say I chose to come to a conservatoire and have enjoyed my time immensely so far (sadly, I’m now halfway through my degree). To me, the best part of it all is that since everyone is studying the same subject, and college is so small, there’s a great sense of camaraderie in a conservatoire which you don’t get in your average university. Everyone has a shared love, and everyone’s in the same boat – a boat which, with any luck, would have good sound-proofing.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time. She reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack,  and is a regular guest contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones

Recent guest blog posts

Transposing – a dying art?

Lohen-Behold: the piano music of Richard Wagner

Composers – but not as we know them

Music conservatoires in the UK

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Royal Northern College of Music

Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Music Aptitude Test (MAT)

The Music Aptitude Test (MAT) is a requirement of many private schools, and partially selective state schools, for students wishing to apply for a music scholarship. Children who are taking graded instrumental exams may be familiar with some aspects of the test from aural tests, but applicants should not expect these to full prepare them for the MAT.

The MAT questions may vary from school to school but in general the following sections are representative of the majority of tests.

The test consists of 60 questions of four types: Pitch, Melody, Texture and Rhythm.

Pitch: for these questions, candidates listen to two sounds and have to indicate whether the second sound is the same as the first, or whether it is higher or lower. There are twenty of these questions and some of the pitches are less than a semitone apart.

Melody: for these questions, candidates listen to two tunes consisting of five notes. Candidates have to decide whether the second tune is the same as the first or if one of the notes has been altered. If there is a change, candidates will be expected to identify which note has been altered, by giving the number of the note. There are ten questions in this section.

Texture: for these questions, candidates listen to a number of notes played together at the same time; this is called a chord. Candidates need to decide whether or not each chord has two, three or four notes. There are twenty questions in this section.

Rhythm: for these questions, candidates listen to two patterns of notes and have to decide whether the second pattern is the same as, or different from, the first, and where any difference occurs. Each rhythm will be four beats (or pulses) in length. There are ten questions in this section.

To assist with preparation for the MAT, SE22 Piano School has created a series of sample tests to use as training exercises. These have been produced following the guidelines above, and attempt to reproduce as closely as possible the actual test a student will sit.

For further details, listening examples, sample exercises and the option to purchase the tests click on the Helping you prepare for the Music Aptitude Test logo below:

An SE22 Piano School student trying the sample test

James Bond Concert Study

A “study” or “étude” is a short, often considerably difficult, and technically advanced piece designed to help perfect a particular musical skill, such as finger dexterity, octaves, scale passages, balance and tone control, and co-ordination. In the 19th century Fryderyk Chopin elevated the etude from dull student study to concert showpiece, and his Études Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837) are regarded as some of the finest ever written, and are widely performed by top international pianists. Franz Liszt composed a number of études that were more extensive, and even more complex than Chopin’s, including the famous Transcendental Etudes (final version published in 1852).

Pianist Emmanuel Vass plays his own virtuosic transcription/medley of 3 James Bond film themes: Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and the 007 James Bond theme. This should appeal to all James Bond fans – and those who love the more extrovert/virtuosic elements of the études of Chopin and Liszt…..

At the Piano With……Philip Fowke

The first in an occasional series of interviews with piano teachers – and I am delighted to launch this new series with an interview with acclaimed pianist and teacher Philip Fowke.

Philip Fowke

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano was when my parents bought an upright for my sister Alison who was beginning to learn the piano. I can recall it coming into the house quite clearly and I must have been about 4 years old. I was fascinated by it from the start and its grinning mouth of keys. At my first school, Milford, in Gerrards Cross, the headmistress, Miss France, used to play the piano for hymns and music classes. I can remember watching her hands and the way the keys went down. It is a vivid memory and it was Miss France who first encouraged me to play and gave me my first lessons. Initially, I did everything by ear and taught myself simple harmonisations of well known tunes like The British Grenadier. I remember playing this during break to all the other children as we had our regulation bottle of milk.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

Miss France, whom I mentioned above, was my first encounter with a piano teacher and she set me on the road. However, she felt I needed a more qualified teacher and she arranged for me to have an audition with Marjorie Withers who also lived in Gerrards Cross. She was an outstanding musician and teacher and I went to her when I was seven. It was she who really inspired me and had a gift for giving me pieces which really excited me. She also encouraged my playing popular tunes and improvising. I was heavily into Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Joe Henderson in those days and could do a passing imitation of them. At Downside School, where I boarded from 1964 to 1967, I also had remarkable teachers in Roger Bevan, the Director of Music, Lionel Calvert and Peter Matthews

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

I have mentioned the teachers I had as a boy and they all had influences on me, most notably Marjorie Withers. It was really she who laid the foundations of such technique as I may have, and who instilled in me the discipline of practice and ways in which to make it creative and effective. She was also a fine pianist herself and was well able to demonstrate, quite dazzlingly as it seemed to me, Chopin Studies, bits of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Grieg, and numerous other composers. Her attitude, her sense of fun and celebration of the music deeply influenced me

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Initially the pressures of having to earn a few pennies was quite an incentive to start giving lessons to local children and one or two adults. However, I do recall helping a friend at school, of no particular pianistic talent, to play a piece he was struggling with. I remember feeling a strong desire to help him conquer what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties! However, it was Gordon Green at the Royal Academy of Music who was the chief musical and pianistic inspiration and who continues to exert an extraordinary influence on me and many others who had the good fortune to study with him.  His philosophy was to allow young people to develop at their own pace in their own time. Not for him the pressures of competitions, rushed learning and the resulting stress and misery which can follow. He used to say that his concern was not how you played today, but how you would play in ten years’ time. His wisdom, gentleness and encouragement enabled many of his students to go on to achieve considerable success. He was neither possessive nor ambitious except in the sense of wishing students to be balanced, fulfilled human beings who happened to play an instrument.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

There are many issues but one is the tendency to choose too challenging a repertoire. Also nerves and confidence. Then there is physical condition, i.e. muscular flexibility. This can be very variable. In general my approach is always to build positively on whatever the situation presents. It is all too easy to be inadvertently discouraging and negative. Always be upbeat and positive. Quite often there have been bad, even traumatic experiences with past teachers and this can result in a general crisis of confidence which has never been fully addressed. Inevitably there is a tremendous legacy of vulnerability which must be handled with sensitivity and gentleness. The early lessons need to be a form of therapy with a bit of piano occasionally thrown in with no strings attached preferably! I often start with a course of simple exercises which involve the entire keyboard….a kind of embrace and bonding with the keys. It is also important do some simple pre-keyboard exercises, standing, bending stretching and relaxed breathing. It is also good to be aware of the prevalent danger of “wishful listening”. This is very common and accounts for attempting to play pieces before they have been sufficiently prepared and studied. The trouble is, a habit forms whereby the student doesn’t hear what’s actually being played, but hears an imaginary and vastly edited version which sounds, to their ears, acceptable…only it isn’t!

What do you expect from your students? 

Expectations vary especially between college students and amateur adults. Inevitably more is expected from a young person embarking on a professional life of a musician. In the case of adult amateurs, those doing it for pleasure in such time as they have available, different expectations arise. I take each person as they are, as circumstances allow, and work within those parameters. However, I do always work at simple strategies which, if followed closely, can save endless hours of needless repetition…..which unfortunately so much so called “practice” can often be. An issue which often arises is the one of that dreaded word “tension”. I make a point of never using the word preferring to ask whether the students feels “comfortable” in a particular passage. Invariably the answer is uncomfortable, so I suggest that together we find a more comfortable way of doing it. This, in itself, reduces tightness and anxiety. To simply say ”that looks tense” exacerbates the problem and is, in my view,  poor teaching psychology. I have found that many tension issues have not been addressed simply because the symptoms have been treated and not the cause. A tight wrist can be the result of weak fingers or an impractical fingering. It’s amazing what an unconventional fingering or a cunning redistribution can achieve…let alone the discreet omission of troublesome notes which can barely be heard. I rather hear fewer notes comfortably and confidently played than more, scrambled!

Another issue is the release of notes, usually caused by the notion that everything must be legato fingering. The horror of letting go and allowing the pedal to help in appropriate situations, is a real psychological and physical difficulty. The traditional tyranny has taught that not doing legato fingering is a mortal sin. There are ways of achieving legato other than holding on to notes in distorted and twisted ways which make a horrid sound and cause great discomfort. In saying this, I do not wish to mean that legato fingering is of no importance…. it is essential, but a realistic balance needs to be found and allowed for. Too often I encounter “off the peg” fingering – one size fits all. Only it doesn’t!

In general I find with adults, as with the younger generation, stretch and extension exercises have not been addressed. Fingers operate in isolation with one another. I encourage a dialogue between all the fingers so that they can get to know one another. Coordination exercises also can be of great benefit. So often fingers are complete strangers to one another, and rather hostile ones at that! Explore movement; find the slip roads on to the motorway. Ski, fly, grope the keys. When fingering, explore options, be daring. Give the fingers a choice. Within a very short time they will make their own decision….. and a good one provided they have the initial choice. Let the miserable, bald battery fingers out of their cages to roam free, grow feathers and lay big fat brown eggs. They’ll make a better sound. I call it Fowke’s Free Range Fingering. Your fingers will smile in gratitude and relief scuttling off into pastures new and sunlit glades.

Don’t get stuck on slow practice. Practice above tempo in short bursts, strong beat to strong beat to learn movements and gestures which can help the keyboard choreography. Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly. Similarly with hands separate practice.

Practice pianissimo, or on the surface of the keys. Too much practice is too loud and too fast. Listen in your head. A good maxim, though not invariable,  is to practice loud passages pianissimo, and piano passages forte. Similarly, practice slow movements quickly and quick movements slowly. Play in different registers, crossed hands, even in different keys. Muck about. Practising can be like a kitten teasing a ball of wool. I always remember Shura Cherkassky saying to me that if I heard him practice, I wouldn’t think he could play the piano. This made an indelible impression on me at the time and beautifully describes real practice…. a craft that has to be carefully honed. Learn to dismantle a piece down to the tiniest component

We press keys down, but do we consider the release? Same with the pedal. Practice the sustaining pedal with the left foot. Concentrates the mind and ear wonderfully!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Very mixed. They all have their place but in my view far too much emphasis is put on the competitive element and too little on the musical and artistic elements. Performing in public has become an international sport and the list of sporting casualties and injuries grows proportionately. We need to review the number and regularity of some of these major competitions…..and the way the media promotes them. As to exams, again they have their place, but it is noteworthy that countries where the graded system does not exist produces playing of a singularly and consistently high order from an early age.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

This is difficult to condense into a few simple sentences. If I have one thing to say it is that so many pianists of whatever age, ability and experience have little concept of the keyboard. They have never been encouraged to explore it, to improvise, to be allowed to make nasty noises eventually leading to rather more beautiful sounds. An intrinsic fear lies at the core of so much playing; fear of wrong notes, fear of going wrong. All this is caused by a basic lack of harmonic awareness, a hazy knowledge of scales and arpeggios, and an inability to busk and improvise. Teachers pass on their own fear as they themselves were never encouraged to improvise to play with the keyboard rather than on it. The tyrannical pull of middle C reigns supreme I fear!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job? 

I’m not sure I can answer this. Teaching is not exactly a job for me, more a mission. I simply want to explode myths, to enable and to explore, to reveal the keyboard as more than an extension of middle C

What is your favourite music to teach? To play? 

Well, of course it is always a pleasure to work on familiar core repertoire. However, I do enjoy the challenge of unfamiliar scores which nobody has issues with, received opinions and which no one has ever heard before!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

This is dangerous territory and one I have consistently tried to avoid!

Is there a link between teaching and performing? 

It has been said that performers don’t make good teachers. Well, this is true in some cases but certainly not all. Equally I know of some good teachers who don’t, and never have to any significant degree, performed in public. However, having said that, the experience of performing, the physical and psychological act, does possibly lend one’s teaching an element of realism and practicality. Knowledge and respect for the score is well and good, but how to deliver it? What I describe as health and safety editions with their plethora of notes and commentaries, foot and note disease, can be daunting. Nothing is left to chance and this can inhibit performance rather than inform it. Performing in public can give a teacher the insight into that which is to be aspired to, that which is feasible, and the experience to make the choice.

Philip Fowke, known for his many BBC Promenade Concert appearances, numerous recordings and broad range of repertoire performed worldwide, is currently Senior Fellow of Keyboard at Trinity College of Music.

He is also known for his teaching, coaching and tutoring in which he enjoys exploring students’ potential, encouraging them to develop their own individuality. He is a regular tutor at the International Shrewsbury Summer School as well as at Chethams Summer School .
Conductors with whom he has worked include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Barshai, Tadaaki Otaka, Sir Simon Rattle, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov and the late Klaus Tennstedt. He will shortly be recording piano works by Antony Hopkins CBE in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday.

In addition to Philip Fowke’s many invitations to tutor at festivals, summer schools, and numerous lecture recitals, he will be appearing with The Prince Consort, a group founded by his former student Alisdair Hogarth. Their recent recording for Linn Records featuring works by Brahms and Stephen Hough, has received outstanding acclaim, and was nominated CD of the month by Gramophone Magazine. Future appearances include the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cheltenham Festival and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

‘Sooner or later’ – Tempo Rubato & the art of stolen time

This post relates to my earlier article ‘Curved Lines’ – phrases and how to shape music

I recently attended a masterclass for pianists, the theme of which was ‘Sooner or Later?’; that is, how tempo (speed) and the placing of a note, or group of notes, can affect the mood, drama, colour and shape of music. This technique is generally called tempo rubato – literally, in Italian, “stolen time”, and it refers to a subtle slowing or speeding up of tempo within the music. It is most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period, but we can also add tempo rubato, and similar effects, to music of any period – and indeed any genre (classical, jazz, pop, etc.). In fact, it helps music to sound natural: music with a very strict, metronomic pulse (beat), with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, would be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Just as the human voice has changes in dynamic (sound), tempo (speed) and cadence (movement), playing with rubato gives music expressive freedom, allowing it space, pr room to “breathe”.

When listening to music, the audience wants to be “surprised” or “satisfied” or by what they hear, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the music (unusual chords, changes in articulation – staccato/legato/accents) as well as examples of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction.

Rubato is not always written into the score as a musical sign, so it is up to you, as the pianist, to decide where it might be most effective to alter the tempo of the music slightly. As a simple rule of thumb, we generally slow down at the end of a piece, or the end of a section – unless the composer tells us otherwise with a marking such as accelerando (getting faster) or stringendo (pressing forward, which suggests an increase in speed and a greater sense of urgency in the music). This helps to signal to the audience that the music is reaching a conclusion or end point. (And always imagine, when playing to an audience, that they know nothing about the music, so you need to give them “musical signposts” to help them find their way through it.)

When thinking about slowing down towards the end of a phrase or section in music, imagine the bounce of a ping-pong ball – but in reverse: it is the gradual pulling back of tempo that can be most effective.

Sometimes, we might want to increase the tempo slightly to emphasise a crescendo: this can be particularly effective with a run of notes in a rising scale or arpeggio. This can create the effect of the music being allowed to “take flight” as it rises upwards on the register (i.e. towards the highest notes of the piano).

The next time you see an accent marked in your music, take a moment to consider why the composer has put it there. Is it simply to spotlight a chord, or a particularly note? Or perhaps the composer wants to create a surprise for the audience? Rather than simply playing the note with extra force/emphasis, experiment with placing the note fractionally later: the tiny delay creates a far more dramatic effect than just hammering the note. Try a similar technique with an unusual chord or dissonance – again, that fractional delay adds drama and makes the resolution (when the music moves to a more familiar chord, or the home key) far more satisfying.

The same idea can be used with repeated notes, for example in the RH quavers of Gurlitt’s Allegro Non Troppo (Trinity Guildhall, Grade 2 piano). The RH part would be very monotonous and dull to listen to if every single note were the same, as if played strictly to the beat of a metronome. But by allowing a little more space between the notes, for example, towards the end of a phrase or where there are dissonant chords, the music suddenly becomes more interesting.

We can learn a lot about rubato by listening to singers singing music. The human voice adds natural shape to a musical phrase or melody: as notes rise up the register, so the voice rises fractionally in dynamic. When practising, try singing a phrase and then re-imagining that sound at the piano

Remember, the best rubato comes from inside: it is hard to teach and for it to sound convincing and natural, it should feel unforced. Don’t be tempted to mess around with the tempo too much – rubato is “stolen time’, after all, and, as my teacher always ways, “you have to give it back eventually!”.

Listen to these music examples and see if you can hear any tempo rubato:

Felix Mendelssohn – Song Without Words, Op.67/No. 5. Moderato in B minor “The Shepherd’s complaint”

Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight”: Adagio sostenuto

Fryderyk Chopin – Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66

Billy Mayerl – Printer’s Devil

More advanced students may like to read a post from my sister blog on taking time in music

Practising isn’t just about playing…..

“Practice only on the days you eat” (Dr Suzuki)

I’ve adapted this text from an American website which is encouraging students to do a ‘100 Days of Practice challenge’.

  • Playing the piano requires development of muscular coordination and mental concentration, skills that are best acquired by consistent and careful daily practice.
  • Designated practice time each day develops routine to help budding musicians succeed at developing their craft.

It’s a simple idea: play every day. Also, going to concerts, playing for friends and family, attending recitals all count as a music day. If you are ill and don’t feel like playing, listen to some music. ClassicFM and Radio 3 both have varied programmes with lots of interesting music – not just classical either! It’s all useful. Otherwise, play every day. All time spent at the piano is useful, even if you are not practising set pieces.

Some of my students have used this YouTube tutorial to learn ‘Someone Like’ You by Adele. Try it – it’s a lovely piece and great for co-ordination!