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.

coach-house-banner

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!