Joanna and the Piano – Gavin Thomson

Written in the present tense with all the breathless stream of consciousness of a bright, excitable 10 year old girl, Joanna and the Piano is part time-travelling fantasy, part comment on modern family life.

When her father is made redundant, Joanna is forced to leave the city home and friends she loves to start a new life in an Elizabethan country house. While waiting for the WiFi to be installed, she and her father discover a beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano. Released from storage, the piano is installed in the living room for Joanna to play, and almost as soon as her fingers touch the keys, the mysterious Herr Mozhoven (get it?!) appears at the front door to give Joanna piano lessons.

Of course these lessons are not the usual tedious fare of scales and pieces: instead, under Herr Mozhoven’s tutelage, Joanna embarks on a series of time-travelling adventures – to the First and Second World Wars, and to the Victorian and Georgian eras. The piano becomes the agent of these intriguing and exciting adventures.

The narrative is imaginative and fast-paced, mixing creative ideas with delightful fantasy and escapism, and observations on modern family life with insights into bygone times. Joanna is a charming, sympathetic personality, her character well defined and easy to identify with.

Joanna and the Piano is self-published by the author (via Amazon’s CreateSpace platform). It’s a nicely produced though the text could do with a proper copy-edit (this won’t bother kids though) and while I appreciate why the author chose to alternate black and white pages (a nice nod to the piano keyboard), the white text on black paper is not very easy on the reading eye. The text might also benefit from some illustrations. These quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable and exuberant read which will appeal to young readers aged 8-12.

“I played it better at home!”

If I had a pound for every time a student said this in a lesson, I’d be a rich woman by now! We’ve all heard it, and I know I’ve been guilty of saying it myself occasionally at piano lessons with my own teacher. I’ve even been tempted to put up a sign next to the piano banning this phrase. Why? Because it’s a “given” that we play better at home. Of course we do. I suspect even top flight professionals play better in the comfort of the familiar surroundings of their own home or music studio. And it’s that familiarity that makes playing at home so much easier, less stressful and often more successful than playing in front of a teacher, examiner or audience.

tightrope-walking

My own teacher has a nice image of a tightrope to illustrate the different levels of tension and stress we encounter in different playing scenarios. When practising and playing at home, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, or even right on the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. But as soon as you leave the familiar, safe surroundings of your own home or music studio to play for or in front of someone else, the tightrope gets higher and the fear of falling (and failing) is that much greater. Perhaps the highest and potentially most risky musical tightrope is the public performance.

My students know me well enough by now to avoid saying “I played it better at home“. There are several reasons why I discourage students from trotting out this phrase before or immediately after they have played a piece or section of a piece to me:

  • I am keen to encourage a positive attitude to one’s music making. I apply this positive approach to my own music making and my teaching. Using techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy I aim to turn negative self-talk into messages of positive affirmation which encourage confidence.
  • While the statement I played it better at home may be true, deciding not to say or even think this is helpful in fostering a positive attitude to one’s playing, which in turn encourages more confident music making.
  • Pre-empting a performance with the statement I played it better at home immediately sets up negative feelings and a greater possibility for errors because your awareness of your anxiety is heightened.
  • The memory of a good performance in the comfort of one’s home can be used to reinforce positive feelings when playing for others – in an exam, audition or concert – and is a useful tool in countering anxiety and encouraging a good performance. Equally, when in a stressful performance situation, imagine you are at your piano at home, feeling (reasonably) relaxed and comfortable as you play.
  • Change the message: rather than I played it better at home, maybe try thinking I played well at home, I have done my practising and preparation and I am ready to play well now
  • In a performance situation, instead of saying I am nervous, trying saying I am excited. This simple change of vocabulary immediately turns a negative message into a positive one.

Inspiration for pianists at Jackdaws

Tucked away in a tranquil leafy corner of Great Elm, a small village near Frome in Somerset, is Jackdaws Music Education Trust. Now in its 25th year, Jackdaws was established by the singer Maureen Lehane in memory of her husband, the composer Peter Wishart, and took its name from his most-performed song, ‘The Jackdaw’. Their modest former home is host to a wide variety of very popular short music courses and workshops for adults and children, as well as concerts and opera performances.

Courses take place throughout the year, usually run from Friday evening until teatime on Sunday. The courses are led by inspiring musicians and teachers, and bring together passionate musicians, from the humblest amateur to the aspiring professional, to learn and develop together in a homely, nurturing and friendly environment. Tutors on the popular piano courses include Graham Fitch, Margaret Fingerhut, Julian Jacobson, Philip Fowke, Mark Polishook, Mark Tanner, Penelope Roskell and Stephen Savage. The ethos of Jackdaws is ‘Access-Inspiration-Inclusion’ and the atmosphere and teaching is relaxed, convivial and supportive. Course participants and tutors eat together at a large round table downstairs, meals are freshly made, generous and wholesome, and there are frequent breaks in the teaching schedule, plus free time to practise, socialise or explore the surrounding area. Participants stay with local bed and breakfast hosts in Great Elm or nearby villages.

I have been meaning to visit Jackdaws for several years: I’d heard so many positive reports of the courses and the place from pianist friends, and a short course with a small number of participants appealed to me. (I have not been tempted by larger piano courses such as the summer schools for pianists at Walsall or Chethams, nor the very expensive summer piano courses in France). It was serendipitous when my regular piano teacher Graham Fitch suggested I go on course called Finding You Voice At the Piano with Stephen Savage. Graham studied with Stephen at the Royal College of Music, and from the outset I found Stephen’s sympathetic and encouraging approach familiar from Graham’s teaching style.

Teaching is organised in a masterclass format which allows all participants to learn by observing one another being taught. We were fortunate in that there were only 4 people on this course which gave each of us the luxury of longer sessions with Stephen and the chance to further explore ideas which emerged from the teaching sessions. And from a piano teacher’s point of view, observing an expert tutor in action is also very instructive.

Our enjoyable mealtime conversations included repertoire, concerts, favourite recordings and artists and piano teaching anecdotes. These convivial interludes in each teaching day helped to forge a sense of shared purpose and musical friendship, which I think really aids learning because one quickly feels more at ease playing in front of others if you’ve shared the same dinner table with these people.


The teaching was of the highest quality: Stephen is expert at very quickly seeing what each person needs to bring their repertoire to life (in my case, a greater richness of sound and drama in the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, and more continuous energy in the opening movement of Schubert D959), and gave each of us useful advice and suggestions for practising, including strategies to bring security to leaps, chord progressions or rapid passagework. It is always wonderful to see how individuals develop, how their music changes, under the tutelage of a teacher like Stephen Savage, and it gives one inspiration and encouragement to keep going on one’s personal musical journey. In addition, courses such as these are a fantastic opportunity to hear, share and discover repertoire, and a chance to make new piano friends.

In terms of facilities, Jackdaws has a good Steinway grand in the main studios upstairs, a further Bechstein grand downstairs plus several upright pianos, a digital piano, a harpsichord and a spinet. Practice time is booked In half-hour slots using a simple rota and everyone was very good-natured about organising this. There is also free WiFi.

In sum, this was an inspiring, stimulating, enjoyable and highly instructive weekend piano “retreat” which I recommend to any adult pianist but particularly those who have not attended a piano course before or might be unsure about signing up for a longer course.

For further information about Jackdaws piano courses please visit

https://www.jackdaws.org.uk/piano/

 

A magical place for music making, made more special by playing in such an intimate space, surrounded by beautiful nature……it encourages us to open up

– Wendy

Sharing music with empathetic people who understand what we’re trying to do and what the difficulties are. It takes courage to play at these events but as adult learners we bring our own life experiences to bear on our music

– Susan

Small, domestic ‘at home’ atmosphere and lovely people

– Mark

It’s about interaction with new people – I really do value that – and it’s humbling to work with people from a multiciplity of professions who come on these courses with their hang ups. But there’s always a way to face these and to really get some focus into their playing. I think the key factors are the ‘craft’ of playing and rhythmic organisation in the music. As a teacher it’s important to be non-judgemental and respectful

– Stephen Savage

 

Should you ever put your piano in storage?

It’s a heartbreaking decision many pianists face at one time or another. You have to move to a smaller home – or maybe move overseas for a new job – and you just don’t have space to keep your piano with you. Or it’s simply not practical.

At first sight, the choice seems to be between selling your piano and putting it in storage. Neither option is easy. Naturally, storage seems like the least-worst. At least then you don’t have to part with your beloved piano.

The trouble with storage…..

Storage is far from perfect, however. On the one hand, it can end up costing you thousands per year just to hold onto an instrument that you never play. On the other, the ambient temperature and conditions in many storage warehouses are not optimal for keeping your piano in good condition.

Too dry, and many of the parts of the instrument will contract. Too humid, and many of the parts will swell. These conditions could lead to loose tuning pins, loosening or drying out of glue joints, blemishes in the finish, even rusting strings. And an expensive restoration bill when you do finally take your piano out of storage.

One piano shop owner and restorer told us that he was recently given two pianos to restore. Both of them had been damaged by their time in storage. One of them had had all its felt parts eaten away by moths!

A better alternative…….

Now, the ideal humidity level for a piano is around 40%. And while you might want to check with prospective storage providers that they can guarantee this if they take your piano, there is a third option to consider.

Why not give your piano to a shop to rent out for you?

This is a great option that means your piano will be taken care of. Any issues with its condition will be spotted and treated right away – and the shop will take care of them for you. All at no charge to you, because they’ll be paying for maintenance and upkeep out of the money they make on the rental.

Just think – your piano will be properly cared for. You won’t have to shell out thousands a year in storage fees. And, best of all, it will still be yours. So you can claim it back at any time.

If you’re moving to a smaller home, talk to your piano mover to see if they know any reputable shops who can handle this for you. Most professional removal firms will be able to do this if you ask them.

Or you can do a search yourself for local piano shops who may be able to help. Talk to them so you can be satisfied they’ll take care with your piano. The peace of mind and savings you’ll enjoy are sure to outweigh any possible inconvenience.

 

This article was written by Damien Seaman, brand manager of buzzmove.com, a site where people can compare reliable removal companies

 

This is a sponsored post. All information was supplied by buzzmove

Disclaimer: Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not necessarily endorse organisations that provide sponsored posts which link to external websites, and does not endorse products or services that such organisations may offer. In addition, Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio does not control or guarantee the currency, accuracy, relevance, or completeness of information found on linked, external websites. However, every effort is made to ensure such information contained on this site is accurate at the time of publication.

Let’s Play Piano! No excuses!

There is absolutely no need to regret not having learned to play an instrument simply because it is truly never too late to do so. Sure, people like to tell themselves that they’re too old for learning something new, but that’s just not true because we never actually cease to learn new things.

The only thing that stands in the way of you playing the piano is making the conscious decision to learn how to play. To avoid the hassle of finding a piano teacher and rearranging your schedule to commit to lessons, piano-teaching apps such as flowkey exist.

flowkey-piano-courses

Learning the piano has never been easier or more comfortable than it is in our day and age. Although no app can fully replace an experienced piano teacher, flowkey comes pretty close! flowkey teaches you all there is to know about playing the piano and reading sheet music in the comfort of your home. All you need to get started is a computer (PC, Mac, laptop) or tablet (iOS and Android) and your instrument (piano, digital keyboard, etc.). Open the app in your web browser or download the app for your tablet, sign up, and you’re all set.

HOW TO BEGIN YOUR MUSICAL JOURNEY

Signing up for flowkey is a quick and easy process. You answer three questions to enable the app to categorize your level of experience and create a specific learning plan just for you, and you’re all set to go. The way the app works is simple: you choose a piece of music and start learning it. “But how does that work,” you might ask, “if you have no experience reading sheet music?” Ah, not to worry: the app’s player not only shows you the sheet music that “flows” across your screen but also a bird’s-eye view of a professional pianist’s hands, playing the music. These keys are even highlighted with bright colors to make it easier to follow along visually.

flowkey-player

One very helpful feature of flowkey is that it provides you with real-time feedback while allowing you to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to be shy or embarrassed to repeat a difficult section an extra time: flowkey is a friendly piano teacher that accommodates you and adapts to your desires and wishes. Speaking of wishes, if there’s a particular song or piece of music that you’d like to learn which isn’t available in the flowkey library, you can always contact the support team to request your song wish which then gets recorded and released in one of the upcoming monthly song releases.

flowkey-songs-front-screen

The bottom line is that flowkey is a great tool for people of all ages and levels. The songs and courses are meant for both beginners and advanced piano students who can take on the challenge of learning a difficult Chopin prelude or perhaps completing the “Chords & Pop Piano” course to improve their improvisation skills. The best way to start (or continue) your musical journey and test out this revolutionary method is to try it out for yourself!

Find out more

This is a sponsored post.

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)

slow-practice-screen-shot