Active Repertoire Challenge 2019

What can you play?

This is a question which for too many pianists leads to such answers as:

  • I’m working on Allegro, but it’s not yet ready to play;
  • I finished learning Andante last month, but I’ve forgotten it now;
  • I don’t have my music books with me, so …

What a pity!

The reality is that too many of us can’t sit down at the piano – without notice, without notation, and without embarrassment – and simply play something!

Continue reading Active Repertoire Challenge 2019

Martin James Bartlett: “Love and Death”

Recording of the Month

Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014, Martin James Bartlett has become a welcome and friendly presence in concert halls as in the media, while also pursuing his further studies as a Foundation Scholar at London’s Royal College of Music.

Having recently signed to major label Warner Classics, Martin’s debut album was released at the start of May.

Entitled “Love and Death”, the recording must I believe be regarded as marking a very significant arrival in the classical music world, Bartlett casting his spell with an imaginative programme of music by J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Enrique Granados and Sergei Prokofiev…

Continue reading Martin James Bartlett: “Love and Death”

Meanwhile outside…

The Fermata Series

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”

Robin Williams

The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance.

The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness. It’s really quite magical!

Meanwhile, back indoors…

What cruel irony, then, that this is the very time of year where many young people are cooped up revising, huddled over computer screens, readying to be herded into drab school gymnasiums where rows of identical desks await.

One of my teenage students even tells me she has been explicitly instructed not to revise outside, as there are “too many distractions”!

It’s not that I’m against assessment; I am really not. But here in the UK we endure plenty of overcast, wet and windy days when studying indoors perhaps makes more sense!

In music education the same forces are equally at work, even though we instrumental teachers, perhaps more than anyone, have reason to challenge these assumptions.

Have teachers, pupils and parents become so convinced of an exam-led narrative of education that we are losing our ability to discern the deeper and richer benefits music can bring?

“The Grades” imagine a fixed, artificial destination (or at least, a series of stop-offs) which can too easily distract us from that all-important scenery that actually makes our musical journey truly rewarding.

So many adults returning to the piano tell me that they quit lessons as teenagers because they hated taking exams so much. I would suggest that we need to very seriously reflect on this.

Meanwhile outside…

a picture says more than a thousand words…

For the Daoist philosophers, one of the highest imperatives is for humanity to reawaken to the natural world around us and discover our place within it.

Recognising and following the seasons, both in the natural world and our inner journey, is fundamental to our success.

Throughout history, the Daoists were keen musicians and artists who demonstrated that far from adding to our sense of separation from the natural world, artistic expression can provide an avenue by which we come closer to it.

As one of the ancient sages explained:

“As a general principle, music is the harmony between Heaven and Earth, and the perfect blend of Yin and Yang. Great music brings delight, enjoyment and pleasure to ruler and subject, parent and child, and old and young alike.”

The Annals of Lu Buwei, 3rd century BCE, quoted in Brindley, EF: Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China, State University of New York Press, 2012.

As in all things, it is authenticity and balance that we need, and there are many ways we can promote this. For example:

  • Try to learn pieces and techniques at a natural, unforced pace.
  • Learn to be mindful as you practise, and non-judgmental as you critique your own (and others’) playing.
  • Aim to match the repertoire you tackle to your broader life goals, choosing pieces which inspire and enlarge who you are.
  • Always listen to your playing, immersing yourself and connecting with the source of the sounds.
  • Balance time spent working at the piano with time spent playing it; remember Active Repertoire so that your piano playing has a “success foundation”.
  • Listen to your body when practising/playing. And remember to breathe!

For all the hours spent practising, find balance by spending quality time away from your instrument. Even just a walk in the local park can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

The outside can only harmonise with the inside if we take the time we need to explore both.

And there’s no better time of year to heed the call, and join the party!

Fermata Series

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Pianodao is free to all, but funded with the help of reader donations. Regular supporters can enjoy additional benefits by joining online piano club The Pianodao Tea Room

Paul Harris: A Piece a Week

Sheet Music Review

Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last three years. As Faber Music now bring us the Grade 5 book, it seems appropriate to consolidate my thoughts into a single review.

I’ll start with a reminder that the books appear within the best-selling ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ series. That said, these are not sight-reading practice books per se. While useful in the practice of sight-reading as a discrete skill, the books aim to assist in the broader development of music literacy.

In the review which follows, I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, before then commenting on the actual material included in the books, including a few observations about their effectiveness based on my extensive use of them within my own studio.

Continue reading Paul Harris: A Piece a Week

The Practice Room Sanctuary

The Fermata Series

The bestselling author, journalist and broadcaster Hannah Beckerman recently wrote an article for Planet Mindful (Spring 2019) in which she shared what music meant to her, and in particular the difference that learning an instrument has made in her life.

In her piece entitled Music made me a happier child, she writes:

“What I didn’t consciously realise until much later was that music was providing another, possibly even more important, role in my life. My parents’ marriage had never been a happy one, and ours was a family that lived against an ambient hum of tension, anxiety and conflict. Music became my escape…
Music enabled me to set my own emotional temperature. When I was 13, my parents separated and subsequently divorced, and music became my sanctuary… throughout it all, music was my means of emotional regulation.”

No doubt like many others, I can profoundly identify with this. I too grew up in what was then known as a “broken home”, my mum divorcing my dad when I was 6, my stepdad when I was 12, her third husband dying of a heart attack when I was 17.

Music became a deepening world to me.

And not only through these troubles and tragedies, but similarly when I was mugged in the street, bullied and beaten up at school; when girlfriends dumped me; when I struggled with identity; when I generally failed at life.

In all these moments of difficulty, music was the place where I hid, the practice room my refuge, the sound of the piano a cavern of acceptance which, for much of my younger life, was the one place where I felt I could truly belong.

But music isn’t just for the dark times; playing an instrument isn’t simply a cop-out from life’s hasher realities. Music is an equally welcome friend during times of calm, of amazement, triumph and bliss.

The piano offered another way to explore and express my joy when I truly fell in love, when I got engaged, married and built a life with my wonderful wife.

Music was a constant friend, too, through the birth of our two children, through their growth to maturity and development as successful adults.

Music has been there in success as in failure, a companion through all the joys and sorrows. And it will ever be there.

In all honesty, I could write an extended, euphoric eulogy to the power of music; I doubt I need to, because most who read this will hopefully already know and have experienced exactly what I mean.

As Beckerman astutely observes, music brings equilibrium to our emotions, to our soul. Playing an instrument, we express our otherwise inexpressible deepest selves.

The piano has, without judgement, allowed me to both celebrate my faith and reflect on my doubts, opening up a pathway through which I have excavated my deepest thoughts, emotions and beliefs.

Importantly, through the discipline and focus needed in order to play well, we can each of us enter a meditative state where our other thoughts are stilled, and our inner emotional landscape is able to find restorative balance and sustenance.

As Beckerman says:

“There’s a single-mindedness involved in learning scales and arpeggios until they’re exam-perfect. There’s little space for external worries when you’re doggedly playing the same 29 notes over and over again.”

I can’t help feeling that, for all our efforts to “sell” music (and indeed, cultural education), we yet need to place greater emphasis on music’s transformative and balancing impact on those who properly engage with it.

Some may disagree, but if you play just for yourself, enjoying the private sanctuary of the practice room and never performing for others, I think that’s absolutely fine. It’s more than fine: it’s a genuine blessing. Make the most of it.

As players, let’s avail ourselves of this special place in our lives.
And those of us who teach: let’s try to lead our students there.

Let’s celebrate music’s scope as a means of authentic expression, and the sanctuary it offers those who run to it.

Fermata Series

More from the Fermata Series:

Pianodao is free to all, but funded with the help of reader donations. Regular supporters can enjoy additional benefits by joining online piano club The Pianodao Tea Room

Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Pathways for Teaching

Over the years I’ve repeatedly encountered the suggestion that music should be taught in much the same way as we have tended to assume language is acquired.

Advocates of this theory point out that:

  • Firstly as babies we hear words;
  • Soon we start to mimic them;
  • In time, we learn to speak fluently;
  • Later (perhaps several years later), we are taught to read;
  • And then to write.

I’m not a linguistics expert, but I suspect that this linear sequence is somewhat over-simplistic. In any case, it is adapted by some to propose this music education equivalent:

Hear  →  Sing  →  Play  →  Read  →  Write

It has long seemed to me that finding any direct or useful equivalent between musical learning and theories of language acquisition is more difficult than some suggest. And like many experienced teachers, I have observed that those taught according to this notion don’t always develop into good music readers.

In this short article I will flirt with the complexities here by asking three important questions:

  1. How do music and language seem to behave differently?
  2. How does informal learning prepare us for formal tuition?
  3. Does learning always follow the same one-way sequence?

As with the initial proposition, direct answers to such questions are elusive; perhaps it is sufficient to simply acknowledge their existence. But let’s take a brief trip to this hinterland together…

Continue reading Hear, Sing, Play, Read, Write?

Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi

Sheet Music Review

Ask a group of pianists which edition of Chopin’s piano works is the best, and you will probably get little consensus.

Some cling to our old copies of the much-revered Paderewski Editions which have been widely used since their appearance in the mid-twentieth century, while of the more recent urtext editions, the Jan Ekier Polish National Edition comes highly recommended.

Alongside these, the ever-reliable Henle Urtext editions have been popular for many years, and enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that they have just added a new revised edition of the 4 Scherzi, edited by Norbert Müllemann and with fingerings by Hans-Martin Theopold.

Continue reading Henle’s revised Chopin Scherzi

Johanna Doderer: “Everything Flows”

Sheet Music Review

“Alles fließt” – “Everything Flows” – is a virtuoso piano piece which was commissioned for the International Beethoven Piano Competition 2017, and first performed during its opening by Christoph Traxler.

When reviewing new music, it always helps to have a recording; and if it happens to be accompanied by an arty film of a man wearing just his underpants having an existential meltdown in a remote forest (see below) … well, so be it.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you more about this rather wonderful new concert work, just published by Doblinger…

Continue reading Johanna Doderer: “Everything Flows”

Your Story: Ian Ruhfass

Your Stories

Ian Ruhfass a pianist living in Los Angeles, CA. He is also a piano tutor, and the owner/editor of a popular website for pianists all around the world.

Here’s Ian’s story…

Continue reading Your Story: Ian Ruhfass