Active Repertoire Challenge 2018

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 2018

All About Neefe

Sheet Music Review

I often remind pupils and friends that the piano repertoire is an extraordinary treasury, and one which after several lifetimes of exploration would still yield up new gems and discoveries.

As if to prove the point, when I returned from a recent break in Moniaive I was surprised and delighted to see – among the packages awaiting me back at home – a splendid hardbound volume of piano music by Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), submitted for possible review by distributer Universal Edition on behalf of publisher Edition Dohr Köln.

Neefe’s name might be recognised by some as the composer of a charming Menuetto featured in ABRSM Grade 1 piano a few years ago.

But those who search the more distant recesses of their memories may recall mentioning him in their school-day essays about Beethoven; Neefe was young Ludwig’s principal piano teacher in Bonn.

As such, Neefe’s own compositions surely played a significant role in the latter’s music education, and thus attract peculiar interest. To what extent does his music inform Beethoven’s – and stand as a precursor to it?

Furthermore, as Beethoven’s piano teacher, Neefe himself joins the pianist lineage of those many of us who have traced our teaching line back to Liszt, Beethoven and beyond. This again adds personal resonance, however vague, in discovering his music.

So join me, and let’s find out more …

Continue reading All About Neefe

The Foundation Pianist

Sheet Music Special Review

Around this time last year, Faber Music unleashed The Intermediate Pianist series, co-authored by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond. It was a solid success, warmly received by teachers and students alike, and in my Pianodao review I wrote:

“The Intermediate Pianist books get right to the heart of what learning music is really all about. This truly could prove a milestone publication – don’t miss it!”

As many readers will know, The Intermediate Pianist deservedly went on to win Best Print Resource at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence 2018.

This Autumn, it’s a joy to welcome the arrival of The Foundation Pianist, two companion books in Faber’s growing Piano Trainer seriesThis time, Karen is joined by new co-author David Blackwell.

Let’s see what’s included, and consider how these books might fit into a rounded curriculum for young pianists…

Continue reading The Foundation Pianist

Alice Sara Ott: Nightfall

Recording of the Month  September 2018

Of the many wonderful young pianists who have arrived on the international performing circuit in recent years, Alice Sara Ott impresses me as one of the more honest to her own artistic intentions, and authentic in her delivery.

Her several recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have consistently revealed Ott as an intelligent pianist, eschewing glitz for its own sake, ready and willing to plough her own musical furrow, staying true to her vision and – importantly – to the intentions and spirit of the composers whose music she identifies with.

Commenting on her latest release, Nightfall, the now-30-year-old German pianist writes:

“It’s a very personal album in which I recall many moments of light and brightness, but also moments of darkness and doubt. One month before I entered the recording studio – I was in the midst of the bleak world of Gaspard de la nuit – my father suffered a heart attack that he barely survived. Despite a fortunate outcome, these were terrifying hours and days in which I realised how close life and death are intertwined. But there can be no light without darkness, and no hope without fear. And sometimes the borders blur – as in Nightfall.”

Continue reading Alice Sara Ott: Nightfall

Solo Xtreme Books 4-6

Sheet Music Review

Barely were the pixels dry on  my review of Solo Xtreme Books 1 – 3  when Books 4 – 6 landed on my door mat.

My favourable impression and comments about the first three books equally apply to all these – and indeed, the presentation, feel, quality and target audience for Books 4 – 6 is unchanged. The concept here, too, is a simple extension of the earlier collections.

Please therefore consider this review an addendum to the previous one, and be sure to read that first.

Like the previous books, each book includes a selection of new compositions which are billed as “X-traordinary and Challenging Piano Pieces”.

The levels covered by Books 4 – 6 are:

  • Book 4: Early Intermediate to Intermediate (ABRSM Grade 3)
  • Book 5: Intermediate to Late Intermediate (Grades 4-5)
  • Book 6: Late Intermediate to Early Advanced (around Grade 6)

Grade equivalents are necessarily vague, because as with the previous books they are not so much designed to fit snuggly into any particular assessment system, but rather to bust out the player beyond their current level.

What remains to be written, then, is an evaluation of the music in these new collections…

Continue reading Solo Xtreme Books 4-6

June Armstrong’s Sea World

Sheet Music Review

Over recent years, piano teacher and composer June Armstrong has steadily developed an enviable reputation as one of Britain’s most prolific and distinctive educational composers. Her impressive range of self-published – and beautifully produced – titles now stretches to some 15 collections of pieces suitable for players at most levels from beginner to advanced.

Along the way, June has gained a cult following from teachers-in-the-know – and no doubt gained many new fans following the recent inclusion of several pieces in the graded syllabuses of the examination boards.

I have reviewed a number of June’s publications on Pianodao – you can find out more here:

June has also kindly shared her piano story with us here as part of the Your Stories series.

June’s latest collection, Sea World, contains 17 new “Impressions for Piano”, aimed at players between UK Grades 1 to 3 (Elementary to Early Intermediate standard).

Let’s take a look …

Continue reading June Armstrong’s Sea World

Curved Fingers, or Flat?

This post is an exclusive excerpt from the new monthly online newsletter from the UK branch of EPTA, The European Piano Teachers’s Association.

In order to reach a wider audience, Chair of EPTA  Murray McLachlan  has kindly agreed to Pianodao exclusively hosting the newsletter for non-members, as well as picking a short piece each month to feature as a guest post here.

This month, I’ve picked this short but very helpful and thought-proving piece written by Murray himself… and below you can download the full newsletter for additional free articles!


Curved Fingers or Flat Fingers?

Guest Post by Dr. Murray McLachlan

A big subject, but in essence I would say a lot depends on the style of the music…

If I want to play rapid semiquavers in pre-Beethoven repertoire then I naturally curve my fingers for more articulation.

If I wish to have more legato and sonority in the romantic repertoire, then they tend to flatten instinctively.

Of course, we should all try to find power, focus and physical control from the knuckles. It is fundamentally bad practice to collapse the first and second joints of the fingers.

However, pupils with hypermobility may well find it difficult not to collapse their finger joints inwards as they play. Perseverance, patience and awareness of what they are doing can help.

Stress, tension and stiffness should be avoided at all costs. It can certainly help to focus on the knuckles and visualize internally a mental picture of finger movement from the ‘bridge’ of the hand (knuckles).

But in terms of how curved fingers should be in terms of a default position, try experimenting:

To find a pianist’s natural finger curve, get them to pick up a pencil without thinking about it. Just say have the thumb on one side, and the fingers on the other. After this is done, look at the curvature of the fingers.

What is there is what is comfortable – the correct curvature for that pianist at that time in most normal contexts.


EPTA Newsletter, September 2018

If you enjoyed this post, would like to read more, or find out about EPTA, please download the full Newsletter here.

Special Thanks to Karen Marshall, Murray McLachlan and Liz Dewhurst. 

Musical Focus is Paramount

The Fermata Series

Musical focus is paramount.
So many pupils are concerned with technical problems divorced from their musical raison d’être. Their focus is solely on the hurdle and it’s insurmountability.
But the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Norma Fisher
International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

So often as a teacher I come across players who “learn the notes” first, only later considering the expressive intentions of the music they are studying.

“For next week, why not try to add the dynamics…”

It’s certainly an easy trap to fall into – reading the notation, working out finger patterns, discovering the music with a systematic, segregated scheme in mind, rather than trying to “run before you can walk”.

And yet I always recommend that players try to pay attention to the dynamics, articulation and other expressive details as early as possible in the learning process. Adding these as an after-thought has always seemed to me a slightly odd way to do things.

More important still, surely we benefit from seeing the “big picture” when starting any musical endeavour or project. Best, where possible, to first discover any piece of music sound before symbol – it is in the hearing of a piece that its content is most powerfully and memorably communicated, and unless we have some aural concept, it can prove difficulty to muster sufficient motivation to commit to learning, absorbing and mastering the detail.

Learning becomes uninspiring.

Looking at the photo at the top of this post, we so could easily, finding ourselves in this scene, study the detail of the plant and insect life, without noticing the golden sun which illuminates it all.

In the same way, I believe that the expressive intention of a piece of music is the very thing which brings light to it, giving it meaning.

As Norma Fisher so eloquently puts it,

“…the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Fermata Series

Your Story: William Minter

Your Stories

William Minter is a teacher and composer living in Connecticut. He is the author of Journeys, a piano series for intermediate learners.

Here, William reflects on his piano journey, and sets out the many motivations which have kept him engaged in playing …

Continue reading Your Story: William Minter

Piano: the future of music?

Guest Post by Simon Reich

Looking at the crystal ball into the future would have had me shaking my head and not believing what I was seeing…

The ubiquitous guitar is falling out of favour with the new generation of musicians.

Yes, you are reading correctly! Both electric and acoustic sales are dropping through the floor. The big guns of the guitar world, Fender and Gibson are facing hardships. In fact, Gibson, have already begun bankruptcy proceedings.

The six-stringed instrument has been the virtual logo for rock and pop since its inception. No-one ever suggested substituting a piano or keyboard as a sexy alternative to the guitar, but it appears that could now be the case.

And while you’re at it, you may need to add a laptop computer as well. Yes folks, these are the items that are causing a huge drop in guitar sales, MIDI keyboards and music software.

Continue reading Piano: the future of music?

Wiener Urtext: ‘Primo’ Series

Sheet Music Review

“Easy” collections of the core classical piano repertoire abound, but few bring to the table the depth of scholarship, reliable editing, fingering and expert advice found in the recent (and ongoing) “Urtext Primo” series.

As the latest collection in the series – featuring the music of Clementi, Czerny and Cramer – hits the shelves of music stores worldwide, let’s take a look …

Continue reading Wiener Urtext: ‘Primo’ Series