Interview with Marcel Zidani
Marcel Zidani’s Hey Presto! is billed as a “first piano lessons” book for older beginners aged 11 and upwards.
The subtitle – pedal your way to piano perfection– reveals something of the book’s unique approach, and like many I was intrigued when it first appeared a couple of summers ago.
Reviewing Hey Presto! at the time, I found much to love about Marcel’s method and music, while noting a few minor concerns. Since then, Marcel has responded to the feedback received from teachers and is now back with a thorough reworking of the concept and a brand-new edition of Hey Presto!
So what better time to catch up with Marcel for a chat, find out what motivates Hey Presto! and ask how he has improved on the original publication…
Andrew Eales: Marcel, thank you so much for agreeing to talk!
I’m sure readers will be keen to hear all about the new edition of Hey Presto! But first can you tell us a little about your own musical background, and how you came into piano teaching?
Marcel Zidani: Hello Andrew! I am a pianist and composer and have been teaching both for over 20 years. I always wanted to become a concert pianist, and teaching and composing music has always been apart of that journey. As a pianist I am very lucky to have performed many of the great piano concertos, and I am looking forward to performing the Grieg Piano Concerto in Cheltenham next January. I also perform fairly regularly at music festivals in the UK.
I have always composed music too, mostly for the piano, but a fair amount of music for other instruments too. I have written several prizewinning compositions that have been performed on BBC Radio 3 and other local radio stations.
As a young pianist, upon leaving university I took on private students and started work at a few of the local schools near my home in Evesham, Worcestershire, teaching small groups and individual lessons. I was very enthusiastic and when children, particularly from first schools, began to take to the piano (keyboard) and develop an interest in music, I then realised the true value and sense of fulfilment that being a piano teacher gives you.
During this time I produced my first CD, Piano in the Small Hours, a disk of improvised and light piano music where – through the making of this CD – I learned how to form and structure music better and this helped me with my teaching.
At what point in your own teaching did you start to feel that a new approach – and perhaps your own method book – was needed?
I have always been striving for greater technical ability in my own playing and parallel to this, as my teaching career developed I began teaching students with a greater range of technical ability.
After working at secondary schools and with older students, beginners and advanced, I made two important observations.
The first was that if beginners aged around 11 upwards did not achieve a good sound quickly then usually, after a year or so, these students would eventually give up. The students that continued learning with me from first schools however, had reached a level where they were enjoying their playing and therefore student retention rates of this group were much higher.
The second observation I made was that transfer students had difficulties with some of the basic movements that are needed to reduce tension, and for shaping phrases musically, such as circular movement and wrist flexibility.
For example very often a student of diploma level would want to play something like the Pathétique Sonata by Beethoven but their arms would be very tense and painful shortly after beginning the Allegro con brio.
The Hey Presto Piano Method covers the basic technique required for this in the first piece albeit at a very simplistic level, but essentially the movement is the same.
So can you tell us more about the basic vision of Hey Presto! and how it differs from other approaches?
My vision for Hey Presto was to create a method for the older beginner, aged around 11 upwards, so that they be inspired by the sound that were able to create within the first lessons, and to create a desire to explore further the wealth of colour and beauty that this instrument has to offer.
In order to create this sound I felt the need to incorporate the sustain pedal, but this would present certain problems that would need to be addressed.
This challenge became an obsession and I began writing volumes of music, much of which did not make it into the book. Not all of the pieces in the book require the pedal but many do, and the first few pieces can be played with the sustain pedal pressed throughout However, there are very clear instructions that the music must, in every instance, be played with legato finger-work first.
This applies to all the pieces where pedal is marked, and the music is written in such a way that applying the pedal makes sense musically.
I also wanted to include within the book several important piano techniques such as ‘wrist rotation’ and ‘wrist circles’. Developing these methods early on makes sense and by the end of the book pedalling and recognising which technical movement to apply becomes more automated and natural – which in turn will aid in avoiding injury and tension.
The cover references Anton Rubinstein’s immortal words, “the pedal is the soul of the piano”, and it’s fascinating to see how introducing the pedal right from the start impacts other aspects of the music and learning …
I’m interested that for this new version you have also brought forward legato pedal changes so that the harmonies don’t overlap as they did in the first edition. What led you to this change, and are you finding that pupils can cope with legato pedalling so soon?
Before this edition there were several other versions on trial.
I found that once students used the pedal in the first few pieces that they often began naturally changing the pedal at the bar lines. Most often this is also where the harmony changes.
Another observation was that when a ‘wrong note mistake’ was made the student would often release the pedal instinctively. This means that a connection between the brain and the sound, and what to do about the sound, is developed very quickly. The first few pieces establish an understanding of the concept. Simply playing the piece and holding the pedal until the end.
Then on piece 2 and 3, lifting the pedal on the last note and putting it back down again. This is an excellent place to practice using the pedal correctly. The student can concentrate on the notes throughout and then, only on the last note, do they have to think about the pedal.
Gradually more pedal changes are introduced from around every four bars to eventually every bar, these are at places where there are obvious harmonic reasons for doing so.
As well as the changes to pedalling, you really have reworked the book very significantly I think – and for the better! Can you talk us through all the major changes you’ve made?
Thank you, firstly the quality of the book itself is much improved. The book has a laminate cover and is more durable.
The layout has been completely reworked so that everything looks neat and clear on the page. Graphics have improved greatly and there are concise and clear explanations of musical terminology and theory description.
There is a very detailed foreword, which demonstrates hand position and gives an accurate description of how to apply the correct technique.
I have changed the order of many of the pieces and added additional pieces to enable a smooth running or transition of difficulty from one piece to the next.
There is an emphasis on colour including an additional bonus piece (duet) at the end and also a lesson on improvisation.
The cover mentions YouTube content, which I believe is being developed right now – can you tell us more about what we can expect?
I am in the middle of recording an audio only YouTube version of the whole book so that I can put something on the website more quickly. I expect this to be completed before September.
I will then be making a video of all of the pieces with an explanation and demonstration of any important learning objectives required, such as wrist staccato or phrasing etc. I expect this to take longer and will release the videos 3-4 at any one time. I hope to have these completed and put on the website by December. They will also go on a Hey Presto Piano Method YouTube page.
Lastly, I know that your work as a composer is a hugely important part of your career; can you tell us about the music in Hey Presto! and pick out your favourite pieces?
It’s no secret that I am a classical musician and composer with a love of the romantics, but I also perform and compose music in many different styles from baroque to jazz and popular. I have tried to include as many as I can of these different styles.
At the beginning of the book I have used rote method in some of the pieces as it works nicely with the easy listening genre and broken chords, and it can be picked up easily with little knowledge of notation. As you progress through the book there is less emphasis on rote and gradually more on notation.
I particularly like music with beautiful, lyrical melodies and harmony, a good tune! But I also like a good rhythm and I believe my favourite piece Momentum has all of these qualities. It has a driving force and is nice and upbeat – as is Seismic Beats. Interestingly neither of these pieces are marked con pedal.
Colours is a favourite with students and parents, as is the duet version because you can really experiment with improvisation here and enjoy some lovely harmonic textures with the very low bass notes which add a hugely atmospheric effect.
Two of the simpler pieces near the beginning – Changing Position and Solace – are easy to pick up, with important lessons, but also give a very rewarding sound and sense of achievement fairly quickly.
Thank you so much again for sharing, and best wishes with Hey Presto!
Some Concluding Thoughts
Having spent time looking through the new edition, I must admit that I am hugely impressed with the scale of improvement since the first edition. Where before I had some questions, even concerns, these are certainly alleviated.
In particular, all aspects of music theory and practice are now far more clearly and precisely explained. And the introduction of the pedal now, it seems to me, properly serves the music, rather than the other way around – as was rather the case before.
In short, Hey Presto! has in my opinion progressed from being an interesting, quirky but not entirely useable method – more useful as supplementary material – to being a book I will happily be trying out with my next teenage beginner.
I really think that Marcel has created something very special indeed here. Do check it out for yourself!