“The Thinking Pianist” Summer Course

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

Summer schools and courses for (especially) adult piano enthusiasts have become an embedded feature of the music education landscape in recent years, and last year saw the launch of the latest.

The Thinking Pianist is the brainchild of David Jones, an established pianist, educator, and presently Head of Keyboard Studies at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I am delighted to announce that for this, the course’s second year, I will be joining the faculty. Here in advance, I talk to Jones about what it is that makes this particular course special, and distinct from other successful summer schools…

Andrew: Thanks for agreeing to talk to Pianodao, David! To start with, can you introduce yourself to readers and tell us a bit about your own piano journey?

David: Thank you very much for asking, Andrew.

As well as Course Director of The Thinking Pianist, I am full-time Head of Keyboard Studies at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire. I went to a state school myself, having started piano lessons at around 7 years of age, and deciding I wanted to be a pianist at the age of about 14. I studied at the Royal College of Music with Niel Immelman and John Barstow, then I did two years at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, studying with Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág.

I always enjoyed playing a wide range of music, and found myself to be quite good at the contemporary (i.e. avant-garde) repertoire so ended up specialising in this as a performer, both as soloist and collaborative pianist. However, I have always loved teaching, and, like a lot of people who begin as performers, found myself doing more and more of this as the years progressed. My current role is my first full-time teaching job, though I have now been in post over ten years.

Andrew: That’s impressive! And now you are also running The Thinking Pianist summer school, which had its first residential week last summer. Can you tell us about how The Thinking Pianist differs from the other summer courses available here and overseas, and why you feel there’s a special place for the opportunity it offers?

David: Naturally there are lots of fantastic piano courses, both in the UK and beyond, and I can’t claim to be familiar with them all. Many of them incorporate lots of varied activities, but most of these seem extraneous to the central activity of perfecting a few favourite solo pieces towards final performance.

As my course title suggests, I wanted to aim for something both broader and more detailed, looking at every aspect of what it means to be healthily obsessed with playing the piano, whether one is an aspiring professional, a piano teacher or a dedicated adult.

Maintaining good physical and mental health is of fundamental importance, and the daily activities we offer are based on this strong conviction. Of course we still offer plenty of traditional lessons, masterclasses and concerts.

Andrew: Can you tell us more about this variety of activities?

David: There are talks and seminars on a wide variety of subjects: last year’s included Dealing with Nerves and Performance Anxiety, Nurturing the Pianist’s Mind, The Art of Practice and Performance Practice in Brahms’ Chamber Music.

This year our Pedagogy offering will be of two types: a Pedagogy Basics course for those in the early stages of a teaching career, as well as a linked series of talks with the theme Teaching is Learning which will be of interest even to non-teachers.

Duet and Two Piano work promises to feature strongly again this year, whether sight-read for fun, or coached, and we will have some open rehearsals given by Faculty members.

Our wellbeing activities include daily Yoga, Tai Chi, and Alexander Technique (with Feldenkrais). There are optional group classes, as well as the chance to book individual sessions with our three specialist coaches. Our resident Yoga specialist Katie also offers one-to-one wellbeing coaching.

There is free membership of the CLC Health and Fitness Centre with pool and gym, and I hope to be leading one or two Cotswold hill walks if the afternoons are fine!

Andrew: Perhaps you could share more about how you personally find that well-being activities have impacted your own piano journey?

David: Very significantly, especially in the last 5-6 years. Throughout my studies and early career, I was able to keep myself on a relatively “even keel” regarding physical and mental health in a demanding profession without too much effort, and felt very lucky in this regard.

However, sooner or later, through a combination of professional and personal circumstances, most people will experience some form of crisis which can expose structural weakness in how they might be neglecting their wellbeing in various different ways.

In my case, I went through a significant mental health crisis which took me completely by surprise, the cause of which was basically burnout, i.e. devoting all my reserves of energy over many years to a job I love doing. I do talk about this on the course, as I think it is so important to be open and to share experiences of this kind.

Tai Chi, Yoga, meditation, moderate running, and a combination of Chinese and Stoic Philosophy were very important in my recovery. These all feature in The Thinking Pianist, either directly or as inspiration for the ethos of the course.

Andrew: This very much chimes with my own philosophy of piano teaching, as written about on Pianodao, and I am delighted to be taking part this year. Can you tell us a little about the other faculty members for this year?

David: Thank you, Andrew, that is very good to hear and it will be wonderful to have you along.

The full-time Piano Faculty returning from last year are Mengyang Pan and Tim Horton, both international concert pianists who nonetheless share the holistic vision of TTP. Mengyang is a Professor at RCM in London, where she also teaches Pedagogy, and Tim is a founder member of Ensemble 360 in Sheffield as well as the Leonora Piano Trio.

I am delighted to say that we are also being joined full-time by the marvellous Philip Fowke, who as one of the UK’s most eminent pianists hardly needs any introduction. I am also extremely happy that Melanie Spanswick, educator, writer, composer, and widely read classical blogger will be joining our Visiting Faculty, as well as your good self.

On the Wellbeing side, our resident holistic health coach is Katie Maughfling, who offers yoga therapy, ayurvedic health & lifestyle advice and has been a huge support in the genesis of the course. Tai Chi instructor Olly Leonard and Alexander/Feldenkrais specialist John Underhill complete the team.

Andrew: An exciting lineup, and I’m sure those who come will benefit immensely!

This is the second year of the course, last summer seeing the Pilot Course take place… obviously that went well, but what did you learn from it that you will carry forward this year?

David: Despite the risks associated with launching a new course in the teeth of the pandemic, the first course was hugely rewarding and fulfilling for all those who attended; it is no exaggeration to say that some were speaking of it as a life-changing experience.

This was a wonderful surprise for me, as I had not quite realised to what extent the aims and ethos of the course would resonate with fellow pianists so strongly. My aim was to achieve a mini-community based on a mutual respect and sharing of ideas, with as little sense of Faculty/Student hierarchy as possible. This worked very well and it was especially fascinating in our Pedagogy course to have some quite experienced teachers from very different backgrounds sharing and reflecting on their (occasionally very) different approaches.

This is one reason for the development of the ‘Teaching is Learning’ strand this year, which will be available to all students. Open rehearsals by Faculty were very popular last year – sometimes they can almost have the atmosphere of a relaxed, informal concert – and we will be enjoying more of these in 2022. And I think we will also be giving Steve Reich’s ‘Six Pianos’ another go, now that I have a much better idea of how it should be rehearsed…!

Andrew: Wonderful! It remains to ask about the practicalities – accommodation, dates and so forth…

David: The course runs from Sat 16 to Sat 23 July 2022. Full-time residential and non-residential places are still available, though booking is going well and it would be wise to apply or make enquiries soon if the course is of interest. We do plan to offer some part-time availability once we have sufficient full-time students.

Accommodation is in modern, very well-appointed boarding facilities in single rooms. All meals are provided and even I was delighted at the consistent excellence of the food last year! Due to the venues large flee of pianos, it is likely that each student will have their own dedicated practice room for the duration of the course.

For more information, please visit the course website.

There is also a facebook group where one can scroll down to view images and posts of last year’s participants, to get a flavour of the course and the beautiful location.

Andrew: Thank you so much for your time – and I look forward to seeing you there!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.