Tips for Playing at Sight

Tea Room Tips from the Pianodao Tea Room

Announcing our latest discussion event for Pianodao Members, I asked the following questions about sight reading:

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to play at sight? 
  • What approaches have helped you to improve? 
  • Do you have advice that might help others develop their sight-reading fluency?

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion which followed, which offer a wealth advice both for piano players and teachers…

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Jakub Metelka: Modern Piano Studies

Sheet Music Review

Jakub Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies is an educationally useful and thoughtfully produced collection of 30 miniature pieces which address aspects both of technique and notation-reading at upper intermediate level. The book is certainly novel, and may have what it takes to establish itself as a contemporary classic in the pedagogy literature…

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Can we really trust educational research?

I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Gilbert of the University of West Virginia and Nina Strohminger of Yale University presenting their findings that only a third of published psychology research is reliable.

Another article confirms that in the field of biomedicine (the basis of so much news coverage of medical advances) less than 50% of research proves reliable when the “reproducibility factor” is applied.

And astonishingly, we read elsewhere that “just 11% of preclinical cancer research studies could be confirmed”.

We might well speculate as to why such a body of inaccurate “research” is being published; certainly there are important questions here. And let’s be clear that it is academics themselves who are drawing attention to the problem, and expressing frustration.

If psychological and medical research are this unreliable, shouldn’t we also be concerned about the “research” that underpins educational theories and methods?

Continue reading Can we really trust educational research?

Trinity Rock & Pop Keyboards

Sheet Music Review

I recently reviewed the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus (please refer to that review here), and now have the opportunity to tell you about an alternative I mentioned in that review, offered by Trinity College London’s Rock & Pop Keyboard exams.

The disclaimers I made when reviewing Rockschool equally apply here: I haven’t entered myself or a student for the actual exams, and this review is based on the syllabus, publications and resources.

I also had the chance to chat to Trinity’s Head of Product Management Julia Martin and Product Support Manager for Music Govind Kharbanda, to whom I am most grateful for talking me through their syllabus and answering my plethora of questions.

As we shall see, the Trinity Rock & Pop offering has much in common with the Rockschool Piano syllabus, but there are also some significant points of departure. Together they occupy a unique space in the market; comparisons are inevitable, but I will aim to keep them for my conclusion!

Continue reading Trinity Rock & Pop Keyboards

Flooding the Market

Researching my recent review of Joachim Raff’s brilliant piano sonatas (which you can read here), I was struck by the following quote by Liszt, included in the editor’s Foreword:

“Neither in terms of your peculiar circumstances nor in terms of their musical significance can I entirely endorse your writing and your publishing much too much.
The publishers’ interest you intend thereby to exploit will soon turn completely indifferent. In any case, you waste your talent and your name – yes, even put the stamp of commercial and artistic uselessness on your works from the outset, be they good or bad.”

Franz Liszt (1811-1882) in a letter to Joachim Raff.

Bearing in mind that Liszt’s own output of solo piano music alone takes up more the 200 hours, one might be forgiven for thinking, “pot, meet kettle”, but in Raff’s case the sheer quantity of his music has indeed made exploration and rediscovery of it more difficult.

A Contemporary Problem

But what was true of Raff in the C19th could equally be an issue for composers today, if not more so given the ease with which musicians and composers can now share their work with the world in the internet age.

Given the mounds of review materials I receive, I must wonder whether composers and publishers today risk falling foul of Liszt’s advice by flooding the market in exactly the same way that Raff did in the nineteenth century.

Surely, there has never been a larger corpus of easy to intermediate piano music on the market?

And how about the method book series which explode into exhaustive libraries in their own right.

How many books does a method series really need to comprise? Four, perhaps (such as Get Set! Piano, for example)? Maybe 16 (Piano Junior), or how about 326 (Piano Adventures, including its many permutations and the huge catalogue of supplementary materials)?

As a teacher and mentor, I really don’t consider it best practice to lock students into a single approach or, importantly, the musical output of a single composer or arranger.

And yet many composers, arrangers and publishing stables seem intent on producing sufficient material to cover every eventuality, an end-to-end solution which allows players to never explore the wealth of other musical personalities out there.

While in principle we must undoubtedly welcome this outpouring of creative activity, and the extraordinary range of musical choices and voices available, actually sifting through so much music certainly presents a significant challenge to both players and teachers.

And this challenge is even greater now that digital and self-publishing has become such an easy and universally-available way to bypass the quality assurance provided by a traditional commercial publishing house.

A Reviewer’s Dilema

This is where the role of the reviewer can prove especially helpful. But even for a reviewer, the flooded market can pose a challenge. I certainly find it difficult to stay on top of the vast amount of new material submitted to Pianodao, much of it genuinely excellent.

That’s one of the reasons that I decided a while ago to focus on reviewing just those publications that I can honestly recommend. Why spend my free time, unpaid, reviewing poor (or even “satisfactory”) material when there are better alternatives; ones which I am far more likely to play myself, or use with my own students?

I must also consider the point that as a reviewer, I too might “flood the market” with too many reviews, so that readers are left equally unsure which music to purchase or otherwise. Some of my friends have already jokingly suggested that my site is bad for their purses!

As a general goal, I aim to publish one review each week on Pianodao (occasionally more), and within that to cover a wide variety of material, from educational resources, through easy and intermediate repertoire, right up to virtuoso (often obscure) concert works and brand new contemporary music.

I always try to be clear about exactly who any reviewed publication is really for, rather than making a blanket recommendation. Of course it is for the reader to detect these nuances and work out whether a specific publication is right for them.

Likewise, I always include any reservations I might have, and try to spot any drawbacks (however minor) that make a publication less than “outstanding”.

Of course, by focusing primarily on reviewing just the best, most worthwhile and innovative publications, I leave myself open to the charge that my reviews are “hype”, and not to be trusted. But the cynic who mistakenly rushes to this conclusion is missing the point, and at their own expense.

As I continue to publish regular reviews here, I hope that I won’t “flood the market”, but that I will help Pianodao readers make discerning choices and discover the best repertoire.

And I would like to hear from you:

  • Are you overwhelmed by too many choices?
  • Do you struggle to fully use and get to know the music you purchase?
  • What reviews here do you most enjoy, and am I succeeding in helping you with your choice-making?

Please let me know or leave a comment below… thanks!


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Hooked on Duets

Guest Post by Susan Bettaney

The Piano Duet form is an enriching experience which opens up a plethora of knowledge and repertoire dating back to the 18th Century, a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of a wondrous art form which evolved from the quills of the Great Composers ideal for the drawing rooms and salons of the times.

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Karl Jenkins: Piano

Sheet Music Review

Knighted by the Queen in 2015, Sir Karl Jenkins is established as one of the most performed living composers in the world, his music instantly recognised by anyone who takes even a casual interest in contemporary culture.

In this, his 75th birthday year, Jenkins celebrates his astonishing career with Karl Jenkins: Piano, a new recording from Decca Records with an accompanying sheet music collection published by Boosey & Hawkes, which is the subject of this review.

According to the publishers, Karl Jenkins: Piano offers,

“Intimate and spiritually uplifting classics reimagined for solo piano, including Adiemus, Cantilena, Benedictus, Palladio, Ave verum, And the Moster did Weep and In paradisum. Also included are original piano solos Quirky Blue and Canción plateada, plus White Water, specially composed for the album. Recreate for yourself the mystery, pathos and enchantment of these iconic sounds.”

But to what extent can the mystery, pathos and enchantment of Jenkins’ music actually be realised in simple piano arrangements? Let’s find out…

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Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity

Recording of the Month

Once in a while, I hear a new recording which not only introduces me to a rich seam of new repertoire, but which is quite simply mesmerising from start to finish. Elusive Affinity is Russian pianist Anna Gourari’s third recording for ECM recordings, and it is such a disc.

Juxtaposing a selection of tonal and non-tonal music, with a focus on pieces which explore musical connections and influences extending across the arts, Elusive Affinity is a genuinely astonishing album on every level, and a clear choice for Recording of the Month here on Pianodao.

So let’s take it for a spin…

Continue reading Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity

Weber: The Piano Sonatas

Sheet Music Review

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was one of the significant pioneers of German Romanticism in music, chiefly remembered for his operas Der Freischütz, Oberon and the popular Invitation to the Dance.

Weber was also a brilliant pianist who composed four Sonatas, several shorter solo pieces, two Concertos, the Konzertstück in F minor for piano and orchestra, and considerably influencing successors such as Mendelssohn and Liszt.

Though not as universally known as those of his contemporaries Beethoven and Schubert, Weber’s four Sonatas have found a continuing place in the repertoire, and have been championed by leading concert artists such as Artur Schnabel, Claudio Arrau, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Leon Fleischer, Hamish Milne and Paul Lewis.

They have been less-well served in print however, an oversight which Schott Music hope to rectify with the publication of their new, affordable single-volume edition.

Continue reading Weber: The Piano Sonatas

The Peaceful Piano Playlist

Sheet Music Review

Faber Music’s numerous piano anthologies have established themselves not only as enticing collections of sought-after pieces, but as a barometer of trends in the piano world.

The newly issued Peaceful Piano Playlist exemplifies this perfectly, offering a selection of relaxing classics and “new classical” pieces that will no doubt have huge appeal to teenagers and adults who play for pleasure and to relax.

If the title (and image above) already appeal, there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this publication immensely. So let’s take a closer look (and listen)…

Continue reading The Peaceful Piano Playlist