Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists

The International Summer School and Festival for Pianists held each summer at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester UK is now in its 19th year, and has established itself as one of the major annual events in the piano calendar.

Incorporating a series of nightly public recitals as well as (this year) the sixth Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists, this extraordinary (if not exhausting!) event benefits from the stunning setting that is Chetham’s School of Music, which includes the new Stoller Hall, several recital and ensemble rooms, a huge fleet of pianos (the school’s impressive collection supplemented by additional pianos on loan from nearby Forsyth’s music store) and the enlarged premises opened in 2012.

The Summer School for Pianists provides the opportunity for players of all ages to have one-to-one lessons with the dozens of internationally respected pianists and pedagogues on site, who comprise a formidable faculty list that reads like a “who’s who” of the international piano scene.

Alongside these courses, there’s the recently-added Piano Teachers’ Course (led this year by Mark Tanner and Karen Marshall), which I’ve reviewed in more detail in a separate article here.

With more than 250 participants in each of the two weeks, the event combines several projects initiated and led by the inspiring and indefatigable husband-and-wife team of Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page, both of whom are themselves hugely successful pianists, teachers and communicators.

I was delighted to receive an invitation from Murray and Kathryn to visit this uniquely all-encompassing event and see for myself how its strengths combine to add up to more than the sum of its parts, offering a fusion of inspiration, education and creativity for pianists and lovers of the piano of all ages and at all stages of their lives.

In this article I will explain more about how the course works, be a fly on the wall observing some lessons, talk to participants, enjoy the array of concerts, and offer my overall view of the week.

Continue reading Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists

“Stand back from the edge please!”

The Fermata Series

As the words boomed along the station platform, I realised straight away that they were directed at me. I turned, looked up the platform towards a burly man in an official-looking hi-vis jacket and sheepishly gave him the thumbs up.

I had been momentarily transfixed in a meditation on the nature of fear.

Looking down at the rails I realised how easy it would be (having first checked there were no trains on the horizon) to step down from the platform, hop across the tracks and explore the beautiful verge that faced me on the other side.

And yet I would never, ever actually do so.

A self-preservatory terror of the rails had been instilled into me decades ago by my mother. My guess is that most of the passengers waiting on the platform would feel something of the same fear.

When movie heroes leap onto the tracks, we regard it as derring-do, suitably convinced of the huge risks involved. Meanwhile we ignore the thought that ordinary Network Rail employees routinely mosey around the rail infrastructure on a daily basis without being vaporised on the job.

Most of us rarely question the fears or values that were instilled in us at a young age. But perhaps we should do.

Continue reading “Stand back from the edge please!”

Lingering Awhile with Friends

The Fermata Series

“Morning rain in Wencheng dampens rising dust.
Sprouting willows colour the guest house green.
Sir, let us drain another cup of wine.
Once you’re west of Yang Gate, you’ll have no friends.”

Seeing Yuan Er off on a mission to Anxi, Wang Wei (699-759)
translated Deng Ming-Dao, Each Journey Begins with a Single Step (2018)


This simple, if somewhat oblique verse has been bearing down on my thoughts in recent weeks. Ever since encountering it, it has stuck in my mind as a salient reminder of the importance of cultivating lasting relationships and savouring friendships.

It is also, in context, a poem about journeying. The writer entreats his travelling friend to wait awhile before taking the next step, not simply because it is wise to be circumspect, but because the security of the present moment provides the best launchpad into the uncertainty of the next.

Many will be starting out in new jobs, classes and positions as we enter a new academic year, or as the next concert season gets underway. We may, or may not, have friends lined up as travelling companions.

Soon there will be change, bringing fresh challenges, adventures and new faces into our daily lives. But for today, it’s important to treasure the friendships we have.

For those enjoying a holiday this month, I hope you will have a refreshing and relaxed time in the company of those close to you. I hope that you will linger in special moments, and craft wonderful memories that will strengthen you for the future and add incredible value to your life.

I have to confess that I too often rush my “goodbyes”, impatient for the next moment. But life does not comprise next moments; it is made up of the present ones. Let’s take time to enjoy them, and treasure our time with friends!

Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the metaphorical link between this verse and our piano playing…

There will always be new repertoire to explore, including the latest compositions we’ve discovered as well as the manifold treasures of the keyboard literature from generations past…

But there’s really no hurry. So before stepping into new territory, remember to spend time with familiar favourites: the Active Repertoire with which you can relax, express and enjoy yourself.

As in life, so too in our piano playing,
let’s take time to linger awhile with our old friends.


Fermata Series

The Fermata Series offers short reflective posts, and a chance to PAUSE.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters enjoy extra benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room.



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…

Continue reading Tips for Playing at Sight

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.

Continue reading Hooked on Duets

Practice in Perspective

The Fermata Series

“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful.
And then it’s amazing again.
And in between the amazing and the awful,
it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.
Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,
and relax and exhale during the ordinary.
That’s just living: heartbreaking, soul-healing,
amazing, awful, ordinary life.”

L.R. Knost

Hands up if your first thought, reading this quote, is that Knost’s observations about life equally apply to piano practice? That was certainly my first thought when, having posted this quote three years ago on social media it reappeared as a “memory” this week.

And one of my friends similarly wasted no time before commenting, “this is an excellent description of my average practise session”.

So let’s revisit the quote, substituting practice for life:

“Practice is amazing. And then it’s awful.
And then it’s amazing again.
And in between the amazing and the awful,
it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.
Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,
and relax and exhale during the ordinary.
That’s just practising: heartbreaking, soul-healing,
amazing, awful, ordinary practice.”

Is it a surprise that some days everything goes well at the piano, while other days nothing seems to work at all? Sometimes we clearly see where we are going, other times we can barely make out the shapes through the mist.

With this in mind, we perhaps need to question our perspective on practice each time we sit down at the piano, understanding that there will be unpredictable ups and downs, beyond our control, to which we need not attach special blame or emotion.

When I launched Pianodao some four years ago, I wrote:

I continue to observe that many of the problems and issues that I and my students grapple with have very little to do with our pianism and musical understanding, and far more to do with our physical limitations, tension, mental state and internal beliefs… The work of a piano teacher can sometimes have as much to do with helping our students to address these issues as it does with conventional pedagogical content.

There are plenty of great places to find tips on how to practise, but I believe we first need to understand that, regardless of technique or strategy, our practice experience is likely to vary considerably from one day to the next.

It’s crucial that we don’t jump from self-evaluation to self-condemnation.

Recognising this basic point helps us to approach practice with a more healthy perspective, alleviating the stresses and frustrations that can blight our daily satisfaction at the piano.


Fermata Series

The Fermata Series offers short reflective posts, and a chance to PAUSE.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters enjoy extra benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room.



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

The Fermata Series offers short reflective posts, and a chance to PAUSE.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters enjoy extra benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room.


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

The Fermata Series offers short reflective posts, and a chance to PAUSE.
Read more from The Fermata Series here.


Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters enjoy extra benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room.


Making Time for Regular Practice

Tea Room Tips

The Pianodao Tea Room is an online group for supporters of this site. In addition to our private discussions we now run a monthly “event” in which members can share their tips on a subject of interest, with highlights collated here for Pianodao readers.

This month, I asked members,

“How do you find / make time in your schedule for piano practice on a regular basis? What has worked for you?”

Here’s some of the answers members gave…

Continue reading Making Time for Regular Practice

Steve Luck’s Practice Tips

Steve Luck is a piano teacher from Newcastle Upon Tyne. This guest post originally appeared as a forum post within the Piano Network UK group, the leading Facebook community of piano players, teachers and enthusiasts living in the United Kingdom.

Steve’s post includes such useful information, aimed primarily at piano parents and students, that he has agreed to me giving it a public platform here on the Pianodao site, for which I am grateful, as I am sure many readers will be!

Continue reading Steve Luck’s Practice Tips