The Competitions Controversy

Debate about the value of piano competitions continues to stir heated discussion in the classical music world.

Latest to weigh in with a rather controversial blog post is pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, a young Russian formerly awarded Prize Laureate at the Honens Competition of 2012. Kolesnikov goes so far as to name specific jurors who, he says, have voted for their own students in recent competitions, lifting the lid on a practice that he portrays as rife.

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10 Ways to turn “I can’t” into “I can”

Guest Author: Frances Wilson

Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain.

“Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections in our brains which takes place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states.

The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative and is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk.

Continue reading 10 Ways to turn “I can’t” into “I can”

Stephen Hough: No More Loo Breaks?

It may be distressing to think of all these good people having to hold on, but we need to read Stephen Hough’s comments about ‘ditching the interval’ in their context…

Stephen Hough is rightly fêted not only as one of our greatest classical concert artists, but as an erudite and thoughtful writer. So it is no surprise that his recent piece “No more loo breaks” (published in the Radio Times, 20-26 August 2016 edition, no full online version) has attracted a lot of attention in the media and provoked plenty of debate online.

The reporting and discussion of his article has focussed on just the headline point from what is in any case a fairly short comment piece. Reading his comments in their intended context clarifies the questions to be addressed, and Hough is to be applauded for setting a positive and stimulating debate in motion.

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ARSM: Your Questions Answered

Interview with Penny Milsom, Executive Director of Products and Services, ABRSM

Professional diplomas in music performance and teaching have proliferated in recent years to a point where even many music professionals are sometimes baffled by the sea of letters that follow a colleague’s name.

Latest “diploma” on the block is the new ARSM performing diploma from ABRSM, the world’s leading music examining board.

The ARSM joins existing diplomas the DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM, and is intended to bridge the gap between Grade 8 (the highest amateur qualification ABRSM offer) and the DipABRSM professional qualification.

The ARSM syllabus and full information were launched last week, following which there has been much discussion about the purpose and validity of the new diploma, some of it summarised in this post by my friend and colleague Frances Wilson.

So I was delighted to have an opportunity to discuss it with Penny Milsom, Executive Director – Products and Services, ABRSM.

I put to Penny a number of the questions I have seen colleagues asking online. Read on for her responses, and I hope you enjoy what proved to be a very enlightening interview.

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The Pianist’s Lineage

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

Until quite recently it never occurred to me to consider who my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was…

But then I realised (somewhat inadvertently while looking into the history of piano teaching) that my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was none other than Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest and most influential pianist of all time.

At which point I decided it was time to give the matter more serious thought…

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10 Important Memory Tricks for Pianists

Guest Article by Sofie Kay

Have you ever suddenly forgotten your PIN? It happened to me once. I was standing in line with a friend who said something to me just as I was about to enter my number, and it suddenly went out of my head. I couldn’t remember those 4 digits until about a year later! It was a bizarre experience.

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Music Collaboration Online

SoundCloud has become, since its inception in August 2007, the website of choice for collaborating musicians, offering them the ability to freely upload tracks, sharing them privately with selected recipients, downloading, and leaving timed comments.

It’s been a simple but winning formula that has won considerable popularity against more complex rival collaborative offerings.

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Dustin Hoffman’s Dream

The Fermata Series

Ever wished you could be one of the top Hollywood movie stars of your generation? 

It turns out that Dustin Hoffman had a different dream, as he relates in an interview with the Radio Times magazine (5-11 March 2016):

“I always wanted to be a piano player.
I grew up studying piano, particularly jazz.
I just didn’t have the talent.

I had the desire. I had the feeling for it – and I still have it – but I didn’t have a very good ear.
I couldn’t just sit down and play something if you whistled it, like many musicians can.
I could not read regular classical music quickly; it was all laborious for me.

I still feel I missed my calling in life.
If God said today, “You will be what you always wanted to be, starting right now, and that is a really good jazz pianist”, I’d quit everything and be quite happy.”

This collection of thoughts and statements suggests to me many ways in which we use language quite loosely.

What, for example, is “a piano player” or for that matter “a really good jazz pianist”? Are these labels limited to those who can earn a living as a performer? At what stage in one’s development as a pianist is one allowed to use the term?

And then there is the question of “talent”. If ever there was a word that is used to convey so much, but actually conveys so little, “talent” is surely a contender!

Why did Dustin Hoffman believe that he “didn’t have the talent”? Did a teacher or parent take him to one side and gently break the news? Did he fail an exam or lose a competition? Or did he simply submit to the worst insults leveled at him by his own inner critic?

The answers to these questions are perhaps not for the knowing, but it is interesting that Dustin Hoffman goes on to talk about the ideas contained in Kung Fu Panda 3, the latest movie he is involved with.

Hoffman concludes the interview with this thought:

“One of the themes of Kung Fu Panda 3 is that they use the word “Chi”, in other words finding your inner self; the purpose of life is to find your inner self. Your essence.
And I think you spend a lifetime doing that.”

For me, being a pianist is a real part of my “inner self”, regardless of whether I have a successful concert career or not. And I suspect many readers will identify with piano playing in the same way – as a core part of our identity and means of self-expression.

If so, do not listen to your inner critic, to the teacher who puts you down, to the competition judge who overlooks you, or to the audition board that pass you over.

Be sure to pursue your dream, because the rest is just noise.


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

Fermata Series

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Social Media and Feelings of Inadequacy

Following on from her well-received post “Am I Really Good Enough“, guest author Frances Wilson turns her focus to the impact that social media can have on our view of ourselves…

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Am I Really Good Enough?

Guest author Frances Wilson considers a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should…

Am I Really Good Enough?

  • Am I good enough to pass this exam?
  • Good enough to compete in that festival?
  • Play in that concert?
  • To be a piano teacher?

Continue reading Am I Really Good Enough?