An Interview with Stephen Savage

I am delighted to announce that my piano workshop at Jackdaws in November is now full, with a waiting list in case anyone drops out. If you are interested in an intimate weekend piano course in an idyllic setting with cordon bleu home-cooked food, follow the link below for details of what’s on offer. I can do no better than suggest a brand new course running in October – given by my very first professor of piano, Stephen Savage. For details of this and other piano courses at Jackdaws, follow this link  I had my first lesson with Stephen Savage when I was about 16 and I still remember it clearly. Before I became his student at the Royal College of Music, I had a few more occasional lessons which were always as inspirational as they were energetic and informative. At the RCM, my lessons took place at 11:00 on a Thursday morning in Room 72 and they were the highlight of my week. Stephen’s approach was very hands-on – he always aimed for sound, character and musical meaning first and then explored the means of achieving it as a logical progression. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how to be a musician as well as a pianist, and came out of each lesson fired up. Here is Stephen playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse: Stephen Savage’s early studies brought him recognition with a Beethoven 4th Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra and success in the Daily Mirror National Competition. After his time at the RCM he was given the task of acting as Cyril Smith‘s teaching assistant while also appearing in a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall and broadcasting a wide range of repertoire for Radio […]

My Jackdaws Course in November

Have you ever sat at the piano, uncertain as to what you should be doing in your practice time or wondered why it takes you so long to learn pieces? Would you like to eliminate mistakes and find a level of consistency and greater ease in your playing? I am offering a weekend course at Jackdaws from Friday 24 November – Sunday 26 November 2017, all ages and levels are welcome and the fee is only £210! In this weekend workshop we will look at what we should be doing in our daily practice to reach our musical goals. Feel free to bring along whole pieces, sections of pieces or even just questions. We are looked after amazingly well – cordon bleu food is freshly prepared for us at each meal, and there are homemade cakes and biscuits during the breaks. All this in the beautiful surroundings of the English countryside! Because the course is limited to 10, there is a friendly and supportive group dynamic and you will leave refreshed and inspired. I always do! However, there are only 2 places left on my course so if you are interested in attending, book now to avoid disappointment. For full details and to register follow this link

Mozart’s Shorter Piano Pieces

A volume that is in almost constant use in my studio is the shorter piano pieces by Mozart in the Henle edition. It contains the tiny pieces Mozart wrote as a child, as well as the Rondos, Fantasies, and other pieces that don’t fall into the sonata or variation categories. All of them are fascinating, and the volume includes some real gems that pianists don’t seem to know. For the Henle Urtext edition, follow this link Among my very favourites is the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a personal and profound work full of wonders. The magisterial performance of Daniel Barenboim I once owned on LP record still haunts me, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Here is Murray Perahia’s equally beautiful performance, and I hope it inspires you to include this piece in your repertoire. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is known that Mozart had a great sense of humour. In one of his most tragic pieces, the finale of the C minor piano concerto, K 491, instead of writing repeat signs in the conventional manner, he wrote a little smiley face that looks back to where he wants the players to return. The autograph is in the library of the Royal College of Music, London, and when I was a student there I was given the rare privilege of handling the score (yes, I did have to wear gloves). Mozart also wrote a funeral march – as a joke. One of his students, Barbara Ployer, was a fine pianist but apparently did not enjoy her counterpoint studies with him. In order not to discourage her, he wrote a very short piece entitled Marche Funèbre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto, K 453a, in […]

A Bar at a Time

When I was going through the early grades myself as a lad, my teacher would instruct me to learn my new pieces bar by bar, and with each hand separately. I’m not sure how much I obeyed her when I was home alone though! I really do believe that if we teachers expect our students to practise in a particular way, we need to hear that practice in lessons – or there is little incentive for them to do it. It doesn’t have to take much lesson time – hearing just a bar or two, with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement (if necessary) is all that is required to help them along in the learning process. I am very happy to announce that we’ll be adding further works to our  Online Academy articles and worksheets on the new ABRSM syllabus, beginning with a selection of pieces from the early grades. The format is somewhat similar to the other study editions I have previously published, featuring text, musical examples and short embedded video demonstrations (as well as video walkthroughs) designed to help teachers and players in the learning process. Naturally, there are detailed practice suggestions suitable for the grade. Bar by Bar – Plus One One of the practice suggestions I use in my worksheets is working in small sections, and a bar is a neat unit. Here’s how it works. In Bar by Bar Plus One we work one bar at a time. If we do this by stopping on the first beat of the next bar, the note(s) we end on will be the same note(s) we start on when we move on to the next bar. When we form good habits at […]

Presenting the New Trinity Syllabus

A while ago I was asked by Trinity College London to write the teaching notes for the new piano syllabus, Grades 6-8, and I was delighted to receive the publications through the post last week! In addition to the pieces published in the official exam books, there is also a comprehensive selection of alternative pieces for each grade (the teaching notes available in a separate booklet). The range of repertoire is excellent, with plenty to choose from in a wide variety of style periods. Trinity’s graded piano exams provide choice and flexibility to allow candidates to play to their strengths, enabling you to gain recognition for your own unique skills as a performer – it’s about the music you want to play and the performer you want to be. The supporting tests and technical exercises are performance-grounded and specifically designed to develop skills through the music and the piano. You will be assessed through an internationally recognised and regulated exam system you can trust (it has a 140-year heritage!), and gain UCAS points for Grades 6-8.  Please follow these links to the piano syllabus page and to the piano supporting resources page . Cambridge Lecture-Demonstration If you are in the Cambridge area on Monday, July 10, why not drop by and hear my short lecture-demonstration on the new syllabus. I’ll be demonstrating pieces from the Grade 6-8 books and the lists of alternative pieces, offering advice on choosing the best repertoire for each student from the wide-ranging lists available and suggesting teaching hints, technical  tips and practice ideas on selected pieces. Before my presentation, you are also welcome to come along and have a cup of tea, meet some of the Trinity team. You’ll hear about: • the range […]

Pedalling the Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Quasi una fantasia), Op. 27, No. 2 in 1801, dedicating it the following year to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck. At the start of the first movement, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal throughout the whole movement, so that the strings are never damped. Above the opening bar, Beethoven instructed “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini” (the entire piece should be played with the greatest delicacy and without mutes), followed by another direction between the staves “semper pp e senza sordini.” “Senza sordini” is an instruction to play “without mutes,” or with the dampers raised off of the strings – or, in other words, with the pedal down. Beethoven must have meant something important by this, since he felt it necessary to give the same instruction twice. On the pianos of Beethoven’s time the sustain was shorter than the pianos we have today, and this effect surprisingly subtle. Obeying Beethoven’s marking literally on a modern piano, with its much longer sustain, produces chaotic and immediately unacceptable results. However there are ways of pedalling artfully that recreate the type of effect Beethoven was after. I’ll show you in a minute how to produce an aura around the sound, obeying the spirit if not the letter of Beethoven’s instructions. But first listen to Matt Bengtson demonstrating the opening on a fortepiano: Beethoven would have remembered a day, not so long before, when pianos were equipped with a handstop that lifted the dampers away from the strings. […]

On Singing

I had always sung in choirs and choruses from my childhood to the end of my student days, and one of the highlights of my week as a postgraduate student in New York was my voice lesson. I came away from it feeling energised and exhilarated (as well as hungry) from the wonderful sensations I felt in my body as it became my instrument. This background in singing prepared me extremely well for my life in music, and I firmly believe that every pianist needs to know how it feels to shape music by singing the lines – be they melodic lines, bass lines or humble inner parts. I would go so far as to say I believe if you can’t sing a melodic line, you can’t really play it. You might be able to move your fingers over the right notes but you probably won’t be shaping it or feeling it expressively. The roots of music lie in rhythm and song, and we pianists devote our time to making our so-called percussion instrument sing. String players connect notes with their bow and wind players with their breath, but the way pianists achieve a singing style is mostly illusion, of course, since the moment we play a note on the piano the sound begins to decay. Keeping moving at the keyboard is one solution – not letting the arm stop as we move through a phrase and remembering to breathe, as Chopin taught, through the wrist. From the very first lesson to the very last, piano lessons need to be filled with singing, and no pianist should be shy to sing a melodic line in the practice room until they have found the ideal tempo, shaping, […]

“I Haven’t Done As Much Practice As I Wanted This Week”

“I haven’t done as much practice as I would have liked this week” seems to be a very popular statement at the beginning of a piano lesson. Before one note has been played self doubt, anxiety and guilt are already in the room, and impending disaster is sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I try to calm the situation by reassuring the student that even seasoned concert artists at the top of their game might sit in the green room before a performance with similar doubts, feeling they could have done more if they had only had a bit more time. And how many exam candidates stew in the waiting room thinking: “If only I had a couple more weeks, or if only I had done this and that, I would be fully prepared”? There is always more we can do, yet we need to trust that what we have done is enough, for now – provided we have not been lazy or negligent in the process of preparation. A lesson does not always have to be a performance! Unless the lesson is in the run-up to an exam, diploma or recital (when a non-stop complete performance is necessary) work in progress is extremely welcome in my studio. I would rather help people to get things right from the beginning of the learning and practice process than go through the arduous task of unpicking and correcting careless errors or learned-in problems. Detailed work involves the opposite of playing through from beginning to end, and in a lesson it should be possible to focus on this – offering a model of what should happen in the daily practice. What do you want from your piano playing? In a recent lesson, […]

How to Manage Repetition in Practice

Recently I overheard someone practising in an institutional practice room (OK, perhaps I was eavesdropping a bit) and had to smile at what was going on in there. It was the very end of Ravel’s Sonatine, where the left hand is called upon to make a daredevil leap over the right hand, and land on two black notes at the top of the keyboard. There are several intelligent ways to practise this jump to increase the chances of getting it right, but what I heard was quite a number of repetitions in a row, played back to back with absolutely no reflection time in between the repetitions. The student got it “wrong” (meaning it was inaccurate, uncomfortable or she felt it was somehow missing something) many times in succession and then after all this did it to her satisfaction just once – and left it. Had she managed to refine the movements during all these inaccurate repetitions to reach a desired result, now permanently on tap, or had she practised getting it wrong nine times in a row and correct on the tenth attempt? If the latter, the chances of getting it right on the first attempt in performance would be 1 in 10 – not favourable odds. There is no doubt that to refine complex motor skills required in such a passage, a certain amount of repetition is necessary. Yet repetition is a double-edged sword, since whatever we repeat we tend to ingrain (errors and all). In order that each repetition takes us closer to our desired result, that which we see on the page and that which we hold in our imagination, the secret is to take time for reflection in between each and every repetition so […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (Op. Post.)

We’re delighted to announce a new Annotated Study Edition and Online Academy walk-through of Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, the work was not published until 1875. Two different versions of the score exist, with the Henle Urtext being the most commonly accepted. The Nocturne has an illustrious history. It was played by Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp for a Nazi concentration camp commandant, who was so impressed with her playing that he spared her life. It was also featured in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. The work is included in the ABRSM Grade 7 examination syllabus, and while one of Chopin’s more accessible pieces it still poses several challenges even for accomplished pianists. Our edition and walk-through feature detailed footnotes and practice worksheets designed to assist in tackling everything from balancing the opening chords, creating beautiful trills, shaping the left hand melodically and managing the fiorature in the coda. Annotated Study Edition The Annotated Study Edition is a downloadable, printable PDF featuring the following content: Introductory notes and Urtext score Annotated score with footnotes and QR codes linking to practice worksheets and online videos Four practice worksheets with detailed exercises and numerous video demonstrations focussing on specific areas of the work such as the opening chords, left hand accompaniment and the coda The study edition is available for purchase and download via our eBook store either as a stand-alone publication or as part of one of our bundles via the following links: Annotated Study Edition Annotated Study Edition bundle (includes four current Annotated Study Editions and ongoing updates) Practising the Piano & Study Edition bundle (includes all four volumes of Practising the Piano […]

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