Piano Lessons – Not The Same As Getting Your Nails Did.

Piano Lessons - Not The Same As Getting Your Nails Did

People who start piano lessons for the first time, or who resume after a break of many years often ask me for advice about what to expect. I usually respond by asking a few straightforward questions:

1. Do you have TIME for piano lessons?

This may sound really obvious, but believe me, people don't ask themselves this question enough. Taking piano lessons isn't like getting your nails did - you don't walk into the 'piano salon' and come out with your piano hands on after sitting in a chair gossiping for half an hour.

To see any noticeable results, piano lessons are a medium to long-term commitment, requiring more than just a 40 minute weekly session with your piano teacher. That's only a small part of it. To achieve the goals the two of you agree in your piano lesson, you'll need to set up a practice schedule to do the homework assigned by your piano  tutor. To progress in any significant way and justify the money spent on piano tuition fees, you'll want to dedicate a certain number of practice sessions in between, to make sure you're prepared for the next lesson.

I personally recommend no less than 3 half-hour practice sessions per week. Increase that exponentially if you have more than one piece or are practising scales & exercises towards an exam or showcase/recital. If you'd like to find out more about practising, read this article on effective piano practice.

2. Are you READY for piano lessons?

Being ready is a mental state. It requires not only preparation, but in the case of learning the piano, a general state of receptiveness. 

The Taubman technique for pianists

piano-lessons-postureI recently experienced difficulties with my thumbs during a concentrated spell of practise. As a result, I started to do some research on playing technique, to find out if perhaps I’d developed any bad habits. Dorothy Taubman, the creator of this discipline, developed the therapeutic approach during her lifetime, dedicated to helping people with bad injuries and conditions caused by bad technique or other incorrect habits.

I came across a collection of helpful instructional videos for pianists on You Tube by Edna Golansky, in which she goes into some detail on the approach and focuses in on some very specific examples. I recommend watching at least some of these, whether you’re experiencing problems or not, as there’s a wealth of information here.

Luckily, or perhaps not so much, my thumb issue seems to be the onset of arthritis more than a bad playing technique, however I’m currently looking at ways to improve my hand and arm work based on the ideas put forward by Taubman practitioners and plan to book myself a Skype session or two in the future (there are currently no UK practitioners).

I’d be very interested to hear from any students who have attended classes or seminars on the Taubman technique, to hear your experiences and opinions, so please contact me if you’d like to get into a discussion – or hit the comment box below.

Happy and comfortable playing!

9 Essential Tips For Smart Piano Practice

9 Essential Tips For Smart Piano Practice

Sidney Harrison, author of The Young Person’s Guide To Playing The Piano, once asked an infant prodigy “how much do you practice?” The answer came back, “as much as I need”. An admirable sentiment, but while piano professionals can spend as long as it takes to get a piece up scratch, some of us don’t have endless hours in the day to practice, so how can we make the most out of the limited time we have to spend?

1. Schedule your piano practice

It may sound a bit obvious, but it’s important whenever possible to schedule regular slots for piano practice. Randomly fitting practice sessions around your other daily activities won’t always work, especially when time is in short supply. Having a regular time that you know is dedicated to piano practice will help you focus on the work in hand and it will also become known by your family, flatmates etc not to make demands on you at this special time. Many people find the morning to be the best time, as the mind and body are fresh, but if this isn’t possible, choose a time when you’re not absolutely exhausted from a long day, or when the brain & fingers aren’t being slowed down by after-work drinks!

2. Planning practice sessions

Many musicians like to write a plan for their practice sessions. It certainly helps to identify goals and have a series of practice routines to help you reach them. If writing lists helps to do this better for you, then it might be a good idea, right? You could even tick off each task as it’s completed, increasing your feeling of satisfaction as the list is worked through.

3. Mental preparation

Even 10 minutes of fully concentrated practicing is better than hours of twiddling about aimlessly on the keyboard. Again the key word here is ‘focus’. Once you’ve planned your goals for this practice session, switch off the phone, TV, radio etc, maybe close the door or make sure that the space you’re in is otherwise clear of distractions, then give full attention to your practice. Avoid ‘mechanical practicing’ – repetition of the same material in exactly the same way without paying full attention, changing things that don’t work, or not even noticing if you’re reaching your goals or not.

4. Warming up and other physical aspects of piano practice

There is some thought that using yoga or sports related stretching exercises prior to piano practice is beneficial. I’ve even read that dipping the forearms in warm water will help to literally ‘warm up’ the arms. Others use the term simply to mean finger exercises such as scales and arpeggios leading up to the main practice session. My own take is that it’s no bad thing to prepare your body for intensive muscular work, paying further attention during your session to maintaining good posture, relaxation of the shoulders, good breathing, correct arm and hand placement etc. Although I have no affiliation to the author of it, I’ve found this video containing exercises for piano players quite informative. I personally also perform some specialised light strengthening exercises with 1kg and 2kg weights regularly at the gym, which I shall make the subject of another post.

5. One at a time please!

Now we’re down to the nitty gritty and actually working through our practice session, it’s good to approach the task methodically. Flitting indecisively from your Keith Jarrett transcription to your Chopin will only end up in neither piece receiving the attention it deserves. Much better to decide on a short passage from one of the pieces for that day and work on that portion slowly until it’s completed. If your practice list includes some scales, Hanon exercises AND the Jarrett, then include these if you’ve got the time.

6. Accuracy over speed

Yes of COURSE you want to learn the piece as quickly as possible, but even if you can KIND OF play it all the way through with just a couple of stops (to get the fingering right, or to tackle that tricky passage), it’s going to save you time in the long run to just concentrate on a short section and really nail it. Why not start with the most difficult sections first? Run each one slowly and deliberately and don’t move on until you’ve got it. Sometimes I choose just a bar, or even a fraction of a bar to work on (sometimes even one note), so don’t feel that it’s wrong to work in small sections. Play slightly over the beginning & ends of each section, so you can practice joining it up with the rest of the piece.

7. Mistakes are never ‘OK’

While I allow the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ during improvisation practice (although arguably in this context there is no such thing), when preparing a pre-written piece for performance, it’s never cool to just ‘let things slide’. By practicing mistakes into your piece, you’re setting up a long hard task for yourself later on when they need to be ironed out. They also create uncertainty, which it is your job to get rid of as part of your practice routine. Remember, by playing slowly and accurately, focusing hard on the passage, you’ll build a strong foundation that will be hard to shake, even when you’re nervous during a live performance.

8. Keeping a record/practice diary

Recording your sessions is always a good idea. I use a dictation app on my iPhone, which I can then load into iTunes at the end of my practice to listen to myself. It’s surprising how some important stuff can slip past our radar, even if we’re concentrating hard. By recording practice sessions, you can monitor your progress and be more aware of the work that still needs doing. Some people keep a diary with strict times allocated for each part of the practice session, the idea being that sticking to this schedule can help you to focus harder on each section.

9. Mental practice

I’ve lost count of the number of times I mentally run a difficult passage I’m wrestling with while sitting on the bus, or going about one of the mundane chores of the day. When I’ve come back to that passage next day, it’s as if there had been a whole other practice session that I didn’t know about – everything seems to come much more easily to me and very often this process has completely solved the problem! It’s totally possible to practice even when you’re not in front of the piano, once you’ve worked out your solutions to difficult passages, you can run the process through in your mind.

Gyorgy Sandor in his excellent book ‘On Piano Playing‘ likens a piano performance to the tip of an iceberg and the practice leading up to it as the “immense and invisible bulk” of the iceberg underneath the surface. There’s nothing quite so satisfying (well, not much anyway) as finishing a piece and performing it to an enthusiastic audience. Practicing is a real craft, working to minimise effort, maximise efficiency and digging deep inside for inspiration to produce the best performance. Hopefully you’ve picked up some useful tips from this article, do feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’ve got on.

Piano Tuition West London

Piano Tuition West London

“Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there” Bruce Lee

I firmly believe in combining the contemporary side of piano teaching with the traditional side of music education, as I personally feel that lack of attention to either side leads to incomplete development as a musician. My piano tuition practise in West London is dedicated to introducing students to material and techniques that’ll give them the absolute best possible grounding as musicians.

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Studying ABRSM (Associated Board Of The Royal Schools of Music) material is a crucial background for musicians who want to move around freely in an industry that in our present day frequently blurs the lines between classical and more popular styles. Additionally, the ability to improvise and reproduce a piece of music aurally (for the purposes of learning) must be cultivated in every performer in order to express their deepest musical character.

My lessons look at both sides of the coin, using popular contemporary pieces to achieve the kind of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic dexterity not available from the more traditional repertoire. A significant time is also given over to study of the jazz repertoire and work with chart-reading (‘real book’) and improvising. But for a student to stand a chance of reaching the level of dexterity such as Oscar Peterson or other performers of his level, the serious piano student needs to also include pieces such as Hanon and JS Bach (also Oscar P himself) and other composers who really hone in on finger work, exercising the hand in unique ways that are of invaluable help to those aiming at becoming master pianists.

If this hybrid approach is one that appeals to you, why not arrange a no-obligation informal chat to discuss your aims, experience, likes and dislikes?

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Teaching improvisation – is it a dying art?

I had an enquiry recently from a potential student who wants to learn improvisation, she wanted to ‘prepare an improvised piece’! I chuckled as I explained how these two terms contradict each other, though I added that I could prepare HER for improvising the piece.

It’s now the 21st century, yet too many music teachers are missing out this hugely important part of students’ musical development. Improvisation has somehow been lost in the modern ‘classical’ curriculum. It wasn’t always like this – notable composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Liszt etc were known for their great skill at improvisation at the piano.

So how have some classical teachers stopped developing this art? As a session musician in studios and on stages around the world, I know that one of the most important skills one can have is improvising. Many notable performances on contemporary jazz and pop albums are entirely improvised and it is this skill that often marks out musicians as ‘first call’ players. Of course technical dexterity is important, but practically anyone can acquire this.

Improvised music could be said to be the pure musical spirit of the individual – it is this side of musicality imho that takes the most significant effort and deepest understanding to achieve and it is this that truly makes someone a musician of great worth.

If you would like to talk to me about improvisation and how it is structured into my lessons, please feel free to contact me.

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The Essentials Of Jazz Improvisation Part 2: Practicing Scales

This is part 2 of a series of articles about jazz improvisation. It focuses on scales and repetitive exercises, which is a helpful habit to develop as part of a regular practice routine. I often start my piano practice with these because it loosens up my hands and gets me familiar with the keyboard very fast, before moving onto my main practice session. Of course everyone approaches practice sessions differently, so it’s by no means the only method.


All tonal music is based on scales of one kind or another. These are the building blocks of a high percentage of all western music and knowing them inside out is a major step in gaining freedom on any instrument. As well as the more usual major & minor scales studied for the more traditional exams, jazz adopts Greek modal scales (which I won’t go into here), other scales from around the world like the pentatonic and blues scales and many more besides.

I also create exercises based on sections from famous solos I’ve studied, which are often a combination of scales and arpeggios. These open up my practice sessions and give them an authentic ‘jazzy’ feeling, whilst boosting my dexterity and helping to develop my own style. I might post some of these up in the future.

One of the ultimate aims with practicing scales and arpeggios is knowing them so well that they become subconscious – you no longer have to think about them. For jazz this is especially true, as the basis of a great deal of improvisation is scales and arpeggios.

Physical Preparation:

One writer on the subject invites us to start by simply placing our hands on the piano and spending 5 minutes just relaxing, hands not necessarily on any notes, but resting on the keyboard purely to get comfortable at the instrument. I rather like this idea, though often don’t follow the suggestion if I’m in a rush!

It’s a good idea to use a metronome or drum loop to practice with. This helps to identify difficult areas (when you pause, suddenly you’re out of time) and gauges how well you’re doing with a particular exercise. Fast speeds are not essential, but a regular and accurate pulse helps enormously to develop a good sense of timing – an essential element of good jazz playing.

Additionally, I like to go one step further and tape all my practice sessions, because hearing myself back gives me a much more accurate idea of how well I’m doing and how much more work is needed. I often use a midi piano (weighted keyboard) which makes this easier by recording into Logic, although I also have microphones and a headphone set permanently placed in my acoustic piano booth.

Practice Sessions:

I often start with scales & arpeggios (to get the dry stuff over with first), spending longer on problem passages or difficult fingering. A popular method of varying these is to play them in semibreves (whole), minims (half), crotchets (quarter), quavers (eighth) and semiquavers (sixteenth notes). Often if I’m working with a brisk metronome and can’t quite make the jump from quavers to semi’s, I’ll do triplet quavers, which is half-way in between. If you REALLY want to challenge yourself you can try duple against triple notes, which is great for independence and can be good fun!

Once a player has worked through the basic introductory scales and exercises, they should ideally be performed in 4 octaves minimum, in every key. Feel free to invent variations and/or more complex or ‘jazzy’ versions as you get more used to it. This will help to keep you challenged, interested and will help to push your boundaries in the same way that increasing weights helps with gym work-outs.

Speaking of workouts, I find it very important to be aware of my breathing when practicing – in fact, it feels natural to me to ALWAYS be aware of this, even during performances. With scales I’ll regulate it by timing it with the notes, for example breathe in for one octave, out for the next, or as you get faster, breathe in for going up the scale & out for coming down.

Now we’re ready to play some real music! Watch out for the next part….

Top Tips for a Career In Music.

An old school friend recently asked me for my thoughts about her son studying for a career in music in 2013. This is a series of blogs based on what I wrote to her….

How do I stand out in the crowd?

EVERY young person I know wants to be in a band. We know this because now every other TV advert is aimed at budding ‘musicians’. Empires are being built on the hopes of these young people, who have been promised a short cut to stardom. As a result, everyone now wants to be noticed, whether they merit it or not – resulting in a massive amount of content now on sites like You Tube, Facebook etc.

Yet some genuine talent is still out there if we care to look hard enough. The key to being noticed in a world overflowing with content is having something unique and of great quality to offer, so that you’ll get noticed when that rare opportunity arises. How is it possible to achieve this?

I believe this: only by giving ourselves every opportunity to learn all we can about our chosen field/instrument, will we be able to compete with the hoards of others who are all striving for the same thing. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon once said. For this reason I’m an advocate of higher education, because it gives us more CHOICES.

Qualifications vs Experience

Now it’s true that many of my successful colleagues in the business don’t have a degree or performance diploma. What I would add is that they are now very limited for choices, because now we’re all older and the business has changed, there’s very little work of the kind they prepared themselves for and a great many players are all vying for it. More every year, as each music college and ‘tech’ in the country empties out a fresh batch of talented, young, enthusiastic and ambitious players.

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to fall back on the education I had at music college, renewing my acquaintance with orchestration, composition etc, as well as using the essential skills I’ve picked up running a commercial recording studio for 20 years, all adding up to an extra string to my bow in TV and production music. This has been a life-saver during the down-turn in sessions and has substantially supplemented my income, to the extent that I now wish to explore this avenue further. Educating myself continually throughout my career (learning from friends & colleagues at work, reading trade mags, visiting forums etc, it doesn’t always mean obtaining written qualifications) has given me choices and an edge over my competitors. And it’s fun and keeps me excited about my work!

Whatever your passion and talent (trying to be realistic about whether you passion IS in fact, your talent), immerse yourself in it to become the absolute best you can be, whether that means a degree, masters or just pure hard work and experience (many successful producers started as tea boys in major recording studios – although those positions are very rare now).Taking advice from professionals in the business can often help, but ultimately you are the one who has to make the decision and live with it.

Remember, there is NO short route to the top. Having the ‘X Factor’ is actually all about having the staying power, the focus, the consistency and the willingness to work as hard and as long as it takes to reach our goals.




Jazz Piano Lesson from one of the world’s greatest masters

One of my all-time piano heroes, Oscar Peterson gives us this amazing jazz piano lesson.

…and here’s a heart-warming documentary on the man’s life & work…

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Wabi-Sabi in Piano « The Go Play Project by Catherine Shefski

[Taken from a Piano Playing site I’ve just discovered run by Catherine Shefski, I’m very attracted towards her approach and wanted to share her thoughts here on my site. The documentary’s a good watch, too!]

Wabi-Sabi in Piano

A SoundCloud friend, Peter Vorländer, (cis minor) introduced me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi the other day. He gave me just enough information to send me searching the web reading everything I could find on this topic. Here is his wonderful explanation….

Short about Wabi-Sabi: its a concept that values imperfection. For example many things become more beautiful when they become older, think of a piece of wood or the patina of a metal tea can. Thats Wabi-Sabi. There is a very compelling story of Ryuki, a famous japanese person. When he was young he decided that he wants to follow the path of learning to master the tea zeremony. He went to an old master and applied. The master told him: “I want to see if you are the right person to learn this. So hear you see my garden, its pretty disordered, please clean it up”. So for the full day young Ryuki was working in the garden and cleaning up everything with perfection, always secretly observed by the old master. At the evening he was finished. Everything was tidy. Ryuki stepped back and looked to the clean garden. But he had the impression, that something is wrong. He went to a cherry blossom tree, shaked it a little and three little cherry blossom leaves fall down on the cleaned path. Thereafter he was pleased. The old master who had observed this knew, that Ryuki will become great master of Wabi Sabi… And actually he became. So this is Wabi-Sabi … three little cherry blossom leaves on a cleaned pathway. Considered as imperfection with a western point of view, considered as highest perfection in Japanese culture of Wabi-Sabi. And I think the same applies for music…we need to strive for Wabi-Sabi, not for cold technical perfection. Once you start viewing the world with the eyes of Wabi-Sabi you will discover beauty almost everywhere … and so much pleasure comes from this!

In addition to getting back to the piano, another of my ongoing goals has been to de-clutter and lead a more Minimalist Lifestyle. As I look around my house and choose what will stay and what will go, I’m drawn to three or four possessions – an old blanket chest I purchased for $35 which was refinished by my father, my cracked majolica plates, a large yellow vase with hand-painted flowers, and a little green paint-splattered work table from my grandfather. These are the  pieces that have followed me from house to house, city to city, over the years. I can’t bring myself to put them out for a yard sale or donate them to charity yet.  These represent Wabi-Sabi to me. Imperfect. Natural. And a little sad.

I took time over the past few days to watch Marcel Theroux’s documentary “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” and I’ve learned that Wabi-Sabi can be summed up in three sentences. Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished.

Perhaps this “Go Play Project” has a touch of “Wabi-Sabi.” After all, the performances are not perfect, the recording process is as simple and as natural as it can get, and the pieces are all WIP’s (works in progress). They will never be complete as long as I find more to listen to and more subtleties to refine.

Could it also be that the pieces themselves summon the spirit of Wabi-Sabi and that is what makes a piece like Chopin’s Nocturne in c# minor speak to so many – musicians and non-musicians alike? The Rachmaninoff Etude Op 33 no 2 is a piece I’ve worked on only in the winter. Does that particular piece evoke  sense of the impending “death” that comes in winter? Are we drawn to certain composers and pieces in the same way we’re drawn to certain comfort foods, pieces of furniture and art, and nature settings?

Wabi-Sabi in Piano « The Go Play Project.

Piano Lessons

Who will replace the all-time greats? A West London Piano Teacher asks….

Piano LessonsAs another tragic loss was reported recently from the highest echelons of the recording industry, I started thinking – who is going to replace the Whitneys or the MJ’s of my generation? Being a Piano Teacher based in West London, I’m involved with music education in the UK and am concerned about our current standards and methods. I believe the US has a lot to teach us about levels of performance within the pop industry and a general approach within pop genres to playing instruments and general musicianship.

So who is up to the task of taking the baton being passed down by artists of this calibre? While TV ‘talent’ shows purport to showcase new undiscovered artists, more often than not they are lowest-common-denominator shows designed by reality-TV hacks, and as such they focus much more on the cringe factor, than on a genuine search for exemplary performance and showmanship. More like a public hanging than a celebration of achievement!

And given that major record labels no longer develop acts – relegating any of the ‘lucky’ ones quickly to the rubbish heap if their first quarter’s figures fail to match up to predictions, who is going to nurture and encourage the major artists of the future? Will there actually BE any?

What made Whitney and MJ stand head and shoulders above the rest? Who are the new young giants wowing us with their performances and songwriting, in the way these legends of pop did when they amazed us all back in the day? Who is your favourite new artist to claim the crown and what qualities do they have in common with past kings and queens of pop?