The first time I met Hugh Masekela, we were hanging out in the kitchen of Francis Fuster – Paul Simon’s ‘Gracelands’ percussionist. Francis had just asked me to be his musical director for an up-coming tour of Ghana. Hugh and I found ourselves sitting together eating joloff rice and stew and I naively asked “are you a musician”? He very humbly explained that he was a trumpet player and he spoke about himself as if he were a rank-and-file member of the band, rather than the legend he turned out to be.
It was only later on when we played together that I realised just who it was! We played some warm-up dates in the UK and then Hugh flew out to play some dates with us in Ghana, after which he returned to SA. It was a real privilege to play with the man and we managed to hang out a few times in Accra and Kumasi.
Hugh was generally known as the father of South African jazz. He was briefly married to another South African legend, Miriam Makeba and they remained good friends throughout their lives. He was close friends with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk and also played with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. He was also one of many who passed though Fela Kuti’s large entourage of outstanding musicians.
I’m very happy & honoured to have trodden the red earth with him (and the boards, of course). RIP Hugh, you’re in very good company in that township in the sky!
Starting Piano Lessons
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:
Do you have TIME for piano lessons?
This may sound really obvious, but believe me, people don't ask themselves this question enough. Here are a few pointers to think about:
- 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. 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 you're paying in piano tuition fees, you'll need to dedicate a minimum 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, are practising scales & exercises, or working towards an exam, showcase, or recital. If you'd like to find out more about practising, read this article on effective piano practice.
- If you're able to schedule a programme based on the points above, you'll be able to see noticeable results in a short space of time and before you know it, you'll be building up a repertoire of piano music to impress your friends and colleagues. It's a great feeling of achievement to finish a piece and deliver it to a high standard in front of an appreciative audience!
Are you READY for piano lessons?
Before deciding to book piano lessons, it's a good idea to check if you have several things in place.
- Do you own an acoustic piano, digital piano, or have the budget to buy or rent one?
- Do you have a space away from distractions and noise where you can spend quality time practising the piano?
- Are you in a mentally and/or physically demanding job or study programme? It's worth asking yourself if you have enough energy left at the end of a long day for lessons AND practice sessions. Based on the times given, that's approximately 2.5 hours extra that you need to find per week.
- Consistency is the key to progress as with many things and to achieve noticeable results, you should be sure you can keep a regular practice schedule in addition to your other commitments.
- Following on from this, are you in an unpredictable job that will have you cancelling your piano lesson on a regular basis? Some of my keenest students have included a doctor, a head of marketing, a cabinet office employee, a record label boss and a travelling photographer who were all very committed to learning, but whose work was very demanding and continually required them to stay late or change schedules. Unfortunately something had to give and it was their piano lessons. So it's essential be honest and realistic with yourself about this side of learning the piano.
Hopefully these questions have made you sit up and think. With any luck I've pointed out some stuff you hadn't thought of, in which case, you're welcome! If you're waaaaaaay ahead of me, good for you!
Playing the piano is one of life's most satisfying achievements. There's nothing like expressing yourself in music and communicating one of the the deepest parts of the human experience to others. If you improvise, using the knowledge you already have, this is the purest, and most soul-fulfilling aspect of being a musician and I believe it is this unfettered freedom of expression that most attracts people to music and musicians.
So, if you're ready to go for it, follow this link to book your piano lessons
I 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!
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 practice in West London is dedicated to introducing students to material and techniques that’ll give them the absolute best grounding possible as musicians.
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?
Piano Tuition in Notting Hill | Piano Tuition in Knightsbridge | Piano Tuition in Kensington | Piano Tuition in Holland Park | Piano Tuition in Shepherds Bush | Piano Tuition in Maida Vale | Piano Tuition in Paddington | Piano Tuition in Royal Oak | Piano Tuition in Kensal Green | Piano Tuition in Kensal Rise | Piano Tuition in Harlesden | Piano Tuition in Willesden | Piano Tuition in Acton | Piano Tuition in Bayswater | Piano Tuition in Lancaster Gate | Piano Tuition in White City | Piano Tuition in North Kensington | Piano Tuition in Kilburn
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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…
Jazz Piano Lesson in Notting Hill | Jazz Piano Lesson in Knightsbridge | Jazz Piano Lesson in Kensington | Jazz Piano Lesson in Holland Park | Jazz Piano Lesson in Shepherds Bush | Jazz Piano Lesson in Maida Vale | Jazz Piano Lesson in Paddington | Jazz Piano Lesson in Royal Oak | Jazz Piano Lesson in Kensal Green | Jazz Piano Lesson in Kensal Rise | Jazz Piano Lesson in Harlesden | Jazz Piano Lesson in Willesden | Jazz Piano Lesson in Acton | Jazz Piano Lesson in Bayswater | Jazz Piano Lesson in Lancaster Gate | Jazz Piano Lesson in White City | Jazz Piano Lesson in North Kensington
[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?