Melanie Spanswick To Launch New Series Of Courses At Finchcocks
Melanie Spanswick is a British pianist, teacher, author, adjudicator, presenter, and a popular music writer. We chat with Melanie about her brand new venture, directing weekend piano courses at the recently opened Finchcocks in Kent, and also get her top tips for budding pianists…
Remind us of your background/experience as a pianist
I started learning to play the piano at the late age of 10 years old. I was fortunate to have a teacher who offered a good grounding, and with whom I learned quickly. I then studied the piano at the Royal College of Music Junior Department from the age of fifteen, moving on to the senior department, graduating with a Master’s degree in Performance Studies. Whilst at the RCM, I was introduced to Russian pianist and professor, Tatiana Sarkissova, with whom I studied for a few years. She was pivotal in my career, and was an especially important influence on my teaching and the way I approach technique.
I played many concerts and recitals as a young pianist, both in the UK and aboard and particularly enjoyed giving concerts on cruise ships (I played a total of around 1000 recitals at sea). I’ve also examined for the ABRSM and frequently adjudicate at competitions and festivals, so fully understand the pressures of performing from all angles, and I relish helping pianists, whether amateur players or conservatoire graduates.
More recently, I have developed a career as a writer, mainly writing about learning to play the piano. At present, I am writing a course for returning pianists (Play it again: PIANO), published by Schott Music (Book 3 will be available at the end of the year), and I run a piano blog for anyone interested in improving their playing. Composing has become increasingly vital too; I began by writing educational piano pieces, some pieces of which are featured in Play it again, and there will be a new volume of 12 intermediate pieces entitled No Words Necessary published by Schott in October.
Fascinating! Tell us about the course you’ll be running at Finchcocks
My course will cover several important piano topics, all wrapped up in one weekend. It will begin with basic piano technique via a series of simple exercises, which can be done both at and away from the instrument. These may offer participants a different slant on piano technique, with a view to implementing such exercises in their regular practice routine.
Another class will feature memorisation. Whilst not everyone wants to play from memory (or without using the score), there are divergent elements associated with learning to memorise which can be extremely beneficial for many reasons. During this course, we will aim to memorise pieces or sections of a piece, at speed, looking at various ideas for quick assimilation.
Sight-reading is another vital component for good piano playing, simply because it aids swift learning. In my class, we will work through several tools which can benefit reading skills, with lists of ‘tips’ for home practice. On the last day, we will spotlight duets and trios – both great for honing sight-reading skills, and for instigating fun and merriment amongst the course members!
Participants are advised to bring a couple of pieces that they are currently learning (but these pieces don’t need to be performance ready), because there will be a chance for short private lessons during the weekend too, as well as master class sessions.
My recent publications, Play it again: PIANO Books 1 & 2 will be given as a gift to every course member, therefore there will be a brief presentation on these books, with some choice recordings of a selection of pieces within the books.
Is the course suitable for adults of all abilities?
The course is designed for those between Grade 4 – 7 standard (of the ABRSM exam board). But this doesn’t mean to say that those of a lower or higher level can’t come along. If a prospective course member feels that a course of a slightly higher or lower level than they are at present might provide an inspiring weekend, then they would be most welcome to join us.
What tips and techniques do you give to your students?
I can’t mention too much here, as I’ll be giving away my course content! However, when I run courses, I make sure that every member leaves with plenty of technical practice ideas, and I always provide hand-outs or ‘course notes’ too, as I believe this makes it easier for members to listen during classes as opposed to trying to write everything down. One other aspect which I feel is crucial on a course (as it is in piano lessons), is that every participant gets the chance to ‘try out’ practice tools at the keyboard. This is true whether it be technique, memorisation or sight-reading. It’s only in the act of doing that we really learn, and it’s also helpful to watch other course members learning; much can be gleaned from observation.
Tell us more about physical flexibility and why you think it’s important for pianists
The way we move around the keyboard is arguably the most important facet when playing the piano. Many will cite musicianship and interpretation as defining aspects when learning to play, but, in my opinion, if you can’t move with flexibility aiding and enabling a strong technique, you will be severely hampered as a pianist. Tension can cause real problems when playing the piano, and it usually rears its head when students haven’t yet developed the required skill set (or technique).
I spend a great deal of time in my classes and lessons working with students so that they release their tension and are then able to develop a relaxed, reliable technique. This literally means learning to relax or ‘free’ the whole arm, wrist and hand, whilst building firm fingers, supported by the knuckles. It sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? And it isn’t necessarily an easy element to learn either; it takes time and patience – both from student and teacher. But this is something that I really enjoy working on with pupils, and it’s very gratifying to witness their improvement. I also like to help those with physical issues such as tendonitis or repetitive strain injury; generally the same methods which are applied to building a secure technique, can work well for those who have issues with pain and discomfort too.