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Conservatoire Life, Wellbeing

Musician’s Injuries

Musicians’ are small muscle athletes, they need to warm up and cool down in the same way as Olympic athletes would.

After doing a poll over on my instagram (go give me a follow to see what I get up to @amypianist) a shocking 90% of people said that they have either experienced pain or have developed an injury while playing their instrument. The problem is, we don’t talk about this enough. It is often frowned upon to have an injury, we are told to play through pain and ignore it. I’m very lucky that the teachers I have had while studying at RWCMD have promoted staying physically and mentally healthy. However, this isn’t always the case.

As someone who couldn’t play without pain, and now only has the occasional flare up once every 3 or 4 months, I have made a short guide on how to find help.

1. Inform yourself
Do some research, a quick Google search can often help you to understand why you’re experiencing pain or what the different types of pain can mean. (Don’t take Google’s word as an official diagnosis, it’s just a search engine not a doctor).

2. Speak to a medical professional
Whether that is through the NHS, waiting lists will be longer, a private GP or BAPAM (British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) you need to speak to someone.

3. Decide what remedy/solution is right for you
There are too many for me to list, but you may be offered: hot/cold treatment, physio, Alexander Technique lessons, chiropractic treatment, sports massage, weight-training, steroid injections, surgery (risky but sometimes a last resort), etc.

4. Preventing further injury
So this could mean going for a weekly sports massage, or icing your wrists when you feel a niggle. Making sure that you warm up properly, especially away from your instrument! But most importantly, learn how to pay attention and listen to your body.

Remember: a lot of physical injuries are not purely physical, they are also caused by mental stress.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO CONSULT SOMEONE ON ANY PAIN BEFORE IT BECOMES MORE SERIOUS.

You are not alone, many musicians suffer from pain and it can be debilitating. I’ve compiled a list of the best websites (in my opinion) for help with any playing related problems:

BAPAM https://www.bapam.org.uk/
Help Musicians UK https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/

The Bulletproof Musician https://bulletproofmusician.com/
The Musician’s Way https://www.musiciansway.com/blog/2019/01/recovering-from-injury/
Musician’s Health https://www.musicianshealth.com/repetitive-injuries-continue-to-plague-musicians
Activate You (Alexander Technique) https://activateyou.com/

Melanie Spanswick https://musiceducation.global/tips-for-healthy-piano-playing/
https://melaniespanswick.com/
Penelope Roskell
https://peneloperoskell.co.uk/injury-prevention/
Piano Map
https://www.pianomap.com/injuries/develops.html
The Well Balanced Pianist
https://wellbalancedpianist.com/playing-related-injuries/

Conservatoire Life, Practise

Fixing mistakes – problem solving in practise

I have a confession to make, I have a bad habit that I’ve been trying to break for years. Practising in mistakes. I think this has to be the most common error musicians make when practising, I know this because there are so many chapters in books and articles dedicated to just this one topic. We convince ourselves that it’s okay to skip over the technically challenging bits because we’ll come back to them at a later date. The problem is, by then it’s too late. The mistakes have been made and practiced in, so fixing them becomes a laborious task that takes more time than if I hadn’t taken the ‘lazy’ approach.

I’ve mainly got out of this bad habit now, but every now and again I catch myself falling back into old habits. Ultimately, it comes down to how well I can concentrate during my practise. I’ve come up with a few ways to avoid this happening, by turning practise into a problem solving exercise. Once you see the results you’ll never go back to the way you were practising before. I’ll often find that a good 2 hour practise session that is focused on problem solving will be more beneficial than practising for 6 hours with no goal or purpose.

  • Begin by learning new pieces at a slow tempo, so slow that you can’t make any mistakes
  • Play hands separately,
    • this isn’t just reserved for beginners!
  • Look at your hand,
    • is the reason you’re slipping off the black keys because your hand is too far away?
    • is the bridge of your hand collapsed? could that by why scalic passages aren’t rhythmically even?
    • are you playing with flat fingers when they should be curved?
  • frequently check the position of your wrist and make sure it is aligned with your forearm and hand, but not rigid, the wrist needs to be soft
  • Use rhythmic variations (S=short L=long), the combinations are endless!
    • SSSL
    • LSSS
    • LSLS
    • SLSL
    • LLSS
    • SSLL
    • etc.
  • Accent different beats and fingers
    • e.g. accent finger 4 every time it is played,
    • e.g. accent beat 3 of every bar,
    • this is great for developing finger independence and muscle memory.
  • grouping notes together in beats to form a cluster chord
    • this helps the hand to recognise the position and remember it when you play the notes as written

These are just a few things that I find useful when practising, however there are lots of resources out there that offer great practise advice too!

Books to read

The Inner Game Of Music, Barry Green: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inner-Game-Music-Timothy-Gallwey/dp/1447291727/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+inner+game+of+music&qid=1589989918&sr=8-1

Practicing With Purpose, David Kish: https://www.amazon.co.uk/KISH-DAVID-PRACTICING-PURPOSE-BOOK/dp/1574634623/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=practicing+with+purpose&qid=1589989952&sr=8-1

Improve Your Piano Playing, Dr John Meffen: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Improve-Your-Piano-Playing-Meffen/dp/0716022079/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1F5L6KLNOD5SU&dchild=1&keywords=improve+your+piano+playing&qid=1589990009&sprefix=improve+your+piano+pl%2Caps%2C165&sr=8-1

The Art Of Practicing, Madeline Bruser: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Practicing-Madeline-Bruser/dp/0609801775/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+art+of+piano+practicing&qid=1589990041&sr=8-1

The Art Of Piano Playing, Heinrich Neuhaus: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Piano-Playing-Heinrich-Neuhaus/dp/1871082455/ref=sr_1_1?crid=218VPDD9CBPQE&dchild=1&keywords=the+art+of+piano+playing&qid=1589990075&sprefix=the+art+of+piano+piano%2Caps%2C168&sr=8-1

Conservatoire Life

Keyboard Forum – Week 1 Summary

Last week I received an email from the head of keyboard studies, Simon Phillippo, about a new weekly programme with an hour long discussion group called the ‘keyboard forum’ that he has devised for us throughout May. My friends and I highly anticipated the first email on Monday and when it arrived we were not disappointed. Each week will include: a piano recital, masterclass, artist of the week, a repertoire binge, an article or chapter of a book to read and finally the Keyboard Forum where various topics relating to piano will be discussed on Microsoft Teams.

So, what did this week include?

  • A recital given by Marc-André Hamelin
  • Two masterclasses on Debussy by Richard Goode
  • Artist of the week: Maria João Pires
  • Repertoire binge: Bartók piano concertos
  • An article on Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata
  • Keyboard Forum: Knowing Music

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dipping into bits of the programme this week, especially having an excuse to listen to more piano music! However, I want to specifically focus on the Keyboard Forum aspect of the programme this week. Our given topic, ‘what does it mean to know music?‘ created a great discussion from first year undergraduate through to second year postgraduate piano students.

We started the forum with a lovely story from Simon, who told us about one of his very first conducting lessons. We covered a range of topics, which was to be expected, so I’ve summarised them below:

Knowledge of music is a spectrum

We discussed what it really means to have knowledge of music. Which includes intellectual and analytical knowledge, general awareness and superficial knowledge.

It was noted that it is possible to play a piece without having much detailed knowledge, this would include sight-reading or when learning and playing through a new piece. More detailed knowledge would include harmonic analysis, understanding of structure, fully responding to dynamic and articulation markings, following performance directions, etc. We also came to the conclusion that amateur listeners would have more of a general awareness of music. For example, when listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony an amateur listener would be able to recognise the symphony from it’s themes, but wouldn’t be able to describe the symphony in musical terms.

Memorisation

Does memorising music mean we fully know everything there is to know about a piece we’re playing?

One of my friends described how she can memorise easily, but doesn’t feel like she really knows the music until she’s been playing and performing it from memory for a few months. This brought up the question, is it possible to memorise without fully analysing the score? Well in some ways yes, because if you play something enough times your fingers will remember where to play each note. But memorisation is much more than that, and is made up of different types of memory: visual memory, aural/auditory memory, kinaesthetic memory (muscle memory) and intellectual memory.

Personally, I find memorisation to be a laborious task. However, I tend to develop my interpretation and knowledge of a piece as a result of the way I memorise. It’s kind of like puzzle pieces that I’m putting together in my head!

I was delighted to hear Clara Schumann’s name mentioned when we were discussing memorisation as she really pioneered memorisation to become a tradition amongst pianists. Which then raised another question, does that mean that memorisation is the epitome of musical knowledge? In my opinion, I don’t think that it is, and unless you dedicate all of your practice time to memorising music, you won’t have enough time to work on other aspects of musicianship.

Recordings

This became the main topic of conversation in the forum this week. We discovered that there are two types of opinion when it comes to recordings: either you believe that recordings help to shape and influence your own interpretation and understanding of the music, or you feel that recordings can cloud your ability to create a true authentic interpretation.

One interesting point Simon made was that he can very clearly tell when a musician hasn’t listened to a recording of a piece they’re performing. This could be a result of traditional performance practices that have been developed over time that the audience expect to hear. If the performer hasn’t listened to recordings then these performance practices may not be considered. However, a similar thing could happen if a performer only listens to one recording.

We also discussed how picking recordings to listen to is similar to picking editions to play from. One pianist in the forum brought up a very interesting point: performances can be a pianist’s way of re-writing a piece through themselves.

Composer, performer and audience

The relationship between composer performer and the audience has changed drastically since the 19th Century. This could be largely to do with the development of recording quality and also the audience having easier access to scores and research. We also know that composers assume that the performer has a certain amount of understanding of their musical language before seeing the score.

Jazz vs Classical

Lastly we spoke about the difference between knowledge in jazz and classical genres. Jazz musicians transcribe recordings of great artists note by note, whereas in classical music if we were to copy a recording exactly it could be considered as a form of plagiarism for copying an interpretation.

We also discussed the difference between the level of detail required in a jazz performance versus a classical one. As a generalisation, jazz performance tends to be freer with focus on harmony, structure and form. Whereas classical performance tends to be more rigid in terms of performance direction and attention to detail of the score.

To end my summary of this week’s Keyboard Forum, I will leave you with the same question Simon left us: What is the minimum amount of knowledge we need to be respected, cultured musicians and then what do we do with that knowledge?

Keep making music and stay safe,
Amy.

Conservatoire Life, Mental Health, Practise

Covid-19: cancelled recitals

Cancelled concerts are something so many musicians across the world are having to deal with right now, so I wanted to spread some positivity and share my experience.

It’s beginning to hit home. The reality that I won’t be playing my end of year recital.

Earlier this week I got an email saying that all end of year recitals were cancelled due to Covid-19. Initially, I kept asking the questions:

Why? How could they? Don’t they understand that at a conservatoire this is all we work for? Is there not a way around this?

Of course the answer was no to all of the above.

After speaking to a few of my friends in the piano department I’ve come to understand that it isn’t actually the thought of not getting a mark that’s upsetting (although this does drive some people). It’s the fact that we won’t get any closure on the pieces we’ve been working on for months.

For those of you who are non-musicians, imagine if this was your partner. You’ve been spending between 3-6 hours or more with that person per-day. Even when you’re not with them you can hear their voice on repeat in your head, you’re listening to them speak on the phone. You’re getting to know every single little detail about them. Now imagine that this person suddenly disappears from your life.

Luckily we haven’t lost the pieces themselves, we’ve just lost an opportunity to share our hard work. We are extremely lucky because these pieces we’ve been working on for months are immortal on paper, in recordings and at our fingertips. The only problem is how do we practice now that there is no reason to? I’m sure many music students are asking themselves the question – what am I supposed to do now?

Some positivity

I may not be performing these pieces anymore but there is nothing stopping me from continuing to practice them. I’ve got a really great practice diary (linked down below) that helps me to organise what I’m practising and give myself a daily routine. Like most people, I don’t cope well with a change in routine, so this helps me to keep feeling productive.

I can still continue to work on my technique. Its a great opportunity to explore new repertoire and find things to sight-read (even though all of my sheet music is still in Cardiff) thanks to IMSLP, nkoda and old copies of Pianist Magazine. But most importantly, I can play for fun, something I don’t always get chance to do.

Just remember that there are lots of fun things to do while in social isolation – I’ve signed up to do a 24 hour Pianoathon for patients at The Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disability! I’ve also been getting up to some DIY around the home, reading (something that I’ve always loved to do but haven’t had the chance to lately), baking and cross-stitch. But its also okay to not want to play for a while if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate or find the motivation with the current situation going on.

Keep at home and stay positive!
Amy

Links

IMSLP: https://imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page

nkoda: https://www.nkoda.com/

Pianist Magazine: https://www.pianistmagazine.com/

Pianoathon for The Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disability: https://www.facebook.com/rhnpianothon

Practice Diary: https://liquidrum.com/pages/the-practice-journal

Conservatoire Life, Practise

Technical assessments – why only once a year?

This January I had my last ever technical assessment, its crazy to think that two years ago I had my first one! I failed my first technical assessment, not because I didn’t try, but because I really struggled to play scales and arpeggios fluently. I passed on my second attempt two weeks later.

I really enjoyed preparing for my technical assessment this year, mainly because we had complete freedom over what areas of our technique we could develop.

“You will prepare a Portfolio of 4-6 studies or exercises, compiled with the assistance and advice of your teacher, and designed to advance specific areas of technique relevant to your current individual needs. In the exam you will be asked to perform a selection of these studies, to discuss them in terms of technique, and to explain the rationale behind your portfolio selection (i.e. its value to you as a means of rigorous practice and technical development).”

I found the whole process of analysing which bits of my technique I needed to develop on really interesting. My teacher and I spent a lot of time talking about which exercises would suit me best. We decided on two Hanon studies No.27 and No.28 from part II of The Virtuoso Pianist, and used Pianoforte Technique On An Hour a Day by Geoffrey Tankard and Eric Harrison – this book was actually introduced to me by Allan Schiller when I was 15/16 but I didn’t really know what to do with it then!
I worked my way through the different sections in Tankard’s book selecting exercises that would work on thumb flexibility and movement, arpeggios, strengthening of the weaker fingers, trills, octaves and repeated notes.

My favourite exercise was No.3 from the arpeggio section; it taught me a lot about thumb movement, forearm and wrist rotation and keeping the wrists soft.

Arpeggios – No.3 from An Hour a Day

My love of technical exercises and fascination with developing technique definitely came from my time studying with Melanie Spanswick. I’m always working out ways I can develop my technique and improve, which is why I’ve continued to use these exercises after taking the assessment. I know there are some musicians who see the yearly technical assessment as a one time thing that they have to pass, so they start practising scales/exercises over the Christmas holiday ready for the assessment in January. That may be the only time they actively practice their technique outside of their main repertoire each year.

I think it’s really important to keep technical work bubbling away – it doesn’t need to be a chore if you can see and feel improvement! Make up your own technical exercises, get inventive to make it more interesting. If you get bored then you won’t make improvement. If you find yourself drilling out Hanon for the sake of it and not actually knowing what the purpose is, then ask yourself why you have chosen that exercise and what it’s actually doing to help. If the answer is I don’t know then put the exercise away and pick something else that is more focused on what you need to develop.
Your routine doesn’t need to start out very complicated, maybe pick one exercise to learn a week and build up from there. It’s better to start a routine than not have one at all.

My technique is still a work-in-progress but I can see how I’ve developed over the last two years: I can now play scales much more fluently than I ever have been able to, my arpeggios are still improving and my fingers are becoming stronger and more independent – finally starting to obey me more!

Happy practising,
Amy

Where to buy

Tankard’s An Hour a Day – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pianoforte-Technique-Hour-Geoffrey-Tankard/dp/0853603634

Hanon The Virtuoso Pianist – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Virtuoso-Pianist-Sixty-Exercises/dp/0793525446

Conservatoire Life, Practise

Covid-19 – Practise Experimentation

RWCMD made the decision to shut this week due to Covid-19. It’s hard not knowing when college will reopen, whether summer recitals will still be taking place etc. This is a very tough time for those who have contracted the virus. It is also a difficult time for my fellow musicians and artists that are self employed and have zero hours contracts (myself included).

I’ve decided to put a positive spin on the situation and take this time away from society (something pianists are used to anyway) as an opportunity to experiment with how I practice. I’m very lucky to have a lovely Yamaha U3 in my family home to keep me company.

Target points practise

No, I’m not literally using my piano as target practise. This type of practise I call target practise because it focuses only on the specific bits that are challenging. The way to do this is to take some sticky notes and sit with your score away from the piano. Find the passages/bars you find yourself stumbling over and stick a sticky note on them, giving each one a number.

Numbered sticky notes on the challenging bits of my Beethoven sonata.

By numbering the sticky notes you can keep a record of which bits you’ve practised and which bits you’ve neglected. I also find it useful to make a chart to tick off which bits I’ve practised.

An example of a chart you can create in Word. Along the top is the date, and down the left side is the numbers of the target points.

This experimentation was inspired by Claire Tueller’s TEDx talk ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect’. I tried to use her system called ‘skill spots’ but I found it too challenging to count each time I repeated a bar/passage. So instead I adapted her way of labelling music with sticky notes and turned it into my own system. I probably won’t continue to use the chart bit of the system, but I can still use the numbering system in my practise journal.

Link to Claire’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2DnMGnAGNs

Happy practising,
Amy

Conservatoire Life, Wellbeing

Stretch of the week – hand wrist and forearm twist

Most people who know me know how much I love yoga. I only started exploring yoga after attending a day course on Piano Yoga led by Evegnia Chudinovich at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London back in 2017. I got her book (linked below) after the session and started to work my way through the exercises, its mainly aimed at pianists with smaller hands but can be used by anyone who wants to develop finger dexterity and flexibility.
I completely forgot about this book and yoga when I was in my first year at RWCMD. However, last year I rediscovered yoga and decided to attend a session provided by our Students Union after experiencing tightness coming back in my forearms, an ongoing problem for me and many other pianists I know.
I can honestly say that yoga has changed the way I think about using my body at the piano. I often use yoga stretches to warm up and cool down in my practice sessions which is invaluable when practising or playing for 4-6 hours a day. It keeps the body and mind refreshed which is great for your general wellbeing.


Each week I’d like to share some of the stretches I find most helpful, only do what you are most comfortable with and most importantly enjoy!

Hand wrist and forearm twist

  1. Start by having your arms facing down
  2. Cross your right arm over your left, palms facing together
  3. Link your fingers together
  4. Pull your hands in toward your chest and bring them up
  5. Gently pull down using your wrists, this may take some practice if you are particularly tight
  6. Repeat with the left arm over the right

You should feel a stretch along the top of your wrist, down your index finger and through your forearm. It’s important to keep this stretch nice and gentle because you’re stretching the small intrinsic muscles in the hand.

Make sure that you breathe steadily during any stretch you do as it helps the muscles to relax even further.

Piano Yoga – https://www.piano-yoga.com/whatsinsidepianoyogabook

Happy stretching!
Amy

Mental Health

Musicians are emotional

I want to start opening up the conversation of mental health in music. It seems to be ‘normal’ to generalise that musicians, or any form of artist, are overly emotional. I have come to realise that those working or studying in the arts tend to be more emotional because of the pressure we put on ourselves, the pressure from colleagues and teachers, and how we use music to express ourselves.

The more I think about it, the more disturbing it is to look at the state of mental health in music. Take a standard day at college for example, I can’t go a day without seeing someone crying. Sullen faces forcing themselves to practice, for what? Self-gratification? To please our teachers? To try and be perfect? The reality is, we aren’t perfect and we never will be. Most of us will never be top soloists or be able to sustain a career solely performing.

I think its time to change. We need to be as healthy as possible to sustain the physical and mental strains that face us each day. How can we do that? Well I am going to make it my mission to use this blog to share different ways of keeping healthy (I am not perfect by any means), how to manage time more effectively (especially when it comes to practice) and also how to enjoy life a little bit more.

Keep smiling,
Amy

Uncategorized

The Music Student’s Depression

Lately I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends have been posting on social media about how difficult they are finding it to practise. I know I have previously written a blog about finding motivation during the pandemic, however, it seems to be getting to the point now where we can’t keep sugar coating the reality of the situation.

Normally, I would be drawing my inspiration from other musicians, watching student-lead concerts and performing in some amazing projects. But instead, I’m at home where the reality is I can’t practise as much as I would like to. I know that this is the case for most of my friends.

Why are musicians feeling so down?

Musicians often take inspiration for interpretation from others; from the friendships and relationships that we have, the conversations, the minute details in our daily lives, the routines we have. However, during lockdown these things have been taken away from us, all we have is social media and various platforms for watching concerts and listening to digital recordings. So surely if this is the case, shouldn’t we be taking inspiration from the current situation of the world and using it to express our suppression? At the beginning of lockdown there was so much hope, we were all so positive about the potential outcomes. But now it seems like we’re studying without having any clear idea on what the future of the music industry will be.

To make matters worse, there seems to be an unintentional amount of pressure coming from teachers urging us to use this time to it’s fullest potential. But realistically how can we? If anything a global pandemic is the last thing I would expect to find creativity and motivation in. Yet something seems to be causing a block for myself and other musicians, it’s a bit like writers block.

What we really need is a safe space to allow ourselves to be creative, which is why many students choose to study at a conservatoire. We have the luxury of dedicating all our time to studying and practising, We are a family, RWCMD nurtures talent and allows it to flourish. To have that suddenly taken away, the buildings and the face to face teaching, makes it extremely difficult to replicate that same feeling wherever the students have gone home to. When we are at home life seems to get in the way a bit more.

We should be trying to create a safe space for ourselves to develop musically, I don’t think we should be trying to replicate what we have at college. Realistically, we can’t replicate the environment we have at college because it is almost unexplainable, being surrounded by likeminded creatives all of the time. Instead, I think it would be good to assess what we have, and make the most out of our situation.
We shouldn’t be pressurising ourselves into practising for X amount of hours, this will create negative feelings about practising and there will be less improvement. So if you only manage to practise 30 minutes, but those 30 minutes are really focussed and intentional, then you’ve done a great job.

Mental Health Mondays

Mental wellbeing at music college

I don’t think I’ve met a musician yet that hasn’t struggled with their mental health at some point during their lives. I’ve certainly struggled with mine for a long time, the funny thing is I always thought I was alone or just weird. Turns its much more common than I thought.

So how do we deal with mental health conditions at music college?

Talking is the most important thing, just look at what talking has done to break the stigma for Anxiety disorders and Depression. Creating a safe space for you and your friends to openly talk about your mental health is really important.

Here are some examples of ways to switch off from the college buzz:

  • going for a walk in the park (exercise bonus, releases those endorphins too!)
  • doing something creative like drawing, colouring, painting or in my case cross-stitch
  • going for coffee with your friends
  • taking time out to be completely quiet for 2-3 minutes each day – listen to your breath and your heartbeat
  • meditation – I use Headspace – you actually get it free with your student Spotify Premium account
  • any form of exercise, it doesn’t have to be a full body workout at the gym, preferably something that is cardio based
  • read a book/magazine/article/blog
  • listen to music that is completely unrelated to what you’re currently learning
  • go for a brisk walk on the beach or just sit and listen to the sound of the waves

Pre-existing mental health conditions can cause added stress at music college, as I have discovered. I’ve found I’m always having to explain myself to others, even my friends – luckily my close friends know when I’m not doing well. Sometimes you won’t be able to perform/practice/work your best and you are at the mercy of your own mind. It’s even worse when you’re self-aware and can see your mental health having an impact on your studies.
By making small steps each day it becomes easier and more manageable to look after your mental health, so why not pick a few of these things to do every day for a week and see how you feel at the end. If you feel even a little more refreshed and relaxed then you’re already making progress.

Keep smiling,
Amy