Monday, 29 October 2012

Thanks a bunch

Here is a lovely review of an album by our band Frost at Midnight. It can be found on the marvellous Celtic Music Fan blog here The album is available at Mine is the lowest price. Beautiful and uplifting, Frost at Midnight crafted an album that is determined to encourage repeated listens. Even the album artwork encourages a smile with its illustration of golden birthday cake framed in blue. The album title is Happy Birthday. Opening the cardboard case introduces me to a back cover picture of band members slicing that cake. There are references to Keats, Jacques Humbert, Jack Sinclair, Julian of Norwich and TS Eliot. I can tell that songwriter Rob Atkins is somewhat into academic themes. This album is also traditionally influenced with classical frills. As for the vocals, Catherine Atkins and Johnny Quick both deliver superb singing styles. Catherine has pure soprano voice which is comparable to Judy Collins and fellow Welsh singer Mary Hopkins. Johnny has a faint folk roughness underneath the Broadway smooth voice. A kind of high plucky sound is heard all over the album courtesy of Rob Atkin’s mandolin. The airy sounds of keyboards, bass and guitars almost slide into the border of indie folk and is only hold on a balance by the flute of Catherine Handley. The harmonica of John Tribe reinforces the band’s folk influence. Happy Birthday opens with the lively A Birthday. It has a kind of 70’s vibes. The signing here reminds me a bit of Sally Oldfield and Maggie Reilly. Deep Open Chord follows with its heartfelt lyrics and pastoral melodies. Surprise by Joy opens with “Surprise by joy impatient as the wind I turn to share, I turn to share the rapture..” I am touched with the poetic elegance of this track. I love the mandolin playing in The Egg Timer. It’s one of those instrumental tracks that should be given more exposure for its delicate and atmospheric beauty. Writ in Water has a renaissance kind of sound while All Shall Be Well reminds me of those Irish ballads performed by the Dubliners and Planxty. Love’s a Mystery is filled with magical bells which grow on you after repeated listens. Why Should I Care strikes me as something the late Sandy Denny would sing. At the same time the Jazz melodic flavor makes it a perfect lounge track. Mercy Paves the Way burrows its melody from the Scottish song Ae Fond Kiss. The voice of Catherine Atkins soars like an angel. Tambourine is a track that introduced me to the band after hearing it online. This is definitive Welsh trad style.The tambourine sounds trimmed down to give more emphasis on the flute of Catherine Handley. Sleep starts with an ambient keyboard style. This is the only track featuring a synthesized sound that works well! As the title suggests, it is a lullaby. Another Birthday(reprise) closes the album as an instrumental track. My verdict: There should be more Welsh bands like Frost at Midnight that celebrates the beauty of combining the delicate styles of various genres. It is a must have album whither you are into indie folk, Celtic or easy listening.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Naming of Parts

So, what if you can't tell your left from your right? Or up from down on the piano keyboard. It seemed fairly obvious to me that one of my adult learners, Joan, would have to become more dependent than before on fingering marks in the music. But what if you can't tell your one from your five as far as fingers are concerned? I decided to go back to the way I began to learn more than forty years ago. Back then, you could still get piano music and tutor books using what was called English fingering. As opposed to so-called Continental fingering that uses the numbers one to five for the fingers, English fingering used to use a + sign for the thumb and number the other fingers one to four. I say 'used to use' - I expect somebody will tell me they still use it somewhere. It seemed to me a useful system for somebody with the difficulties I'm writing about to have each thumb separately marked and certainly better than having numbers tattooed on your hands - that was the other solution that crossed my mind. I must say, even with Joan, I'm not using the full system of English fingering, so the fingers are numbered + 2, 3, 4, 5. So far, so good. All this reminded me that with Toby, who's only four, I can't talk about left and right, either. We talk about the easy hand and the peasy hand. That has the advantage of letting him think about the hands as of equal difficulty (or should that be equal ease)? In any case, it would clearly be unwise to talk about the easy hand and the difficult hand.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Should I wear trousers

I was in the clothes shop Matalan the other day and got quite excited. I'm in the market for a new suit because it seems unlikely that I'll ever lose enough weight to fit into the Marks and Spencers pinstripe number I bought for ten pounds. There were literally hundreds of suit jackets but no matching trousers. "Perfect for Skype teaching," I exclaimed, "as long as I don't stand up." That got me thinking about the right clothes to wear as a Skype piano teacher. When I taught in the classroom many years ago I was very much influenced by a book on teaching by Peter Pook where he says that many discipline problems that teachers experience can be put down to what he calls WC. WC stands for Wrong Clothes. I think he's right - you always need to look the part. Often, I'm teaching quite late at night. Certainly, lessons cross over into my usual bedtime but it wouldn't do to shower, put on my pyjamas and dressing gown and then teach wearing those. I don't think I've ever put on a tie just to teach on Skype but I do try to look presentable. Perhaps a dab or two of aftershave as well? That reminds me - I must get rid of that four o'clock shadow next time.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Flash - Saviour of the Universe

I've always been a big fan of flashcards but I've been turned on to them in a big way recently. Like many people from my home town of Abertillery, I've been learning the Welsh language all my life in one way or another but would never call myself a Welsh speaker. They used to have Welsh programmes piped in by Rediffusion in the morning on the old BBC Home Service and Mam would say something that sounded like "Dumma Uglen Cumree". It must have been "Dyma'r rhaglen Cymru" - here is the Welsh programme. She couldn't speak Welsh and neither could her parents but I suppose even that early exposure allowed me to pick up some of the rhythms of the language. Countless books and courses have followed but with not much success. I must say, it's always been a bit offputting to think that most people you might want to speak Welsh to speak English as well. Once, I had to read some Welsh in public in the Rhondda. "It was very good," they said, "but you had a French accent." All that has changed and all because of flashcards. I found a brilliant flashcard site at and you can download sets of flashcards on loads of topics including Welsh. It gives you twenty new cards a day and feeds you the old ones at different times according to the ease of your answers. I've found it a great way to increase my vocabulary. So, in my piano teaching I've started using flashcards quite a lot recently and intend to include them in my Skype teaching as of tomorrow. After all, if it works for me, it should work for anyone, especially children, with their astonishingly retentive memories.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Is This Thing On?

So, the day of the first Skype lesson came round. Actually, it was the night of the first Skype lesson because Houston is several hours behind British Summer Time and we were due to start at ten o'clock at night. Of course, I was fussing about for ages beforehand to make sure the link was right. There are different approaches to setting up the camera. For instance, you can put your laptop on a sturdy music stand and make it look down at the keys. I'm always telling my students not to look at their hands, though, so I didn't want them to be staring at my mitts for an hour. Anyway, it's important to be able to communicate face to face so I chose the side view looking down the keyboard. You can be in the shot and smirk and grimace as much as you want and they can still see your fingering. That's vital so I got them to set up their computer in the same way. Spiro was first home from school, he climbed up on the stool, got the music down and off we went. I think it's very hot in their part of Texas - certainly T-Shirt weather. He's made good progress and so has Amelie but I've taught them both from scratch so I want to keep the contact going. The hour sped by and I was able to plan for the future - more ABRSM Grade Three pieces for Spiro and Grade 6 pieces for Amelie. Joy is full of enthusiasm so she was keen to go on chatting afterwards but I must say I was wrung out at the end of the hour and happy to slump into bed about half past eleven.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar

My daughter loves Jesus Christ Superstar but not as much as I do. I've been listening to it since the original LP came out and know it backwards. I've also been very impressed with Tim Minchin as a musician so when I saw there was a touring version coming to Cardiff I bought my daughter some tickets for her birthday. It was stupendous. How the Guardian reviewer could give it only one star out of five I'll never know. It was spectacular visually, thoughtful about the nature of power and the singing was top notch, notably from Tim Minchin, Mel C of the Spice Girls and the newcomer Ben Forster. Tim was notably intense as Judas and Mel C gave a moving account of I Don't Know How to Love Him although the second half song Could We Start Again Please didn't seem to me to lie very comfortably for her voice - a great Andrew Lloyd-Webber melody, that one. I was moved from the very beginning, though because when the musicians began the Overture, it was clear the band was phenomenally tight. Every time I hear really good musicians I'm reminded of the thousands of hours of practice that go into a seemingly effortless performance. On the way to Cardiff we were listening to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations with its astounding keyboard fireworks. On the way back, it was Dinu Lipatti playing some Bach chorale preludes including Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. There are no Roman candles in that playing but there are some breathtaking moments of controlled playing as Lipatti brings out several voices at the same time at different dynamics. It's the same story. Whether you are in the band for Superstar or putting your gifts at the service of Bach (does Glenn Gould really do that?) it takes years of dedication to get where you need to be. Don't forget that FREE TRIAL LESSON. I can't guarantee you a place in the Jesus Christ Superstar band but, hey, we can set out in that direction!

Dum Spiro, Spero

It's nice to see that Spiro still begins every piano lesson by standing on the piano stool to reach down his music. He's also acquired a cute little American accent although it sounds like a cultured New England one to me. Why that should be when he's living in Houston Texas I don't know. When I think of Spiro I think of some of the toughest tussles I've ever had to get rhythmic points across. But we always got there in the end. Now, he's doing a good job on some of the ABRSM Grade 3 material. For instance, his version of this Bach Prelude is very cultured while his Air Cosaque by Kozeluch is dashing and varied. We need to work a little bit on getting the tempi of the various sections consistent but that won't take too long now. Next, we're going to be playing Stroll on by Alan Haughton Now, this is going to test Spiro's rhythmic understanding and perhaps stretch it a little. All the fingering is going to have to be exactly right, too. Fortunately, Skype allows me to have a clear view of what's going on and I can even type in reminders in the SMS messaging window. This is a great way to teach. If anybody reading this would like a FREE TRIAL LESSON, my Skype name is robyatkins It would probably be best to contact me by email first and I can suggest a book you could get. I use Pianoworks by Janet and Alan Bullard for adult beginners and the Oxford Pianotime series for children. With really young beginners I often use Thompson's Easiest Piano Course. Dum Spiro, Spero? Where there's life, there's hope.

Monday, 1 October 2012


A little digression today about a common musical emergency. That great hit song. In this case, Umbrella by Rihanna. You want to play it so you get an easy arrangement from the local music shop. You get it back home and it doesn't sound anything like the record. That was the emergency faced by Jane, one of my piano students today. Boy, did that take me back! When I was a teenager in Abertillery we'd go to Paul's music shop in Somerset Street on a Saturday afternoon and all the latest songs would be displayed in the window of what was essentially quite a small terraced house. Inside, in the front room there was a kind of big table with a board stood up at the back and it was all covered with sheet music. Every surface. It doesn't matter what you wanted to play, Lottie Paul would shuffle out from whatever was through the mysterious doorway to the left of all the clutter and would always be able to find it somehow. For instance, Bryan Ferry brought out a version of These Foolish Things and she found it easily and we came back home with it. In the front room with my "classical piano training" I puzzled it out - it was our second piano by now, a little better than the first one but a full semitone flat. My rendition sounded OK . . . but there was something lacking. Meanwhile, Dylan with his guitar was singing a great version of it. "What are you doing, Dylan? You can't even read music but you can sing the song!" "I'm just playing the guitar chords. See these letters above the music? C . . . F . . . em - that means C major, F major, E minor and so on." It's a big step forward on the piano when you can construct the chords at the keyboard from those letters. Back to Umbrella by Rihanna. Apparently, it took four people to write that, yet it can all be played just on the white notes of the piano with three note chords in the left hand. Essentially, you play the letter name of the chord, call it number one and add three and five up from it. If it doesn't sound quite right, you mess around with the middle note, number three. Emergency sorted! Meanwhile Rihanna is probably saying, "I wish somebody would write me another Umbrella." That's one great thing about music: it's so simple but it can earn you millions of pounds - but only if you get it right.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Wot, no scales?

More about the cast of characters today. I suppose you're always attached to your first pupil. Amelie wasn't my first pupil really but I think she was one of the first to take the piano seriously enough to make spectacular progress. There was just one problem - well, two problems, really but linked. If Amelie got anything wrong or couldn't understand something or couldn't master something quickly enough, she'd cry. Then, there was nothing more you could do that day. Looking back, it was probably frustration. The encouraging thing was that when she came back the following week, she'd have mastered the point in question. Except scales. She's always refused to do scales - and that's a problem, I think. YOU NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE as a teacher and I've had to find ways around that, for instance by choosing music like famous Mozart's C Major piano sonata that features a lot of scales in an attractive format. Amelie plays the whole of that sonata very well now. Of course, you can't do exams if you don't do scales and Amelie was always a little too nervous to do exams anyway. However, from time to time, we'd work through some exam pieces just so I could get a general idea of how she was getting on compared with others of roughly the same level. Not obsessive comparisons, just a general idea. I think I'll always remember her performances of two pieces from grade 4 ABRSM. Many of my pupils have played them and done a good job of it but her interpretation of them haunts me still. First, this beautiful Valse Lente by Vaughan Williams Then there's this Waltz by Kabalevsky where the hands have to be very independent to play the parts where the hands move widely apart at the beginning and the end. It's all too easy to rush these passages and create a clumsy effect but Amelie was always so graceful. In fact, graceful is probably the best way to describe her playing.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Leave the wylus on

I should introduce the rest of the cast as well. Today, let's look at the ideal piano parent. Joy asked me to teach Amelie, the eldest of her two kids about five years ago now when she was six. Joy has recognised music among the many gifts her children have. Perhaps when they were in the cradle they'd perk up when a certain song came on the *wylus. Perhaps they'd sing or clap along with the TV as toddlers. And it would be in tune or in time. Then, without being pushy she's given them an opportunity to learn in a more structured way. She's provided good equipment - in this case a nice Yamaha piano - because sometimes it's counterproductive to learn on any old thing (although that didn't do me any lasting harm). She's attended the lessons and learned alongside the children and managed to get to a pretty good standard herself. In the early days she brought Spiro, the younger one along to the sessions to soak up the music and, who knows,to pick up some of the tuition. Now, it's been said that even the infant Mozart had to put in the same practice time as anyone else and I think that's very true. Once, the composer Clementi was involved in a piano playing competition with Wolfgang Amadeus and came off worse but he was right to point out, ruefully, "Even the genius has to practice scales in thirds with each hand." So, above all, without being overbearing, Joy has supervised the piano practice and has come along with questions and problems to be resolved. Without having unreasonable expectations, she's had unlimited faith in Amelie and Spiro to be the best they can be. When they had to move to Houston, Texas she searched out the best teacher she could find. But - and it's lovely for me - even at a distance of nearly five thousand miles she's found a way of letting her children keep in touch with their first teacher. That's Skype. *Wylus? In Britain we sometimes still call the radio the wireless. I saw a small ad in the Gwent Gazette here in South Wales trying to sell a used car. What did it have? Supercharged engine? Check. Sporty wheel trims? Check. Wylus? Check. So, I always say wylus. And the ideal piano parent always has the wylus on at home.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Why me? Why me?

I've changed my mind. It's a better idea to say a bit about MY LIFE IN MUSIC before I go on to anything else. I was a late starter. I asked my folks for piano lessons when I was nine and they got a beat up piano into the front room at 21 Gladstone Street in Abertillery and sent me up the road to Miss Horler at number 47. Two shillings for a half hour slot. My brother is seven years older than me and he was into biology. He told me it's impossible for the right hand and the left hand to do different things at the same time. It's not; but it is a challenge. I don't think I was that good but that probably helps if you're a teacher because you know what it's like to struggle a bit and YOU CAN SYMPATHISE WITH YOUR STUDENTS. At eleven I started playing the cornet. Hopeless. I couldn't even get a sound out of it for weeks but I did play my first concert on cornet - Cwm's Junior Showtime. That's Cwm in the South Wales Valleys . . . I switched to French horn a year later and it began to click because not many people played horn round there in the seventies and I was in demand. That's when I first began to earn some money from playing in my mid-teens. I eventually made it through to the National Youth Orchestra. My worst choice was to drop music as a subject at school in favour of Latin. Still, that choice made a practical musician out of me. I taught myself the guitar and the recorder. I spent more than a decade in France mainly working with homeless people but came back to Britain in 2002. I met some great musicians called Huw and Catherine who inspired me to write some new songs Lots of them have been played on BBC Radio including Radio 2 and Radio 4. At the same time, I began to teach piano a lot - I'd always done bits and pieces - and it just snowballed from that. I decided I needed to have a qualification to get a bit of credibility so put myself through Grade 8. Once again, I SYMPATHISE WITH MY STUDENTS because that was tough. I felt as if my hands had turned into lumps of quivering slime. Yes, kids, I know how you feel when you walk into that exam room !

How do you start?

I was heartbroken. Two of my best students had to move to Texas. I had to go on living, but it was hard. I had to go on getting the others through their ABRSM exams but each new clutch of merits and distinctions somehow failed to satisfy. No, of course I really enjoy teaching the piano and it's never a chore but I was delighted when the Skype call came asking if I'd like to try teaching on that great platform. They had found a teacher in Texas - apparently piano teachers exist even there - but, bless their hearts, they MISSED ME. I looked into the different techniques for teaching piano on Skype. It all seemed so complicated. You could split the screen up and invest in the technology to show the piano music on one side and the student on the other. You could even make annotations on the screen for the student to look at. Then I realised the best tool for teaching piano is having a piano there in front of you to demonstrate the points you're trying to explain. I'll tell you how the first session went in the next post.