Ahead of her eagerly anticipated presentation at APPC 2024, The Piano Teacher was able to chat with internationally acclaimed and award winning pianist, educator, author and composer – Melanie Spanswick. Hailing from London, Spanswick has pushed women composers to the forefront in many facets of her life, including in her series Women Composers – A Graded Piano Anthology.
You have spent years interviewing a wide array of pianists and teachers, and in turn have spent years being the subject of interviews. What’s something you’ve always wanted to mention but have never been asked about?
Thank you for mentioning my interview series, Classical Conversations. It was a most enjoyable period of my life and it’s an aspect I’m rarely asked about now as it took place 8-10 years ago. I would love to do more filmed interviews – even a follow-up series, catching-up with those artists that I interviewed again. I find interviews fascinating and think that we can all learn so much from hearing about the life and work of other musicians.
I’ve not been asked about my media work or my work online; my blog and my YouTube channel etc, but have always been interested in this facet, and it was this element that I focused on when I ‘restarted’ my work after an illness about 14 years ago. I had stopped working for around a year and a half, and needed to rejoin the world.
I set-up my blog, wrote a very small, independently published book, and began making ‘vlogs’, or very short videos, about learning to play the piano. These ‘vlogs’ blossomed into my interview series and, during this time, I met someone who became my mentor for many years. This was a fortuitous meeting as this person’s constant support provided me with the strength, focus, and determination required to move forward. I have always been most grateful for the help and it has really made a difference to my overall mindset and, therefore, my work. In fact, I found this so crucial in my life that I’ve written a book about it, and when I have more time, will find a suitable publisher.
You have performed an astounding amount of concerts in clubs, halls, festivals, radio stations and even for the Queen Mother. Which of your concerts stands out as being particularly memorable?
Many years ago, I was invited to play on a classical music river boat cruise. I had never been on such a cruise before and I shared the ‘stage’ with an opera group and the BBC presenter John Amis. The cruise travelled up the Volga river from Moscow to St. Petersburg, stopping at several charming towns on the way. A wonderful trip where I learned so much about the culture; we were even able to enjoy a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre (in St. Petersburg) and attend a Russian Orthodox service.
I met interesting people and enjoyed playing concerts on the vessel. I played some solo recitals as well as performing a series of recitations with John. A recitation is a work for music and narrator; in this case, piano and narrator. Our repertoire included Francis Poulenc’s humorous ‘Barbar the Elephant’, Richard Strauss’ beautiful ‘Enoch Arden’, Franz Liszt’s rather dark ‘Mournful Monk’, and Liza Lehmann’s delectable ‘Selfish Giant’ and ‘Happy Prince’.
However, by far the most exciting performance for me was when I was invited to play a short concert at Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin, just outside Moscow. The villa, which is 85 kilometres from the city, was built in the 1870s and is now a museum. I played the composer’s piano during the recital, and audience members were a mixture of passengers on the river boat cruise combined with visitors to the museum. My programme included some Rachmaninoff preludes and a collection of small pieces by Tchaikovsky. The sturdy grand piano in Tchaikovsky’s main reception room and study was constructed by the Becker company, which was given to him by the St. Petersburg firm in 1885. This concert was a real honour for me, particularly as many noted pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, and Mikhail Pletnev, had also previously given concerts at the museum on this instrument. It was an experience that I will never forget.
Do you remember the first piece you composed? How old were you?
I didn’t start composing properly until I went to college; it was mostly experimentation up until that point. At college, we wrote pastiche-style works as part of the course which was an excellent way to learn how great composers structured their music. Therefore, the first works I wrote were little fugues or two- or three-part pieces imitating the compositions of J S Bach, as well as sonata movements in the style of W A Mozart. I didn’t compose for a few years once I’d left college, but I’ve enjoyed returning to it more recently.
With the rising popularity of YouTube channels like Piano Synthesia, how do you think piano teachers should respond to student eagerness to learn to play as quickly as possible?
Younger students who want to play as ‘quickly’ as possible are usually cajoled into it by well-meaning parents. My observation is that it’s the parents who are routing for ‘quick’ success – but they often don’t understand the complexities involved in piano playing. As most will know, to play the piano properly takes years of work, from the teacher as well as the student. There are no quick fixes. Those wanting to play simpler music, learn a few chords, or pop tunes might do well to observe YouTube channels as this is certainly a cheaper and easier option, but, in my experience, it generally won’t help when aiming to build a secure technique; regular ‘live’ coaching is required for this important aspect of piano playing as the student relies completely on feedback from a committed teacher.
As a teacher working mainly with talented children at various institutes in the UK, I’ve found it essential to involve parents from the beginning. I ask them to attend their children’s lessons, and I encourage them to take notes during the lesson as well as ‘try out’ many of the technical finger and wrist movements which their child needs to assimilate. This allows them to understand the work which must be accomplished. Younger children need this type of encouragement in order to find the motivation to do the necessary practice (which will be parent-led for a good while), and parents can help children to enjoy their piano playing, which will promote their eventual success. I try to give younger students easier and fun pieces to work on alongside more demanding technical work, and hopefully, they grow to love the instrument – the quicker they love it, the quicker they improve!
Adult students are different and whilst they want to play quickly too, they have far more patience and resilience. Giving them easier pieces to practice as well as those they want to play (which are invariably too tricky!) promotes confidence and keeps them interested during practice sessions; I think this is the key to progress. I try to instigate duet sessions with adults as well because it’s fun and by supporting each other, they retain a positive piano practice mindset.
What do you believe is the most crucial aspect of teaching piano effectively, especially to young and aspiring musicians?
A student’s piano playing priorities and goals must first be established. Crucial aspects vary depending on what needs to be achieved.For example, if a student wants to play for fun as a hobby, it will be important to incorporate favourite arrangements, pop tunes, some improvisation, and possibly the odd piano exam into lessons, to keep the student satisfied and interested. However, if a student has the desire and aptitude to become an advanced player, I would solely focus on technical work alongside building a suitable repertoire programme.
Teaching technique is always enjoyable for me and I feel it’s the most vital part of learning to play the piano, even for those who don’t aspire to be professionals. Piano technique is all about learning to move around the keyboard efficiently. As teachers, we must focus on this for a long period of time with students, and they will hopefully respond with interest and dedication; most of my students become absorbed once they start to witness their own progress.
Flexibility in the upper body is the key, and this must be honed alongside firm fingers, so that the body does not become ‘locked’ during fast and complex passages. There are many ways to achieve this, and I’m told by my students that my method is quite unusual! But I was fortunate to have worked with a fantastic Russian professor for nearly 5 years and this built the foundations for how I approach the subject with students. I’ve also had a fair amount of success working with those who have had debilitating conditions such as tenonitis and repetitive strain injury, too.
As a musician I’m sure you’ve been involved in many-a conversation where someone includes the phrase “Oh I used to play piano back in the day.”. Which often can be followed by something along the lines of “wish I didn’t give it up”. Your series Play it Again is a fantastic response to this scenario. What do you think the best motivators to ‘keep at it’ are for adults who perhaps feel like their time as a musician ‘has passed’?
No one is too old to learn to play the piano. Ever. It’s a wonderful pastime which certainly gives the mind and upper body a pretty complete workout. Piano playing makes countless demands on the brain requiring so many types of coordination, and, therefore, it’s an excellent tool for those trying to improve their memory or at least keep it in good shape.
My series, ‘Play it again: PIANO’ (Schott), was designed for the demographic of adults who are ‘returning’ to the piano after a break, usually after learning as a child. They may remember many aspects about playing, but some things will have been forgotten, and therefore they need regular prompting and reminders, and lots of technical tips and advice. This course provides everything in this respect and it has now proved so popular that many teachers use it with their younger students, and it is even recommended as part of a piano exam syllabus.
At present there are three books in the series and we will be adding a fourth book next year. We are currently in the process of editing. It will be a Prep Book, intended for the late-beginner level to approximately Grade 1; Schott and I received copious messages from readers who asked for a book featuring simpler music because they hadn’t yet reached the standard found in Book 1.
Book 1 takes students from Grade 1 to Grade 4/5 via 28 pieces, Book 2, from Grade 5 to 8 (21 pieces), and Book 3, from Grade 8 to Associate diploma level (11 pieces). Each book contains useful repertoire, including music from the baroque era up to the present day. Every piece is graded and is accompanied by copious practice tips and suggestions, as well as a series of musical examples and photos. There’s a technique section at the beginning of each book, as well as a theory section at the end of Book 1 and 2, and warm-up exercises at the end of Book 3. The new Prep Book contains 39 pieces and will focus on basic note-reading and rhythmic exercises, as is necessary for students at this level. This course can be used with or without a teacher and will develop a student’s understanding of piano technique and how to practice successfully by breaking pieces down at practice sessions.
Adult returners may be interested to know that I run a Facebook Group especially for them. It’s called Adult Piano Returners and now has well over 20,000 members. We focus on everything piano related; members post their videos, ask for feedback, pose questions to the group, and our members hail from around the world. It’s a lovely piano community!
In the preface of your incredible Women Composers series, you mention a distinct movement towards readdressing the significant gender imbalance in the arts and beyond. What changes have you observed in the music industry in terms of opportunities and recognition for women composers?
Thank you for your kind words about my series ‘Women Composers – A Graded Piano Anthology’ (Schott). This is certainly a popular trend and I think it’s one that’s here to stay. Women have been ignored in most professions for too long. It’s truly empowering to be a very small part of this movement and the more books and music published by women, the easier it will be for them to obtain success in this field. My hope is that it will eventually become ‘normality’ and we won’t need to mention differences between genders.
We need to wait a while to see if there are increasingly more opportunities for women composers. But, as someone who has recently helped compile and construct several piano exam syllabuses, I can confirm that there is a definite shift towards the inclusion of women composers in music exams. In my opinion, it’s this constant drive to employ women, whether for educational music, film or media music, or concert music, which will ultimately make the difference.