EPTA UK Conference 2023

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By Lewis Kesterton 

Sunday 3rd of September was a day we’d all been eagerly anticipating at EPTA UK. Thanks to the hiatus of in-person events as a result of the pandemic and the further delay incurred by train strikes, the 2023 conference was a day that had been a long time in the making. Thankfully, though, the adage ‘good things come to those who wait’ couldn’t have been more accurate, as what a special day it turned out to be. 

The Royal Academy of Music is a majestic sight to behold, and what a spectacle it was as EPTA members from around the UK and beyond arrived in the glorious sunshine. The day’s proceedings took place in the Academy’s David Josefowitz Recital Hall, which was filled to capacity with enthusiastic pianists, teachers and music educationalists shortly before the conference began. Witnessing so many EPTA UK members together under one roof was heartening, and a timely reminder of how music brings us together. Friends and colleagues were reunited after much time apart, and for many, it was the first time they’d had the opportunity to meet one another in person. We were also very grateful to have been joined by the ABRSM, South London Music and CJ Hazel, who supplied a wide array of music and useful advice during breaks throughout the day.  

Following a warm welcome from EPTA UK’s business manager Andrew Higgins, Penelope Roskell gave the first seminar of the day. A professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and a leading expert in the field of pianists’ injuries, Penelope has recently condensed many of her techniques into a series of books for children entitled ‘Essential Piano Technique’, which was the focus of her session. The room lit up as Penelope unpacked some of her most important principles, which included ‘sleepy spider’ hand shapes, drawing rainbows to initiate lateral arm movements, and parachuting cats, accompanied by beautiful illustrations and concise examples. EPTA UK Trustee Nadia Lasserson, the daughter of EPTA’s founder Carola Grindea, joined Penelope at the piano to round off the presentation, performing ‘Circus Parade’, a charming teacher-pupil duet from Essential Piano Technique Primer B. The piece featured enormous glissandos up and down the top half of the keyboard which captivated the audience and would be sure to inspire any young beginner!  

The second speaker of the day was Graeme Humphrey, a dear friend of EPTA UK who is no stranger to the Academy having taught there for thirty-six years. ‘Repertoire and Training of Talented Intermediate Students’ was the topic of Graeme’s seminar, in which he focussed mainly on French piano music. Choosing appropriate repertoire which a student is likely to engage with well is not always a straightforward task for even the most discerning pedagogue. However, Graeme provided a wide range of solutions to this often-daunting ritual, including offering students a small number of choices, only allowing them to listen to pieces without looking at the score before deciding, and not being so quick to disregard the music of Ludovico Einaudi! Excerpts from pieces by Satie, Les Petites Impressions by Jennifer Linn and a whole host of intriguing intermediate level repertoire was demonstrated by Graeme who performed with terrific aplomb. This was a hugely refreshing seminar which was sure to greatly motivate many of the teachers in attendance. 

Following Graeme’s session on repertoire, discussions swiftly turned to dispensing with notation entirely as Andrew Higgins returned to give his talk ‘The Tyranny of Notion’, in which he offered a stimulating perspective on the subject of improvisation. Andrew recounted how he was once discouraged from exploring improvisation as a student, which seemed to resonate with many in the room. We are, however, so very grateful that he persevered and now has so many fresh and imaginative ideas to share. From Bach’s C Major Prelude, to Schubert’s C Minor impromptu, Pachelbel’s Canon and Chopin’s C Minor Prelude, Andrew took us on a journey of discovery as he transformed these well-known staples of the classical repertoire into vibrant improvisations.  

The final presenter of the morning was award-winning pianist and EPTA UK Trustee Yulia Chaplina, who offered a personal insight into the teaching of advanced Russian technique. Yulia’s enchanting talk was centred around the employment of different qualities of sound and touch to suit music from different eras. For those in need of a midday caffeine hit, Yulia’s playing was sure to reignite their senses as she offered up demonstrations of sparkling Scarlatti, delicate Haydn, exquisite Chopin and masterful Tchaikovsky. Many parallels could be drawn between Yulia and Penelope’s pedagogical ideas, as both emphasised the importance of arm weight and freedom. Anecdotes of playing with pillows strapped around her waist drew laughter from the attentive audience, whilst further highlighting her point about using the whole body to create a bigger sound. It was also interesting to hear a different perspective on the use of different stool heights and hand shapes depending on repertoire. 

After the lunch break, which allowed delegates the chance to stretch their legs and explore the stalls at the back of the hall, Lorenzo Pone continued the theme of freedom in technique with a short lecture on injury-free practicing and playing. Lorenzo reiterated the importance of using arm weight effectively, calling upon a willing audience member to aid him in his demonstrations. The highly acclaimed young pianist went on to unpack how the great pianists of the past created their crystalline sound, explaining how, through carefully considering our voicing and directing weight behind individual fingers in a chord, we can add a new dimension to our playing. Reminders of the importance of not pushing into the keys were very welcome, especially to those in the audience who may be struggling with tension or injury.  

The final seminar of the day was given by the ever-inspirational Nancy Litten, who graced the stage with copious amounts of enthusiasm and warmth. The title of Nancy’s talk, ‘Warm-up Singing’, gave very little away, but it was soon apparent that the final session of the day was going to be of an interactive nature. Accompanying singers and choirs are situations many pianists and teachers often find themselves in, and whilst they may be well equipped to accompany them, it can often be a daunting task when it comes to warming them up. After a much-needed reminder from Nancy that everyone can indeed sing, the hall was soon filled with the sound of over one-hundred voices singing the ice-breaker ‘Izzy Wizzy, let’s get busy’. Even the Academy’s stewards who had been attending to us diligently all day threw themselves into the activities! After taking us through a whole host of exercises from her book ‘Choral and Vocal Sight Singing’, Nancy rounded off the session by splitting the room into four sections and taught two examples from ‘Rounds with Accompaniment’, for which she has arranged charming accompaniments.  

The day’s talks were followed by a magnificent set of performances from winners of the 2023 EPTA UK Piano Competition. Jay Ding, Matthew Stringer, Lydia Mi, Alize Koto Gutrai, Oscar Mi, Zosia Dzimitrowicz, Eliza Ruffle and Yuxin Pu all delivered spectacular performances of works ranging from Scarlatti, Beethoven and Chopin through to modern compositions by Chee-Hwa Tan and Catherine Rollin. Our most heartfelt congratulations are extended once again to all of the winners who left us feeling truly inspired. 

As the evening drew to a close, we were treated to a spellbinding recital by Murray McLachlan. The programme, entitled ‘The Chopin Connection’ opened with Murray’s own arrangement of Chopin’s E Flat Major Nocturne for the left hand alone, which he put together in only a matter of a few hours after being inspired by the music at the King’s Coronation earlier this year. This virtuosic transcription, which Murray adorned with great delicacy set the scene for what was to be a highly memorable performance. This was followed by another work familiar to many in attendance, the theme from Chopin’s fourth mighty Ballade, though on this occasion reincarnated as a fugue by Ronald Stevenson. Already a work contrapuntal in nature, Stevenson’s handling of the theme pays great homage to Chopin’s veneration of Bach. To close the programme, we were treated to a complete performance of Chopin’s twenty-four preludes, one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire. Murray’s performance of this formidable work took us on a journey filled with hope, longing, nostalgia and desperation, all executed to the highest standard. It is hard to imagine a better way to round off what was a tremendous day of learning and celebrating our shared love of music. On behalf of the EPTA UK management committee, we would like to thank everyone who attended and spoke at the conference for a truly unforgettable day. We look forward to seeing you next time!   

This review along with images can be seen in Piano Professional 62.