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How to play at piano lessons

Adult students can improve their technique and learn to enjoy music as never before, reports Margaret Clancy
"Practice makes perfect." These words sum up the way most of us were taught to play the piano. The lack of understanding of what "perfect" was, coupled with never-ending, boring, badly played scales and Fur Elise for 40 minutes, resulted in paid-for misery, both for the pupil and for any other member of his or her household. It's not surprising so many of us gave up at the first opportunity.

This is a shame. Playing the piano as an adult is a wonderfully calming and enriching experience. Starting again, you encounter a big psychological hurdle. But it's a hurdle worth jumping.

Raymond Banning, professor of piano at Trinity College of Music, London, has now started to run piano weekends at Magdalene College, Cambridge. These are, in essence, weekend master-classes and workshops.

According to Professor Banning, there are simple technique barriers that need to be overcome for those starting again. "Note that perfection and timing are no longer the whole point of playing; the musicality is just as important. It is the fear of getting it wrong that causes rigidity in the hands, wrists and arms, which in many instances produces the mistake."

Professor Banning does admit that it's not easy to get over the nerves, but he has an answer to this problem. You must concentrate on the tonal quality of the music, he says. If you put your mind on the note rather than on playing it, you will improve the musicality, and with the tension gone from your body to the note, you will relax and enjoy yourself more.

His weekends are intensive, and not for the faint-hearted. Not only does he demonstrate these techniques, he also has classes covering touch and tone and how to play legato and staccato, and others that concentrate on how to study the music, and how to sight-read and memorise. Also included is a recital by the concert pianist John Bingham, a talk about the piano by Jeffrey Pratt, the senior technician at Steinway and Sons, and an interview with Joseph Cooper, doyen of Face the Music.

As with other residential courses, the student is in inspiring surroundings, but, unlike many, this course is especially designed for adults. Three- course lunches and dinners are served, and there is no school dormitory in sight. All the classes, recitals and meals are held in the 16th-century halls of Magdalene College, and accommodation is arranged at a comfortable three-star riverside hotel close by.

But the main emphasis of the weekend is to inspire the changing of technique in playing the piano. It is not newfangled; this is how the Russian pianists were taught, and this is how the great Horowitz and Rubinstein played. Professor Banning uses videos of some of the great players as teaching tools. He teaches the art of listening and, once that is mastered, shows how to put what you hear into practice. These lessons are useful not only for those who want to perform, but also for anyone who can play a line of music without too much of a struggle - anyone, in fact, who is around Grade III or above. How refreshing!

It is difficult not to become a better pianist after spending a weekend studying intensively, and Professor Banning says most encouragingly that once the basic techniques are mastered, the tension is moved from the arm to the key, and the player learns to concentrate on the right goal, any amateur player can be as good as he wants to be. Providing, of course, that he practicesn

The next piano workshop weekend, from 11-13 April, is for either residents or non-residents (details, 0171-734 3311). Other residential courses are organised by: the Benslow Music Trust, Little Benslow Hills, off Benslow Lane, Hitchen, Hertfordshire SG4 9RB (01462 459446). Piano weekends are run throughout the summer for different grades of competence and interest; the Kodali Institute (Celia Sviic, 0181-946 6528) runs a residential course at Cheltenham Ladies' College, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire for the Kodali technique and many public schools and colleges run residential week-long courses in the summer holidays, some of which are adult oriented - a full list can be obtained from 'Classical Music Magazine', Rhinegold Publishing, 241 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC211 8EH (0171-836 2383); Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music,14 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3JG (0171-636 5400).