Brendan O’Keeffe’s Reflections on Autumn Piano School

Barry is sitting at the piano, Bernadette dictating, the class observing.

“Play a note,” she says, and Barry obliges with the absolute classic middle C.

“Play it differently,” and Barry adds a little more pressure.

This continues a few more times until Bernadette adds another layer.

“Play it wistfully,” and Barry nails it. He plays it lightly and relatively short.

“Play it sadly.” This time Barry plays softer and lingers slightly longer on the note.

There are so many different ways to play, and add expression to, a single note. Variety is what sums up the experience of the Autumn Piano School.

Firstly, there were the different people at the School. It wouldn’t surprise you to find out that ‘piano camp’, as I like to call it, attracts a bunch of loveable weirdos. There were the uber talented and dedicated children, one of which was 15 year old Malik. He has only been playing for 3 years but has already almost mastered Chopin’s Ballade no. 1. When I asked him what he used to do before playing piano for hours every day, he said he gamed. It was clear that he has now found his passion and piano is an overwhelmingly positive influence on his life.

Benedicte is a 5th grader in her 30s. That is, she is studying for her 5th grade piano exam. After moving to Armidale a couple of years ago she has found a wonderful community at the New England Conservatorium. We talked on the second day and made a pact with each other that if one of us performs on the final night, the other had to as well. We followed it through and joined the children, including the fearless 5-year-old Harper, on stage. Benedicte was incredibly nervous. I think her courage to play in front of other pianists is just as inspiring as Malik’s prodigious talent.

My usual social circles don’t include other pianists, and classical piano is often a solo endeavour, so it felt special to be part of a new community created in such a short space of time.

Secondly, there was a wide repertoire of classes available to participants. There were masterclasses to see what tips that teachers provide to other students. I watched Julian receive a lesson from Liam Alvey on a Bach Fantasia. Through this I was able to learn that Bach left a left of interpretation to the player for his Fantasias, often writing only chords down which were in fact meant to be rolled. Julian and Liam together stripped apart one section to create a version together, all in the space of 15 minutes.

In the mornings there were pedagogy sessions run by piano teachers. These ranged from what do on the very first lesson with a student to how to hone technique. The standout message was from Hamish Tait, the CEO of the Wagga Wagga Conservatarium; “potential is unknown”. Too often decisions are made very early about the potential of students. In reality, it can come in many different forms and at many different stages. Let the student take ownership of their potential.

Thirdly, on a more personal note, I rediscovered how to play with feeling and freedom again. Before this week I had not had a lesson in over 10 years. I stopped playing in my 20s and had only returned to it in my 30s. In refamiliarising myself with the keys, I had unknowingly become fixated with the notes, rather than the sounds. In my determination to play the correct notes, I was cramped up and stiff from my shoulders down to my fingers. I need to be more like Barry. Think more about the feeling of the piece and the sound which creates that feeling. For example, I wanted my Scarlatti Sonata K. 551 to sound light and fun. Bernadette Harvey helped me to bring this out in one passage of descending octaves by bouncing on the keys in arcs like a ball going down a staircase.

I look forward to next year, with a different repertoire under my belt, and hopefully some new faces to welcome to the Piano School community.