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A Short History of the Piano

The first piano was made some time during the late 1600s or early 1700s by the Italian musical instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori. These early instruments were called clavicembalo col piano e forte, which translates as harpsichord with soft and loud. This description is how the piano got its full name; the pianoforte.


Descriptions of Cristofori’s pianos were printed in scientific journals in 1711 in Venice and later in 1725 in Germany. This led to Gottfrield Silbermann, an organ-builder and harpsichord maker, creating his own pianos. Silbermann introduced the instrument to the musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1730. One of Silbermann’s apprentices was Andreas Stein whose instruments convinced composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to move to the piano from the harpsichord. Experts believe that the pianos which survive from the 1740s were modelled on an instrument that had been imported into Germany rather than from the technical descriptions.

The strings of a harpsichord

Another of Silbermann’s apprentices was Johannes Zumpe. Zumpe developed the square piano (which was actually rectangular) in England. Square pianos were smaller and therefore more accessible than the early grand pianos, and examples can still be seen in stately homes such as National Trust properties in the UK. One of the most prominent collections of historic keyboard instruments can be seen at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. The piano was further developed in England by John Broadwood who invented the right pedal which sustains the notes. Broadwood made pianos for both Beethoven and Chopin. John Broadwood and Sons Ltd. still make pianos today.

A Steinway square piano

During the 1700s , the English Zumpe and Broadwood pianos were popular in France, but a French harpsichord maker called Sébastien Érard began making pianos. He also pioneered further improvements to the instrument. Érard’s company later made pianos for Franz Liszt.

In 1848, Heinrich Steinweg, a German piano maker emigrated to New York to avoid war in Europe, changing his name to Henry Steinway. Steinway’s sons studied science, engineering, music and acoustics. In 1854, the Steinway piano won prizes at the Washington and New York Trade Fairs. Steinway created notes on his research and developed the piano even further. Steinway is perhaps the most famous piano maker in the world and Steinway and Sons pianos are still considered amongst the best.

The mechanism of an upright piano

The Instrument

The sound of a piano is made by hammers hitting strings. This is the same mechanism as a dulcimer, and can be traced back to early stringed instruments. In modern pianos bass notes have one string, middle notes have two finer strings and high notes have three even finer strings.

Once the hammer has made contact with the strings, it bounces back to allow the strings to continue vibrating. A mechanism called an ‘escapement’ stops the hammer returning to the string. In early pianos, this meant it was difficult to play a repeated note. However, Érard invented a double escapement to make repeated notes possible. The piano’s strings are stretched tight by a frame. Under the strings is a wooden soundboard to amplify the sound.

A quick tour of the Bösendorfer factory:

Famous pianists and composers for piano

The first public piano concert took place in 1768 in London, performed on a Zumpe piano. The pianist was Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J. S. Bach.

Mozart wrote 23 concerti for piano and orchestra during his short life. Beethoven produced five. All of these are still key works of the concerto repertoire. Like Mozart, Beethoven was a virtuosic pianist before deafness put paid to his performing career. He taught Carl Czerny, who is perhaps most famous for his piano studies, which many piano students still use today. Passing on the baton, Czerny’s most famous student was Franz Liszt, a composer who included the piano in every single one of his compositions.

Muzio Clementi is another key figure in the history of the piano, he was born in Rome, but spent much of his life in England as a pianist, teacher, composer, publisher of piano music and piano maker.

Types of piano

From the early days of the instrument, there have been different types of piano.

The two perhaps most well known pianos today are the grand piano and the upright piano.

Grand pianos have frames and strings laid horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. The grand piano comes in several sizes:

  • Baby grand (around 1.5 meters)
  • Parlour grand, or boudoir grand (1.7 to 2.2 meters)
  • Concert grand (between 2.2 and 3 meters)

The upright piano was invented in London in 1826 by Robert Wornum, who developed the specific action structure. Upright pianos became the more commonly owned version of the instrument as they were less expensive and took up less space. They were therefore more suitable for the home. However grand pianos remain the most popular for performances. They have better projection over the sound of an orchestra, and their shape is more conducive to recital playing and positioning on stage than an upright.

Grand vs Upright pianos: Why grand pianos are generally better:

Other variants of the piano exist. For example the player piano or piano roll was developed in 1863 by Henri Fourneaux. For a player piano to work, a pianist must first perform a piece of music on the instrument. A machine then translates this into perforations on a roll of paper. The player piano then plays the “piano roll” using pneumatic devices. Modern versions of this using MIDI and similar technologies are available today.

In the 20th and 21st Century, some composers began to call for a prepared piano. This is where a traditional piano is ‘prepared’ with objects. The objects, which include paper, metal screws and washers, are placed inside the mechanism and between the strings to change the sound. John Cage is perhaps the most famous composer for prepared piano. His goal was, “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra”.

As technology progressed, electronic and digital pianos were developed and remain popular today. These instruments have keyboards the same as a traditional piano, but the sound is made by synthesisers or digital sampling. The keys do not have the same weight and it is not possible to produce such a depth of sound and tonal variation.

The popularity of the piano

Pianos were a central part of many homes for over a hundred years. Before the development of the radio, record players, television and the internet, if you wanted to hear live music, you had to attend a public concert, pay someone else to play music, or to play it yourself. Examples of the importance of the piano, particularly as a mark of accomplishment and social status for young ladies, can be seen in Jane Austen’s writing, but people of all backgrounds and classes would enjoy social gatherings round the piano, whether for a singalong or a display of skill.

The piano proved to be particularly adaptable in the 20th Century as musical styles changed. The instrument remains at the heart of new genres such as jazz and rock and roll. Even the famous John Lewis Christmas advert focused on the instrument in 2018, telling the story of a little boy receiving the gift of a piano: That little boy was Elton John.

If you want to get started on the piano, check out our videos from MWC’s Matthew Forbes:

And how to read piano music:

Images thanks to Shayan Bemanian, Jason Zhang and ZU photography

Irish Song – A Window on History

Irish traditional music has existed for centuries, with songs and dance tunes passed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition. This practice of learning ‘by ear’ is still common today. Despite the number of printed tune and songbooks, students of traditional music generally learn tunes by listening to other musicians.

The traditional music that developed in Ireland first arrived with the Celts. Until the last decade or so, scholars dated the ‘arrival’ of Celtic culture in Britain and Ireland to the 6th century BC. However, recent research has given rise to the idea that Celtic culture emerged in Britain and Ireland much earlier – in the Bronze Age – suggesting its spread was the result not of invasion, as previously thought, but of a gradual migration enabled by an extensive network of contacts that existed between the peoples of Britain and Ireland and those of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Celts were originally from Europe – countries including Austria, evidenced by rich burial-site finds, Northern Italy, and even as far east as Turkey. By the middle of the 1st millennium AD, with the expansion of the Roman Empire and extensive migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture had become restricted to Ireland, the western and northern parts of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall), the Isle of Man, and Brittany. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, the Celtic-speaking communities in these Atlantic regions emerged as a reasonably cohesive cultural entity, with a common linguistic, religious and artistic heritage that clearly distinguished them.

spring_hill_review_jan_-_june_1907_1907_14768255862The Celts were influenced by music of the East. It is believed that the traditional Irish harp may in fact have its roots in Egypt. In ancient times the harp was one of the most popular instruments. Harpists were employed to play for chieftains and to create music for noblemen. In 1607, native Irish chieftains fled under threat of invasion, leaving the harpists to travel the land as itinerant musicians, playing where they could. One of the most famous of these harpists was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind musician and songwriter born in 1670 who travelled throughout his life from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing.

There are several collections of Irish folk music from the 18th century, and by the 19th century ballad printers were established in Dublin.

Like all traditional music, Irish folk music has evolved slowly, and most of the folk songs around today are less than two hundred years old. Where the oldest songs and tunes are from rural settings and come from the Celtic language tradition, the more recent songs generally come from cities and towns and are written in English.

The ultimate expression of traditional singing is an old-style called sean nós. This is usually performed solo, or very occasionally as a duet. Sean-nós singing is highly ornamented, with the voice placed towards the top of the range. A true old-style singer will vary the melody of every verse, but not to the point of interfering with the words, which are considered to have as much importance as the melody.

Non sean-nós traditional singing, even when accompanied, uses patterns of ornamentation and melodic freedom derived from sean-nós singing. It also uses a similar voice placement. This song from the Irish band Altan shows a more modern take on the traditional style.

Caoineadh is Irish for a lament. There are many laments in the Irish song repertoire, expressing sorrow and pain, often of a person lamenting for Ireland itself, having been forced to emigrate due to political or financial reasons. Laments were also used to express loss of a loved one or have their roots in war or the various economic crises caused by both partition and war. This song, Far Away in Australia, is a lament as an Irishman leaves home to seek better fortune, but like many Irish ballads is imbued with hope for the future.

The song, Mo Ghile Mear, written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, is a lament of the Gaelic goddess Éire for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was in exile.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley relates to the Irish Rebellion of 1778. Written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836-1883), it expresses a young man’s sadness at leaving his lover to join the United Irishmen, a sorrow that is cut short when she is killed by an English bullet

Other aspects of Ireland’s history are found in popular songs such as Whiskey in the Jar, which tells of the betrayal of highwayman Patrick Flemmen who was executed in 1650. This ballad became a signature song for The Dubliners in the 1960s and was even recorded by Thin Lizzy and Metallica.

If you would like more information about our Irish song workshops, contact the Music Workshop Company today.

Harnessing Potential for London’s Young Talent

The Mayor’s Music Fund mmf (charity no. 1141216) was launched in 2011 in response to a London-wide survey carried out by City Hall, highlighting a number of gaps in provision for school-age musicians in the capital. We hear from Chief Executive, Chrissy Kinsella about the fantastic opportunities provided by the Fund. 

Our vision is that every young Londoner who demonstrates significant musical potential, enthusiasm and commitment to learning an instrument is given the opportunity to develop that potential.

We aim to nurture and encourage young people to progress their musical talent through our Scholarships and Partnership Programmes. The young people who take part in our Partnerships are from diverse social and financial backgrounds, whilst our Scholars are from low-income, often challenging backgrounds.


Our objectives include collaborating with London’s 29 local authority Music Education Hubs to provide extensive musical opportunities across London’s 33 boroughs. We support high-quality, sustained instrumental tuition for Mayor’s Music Scholars, organise an annual series of playing days providing opportunities for Scholars to create music together, and support large-scale musical collaborations between Music Hubs and professional arts organisations, providing opportunities for aspiring young musicians (aged 8-21) to learn from, be mentored by and perform alongside professionals. We also enable professional musicians and artists to be motivational role models, empowering young people to explore and develop their musical capabilities, which in turn develops their social and emotional well-being and frequently uplifts academic performance. 

Our programmes…

Our four-year scholarships programme is specifically targeted at children who have received some first-access provision, but whose families are unable to pay for them to continue learning, even at this early stage.


We work closely with local music services and primary schools in each borough to identify children with potential, enthusiasm and commitment to learning. Scholars must be in Key Stage 2 at the point of nomination, have been learning for at least a year and show potential on their chosen instrument. They receive a programme of around two hours per week via their music service, to include instrumental lessons, ensembles, and other supporting activities. They also have a named mentor to look after their programme, and an instrument to take home if needed. A Head Teacher in Bexley describes the positive effect the Fund has had on one of his students:

Michael was asked about being nominated for a scholarship: ‘Before, I was really naughty at school and now I’m really happy. I’m really good now and can do my work a lot better because of my trumpet.’ This scholarship opportunity won’t just give Michael the chance to become a better trumpet player, but it will give him a greater chance at life and breaking through the barriers of social deprivation.

Our Partnership Projects are large-scale collaborations, working with professional arts organisations to address a specific gap in provision. Previous projects have included an advanced string ensemble programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Hounslow and Sutton, a musical theatre orchestra led by the Tri-Borough and Youth Music Theatre UK, a world music ensemble based at the Lyric Hammersmith, run by Musiko Musika, and a jazz-meets-classical project in Hackney, working with the London Symphony Orchestra. One Young Musician’s Training Orchestra participant said:

Being in the Music Theatre Orchestra gave me an insight of how professional ensembles work and it is by far the best ensemble I’ve ever done! My confidence grew and I will continue to strive to improve and more determined than ever.

Success and Impact…

Since 2011, the Mayor’s Music Fund has awarded 375 scholarships across every London borough, representing over 330 schools. The second cohort (scholarships awarded in 2012) has just graduated, taking the total alumni to 140. The impact of our programmes is far reaching: In addition to evidence of higher self-confidence, self-esteem, and improved behavioural, social and academic skills, Music Fund scholars have gone on to win scholarships or places at independent schools such as Christ’s Hospital, & the Forest School, high profile state schools, Junior Conservatoires & London’s Centre for Young Musicians, and at specialist music schools such as the Purcell School and Menuhin School.


Since 2011 the Fund has funded 28 projects across 29 boroughs, working with over 8,500 young musicians. Three additional projects have been approved for 2016/17, reaching a further 1,000 young musicians.

In total, the Mayor’s Music Fund has awarded over £1.5million directly to support music education in London!

The future…

A meeting of the Government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee last week heard about the challenges facing regional arts organisations following local authority cuts. Arts Professional reported that Mark Pemberton, Director of the Association of British Orchestras said he was “disturbed” by the lack of diversity of young people entering employment as musicians.

At the Mayor’s Music Fund we are passionate about empowering and enabling young people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential. Over sixty percent of Mayor’s Music Scholars are from BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) backgrounds, and 100% are from low-income families.

It is no surprise that just fifteen percent of state school children learn a musical instrument, as opposed to fifty percent of independent school children. We are committed and dedicated to ensuring that all children who show potential and commitment to learning are given the chance to continue.

We are delighted to welcome a new patron to the Fund in 2016, the recently elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. We look forward to working with his administration to further develop our programmes to ensure all Londoners are given the opportunity to develop their full potential.”

This video gives an introduction to the work of the Fund from the perspective of the students.

For more information about the Mayor’s Music Fund, please contact Chrissy Kinsella, Chief Executive on 020 7983 4258



Concerts for Babies: Music Without Rules

004This week the Ulster Orchestra announced a decision to grant free entry to under 16’s to their season concerts. This decision was shared on social-media site Facebook alongside a post describing one parent’s experience of taking her child to performances: That she’d had complaints her little girl was distracting other audience members. 

Whilst organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra emphasise that children are welcome, and classical music works to build a younger audience, parents are sometimes put off by the worry that their baby or child will spoil a concert for others. And parents aren’t the only people who feel uncomfortable. Perceptions around classical music can be that it is performed in a stuffy environment; that you have to be the right sort of person to enjoy it. 

Founder of ABC Baby Concerts, Viola Player and Creative Music Leader, Neil Valentine is working to disprove these ideas, and to engage people of all ages in concert-going. He talks to MWC about his work.



006Hello? A concert? Today? No sorry, I can’t go to a concert. No way. Why? Well, er, you know, it’s just not for me. I wouldn’t know which one to go to or what to do, and besides, I don’t fit in. No I don’t. It’s the silence you see, and the clapping or not clapping. I feel embarrassed when I want to clap but there’s silence. And it’s the serious faces and fancy clothes. Plus I wouldn’t know what to wear, and anyway all my clothes smell vaguely of baby puke, or worse. No, sorry, another time maybe.

People wonder whether classical music is dying. It isn’t. But what is dying are the perceptions that going to a concert is purely a middle/upper class thing to do, with rules you must abide by. This is happening because we are gradually understanding what we knew as babies and small children. We are remembering that the music doesn’t care how you smell, or whether you clap or not. The music doesn’t mind if you laugh or cry. The music will just be there, hoping that someone, however old or young will be there too, open and willing to hear and perhaps to listen.

Classical music is about connection, and those connections are best served live. Yes talking on the phone is good, but to really understand someone we need to see them face to face, look them in the eye, smile and give them a big hug. That is what we are hoping to achieve with ABC Baby Concerts. We want you and your baby/toddler to come and see us face to face. The music will look you in the eye, smile and give you a great big acoustic hug.

Live music can envelop you. It can surround you the way a recording cannot. Just watch the audience at an ABC Baby Concert, where Classical Music is played to the highest standard for an audience of 50 adults and 70 under 3s.

The music starts, and then………focus. what is that sound? it’s coming from over there. I can hear it. I can feel it, and it’s AMAZING. That is what the faces tell us. And what do these audiences of the future have to teach us? They teach us how to listen. With focus and energy. Responding with their eyes and faces and bodies. They show us it’s ok to be transfixed and absorbed or so excited you just have to move. That it is ok to lose your focus for a bit and enjoy staring at the ceiling only to hear a new piece and …..WOAH. Back to the music.

frida 1It is time we remembered that once music was just music. And people were just people. That a concert was a place where music and people could just be together, however that was. Concert etiquette is a learnt behaviour. There are plenty of stories of how, at a Beethoven Symphony recital the audience was so excited in the finale that they jumped on chairs and shouted and clapped their approval during the performance! Classical music can do that to you. If you let it.

If you’re a baby, that could mean having your nappy changed or throwing a tantrum to the sounds of Brahms, if you’re a toddler perhaps its dancing to Chopin or colouring a picture of a ‘cello to some Bach. If you’re a parent, perhaps it means just sitting cuddling your kids to Schubert. Whatever you are, whatever the music is, a concert is a place where you can go and spend some time with some music. And when that music is played by professionals who understand that sometimes you just have to leave and yes it was necessary to feed him 3 noisy rice crackers in a row, then you can just be too. Be whatever you need to be.”


To find out more about this new concert series in the South of England, please visit: http://www.facebook.com/ABCConcerts


Music in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Window on Society

The end of April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. To commemorate, MWC talks to historic music specialist Emily Baines about the role and relevance of music in Shakespeare’s works.

5184“Music plays a hugely important role in Shakespeare’s plays, but you would be hard pressed to find a performance claiming to use music exactly as Shakespeare did. Remarkably little is known about the music he used in performances. This is most likely because this aspect of the performance would have been kept rather fluid, changing from revival to revival to keep up with the times, unlike the texts (except perhaps for prologues and epilogues which could have been altered to keep them topical and current).

Music was used in a way that scenery and even lighting effects are often used in modern theatres. There are some clear musical indications in both text and stage directions – trumpets and drums, alarums, ‘solemn’ or ‘still’ music to accompany pageants and of course songs. Music, and sound effects can transport the audience into a battlefield (trumpet calls are a language in themselves), towards an execution, through a storm, to a party or make the characters fall in love. It can indicate the supernatural (one of its most common usages in early modern theatre) and inform us of the point when we can ‘un-suspend’ our disbelief (the jig at the end of the play would feature music, dancing and even short slapstick skits or satirical plays in a “Have I Got News for You” vein). It can focus in, creating a spotlight effect and move the audience’s attention to the wider surroundings.

The direction from Anthony and Cleopatra, “Music of the hoboy is under the stage,” is a famous example, indicating something otherworldly taking place. The hoboy is an early form of our word oboe and in this case it indicates shawms, the forerunner to the modern oboe. Its position is telling, as firstly we can see that music was not necessarily played from a fixed point but from many areas of the performance space. It would most frequently be heard from the stage and the musicians’ gallery, but it would also often have been played from inside the backstage area, often known as the ‘tiring house’. Music from under the stage would have been unexpected, in this period listeners would hear music frequently but would also be able to see or locate its source.


The notion of hidden music whose source cannot be identified is a frequent indication of the supernatural in the plays of Shakespeare and its low down location would have been both disorientating and darkly portentous. The shawm sound could provide the necessary menace for the moment when Antony’s fate is sealed. It has also been suggested that its timbre would have been one of the few instruments penetrating enough to be heard clearly when shut away under the stage.

Performances using period instrument specialists in replica early modern theatres, such as the Globe and its indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse may disprove this however. The buildings have very delicately balanced acoustics so that many quieter instruments can be played in many offstage positions and heard almost as ‘surround sound’ whilst still enabling speech to be heard on top. The instruments and the buildings complement each other perfectly enabling many old preconceptions about Shakespeare’s musical possibilities to be challenged and providing a unique insight into a beautifully balanced acoustical sound-world.

Globe_Theatre_-_second_Globe_Theatre_-_Hollar's_View_of_London_-_1647Indeed they were so perfect that the indoor theatres sometimes featured up to an hour of instrumental music before the main performance began, and also between acts. You could really get your money’s worth in the 16th/17th century theatre.

Research into these buildings and their unique acoustics changes our ideas of how music and text could interact historically, feeding us with new ideas and refreshing modern outlooks and preconceptions about how we stage these works.

Similarly, research into the many songs Shakespeare refers to in his plays gives us a deeper insight into the world the Bard inhabited and his place within it. This also feeds into how we stage plays and our attitude to the text.

There are hundreds of songs referenced in Shakespeare’s plays, most of which would have been instantly recognisable and which would have provided a whole extra level to the Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. These songs would have been songs so deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness that virtually all strata of society would have understood the subtext they provided potentially changing the whole meaning of a line or even scene.

The Broadside Ballads, song texts sold for a penny on single sheets, were a means of entertainment, often telling stories, whether classical or (quite explicitly) bawdy but also acting as early forerunners to newspapers or satirising well known figures.

The stories such as that of Dido and her lover Aeneas or the news of a shipwreck off the coast off Bermuda could all primarily have been known through their ballad re-tellings. The songs were not printed with any musical notation, but only indications, “To be sung to the tune of…..”, meaning that they were to be sung to pre-existing popular tunes.

It is hard for us to imagine how well known these tunes were. It was not a matter of taste or background, these were universally familiar within the timeframe and locality in which Shakespeare was writing.

800px-ShakespeareIt is telling that Shakespeare does not generally refer to highbrow compositions but to the kind of pervasive music heard throughout the streets, taverns, and court. Shakespeare’s song lyrics too would have been set to pre-existing melodies: although some composers may have set them we have no evidence to definitively place these compositions in the first performances. This would also have lent the songs he wrote another level since the implications of previous lyrics set to the same tune would have been carried forward. A tune which had previously been used for a particularly explicit bawdy lyric would surely have brought this association forward, lending a highly suggestive edge to an otherwise innocent love song. The tunes would also have changed as plays were revived, as would any incidental music and indeed the references in some of the text, reflecting changing fashions and political backdrops. We get an impression here of a man not highbrow or pioneering in his attitude to music, but one who perfectly understood its universal communicative power and used this as a code through which to add level upon level of subtext, whether political, emotional or highly immoral (commonly the latter).

The type of ongoing historical research which has led to this understanding of Shakespeare as a pragmatic popular entertainer as well as a genius poet should feed our imagination with inspiration. Future research may, indeed should, find ways to challenge these, leading to new and different ideas.

This dialogue between research and practice should be ongoing and each should fuel the other to prevent stagnation. The function of historical research is not merely to create museum pieces that can seem didactic and dry. It is fascinating to have plays performed with their original pronunciation, with ‘original’ music, and in period costume, and long may this continue, but we must not forget to research the spirit in which they were performed, the society which prompted their creation, and the attitudes of creators towards the artworks we study; the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ things were done.

We have a tendency to judge our subjects for historical study, whether musical, theatrical or literary by the standards of our own times. We can perceive them as revered absolutes, perfect examples of genius or as art for art’s sake, but a deeper look at the society from which they arose, which is so alien as to be virtually unrecognisable by our current standards, may lead us down many more exciting different new paths.”

_MG_4973 copyEmily Baines is a freelance recorder player, singer, teacher/lecturer and musical director working throughout Europe, also specialising in a wide variety of historical/folk woodwinds. She trained in recorder and voice at; the University of Hull, the Koninklijk Conservatorium (The Hague) and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where she is now a researcher on the school’s Doctoral Programme. In addition to research Emily performs regularly for many period instrument ensembles, contemporary groups, music festivals and theatres across Europe. Her theatre work has included musician and musical director roles for Jericho House and Just Enough Theatre Companies and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. She also lectures on music and Shakespeare’s theatre for the Globe’s education department.


Teaching with Technology: A Community Vision

The Music Workshop Company is focused around the community aspects of music making, shared experiences and direct musical engagement, but technology is opening up new opportunities within music learning. As the Internet becomes ingrained into every aspect of life, Simon Hewitt Jones, Director of ViolinSchool, is exploring the potential of online learning. We catch up with Simon to ask how he sees the future of violin teaching…

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 10.48.08We recently held the final concert for ViolinSchool’s Summer Orchestra Project, which was streamed live on the Internet. We had students joining us from the USA, Australia, Germany, South Korea, and probably other places I’m not aware of. One of our American students, who I’ve been coaching via video exchange, even made it there in person. She came straight from the airport to be at the concert.

Image Courtesy of Sandra Rouch

Image Courtesy of Sandra Rouch

I think it’s no coincidence that we had such a wide and international audience, because I believe something is changing in the world of learning. In fact, in the past few months, I’ve noticed a profound change in how people approach learning the violin. This came home to me when, earlier the same week, a majority of our London students chose to take their lessons via video in our new virtual classroom, rather than brave the tube strike that brought much of central London to a halt. Once the technology is set up, the student and the tutor are carried away by the work they are doing. The technology gets forgotten, and it’s all about the learning.

What most people care about is improving their violin playing and music skills, and having strong relationships with their tutors and fellow learners. But those relationships are not confined just to one medium or one type of tuition. I’m not suggesting lessons via the virtual classroom as a replacement for lessons in person, but, without a shadow of a doubt, I can say that we are seeing better and better results when learners take advantage of a broad mix of tuition options. Personal coaching, group lessons, online classes, the orchestra, and online courses all have their part to play in providing a rounded experience and giving each learner greater perspective about their learning.

Image Courtesy of Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Image Courtesy of Tristan Jakob-Hoff

As our use and understanding of digital technology grows, we’re increasingly providing guidance to students around the world, so far in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. And our students there are asking exactly the same questions as we do here in London:

  • How can I become a better violinist?
  • How can I become a better performer?
  • How can I become a better musician?

For everyone there will be a different, personal answer to these questions, but we all share the same challenge: To improve how we learn, and to improve how we think, in order to improve how we make music.

There are two guiding forces that have driven ViolinSchool over the past few years: Community and creativity. Every day, I am inspired by the enthusiasm and imagination of the ViolinSchool community. It’s truly a group of creative thinkers who love to learn. The stronger that community is, and the stronger the individual connections within it, the more we will benefit from each other’s experiences, and the more we will learn. We don’t want geography to be an obstacle to that. We want to help violinists everywhere by building relationships with people all over the world. We believe that anyone, regardless of age, experience or geography, should be able to enjoy the wonder of making music with the violin.

I’ve identified three key things to help us get there.

1) The learner is empowered

Learning the violin should be a joyful, creative journey, which is why we reject dogmatic, ‘guru-style’ violin teaching. Our ideal is to teach every student to teach themselves.

2) Geography should be no obstacle

Yes, there are times when you just have to be there, but there are also times when you can achieve the same results online. It can be easier, cheaper and faster for someone in the Australian Outback, the Rural MidWest, or even Essex, to learn technical skills via an eLearning module, before coming to a lesson.

It’s also a really effective approach. You can get so much out of a lesson when the foundations of technique and theory are already there.

3) Technology makes our community better connected

What excites me about digital technology in education is not the technology itself: That novelty wears off after a few days or weeks. What excites me about technology in education is how it can bring a community together. When the community is broader and better connected then it’s easier to share our knowledge and understanding, and we all become enriched by the diversity of peoples’ experiences.


Since last January, ViolinSchool has been rolling out a program of learning resources. We’re committed to building on the great traditions of violin pedagogy that have developed over the last 300 years. We’ve grown up with the treatises of Galamian and Carl Flesch and the studies of Kreutzer, Sevcik, Dounis and others, and we’re now on a mission to update those traditions for today’s new generation of students. We’re working to revitalise violin pedagogy in a way that caters for every experience level in a fun, enjoyable way, from complete beginners to music college students and professionals.

We are steadily producing a wide array of studies, technical exercises and videos, as well as downloadable sheet music, in-depth guides and articles. We’re currently stepping up our production, so that by the end of next year ViolinSchool will provide one of the most comprehensive learning resources about violin playing that’s available anywhere.

But what excites me most about these new tools is the eLearning Modules that we’ve been developing, and which we’ll start releasing this summer as part of our new eLearning trial. These interactive study modules, which are informed by my research at the Royal Academy of Music, break down technical, musical and performance-related topics into a series of clear, easy-to-understand principles. We present the principles in the form of what we call ‘Learning Objectives’ – things our learners need to do in order to acquire specific skills.

ELearning has been used successfully for many years across a wide range of specialist areas, but it’s never been done properly before for the violin. The beauty of the eLearning Modules is that they provide students with a clear understanding of how the whole jigsaw of violin playing fits together. As students become more aware of how they do what they do, their playing becomes more consistent and their confidence increases. Because they have a clearer understanding of how they’re progressing, they get more out of lessons and coaching sessions.

Wherever our students are, whether in London or somewhere thousands of miles away, we look forward to welcoming them in our new digitally-connected community, and helping them to develop their playing to the fullness of their potential!


ViolinSchool’s eLearning trial runs through to September and beyond. If you are interested in asking about any aspect of the work at ViolinSchool, or would like to take part in the eLearning trial, you can contact the team by emailing support@violinschool.org

Inspiring With Opera

Last month we looked at the relevance of classical music in education, following violinist, Nicola Benedetti’s comments about the value of introducing young people to subjects that they may at first find difficult. This month we look at the world of opera – a sticking point even for some music lovers.

Maria_Thomas-300x247Maria Thomas, Founder and Artistic director of the Music Workshop Company, is passionate about opera but is also aware that it has a particular reputation within the classical genre for being inaccessible. She tells us about her recent experiences as an opera lover, discusses the role of opera within the Arts and asks whether opera companies are heading in the right direction to encourage new, young fans…

My first experience of professional opera was at the age of four – Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. By the age of 10 I was a regular opera goer. I suppose it was inevitable that I would love or hate opera following that early exposure.

Opera is something that some people find challenging. I’ve heard people say that they don’t like it when they’ve never experienced a live performance. The most common barrier in this respect is the perception of high prices, but many opera tickets are cheaper than those for football matches or musical theatre shows.


There’s also the worry about ‘opera etiquette.’ What should you wear, when should you clap; things that can cause stress to what should be an enjoyable experience. Opera companies have addressed these concerns in various ways.

The Royal Opera House website has helpful advice on what to expect when attending a performance, Seattle Opera has a great first timers’ guide covering questions about dress code and what happens on stage, and the Welsh National Opera encourage new audience members with their New to Opera page.

Театр_оперы_и_балета._ЗалThere’s also this guide from the Telegraph, so there’s plenty of encouraging information out there.

I really feel many people would be more open minded about opera if they had enjoyed an opera performance when they were young.

Most opera companies have school matinees which give young people a chance to experience live opera, often supplying support materials for teachers and offering in school projects such as Opera Holland Park’s Inspire Project, Opera North’s Education and Engagement projects, and Scottish Opera’s schools touring programme.

Is opera relevant today or is it an outdated form of entertainment?

One of the challenges for performers and producers is how to set the opera. Should the production be staged in a traditional setting as stated by the composer and librettist, or should it be updated? Some operas have worked extremely well in modern settings, for example Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti at the Royal Opera House incorporated strong use of modern staging and props, including mobile phones, but not all updates are so successful.

In working to appeal to a modern audience, and to challenge ideas outside of music, some productions are perhaps moving even further away from increased inclusivity.

The Royal Opera House’s current production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell) by Damiano Michieletto, is one of the biggest stories in opera at the moment, and brings this question of relevance strongly to the forefront. The production sets the story in war-torn Bosnia. The aim is to bring home the horrors of war, moving away from the traditional storybook image of William Tell, whilst still representing this aspect of the character. However, there’s a feeling that the production goes too far.

I was in the audience on the first night of the show. The singers and orchestra were outstanding, but I found myself not enjoying the production. The sense of dismay became real during a rewrite of the traditional ballet scene in the third act. The scene was interpreted with a graphic, violent scene, which was very distressing to watch. No warning was given of the graphic scene (an issue which has now been rectified by the ROH). Many in the audience reacted with loud booing, which was repeated when the production team took their curtain calls at the end.

It has been reported that this is the first time anyone can remember such a strong response from the audience at the Royal Opera House, certainly during a performance.

The response in the press and on social media about this production has raised questions in the opera world.

Should opera be used to raise social issues or challenge audience perceptions?

Opera, unlike live theatre, film and video games, is not subject to age classification. In encouraging young audiences, should all productions be suitable for all ages?

Some operas are clearly not appropriate for young people. For example, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Weil’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny both tackle graphic topics which are not suitable for children. But William Tell is often told as a children’s story, much like Robin Hood. Although the story is about the challenges of war, the heroic personal story of William Tell is usually a bigger feature both in storybooks and at the opera.


It is clearly an important role of the Arts to challenge social issues, but it should not be gratuitous or self-indulgent. Often a powerful message can be felt by more subtle means. I feel that by performing explicit productions, opera companies (the current English National Opera performance of Carmen includes nudity) are creating a further barrier for future audiences. Most people have their first and most formative classical music, theatre or opera experiences at a young age – being taken to see a production by friends, family or school. If productions are not suitable for young people, families feel discouraged from attending? As opera is becoming more available through the big screen and cinema showings, producers must consider their audience. Not every production should be a children’s show, but difficult topics can be dealt with sensitively.

During my time working at the Royal Opera House, one of my most vivid memories was being back stage as the cast of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman took a curtain call at the end of the schools matinee. The clapping and cheering of the audience was phenomenal, showing that young people can really enjoy opera. I feel very strongly that they should be given the chance to make up their own minds as to whether this is an Art form for them.


If you would like to know more about introducing young people to opera or are interested in an opera workshop for your school or business, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Capture the Moment

One of the things we make sure to encourage in our workshops here at the Music Workshop Company is the recording of every performance or workshop process, whether using photography, video or audio. This is such an important element both for the participants and the school.

Taking part in a performance is a big deal for a lot of students and it is valuable to document their achievements. When you think about a stage show, its full run and publicity, it is the high quality images that really make you remember the event.

Splaat Media is a Hertfordshire-based business that takes this idea to its conclusion. Founded in 2010 by Greg McClarnon, a recent award-winning graduate from the University of Hertfordshire Business School, the company provides a free professional photography service for school productions and events.

We caught up with Greg to find out more about Splaat Media and what motivated him to start the business…

What does Splaat Media do?

We go into schools and live events to take photographs, capturing all the best moments. We work with international drama festivals and various independent and state schools across the country. Last year we provided photography to over 650 schools.

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Why do you think it’s important to offer photographs of events?

Often schools and sports clubs put so much time and effort into organising their school productions, sports days and prize-giving ceremonies only for it to all come to an end with no high quality memory being taken. Capturing all the best moments at these events has become a whole lot easier with the use of photography, and it’s now possible to provide parents, schools and clubs with the opportunity to keep a permanent record of their child’s or students’ achievements. For the children too, it becomes a proud reminder of something they have accomplished.

How does Splaat Media work?

We come into schools and clubs for free, meaning that there is no need to pay for an external, and often expensive, photographer. All the school or club needs to do is provide us with time, date and location. We’ll do everything else for them, scheduling the event into our calendar and assigning it to one of our team to photograph.

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We also offer a different level of service depending on the type of event. If the event is a drama or dance show, we take the photographs at the dress rehearsal and create an eye-catching display of prints for the parents to view after the show. We upload the pictures to our website for parents to view later.

For events like sports days and prize-giving ceremonies, we offer a live event photography service. At prize-giving ceremonies, our photographers take the pictures, and as the ceremony takes place we print the photos. Parents can take away a photographic memory of their child’s achievement straight away.

At sports days we provide prints on the day of the event, and we also allow parents to look through the photos, pick their favourites and purchase them on our tablet computers, using our Splaat photo app. They can instantly take away high quality photos of their favourite moments.

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So if you have a school show or other important event that you’d like to have documented at a professional level, Splaat Media might be able to help. Greg’s business has received glowing reviews and several repeat clients and the photographs are professional quality, creative and really capture the intensity of the students’ experience.

image001Contact details for Splaat Media can be found on the website at www.splaatmedia.co.uk or you can follow on Twitter @splaatmedia or Facebook.

A Focus on Listening

In a recent interview by The Scotsman, world-renowned violinist, Nicola Benedetti, passionately criticised the suggestion that children should not be exposed to classical music.

580px-Nicky_BenedettiBenedetti is a great advocate of music education. In 2010, she became Sistema Scotland’s official musical ‘Big Sister’ for the Big Noise project, as well as creating The Benedetti Sessions, giving hundreds of aspiring young string players the opportunity to rehearse, undertake and observe masterclasses, culminating in a performance with the violinist.

She is an also an ambassador for the BBC 10 Pieces project, an initiative for schools led by BBC Learning and the BBC Performing Groups, focusing on classical music and creativity. The project centres on 20 pieces; 10 for primary and 10 for secondary school ages; covering the spectrum of western classical music from the Baroque period to contemporary works, with a heavy weighting towards 20th Century music.

Benedetti argued that since, if children were given the option either to play a video game or study mathematics, the majority would choose the video game, deciding against teaching them to listen to classical symphonies because they don’t seem interested or it is considered difficult is a nonsense. MWC’s Maria Thomas explains why this is a subject close to her own heart.

Should we be encouraging young people to listen to whole symphonies or even whole operas? Interestingly, neither the primary nor the secondary 10 Pieces include a full symphony, concerto or other complete large-scale work. Individual movements are included, but not full works. Perhaps the chosen pieces are meant as an introduction to classical music, allowing listeners to explore the rest of the works themselves, or maybe, as the proposed lesson plans suggest, the individual movements are designed as a starting point for inspiration for creativity, I don’t know.

Learning to concentrate on listening to a whole symphony or opera is not an easy task, particularly when the work is new to you. I often enjoy listening to works I have studied more than those that I am discovering for the first time. I am more familiar with the themes, the structure, the instrumentation and how the material is developed.

HHCMF14s-37I was lucky enough to have been brought up as a regular concert and opera-goer, being encouraged to learn about the pieces before attending performances and having the chance to listen to recordings before hearing the live performance. Even so, when I hear a new piece, I can imagine how daunting or incomprehensible the idea of listening to a symphony must be, particularly for someone who has not had that opportunity. With no one to make recommendations of what to listen to or explain things about the music such as what to listen out for and the context that the composer was working in, where do you start?

So maybe the single movement decision by the BBC makes sense. Research suggests that with increasing access to new technology, young people are not able to concentrate for long periods, and the popularity of the single movement performance has been popularised by the huge success of Classic FM. However, when I worked at the Royal Opera House one of my favourite memories is of hearing the rapturous applause and cheering following a schools performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

I believe it comes down to what we feel is important. Getting the young to listen to any classical music will open their ears to music, art and experiences that are new to them, and will develop other skills such as listening, analytical thinking and concentration.

Research has shown that listening to music can help the brain, but that research also highlighted that familiarity with the music was important.

Another question worth considering is where the responsibility should lie in getting young people to listen to classical music. Should it be done in the home, at school or both?

For parents who have not experience of classical music, the idea of introducing their children to a symphony orchestra concert or recital is completely alien. Trying to research music can be challenging; programme notes, both online and in concert programmes can vary from excellent to incomprehensible, or be aimed at the very knowledgeable.

In schools it is increasingly difficult to introduce classical music into the classroom. Many primary schools do not have music specialists and both primary and secondary schools have music specialists who do not have a Classical music background. It was widely researched as long ago as 1997 that many primary school teachers feel negatively towards introducing classical music in their teaching as they lack confidence in their own knowledge of the subject.


I don’t have the answers. I’m just glad that the BBC 10 Pieces is making access to Classical Music easier for young people, and that other fantastic outreach projects by organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Warwick University and the Sage are reaching out to their local communities and offering them the chance to explore Classical Music both with families and schools.

It was wonderful to share this enthusiasm for introducing young people to Classical Music and the wider arts at the brilliant Ahead For Culture conference, run by the ROHBridge Project, on 12th June at the Royal Opera House. The morning was hosted by Kirsty Wark who shared her early experiences of the Arts, and featured many inspiring speakers. Sir Anthony Seldon stressed the importance of introducing young people to the Arts in ways that help them to understand and engage with their experiences, Nii Sackey highlighted the fact that young people have their own answers about how they want to engage with the Arts, and Susan Coles gave a motivational call to action encouraging us all to push for the Arts to continue to be a key part of every young person’s education.

The afternoon sessions of workshops got everyone talking and sharing their experiences, before a fabulous performance by Next Generation Youth Theatre. The day was rounded off with an emotional reminder from Camila Batmanghelidhj CBE, founder of Kids Company, (who MWC are proud to work with) of some of the challenges today’s young people bring to their Arts experiences, and how experiences need to adapt to the needs of each young person.

It was a truly inspiring day and will lead to some exciting new projects and partnerships for MWC. Watch this space for more news!

The Music Workshop Company is in the process of developing resource packs for schools, designed to introduce and expand on many aspects of music. We would value your input. If there is a specific topic or aspect of music that you would like us to cover, or if we can make our resources more helpful in any way, please contact us via the website with your ideas and requests, or email info@music-workshop.co.uk.

We also run tailor-made inset workshops, integrating music into teacher training. Meeting with professional musicians who can explain music in an approachable way will give you exciting ideas to develop, and can be a great boost in confidence in the classroom. There is no great mystery to music. Just as you can teach a child to look at a beautiful painting and appreciate it without yourself being able to either paint it or explain how it was painted, it is possible to learn how to introduce children to music and the skills needed to listen to it.

Drums of the World

It’s International Drum Month, and to celebrate, the MWC team have been exploring the world of drums – and the drums of the World.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of drum. They differ in sound, playing technique and materials, but also in their cultural and musical significance. Some drums have developed for dancing or performance music, others are vehicles for group experiences, meditative, celebratory and even military use.

What is a drum?

800px-Velociraptor-by-Salvatore-Rabito-AlcónA drum is a member of the percussion family of instruments. It is classed as a membranophone, which is a great word that sounds like a species of dinosaur!

What it actually means is that a drum consists of a membrane or skin stretched over a shell or vessel.

Drums can be made from anything – wood, metal, ceramic, plastic or even plants such as gourds. Junk percussion has become popular too, with instruments made from discarded and recycled materials. Sound is produced by hitting the membrane either with the hands, or with beaters or drumsticks.

Most drums are classified as non-tuned percussion. This means they are of indefinite pitch, they don’t play any particular notes. But some drums are tuned to definite pitches. Orchestral kettledrums, (timpani) are always scored to have specific notes, and Indian tabla drums are not just tuned, they play different pitches depending on the technique used to strike them. As the sound decays, the player applies pressure with the heel of the hand, which changes the pitch.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the tabla is practised as a solo instrument it will not necessarily be tuned, but when used as an accompanying instrument it will be tuned to specific notes, normally the first note of the octave, known as sadja or sa in Indian music (the tonic). The range of notes is fairly limited, so depending on the key of the music, the drum may be tuned to the fifth (pa) or fourth (ma).

The drum is tuned using wooden pegs called gattas. These are used to increase and decrease the tension of the skin. Pulling the gattas down increases the pitch as the skin becomes tighter, just like winding up a violin string will make its pitch higher. Pulling them up decreases the pitch. This mechanism is common in tuned drums – orchestral kettledrums have a modernised but similar system.

I do love the tabla. It’s so resonant it’s almost vocal, and the Tintal rhythm patterns add hypnotic energy to Indian music. I can’t get enough! Matthew Forbes, Cellist, Composer and Workshop Leader

Drums are found throughout the world and in all world music. Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe all have their own drum music, and each has a huge variety of percussion instruments.

Early evidence of drums include an image of a man-sized bass drum on a Sumerian vase which dates from around 3000 years BCE, and at least four sizes of drums were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Instruments from Ancient Egypt dating to around 1800 BCE have been discovered, and drums are mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese poems dating from 1135 BCE.

Drums seem to have reached Europe during the Crusading Era in the 12th century, where often they were played with a stick in one hand while the musician played a small pipe at the same time. This combination was often used for accompanying dance. Much more significant to the orchestral world was the arrival of the Arabian naker or naqqarah in the 13th Century, a small kettledrum, a modern version of which is now found in most symphony orchestras.

When most of us think of drums, the first thing that springs to mind is the drum kit (or drum set, as the American’s call it). A typical drum kit includes a snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum and cymbals such as hi-hat and ride. No pop or rock band is complete without one.

Check out this video to find out about the history of the modern drum kit…

Drums are played in so many other musical groups too. Brazilian samba is music for dancing, played in ensembles of many percussion instruments. Samba is an energetic music that immediately creates a positive, carnival atmosphere, and it’s a great way in to ensemble playing. It’s also a proactive way to start a workshop with participants who may not be confident instrumentalists. MWC Workshop Leader Chris Woodham says,

The starting point with all of my workshops, composition or otherwise, is drumming. That’s the way in, and the way into the students understanding that I’m an expert. It’s accessible; everybody can hold a drumstick; and I’ve found that it’s a great way to get everybody involved and working towards the same goal.

Read more about Samba music in our post, The Samba Workshop – How it Works.

For MWC Founder, Maria, the drum is the perfect instrument.

They are fabulous. It’s easy to get a sound from a drum, but extremely difficult to become a real drummer, whether you’re playing drum kit, djembes or tabla. Playing drums is very physical. It’s a great feeling to feel the vibrations of a drum passing through your body. I really enjoy playing djembes as part of a drumming circle. The energy and intricate rhythms are so powerful.

HHCMF14s-34The djembe is an interesting hand-drum from West Africa. The drum was used by storytellers and healers, as well as for ceremonial occasions. It is interesting to note that the power of musical vibration was considered significant for much more than entertainment purposes in so many ancient cultures – a holistic view that is once again becoming integrated into our awareness. You can read much more about the djembe and the benefits of drumming in our African drumming blog.

If you would like to find out more about drums and drumming, or to book one of our workshops in African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion or other drumming techniques, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you!

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