Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ukulele for Blues Brothers

The 2017 theme for the annual Hanwell Carnival in London is Blues Brothers. I have my sunglasses and just need to borrow a man’s jacket, a thin tie, and a black hat. I can’t wait to join the Hanwell Ukulele Group (HUG) to strum and sing together on a float in the parade.

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City of Stars from La La Land

The tunes from the movie La La Land are catchy and sticky. I daresay all songs are played on the piano, and as such pianists everywhere will feel emboldened to figure out the notes. I am positively sure that one of the songs will get an Oscar. [Feb 27: in fact, this song did win the 2017 Oscar for best song from a movie!] Continue reading

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Piano lessons: individual or group?

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“Should I take private one-on-one piano lessons or should I take a piano class with other students?”

This is a question I get asked from time to time.

The answer: it depends on the time and money you are willing and committed to spending on lessons and practice. It also depends on the results you want to get. In other words, it depends on your goals.

The traditional private individual piano lessons once a week may be outdated by today’s time-challenged adults who have to balance the demands of work, study, and other responsibilities.

In individual lessons, you develop a relationship with the teacher. You set the pace. Except for improvisation classes, all my piano training has been individual lessons with a teacher. I must say that group lessons were unheard of when I was growing up.

Nowadays, because of time and financial constraints, group classes are not only a possibility but also a growing trend. Digital pianos also make group classes possible as everyone can put on headphones.

For beginners, the progress may be faster in a group setting, because of the effect of learning from and with others. The social aspect of learning in a group causes accountability and responsibility. You practice. You show up to class. You participate. You have a benchmark. If you miss a class, you have to catch up.

I say this because I have witnessed the positive results from teaching adult group piano classes for four consecutive semesters. My goal is simple and two-fold — get my students to

  • be able to read music and sightread new music
  • to experience “flow”

Being able to read music notation opens a world of possibilities, for the repertoire for piano is greater than any other instrument. Once a person experiences “flow” he or she will want to do it again. This is the adrenalin-kicking, endorphin-releasing natural high that performers and athletes experience. It’s what keeps us going.

Why does learning to read music work well in a group setting? Short answer: it takes less time and is more effective.

Before playing a new piece of music, I get my students to analyze the patterns and discuss what they see. Everyone gets to participate. By the time we finish and are ready to play the music, most of our anxiety about tackling an unknown piece of music is gone. It takes more time in an individual setting to discuss a new piece of music.

From a financial perspective, it may be more affordable to start with piano classes and continue with individual piano lessons after you’ve reached a level that requires more one-to-one time with the teacher.

At University of Hawaii Maui College, Hawaii residents pay $106 per credit per semester. Consider a 2-credit piano class that meets once a week for 2.5 hours for 16 weeks (or twice a week for 1.25 hours each) versus private lessons that range from $60 to $100 per hour on Maui. You can get up to 6 credits this way (i.e. 3 semesters at 2 credits each).

How big are the piano classes? We need a minimum of 10 students per class for the classes to happen. Check the Spring 2014 music course schedule for class times and availability.

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Classic FM London in Maui

With internet radio, I can listen to practically any station in the world anywhere.

This morning I’m listening to one of my favourite stations — Classic FM. It’s the station that accompanied those years I lived in London, educated me the composers and their works that laid the foundation for my interest in classical music. I had Classic FM Radio on all the time — first as background music and then as a necessity to my daily life.

Later when I studied music history in Utrecht, Netherlands, I learned to appreciate how accessible the radio programmers made the music to the audience.

Today I am in my home in Maui — a sunny day like any other. The outdoor washing machine is on. I am indecisive about going swimming. The day is young. I switch on to Classic FM at 10 am HST: David Mellor’s special edition of St Patrick’s Day tribute. It ended with an orchestral arrangement of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”

Thereafter John Suchet presented Beethoven: The Man Revealed. His perspective was from that of Beethoven in love. Each time he fell in love, he wrote a piece. The stories behind the Moonlight Sonata, the Appassionata Sonata, and Fur Elise are simply fascinating.

Listening to Classic FM London in Hawaii makes me realise that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

I find myself doing my filing and my chores as background to active listening of Classic FM from London.

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Wanted: home for a Steinway

My relocation to the Netherlands in 2003/2004 coincided with a refund of monies from Singapore. It was a milestone for change.

Frustrated by the daily challenge of finding a good piano to practise at the conservatory in Utrecht and the inadequate upright piano at home in Bussum, I decided to find a grand piano of my own.

First I visited the local piano shop whose owner led me to a room full of Yamahas. I could not find a piano that was special enough to be different. I abandoned the idea of a Yamaha and went for a Steinway instead. The story of how I found that piano and the piano technician who helped me negotiate the price is an interesting one, perhaps for another blog post. He did request that I visit his atelier after I got back from Taiwan. A month later, the French polished, restrung Steinway grand arrived in Bussum.

It was a glorious moment — to finally have a Steinway Grand Piano in my home. The Steinway was not from Hamburg but from New York. Made in 1909. All 188 CM of it. Model A. Ivory keys. One celebrated concert pianist, Dutch winner of the Liszt Piano Competition who commuted between Vienna and Utrecht, remarked that it was a Rachmaninoff piano for it had that romantic sound.

Here’s how the Steinway sounds: Intermezzo by Allan Segall, performed by Anne Ku, recorded by Robert Bekkers.

I held a Steinway Warming party for my piano friends. With the upright piano, four pianists could play on both pianos. We tried all sorts of duets.

Once I got accustomed to being the proud owner of a Steinway, it was time to let go of my Gerhard Adam, a German mahogany grand piano from the 1920’s which I left behind in London. I wrote a decision making guide to buying a second-hand piano to help sell that piano online. Once again I walked down my memory lane of buying a piano. I wrote an Adieu which used all 88 keys on the piano, a way for me to say goodbye thru the new owner I did not meet.

Here is a recording of my playing on my Steinway. Adieu to a Piano by Anne Ku

Steinway Grand Model A 188cm, 1909 New York, before recording session

Steinway Grand Model A 188cm, 1909 New York, before recording session

In summer 2006, the Steinway moved with me to Utrecht. We launched the Monument House Concert Series with a violin and guitar concert by Duo 46. That December we chose the theme Piano as Orchestra, featuring several concertos (harp, euphonium, guitar). The following year we combined food with music in Chamber Music Tapas Style. Every year we committed to organizing two house concerts. Often we had several mini concerts, including a kitchen concert, garden concert, impromptu concert. Each time we became more adventurous and more professional. We outsourced food and wine to professional chefs and wine sommeliers. We included art exhibitions.

On my last trip back to the Netherlands, I felt compelled to host two concerts back to back. Despite being time-challenged with only 2.5 months to sort out my things, I felt it was important to organize these concerts for two American pianists on their way to the Italian alps. Why? Maybe instinctively I knew it was the last time my grand piano would be heard in a concert setting. Sure enough, 2nd July 2011 became the last house concert.

And the last recordings were that of piano duets I had collected from a Call for Scores from Hawaii to Holland. Here’s Brendan Kinsella and I playing my late composition teacher Henk Alkema’s piece.

APPEAL:

This Steinway Grand, made in New York in 1909, model A – 188 cm – needs a home. SALE. RENT. or LOAN.

Steinway for Sale with new photos and sound clips.

Interested parties please use the LEAVE A REPLY field below.

Steinway Grand at the Monument House, Utrecht

Steinway Grand at the Monument House, Utrecht

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Recording our first CD (part 1: location)

We have arrived at the final stage of getting our first CD out of the Monument House to the CD printers. It has taken 9 years to put together our first CD.

Why has it taken so long, you ask. Read my blog “the long and winding road towards our first CD” to get an idea.

Last autumn, we decided to find a suitable location to record for our first CD. After a guitar duo concert in August 2009, we did a test recording at Leendert Meeshuis in Bilthoven. Surrounded by a forest, the building is named after a doctor who played piano to his patients. Hummel’s Potpourri was good enough to include on this CD but where?

We tried recording at the church in Bennebroek where we had given a concert in April 2009. I liked the Bechstein, and the proprietor remembered us. After getting it tuned, we discovered that the church had too much reverb. We needed human bodies to bring down the echo.

Next we tried both halls of the new building of the Pier K music school in Nieuw Vennep. The outdoor construction made it impossible to continue without long breaks. Still we managed to get the Polonoise (Polonaise) from the Variations op. 113 (65) of Giuliani recorded.

Concert hall in Pier K music school, Nieuw Vennep

Concert hall in Pier K music school, Nieuw Vennep

It was September 2009. We had house concerts to organise, a guest from South Africa to welcome, and our own concerts to prepare for. Unlike the previous years when we changed programmes for every concert, we had stuck to one programme in 2009. We wanted to move on. We had to get it recorded.

We decided to go for the sure thing. Hire a studio for recording.

Immediately after the house concerts, we went to the newly built Centrum XXI in Utrecht to record ourselves. We were surprised to find various percussion instruments cluttered around the Bechstein grand.

Big hall of Centrum XXI in Utrecht

Big hall of Centrum XXI in Utrecht

We had given a concert in this hall at the Utrecht Uitfeest in mid-September 2009. Our contemporary music programme “Pull, pluck, strum, bang!” worked well in such a new building. Actually the building was not even officially opened then. Ironically, the previous day we had played our traditional programme (what is on our first CD) in a 600-year old building in Utrecht as part of the Open Monument Day celebrations throughout the Netherlands.

For a week, we dedicated ourselves to recording, listening, and re-recording Vivaldi, Hummel, Giuliani, Torroba, and Rodrigo. We agreed that Robert would edit the recording and I would work on the text.

In mid-October, while I was in Italy, Robert listened to the recordings. Naively I had expected our CD to be ready by the time I returned in November. Even after I got back from Helsinki, it was still not ready. Surely it would be ready by Christmas. No, it wasn’t. Not New Years either.

By Chinese New Year in mid-February 2010, I was getting very impatient. I set a final deadline. It has to be ready by the time we leave for Taiwan where a big family reunion awaits in less than two weeks.

Below, Robert plays Asturias after a long recording day at Centrum XXI in Utrecht.

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Choosing a CD cover

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, photo credit: Anjam Ahmad, London 2002

While Robert is getting our first CD produced, I’m looking around for a suitable image for the CD cover. Should we use the first official photograph taken of us or the last?

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo at Warmond, photo credit: Humphrey Daniels 2008

Or is it more timeless to use something more abstract? Perhaps a drawing, such as the one below by a young artist after seeing our concert in Oosterkerk, Amsterdam?

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo in Amsterdam, acryllic on wood by Elea Bekkers 2009

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