Chets: Inside Europe’s Biggest Summer School for Pianists

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

A shiny black Schimmel grand piano is stretched across the corner of a classroom normally reserved for French lessons. A small group of people sit in a semi-circle around the piano, some with musical scores opened on their laps, others with notebooks and pencils poised.

A man – a doctor in another life – has just played the Aria and first variation from Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations.

The teacher, a thoughtful quietly-spoken man, offers some positive feedback on the performance and suggests that the pianist remembers to “breathe” when playing – both physically and metaphorically. This is followed by an enthusiastic discussion about phrasing, tempo rubato, the use of pedal in Bach, reverence in classical music, and much more….

Welcome to the world of “Chets” – Europe’s biggest summer school for pianists

The piano summer school is now an established part of the year for many amateur pianists, and the recent launch of several new summer piano courses is a mark of their continued popularity. Much more than a “piano holiday”, the piano summer school is an opportunity to study with leading pianist-teachers, build confidence in performing, observe others being taught, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation, and while many of us actively enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists.

Carlo Grante with a student at Chets

Carlo Grante with a student at Chets

One of the most popular and respected piano summer schools is held annually at Chetham’s, the specialist music school in Manchester, UK. Taking place over two weeks in mid-August, “Chets”, as it is affectionately known, is the largest piano summer school in Europe and attracts pianists and teachers from around the world. Established in 2001, Chets may not be the oldest piano summer school, but it certainly promises to be the most vibrant, inspiring and above all, friendly. In addition to the adult piano courses, there are courses for children and teenagers, and talented young musicians who are preparing for auditions for conservatoire. This year also saw the launch of a new dedicated course for piano teachers. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are lectures, workshops, concerts and other activities every day throughout the course to satisfy the most voracious of pianophiles.

Accommodation is provided in the school, and faculty and students eat together in the dining hall, which creates a nicely welcoming and democratic ambiance for all participants, amateur and professional. Individual lessons and workshops take place throughout the school: Chetham’s has a wealth of fantastic amenities, including the wonderful new Stoller Hall concert venue (opened in 2017), and additional pianos are brought in to ensure there’s no shortage of teaching and practice facilities. Every participant receives a personalized timetable and their preferences for specific tutors are accommodated as far as possible. The detailed organization of Chets is impressive and ensures that people get the very best out of their week there.

Stoller Hall, Chetham's School of Music

Stoller Hall, Chetham’s School of Music

There is no such thing as a “closed” lesson at Chets, so students can observe as many lessons and workshops as they wish during the course, in addition to attending their own one-to-one lessons. Watching others being taught can be highly insightful, offering valuable nuggets of information about technique, context, musical thought and performance, and teachers can also gain a lot from seeing other tutors in action. There are also performing opportunities to give participants the chance to play for others, and faculty concerts every evening: the first evening I was at Chets I attended three professional concerts in succession.

Janáček: On the Overgrown Path: Our Evenings
The support given to adult amateur pianists at Chets is particularly impressive. While many summer schools and courses cater only for “advanced pianists” (Grade 8-plus), Chets welcomes amateur pianists of all levels. The very popular daily adult amateur workshop gives amateur pianists the opportunity to play before a friendly audience and receive feedback on their playing from a sympathetic tutor. Many participants are self-effacing, uncertain of their abilities or shy of being too expressive for fear of appearing to show off. “It’s only a practice session!” says one performer as she nervously approaches the piano. The tutor encourages her to “cherish the sound” and enjoy playing a really lovely grand piano. The resulting performance of miniatures by Janáček is tender and poignant. Another person plays a slow movement from an early Beethoven sonata with great poise and sensitivity and the silence before the applause at the end of her performance is a mark of how much her playing touched us all.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3 – II. Adagio
This to me was one of the most inspiring things about being at Chets: the passion and commitment of amateur pianists is extraordinary. These are people from all walks of life, many of whom have busy lives, snatching precious moments at their beloved instrument between the demands of work and family life. For many, Chets is the focus of their year and the months leading up to the summer school are spent selecting and preparing repertoire. Everyone spoke of the “special atmosphere” at Chets – the quality of the teaching and the benefit of being amongst so many other pianists, all of whom understand and appreciate “what makes us tick”. At Chets people feel truly comfortable amongst “piano friends”.

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