Phil started improvising and playing by ear on the piano from a very young age. When he was only 7, he could play complex music by ear, including some works of Chopin. He was not a confident child, being very shy and suffering from a stammer, so music and performing on the piano were a wonderful outlet. His first teacher, Ella Pounder, nurtured his talents with great care. However, sadly at the age of 9, he changed teacher and was taught using a rigid, highly pressurised approach that was potentially destructive to his natural abilities. He was made to do lots of examinations and competitions, working on scales and technical exercises, learning pieces slowly, hands separately, with the metronome on, using set fingering and a muscular technique. This whole approach to playing music on the piano felt completely unnatural to him. But he continued to play in his own way whilst pretending to comply. Feeling rather like a fraud, still he managed to succeed in examinations – he passed grade 8 with distinction when he was just 11 – and to win many prizes in junior competitions. At 14, he decided he could pretend no longer and so changed teacher. He then studied with Denis Matthews, who was a perfect fit for Phil. During his 4 years with Prof. Matthews, he performed many challenging works in public concerts – such as Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit at the Kings Hall in Newcastle, Frank’s Variations Symphoniques at Lyons Hall in York and Moszkowski’s suite in G minor for 2 violins and piano with Sarah and Margaret Herring at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. But he never felt under pressure under such infectious and enthusiastic guidance.
At 18, he went to the Royal Northern College of music to study piano with Ryszard Bakst. He entered some international competitions and did well but struggled with the stress that inevitably goes with competing at such a high level and he felt that in order to succeed in the competitive arena, he would have to play in a way that was at odds with his natural musical sensibilities. So at 19, he decided to stop taking part in competitions. He continued to give numerous public concerts at the RNCM during his four years there, performing many big works: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Janacek’s Capriccio for left hand and wind ensemble, Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and wind orchestra and many more. He won the Elizabeth Hannah Lees Scholarship, the Frederick Dawson Piano Prize and graduated with first class honours.
After graduating, Phil was rather exhausted. The classical piano world seemed to be at variance with his artistic and musical ideals. So he took a break from music, only to return 12 months later, playing and also singing with new direction and enthusiasm. He had studied singing at the RNCM with Vera Cross and his warm, light bari-tenor voice transferred well to other vocal styles, particularly soul jazz. He worked in hotels and restaurants, singing and playing jazz standards and also took to writing and recording his own jazzy RnB songs. Working in recording studios gave him the opportunity to learn all about music production.
He also began playing classical piano again but with a very different attitude. He would talk to the audience between pieces about his relationship with the music and play in his own natural, intelligible way. He performed throughout the UK and occasionally in Europe, offering innovative but accessible programmes, including some of his own compositions and improvisations.
He also worked as a freelance piano teacher and accompanist, coaching singers and other instrumentalists. Initially he taught piano in the traditional way with only a few adaptations but he always felt hypocritical making his pupils work in a way that was so different from his own fluent musicianship. Although his students did well, passing exams successfully by playing scales and pieces proficiently after many hours of rehearsal, they could not play by ear, improvise, sight-read properly (hear a score internally when they see it for the first time) and they found learning new music slow and laborious. He longed to find a way to empower his students by teaching them the kind of fluent musical skills which he himself possessed and which made music so much easier for him.
He stopped performing and teaching piano and singing for 6 years during which time he worked as an A level composition and music technology teacher at Aquinas 6th Form College in Stockport, Manchester. Whilst studying for his PGCE, he focused on musical fluency and literacy as his specialised area of study, and found that there was little research being done on this subject at that time. This increased his determination to address the under-represented field of musical fluency and teach people how to handle the “language of music” fluently.
In 2007, he moved to London where he began teaching fluent musicianship on the piano. He has crystallised his approach into a unique and powerful model of how music works on the keys and is now beginning to work towards spreading these ideas more widely by creating a websites devoted to sharing this radical and effective teaching approach – MakeMusicFluently.com and PlayPianoFluently.com
After moving to the capital, he also began working to develop his jazzy soul singing but whilst working with a teacher, he experienced some serious vocal problems. His work as a répétiteur had given him the opportunity to work closely with many wonderful singing teachers. So he drew on this extensive experience and read and researched any literature about vocal technique he could find. This led him to develop a new model of vocal training, designed to generate not only a natural and healthy technique but also fluent vocal musicianship. He now teaches his own model for training fluent singing musicianship to students.
Phil has also returned to performing, recording and producing as an artist. He now uses advanced technology in the form of Pianoteq which gives him a large suite of different pianos to perform on – current, historical and futuristic. He features improvisation a great deal in live shows and recordings. He is gradually gaining a growing number of devoted followers and is delighted with his small-scale, fringe success. As an artist, he spans a moderately wide range of styles and so shares his music in distinct projects and you can find out more about these on this website. As a compulsive improviser and composer, Phil creates an eclectic mix of music, ranging quite widely in terms of genre, mood and instrumentation. A few years ago, a high-end music library asked to use some of his piano recordings and subsequently also published some of his orchestral and electronica pieces and he has had music has placed in TV shows. Whilst commercial music is not his focus, he welcomes this extra dimension for sharing his music more widely.
It will be clear from Phil’s story that he has had quite an uneasy relationship with the pressures of career ambition and self-promotion – something which many people will relate to. But he has developed ways of working as a professional musician – and now as a teacher – based on the solid foundations of powerful fluent musical skills and authentic artistic values which gives him freedom and independence as a communicator without having to project any hollow bravado. Phil has practised meditation for many years and combined with his approach to music, has recently begun to offer coaching in this area too. His website ResonantFlow.com is devoted to this area of work.
Phil’s aim is to work tirelessly to improve and develop his musicianship skills whilst deepening his enquiry as a teacher and coach and to use music not as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement but as an empowering, healing and even essential force for good in human society.