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Updated 13 Mar 2012

National Youth Orchestra





James Ching

James Ching (1900-1961), concert pianist, teacher and author of books on piano technique.

You can purchase recordings made by James Ching.

Samuel James Ching, known in the musical world as James Ching, was born on 19th April 1900 at 9 Liverpool Road, Thorton Heath, Croydon, Surrey. His father, also called Samuel James Ching, was a civil servant and his mother Alice was a teacher and a gifted pianist. She recognised that her son was also very musical and when he was seven years old she took him to play the piano to Henry Wood who was then a rising young conductor. He advised her to take her son to the Royal Academy of Music where he became the youngest junior student ever accepted by the Academy. He studied under Tobias Matthay, then one of its professors of piano.

In 1914 the family moved to Ipswich as James’ father had been promoted and James went to Queen Elizabeth School in Ipswich where he learnt the piano with Stanley Wilson who was making a name for himself in composition. James also learnt to play the organ and at the age of seventeen passed both his FRCO and ARCO and won an organ scholarship to the Royal College of Music. In 1918 he contracted the influenza which was rampant at the time and nearly died. As a result James did not go to university until he entered Queen’s College Oxford in October 1920. He did not study music as the subject was not allowed as a first degree but possibly PPE as I know he studied logic as part of the course. During his time in Oxford he taught part time at St Edward’s School and also gave a number of recitals including some in the Holywell Music Room where much earlier Haydn had conducted his Oxford Symphony. He also became part of the Garsington Set under the famous hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell where he met many members of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, T S Elliot, Stanley Spenser and Walter de la Mare. (There are photographs of James Ching taken by Ottoline Morrell in the garden at Garsington with these writers and painters in the National Gallery portrait collection.)

Following his first degree James went on to complete a BMUS at Oxford University and had probably decided on a musical career.

His family had recently moved to Leicester where his mother had started a small conservatoire of music and for some time he joined her in teaching there. During that time he gave several solo recitals and his piano students gave concerts in the Edward Wood Hall in Leicester. At that time James was also composing and several books of his compositions were published by Forsyth Brothers of Manchester. He also became a regular contributor to The Music Teacher magazine. His reputation in the musical world was becoming established.

From 1929 onwards James started to appear the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in the Queen’s Hall in London. In the first concert he joined Victor Hely-Hutchinson to play two Bach concertos for two keyboards and the players received good critical notices which lead to further concerts for both players. By this time James had decided to concentrate on the music of Bach which he particularly loved and which suited his small hands. He was by then living in London and teaching at the Incorporated London Academy of Music part time and supplementing his income by private teaching and by writing articles on piano playing. At this time he set up the James Ching Professional Service which in those days provided correspondence courses in preparation for the paperwork of most of the professional examinations for pianists and also sent out editing of set pieces and typed notes on performance for practical examinations. Later on, after his death in 1962, the service continued and was expanded to offer notes and analysis for school teachers preparing students for A level examinations, which it still does. Eventually the help for pianists taking professional examinations and for students taking Associated Board Piano Examinations was discontinued.

At the end of the 1920s James was becoming particularly interested in developing an improved piano technique and he decided to go over to Germany to take some consultation lessons with Breithaupt. He was particularly concerned with the problem of pianists developing tendonitis on account of the excessive systems of technical exercises currently promoted. As a result of these and his own study of technique James embarked on a book about piano technique using scientific study and assisted by Professor Hartridge , a physiologist from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. They were also helped in their study by Mr H T Jessop, Senior Lecturere in Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College London who could check the mechanical limitations of the piano. This book was eventually published in 1934 under the title of Piano Technique: Foundation Principles.

Unfortunately, this scientific analysis of piano technique led James to the conclusion that the methods employed by his former teacher at the Academy Tobias Matthas, which had been examined crucially in the book, were not the best solution to acquiring an excellent technique. This was not received well by Matthay’s supporters and the book received an unfavourable review, despite its scientific foundations. James became rather isolated amongst the musical elite although he did have quite a strong following of devoted supporters. At this time James became a visiting teacher and musical advisor at Downham School, a girls’ boarding school in Hertfordshire. In 1936 he appointed Principal of the Brighton School of Music although he still maintained a studio flat in London where he could prepare for his own concerts . This also allowed him to continue teaching his own private pupils and preparing them for recitals at the Wigmore Hall. At this time he continued broadcasting for the BBC and to playing in the Promenade Concerts. In 1939 he had been booked for three Promenade Concerts; the first in August went off successfully but the other two had to be cancelled when all London Theatres and Concert Halls were closed in anticipation of the expected German bombing of London. It is not clear what happened to the Brighton School of Music at the outset of war but there is no reference to James being connected with it after that date. Possibly it was closed down or went into decline because of the war. The whole of the music department of the BBC was rapidly transferred to Bristol where it stayed until later on when it was transferred to Bedford.

During the war James lived in Cumnor just outside Oxford where he continued some private teaching and met up with several musical friends, including Thomas Armstrong who was Heather Professor of Music in the University and Director of the Bach Choir. He gave several concerts in Oxford, one in particular (for which the programme is still exists in the Bodlean Library), was for three pianos, where he played with Thomas Armstrong, and his second wife Betty Reeves. At this time James was developing an interesting the writings and teachings of Freud. He had been introduced to these ideas by a fellow bridge player called Dr Eidelberg, a psycho-analyst, who had been trained by Freud himself. He started to write book on the effect of nerves on piano performance called Performer and Audience which was influenced by his study of Freud’s theories. At this time he was also preparing a book of Lectures based on those which he had given to teachers and students in London before the war. This was later published under the title Piano Playing. During the war James broadcast regularly for the BBC both from Bristol and later on from Bedford. He gave private lessons and composed a song cycle which still exists in manuscript form. . In 1942 he had his portrait painted in oils by John Haggis. The inscription on the picture is James Ching playing Bach’s music at Tewin September 2nd 1942. It is possible that the artist was known to one of his pupils in that area, or there might have been a connection with someone he had known during his pre-war teaching at Downham School which was in that area.

At the end of the war in 1945 James bought a large house in London where he planned to open a school of piano playing. It was in Hampstead (8 Hollycroft Avenue) and had three floors with a huge semi- basement suitable for use as a small concert hall for the students. The James Ching Piano School was launched in the beginning of 1946 with a fanfare of posters and advertisements and teaching staff were engaged in preparation for the new term. James put all his energies into planning lectures, arranging students’ concerts and to enrolling a number of students of all ages. Rooms were equipped with pianos and the basement was fitted out with two grand pianos and fifty stacking chairs. Prospectuses were printed and at the same time a new magazine called The Piano Teacher was launched. James’ book on performance nerves was published under the title Performer and Audience. This was probably the high point of James career but the great promise of s successful school never really materialised. Under the influence of a management consultant he set up a limited company for the school but grandiose plans by the consultant resulted in over expansion. Then, with the advent of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1948, Hollycroft Avenue was designated for residential use only and the school had to close. It was difficult to find another suitable building to house the school and the whole project collapsed.

James gave up all thoughts of a piano school after that. He rented a flat further up the road in Hampstead and continued with a life of teaching, writing articles and developing the Professional Service. He installed recording equipment in this flat so that students could listen to their own playing and also in order to send out his own records as part of his correspondence courses for the James Ching Professional Service. In the 1950s he continued to write articles, judge music festivals, and teach private pupils in Hampstead. One other book was published during that period called Teaching the Piano to Children. James also edited a number of music books for the publishers Keith Prowse, which were popular with piano teachers.

He died in July 1962 in the flat in Hampstead which had been his main home for many years. His reputation rests mainly with his books on piano technique, which are still highly regarded by the musical establishment.

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