Meet the Artist……Stephen Hough

(photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

(photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I think the piano was its own inspiration.  We had no classical music in my home at all but an aunt had a piano and it was love at first vamp.  I picked out tunes on its yellow keys and wanted to take lessons.  it was a short step (over a long time) for that to become my career.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Definitely my main piano teacher Gordon Green.  Also Derrick Wyndham (both taught at the RNCM) then later Robert Mann (former 1st violinist of the Juilliard Quartet) with whom I played and recorded all the Beethoven sonatas in the 1980s.  I was 23 and had everything to learn; he was a great partner and, indirectly, a teacher.  I would also cite Alfred Cortot and many other pianists from the first decades of the 20th century whose playing I got to know well through recordings.  They were always and remain my favourites.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Just doing it – day after day.  Specifically the extreme contrast between being as tough as a old boot offstage (travel, hotels, paperwork etc. etc.) and as sensitive as a bejewelled ballet shoe when at the piano.  It requires a unique kind of schizophrenia!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Ah tough to say!  The Hummel concerto record was the first one where I felt good in the studio, despite very little time.  We had less than six hours for each concerto, to rehearse from scratch (correcting parts along the way) and record.  it was seat of the pants but I still remember the exhilaration and excitement of playing those pieces and making the first complete recording of works which were absolutely central to the repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann etc.  Later Mompou was a joy to record and more recently my own 2nd piano sonata (on the CD ‘In the Night’).  Strange to record your own music!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I really can’t say.  But I do feel able to slip into different roles.  I feel as involved and connected playing Mozart and Beethoven as I do playing Chopin and Liszt as I do playing Schoenberg and Webern.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Some of it ties in with recording plans, sometimes there are anniversaries, or specific requests.  With concertos it depends a lot on the programming being done by the conductor and management of the orchestras.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Not really.  Many famous halls are famous because they’re great – main stage of Carnegie New York or Concertgebouw Amsterdam or Musikverein Vienna.  The Wigmore of course is special.  I also love Severance Hall in Cleveland … too many to name though.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Impossible to say!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Mainly those who died before I was born – Cortot, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Kreisler etc.  I’ve worked a lot with Steven Isserlis and he is one of my favourites, for personal as well as musical reasons.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my debut at the Hollywood Bowl when I raced over from Cheshire to replace Pogorelich at the last minute.  it was my first taste of the fast-lane, crazy side of having a career.  Paganini Rhapsody with Sir Charles Groves.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising.

What are you working on at the moment?

Always three sorts of work: refreshing pieces for upcoming concerts; revising works not played for a while; and learning new ones.  All the Beethoven concertos are around me at the moment and they fall into all three of these categories.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Same place but deeper.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Surprised by happiness when not looking for it – and sharing it with someone else.

What is your most treasured possession?

My sanity.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Many things.  To choose one would be to squeeze it dry of magic.

What is your present state of mind?

Content yet tired and a little anxious – but grateful for life and health and food and friends.

Named by ‘The Economist’ as one of 20 Living Polymaths, British pianist Stephen Hough is a rare renaissance man of our time. Over the course of a long and distinguished career as one of the world’s leading concert pianists, he has also excelled as a writer and composer. Mr. Hough combines an exceptional facility and tonal palette with a uniquely inquisitive musical personality, and his musical achievements have resulted in many awards and accolades for his concerts and a discography of more than fifty recordings.

Stephen Hough was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.

Stephen Hough’s full biography

www.stephenhough.com

 

Helen Burford at Burgh House

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Critically-acclaimed Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford will give an afternoon recital on Sunday 11th May at Burgh House, an elegant Queen Anne house in the heart of Hampstead. The programme includes Debussy’s atmospheric ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes, Martin Butler’s contemporary evocation of the mechanised modern age Rumba Machine, Japanese composer Somei Satoh’s compelling Incarnation II, Julie Harris’s American Triptych inspired by traditional folk melodies, and Gershwin’s evergreen hommage to the New York City of the jazz age, Rhapsody in Blue.

Programme
Martin Butler – Rumba Machine
Somei Satoh – Incarnation II
Debussy – Pagodes (Estampes, L.100)
Haydn – Sonata in C major, NO.60, Hob.XVI:50
Julie Harris – American Tryptych
i. Old Joe Clark
ii. Hush-A-Bye
iii. Shortnin’ Bread
Gershwin – Rhapsody In Blue

Venue & further details
Burgh House
New End Square
Hampstead
London NW3 1LT

Sunday 11th May, 2.15pm

Tickets (£11 & £7 concessions): http://www.wegottickets.com/event/262000

Helen is also performing as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. Full details here

http://helenburford.com/

http://www.burghhouse.org.uk/

 

St Barnabas Beethoven Piano Sonatas Festival 2014

St Barnabas church in Ealing, west London, plays host to two whole days of Beethoven, over the weekend of 17th and 18th May.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas have an evergreen appeal, and cycles are standard fare in concerts around the world, usually presented in a series of 8 concerts. Last autumn British pianist Julian Jacobson performed all 32 sonatas in a single day, for charity, a marathon of music making and an extraordinary test of stamina. The St Barnabas Beethoven Piano Sonata Festival is different: all 32 sonatas will be performed by 32 distinguished performers, in chronological order, from 2pm on Saturday 17th May, with intervals, tea and supper breaks. Performers include Viv McLean (Op 49/2), Julian Jacobson (Op 14/1), Angela Brownridge (Op 57 ‘Appassionato’), Kathron Sturrock (Op 2/1), Colin Stone (Op 2/2), Karim Said (Op 28 ‘Pastoral’) and Leeds International Piano Competition 2012 finalist Jayson Gillham (Op 101). Festival organiser Dr Hugh Mather takes to the stage himself to perform the Opus 106 ‘Hammerklavier’. The audience will not only have the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful musical journey and the development of the piano sonata in Beethoven’s hands and his distinct musical personality, but also the chance to appreciate the individual talents and interpretation of each pianist, thus offering personal and unique insights into Beethoven’s creative impulse.

chopinfestival13

Concerts at St Barnabas are presented ‘in the round’, so the audience can feel close and connected to performers, and the venue boasts a superb Bösendorfer concert grand (previously used by the BBC at Maida Vale for broadcasts on Radio 3). A state-of-the-art projection system ensures  everyone in the audience can see the pianist – and their hands – at close quarters

www.barnabites.org/beethovenfestival/

Details

Afternoon sessions from 2 to 6 pm, evening sessions from 7 to 10 pm on each day, with regular intervals for refreshments, and tea and supper are available.

Admission for each session will be £12 (£6 for students/young people), or £40 for the entire festival. No tickets will be issued beforehand: please just turn up. The church is very large and admission is guaranteed. There is ample free parking in nearby streets. All proceeds will go towards St Barnabas church funds. All lovers of Beethoven, and of fine piano-playing, are strongly encouraged to come along to this exceptional event.

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas – an earlier article about the enduring appeal of these works

Meet the Artist……Samantha Ward, pianist

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Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

My mother was the first major influence in my pianistic life as she saw me fiddling away on our terrible upright piano at home (which had actually been sitting in flood water in a freezing cold garage!) and decided to take me to lessons.  Her idea of taking piano lessons for a term to see how I would take to it was something I wasn’t all that enthralled about and I was convinced I wanted to learn the ‘cello instead.  The rest is history!  Later on, I was inspired by such artists as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Emil Gilels and many others.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing? 

I was lucky enough to have fantastic teachers throughout my early years in particular (Leslie Riskowitz who started me off on the piano and Polish pianist AlicjaFiderkiewicz at Chetham’s.  I then went onto study with Joan Havill at the Guildhall).  The people I work with are also wonderful influences, in both chamber music groups and those who I have met and played to in masterclasses.  Stephen Kovacevich and Boris Berman both inspired me immensely.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Balancing everything in life and finding enough time to be with the instrument as well as remaining resilient against the odds a lot of the time.  A pianist’s life is a tough but rewarding one and simply managing to find the necessary time to practise enough whilst financing life in London and building a career is a real challenge.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

I find it extremely rewarding to work with orchestras and ensembles and as a pianist, there are so many wonderful concerti and chamber music works out there.  It is a truly great feeling to make music with someone else and to share the whole experience together on stage.  This is something which solo pianists can sometimes miss out on a little, generally needing to spend a lot of time alone in practice rooms to learn all those notes!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I was lucky enough to give my solo debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2007 and this was a truly wonderful experience.  Last year, I performed Dora Bright’s piano concerto with Charles Peebles and the Morley Chamber Orchestra, which was the first performance since the nineteenth century as well as the first ever recording of the work.  The same will be true of the ‘Variations for Piano and Orchestra’ which we are going to be recording later this year.  I was also proud to be asked to record Rory Freckleton’s piano works recently and am looking forward to the CD being ready.

How do you make repertoire choices from season to season? 

Specific concerti are usually requested by orchestras but in terms of solo repertoire, I tend to play to my strengths as much as possible, whilst trying to create a balanced and varied programme.  At the current stage in my career, I am also trying to learn and perform as much new repertoire as possible, so that I come back to it having already learnt it rather than starting it afresh when I am older.

What repertoire do you think you play best? 

I feel most at home with the Germans!  I particularly enjoy playing Brahms and love the bigger works such as the F minor Sonata and the two concerti.  I also think Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Gershwin and Ireland suit me quite well.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

The Wigmore Hall would have to be my favourite!  I also very much enjoy performing at Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall, the De Montfort Hall in Leicester and at St John’s Smith Square in London.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Well this is a very hard one to answer as there are so many!  To name but a few, I would have to say Mischa Maisky, Martha Argerich, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emma Kirkby and Daniel Barenboim.    On a more personal level, there are also many musicians with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the years.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

It would have to be playing at the Wigmore Hall. I also loved playing on the Greek island of Paros.  I played the inaugural recital in the new piano festival which was launched there a few years ago.  It was amazing to perform in such an idyllic setting in the most beautiful surroundings to people who had rarely been exposed to live classical music concerts.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

I love playing Brahms and Beethoven in particular and also have fun playing Gershwin.  In terms of listening to music, unless I am going to a concert, I tend not to listen to all that much classical music.  I love jazz and could listen to Oscar Peterson all day.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students? 

Practise like mad when you are studying as there is never the time to do so later on.  I would also suggest learning all the major works of the repertoire and get first performances done as soon as possible, as this helps greatly when returning to them in the future.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and Mendelssohn’s 1st for forthcoming performances.  Then a solo recording in September.  Also, I am working at duo repertoire for a recital with the wonderful ‘cellist Brian O’Kane and at trio repertoire for a concert again with Brian and Fenella Humphreys with whom I love performing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having good health, a busy life as a concert pianist and having a flat on the Greek island of Paros with my partner, Maciej.  The island, despite being small, has an airport so travelling to concerts wouldn’t be a problem and the food, weather and people are wonderful there!

You are artistic director of Piano Week, launched in 2013. Tell us more about Piano Week…. 

Piano Week is my new festival and summer school for pianists of all ages and abilities which takes place this year at Bangor University in North Wales from 10th-15th August 2014.  I wanted to create something new in the piano world and to build an international concert platform for pianists from around the world.  I decided to launch it in North Wales as I grew up there and hadn’t heard of a pianistic venture such as this in the area before, so I decided to make it happen!  We have an international faculty lined up to give recitals and master classes throughout the 2014 festival and we are lucky enough to be supported by Blüthner who are lending us a brand new concert grand for the duration of the festival this year.  Pianist magazine recently included an article about the festival in their April/May issue and Schott Music publishers will once again be presenting a showcase at Piano Week 2014.  Please go to www.pianoweek.com for more information on the summer school and how to apply.

British pianist Samantha Ward has performed extensively around the UK and in Europe and has appeared on British television and radio several times.  In October 2007, she gave her solo debut recital at London’s Wigmore Hall and has given solo recitals in such venues as St Martin in the Fields, St John’s Smith Square, St David’s Hall Cardiff and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, as well as in concert halls around Europe.  Most recently, in February 2013, Samantha was invited to become a Bluthner Artist and was installed as a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. 

Samantha Ward is also the artistic director of Piano Week, a festival and summer school at the University of Bangor, north Wales. Full details here  

Samantha Ward’s full biography 

www.samanthaward.org

www.pianoweek.com

 

Valentina Lisitsa at Wigmore Hall

(photo: Gilbert Francois)

Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa first performed at London’s Wigmore Hall in late 2007. Since then, she has gone on to achieve an almost cult following on YouTube, due in no small part to her selfless posting of videos of her practice sessions, usually the most private and personal preserve of the musician’s working life.  I suspect that these glimpses into her daily musical routines have endeared her to her followers, proving that she, like the rest of us, has to work hard for her art. Clearly adept at harnessing the relatively new medium of YouTube and its associated social networking applications, she has enjoyed a cool 70 million clicks on her videos together with concerts at The Yellow Lounge, a neat concept established in Berlin in 2006 to bring classical music to a much younger audience by holding concerts in nightclubs.

I admit to being slightly wary of anything or anyone that is labelled “a sensation” or “must see/hear” (ditto “iconic” – a word which should probably be banned from all publicity material and reviews of musicians, books and art exhibitions!). However, I was curious to hear Valentina Lisitsa in concert as I had read largely positive things about her live performances, so I went to hear her at Wigmore Hall on Monday lunchtime with ears and mind very much open and receptive.

Ms Lisitsa is tall and slender, with long blonde hair, her lissome frame accentuated by a simple black gown and spindly stiletto sandals. Her stage presence is modest, demure almost: there are no flamboyant gestures or crowd-pleasing piano pyrotechnics beyond those technical theatrics necessarily for the music and when she plays she seems entirely focussed on the task in hand. For her lunchtime programme she presented two very well-known and highly dramatic sonatas – Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ and the craggy, Herculean Liszt B-minor, serious fare indeed.

The opening arpeggio of the Beethoven seemed unnecessarily elongated, so that its natural drama threatened to veer into the realms of cliché. However, taken with the explosive agitated first subject, when this motif reappeared, once again over-stretched, the effect was mysterious and convincing. A slow movement of beguiling warmth and tenderness prefaced an elegantly-turned finale, its tempo sufficiently reined in to allow us to enjoy Beethoven’s expression and inventiveness. I heard Maurizio Pollini play the same Sonata at the Royal Festival Hall a fortnight ago, and while the Italian maestro may have offered a more probing account born of many years spent living with this music, there was much to admire in Ms Lisitsa’s performance and there was no doubting her commitment, meticulous preparation, technical fluency and attention to detail. This proved a highly engaging reading of one of Beethoven’s best-loved Sonatas.

Liszt’s B-minor Sonata is a strange creature: heard on disc it can sound sprawling and disparate, but heard live and done well, it is a staggering music edifice. (Liszt scholar Alan Walker described it as “arguably one of the greatest keyboard works … of the nineteenth century”.) It takes an intelligent and daring pianist to pull all the elements together to create a whole. Divided into defined sections, demarcated by different tempo and expression markings – in effect, “movements” – these sections flow into one another, creating a single movement of non-stop music, lasting about 30 minutes.

Ms Lisitsa’s account had the requisite power and darkness in the opening statements, the famous theme which returns throughout the work. Her transitions between the sections were sensitively nuanced, creating a continuous, coherent narrative. There were moments of great transparency of sound, lyrical cantabile playing and delicate pianissimos. Her foot may have strayed to the una corda pedal a little too often in these passages, but overall her account was authoritative, at times thrillingly precipitous in the allegro and presto sections.

Checking with Sara Mohr Pietsch, the BBC Radio Three presenter for the concert, that an encore would be “allowed”, Ms Lisitsa gave a serene performance of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria. This was followed by a coruscating Chopin Etude (Op 10, No. 12), proving that she is very much a “real pianist” and one who, by her own admission on Twitter in the hours following the concert, “here to stay”.

 

At the Piano with Mark Polishook

What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

Masterclasses without tears

masterclass

ˈmɑːstəklɑːs

noun

noun: masterclass; plural noun: masterclasses; noun: master-class; plural noun: master-classes

1.

a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students.

The word “masterclass” can, for some, conjure up a terrifying scenario: the private lesson in public, with a formidable “master” teacher and a student quaking at the keyboard, their every error and slip heard and duly noted by teacher and audience. I remember watching music masterclasses on BBC Two in the 1970s (in the good old days when BBC Two broadcast such edifying and instructive arts programmes), with eminent musicians and teachers such as Daniel Barenboim and Paul Tortelier. It seemed to my junior piano student self a most nerve-wracking experience and certainly one to which I would not wish to submit.

Fast-forward thirty odd years and I’m now a mature piano student and teacher of piano. For me, the masterclass seems one of the most normal and beneficial ways of learning, providing as it does not just a lesson with a fine teacher but also a forum for critique by others and the exchange of ideas and discussion about aspects such as technique, interpretation, presentation and performance practice. It is this element of interaction with other pianists and active listeners/participants that makes the masterclass scenario quite different from the private lesson.

For students in conservatoire and specialist music schools, the masterclass is an every day form of learning, and for the teacher it is a way of sharing and passing on information to a group. A skilled teacher will ensure that all the participants in the class feel included, not just when they play, but also when others play, encouraging comments and discussion on what they have heard. A good teacher will also make sure negative comments are delivered in the kindest and most constructive way, so that participants feel supported and encouraged.

At many of the courses for adult amateur pianists in the UK and beyond, the masterclass is also a popular form of learning and teaching. Some of these classes are called “workshops” to make them sound more friendly, but in reality they are nearly always a group of c10 pianists, seated around the piano, eagerly absorbing wisdom from the teacher.

 My own teacher’s weekend courses are organised in the form of masterclasses, usually with 8 or 9 participants, which allows everyone the chance to play at least once a day. I admit that the first time I participated in one of these courses, I found the experience very daunting. By the end of the first day, I had decided everyone was far better than I! But by the end of the weekend, I had gained a huge amount from it, and I now look forward to such classes with relish.

Masterclasses are not just for advanced pianists either. The format is applicable to students of all levels and early students, and children, can benefit from observing a teacher working with another student on advanced repertoire, and vice versa. Seemingly complex aspects of technique can usually be reframed to suit early/intermediate students, and sometimes working on quite simple repertoire within a group can shed a new light on more difficult music.

 It is also useful training for concert/competition performance and can be a huge help in learning how to manage anxiety.

Watching a masterclass is a window onto how hard the pianist works and an insight into the practice of practising. Sometimes only fragments of a piece are worked over with the teacher, repeated, recast until a new, different or more exciting interpretation begins to emerge. Observing this process can be extremely exciting and enlightening, and for the masterclass participant, the instant feedback one receives from the teacher and other participants can be highly rewarding, often producing interesting and unexpected breakthroughs.

The London Piano Meetup Group, of which I am co-organiser, runs regular masterclasses with eminent teachers in central London locations. The next class is on Friday 25th April at the October Gallery, Bloomsbury, with pianist Ernest So. Further details here

London Masterclasses – now in its 26th year, London Masterclasses offerpublic masterclasses with leading performers working with advanced classical music students and young professionals before audiences in major London venues. Further information about the 2014 courses and tutors here

More on summer schools and courses for pianists.

A BBC masterclass with pianist David Owen Norris, which I attended as an observer: