On Professionalism in Private Piano Teaching – presentation for The Oxford Piano Group

I was delighted to be invited to contribute to a very interesting and stimulating discussion on the subject of professionalism in piano teaching at the The Oxford Piano Group  on 29th October 2014. Other contributors to this important debate were Nigel Scaife (Syllabus Director, ABRSM), Lucinda Mackworth-Young and Sharon Mark-Teggart (Evoco) who each gave presentations which explored the many facets of professionalism, including proper accreditation, good business practice, membership of professional bodies and minimum standards of qualifications for piano teachers. After the presentations, there was a round table discussion about professionalism, which touched on other important aspects, including the setting of fees.

My own presentation was based on my personal views on this subject, discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession, and the results of my recent survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers.  The slides which I used as a starting point for my presentation and discussion are below, and you can read the text on which I based my presentation here: OPG presentation (click to download the PDF file)

 

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Meet the Artist…… Francesca Barritt, violinist

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

My father is a violinist and my mother a cellist. As a small child I used to play on a spare violin as if it was a cello. When I was eight my father gave me my first five-minute lesson on how to play the violin ‘the right way round’. I liked it so much better and knew that I had to learn this instrument so I could play just like him! In the end, the inspiration to make violin playing my career came from my experience in the National Youth Orchestra. The feeling of being in the middle of such an extraordinary sound was one that I wanted to be a permanent part of my life.

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

My violin teachers have all been hugely influential on my outlook. My childhood teachers Joan Penrose and Susan Collier taught me how to love my playing and how to practise effectively and efficiently, as well as giving me a really solid technical start. I always hear the voices of my two music college teachers (Yossi Zivoni and Richard Deakin) in my head while I practise and feel immense gratitude towards them for their great wisdom and encouragement. My parents’ continual love of music and performing for others is a constant inspiration.

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

The greatest challenge was overcoming a long period of performance anxiety. This is something that many performers shy away from talking about, which is a shame. I think we could all help one another if we talk about it more. A few years on, I feel a much stronger and more resilient musician as a result of the experience.

More recently, I performed in Aurora Orchestra’s Prom. We played a Mozart symphony from memory. It was at once completely terrifying and exhilarating.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Ensemble Matisse gave its Southbank Centre debut in January performing Triada by Christobal Halffter. I doubt I will ever come across a piece of chamber music so techinically challenging. We rehearsed the piece for more that forty five hours! The performance, in the presence of the composer himself, went brilliantly. We all had an enormous sense of pride and satisfaction!

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

I choose repertoire based on two things: what does the concert promoter/ music society want? Which pieces am I longing to play? Then I also try very hard to programme creatively and intelligently so that there is a sense of balance, continuity and variety in every concert. Whenever possible, I try to stretch myself technically and step outside of my comfort zones.

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

I absolutely love playing at the Albert Hall. I think this is mainly because I have many wonderful memories of going to listen to BBC Proms there as a teenager and longing to be on stage. Now that I am often given the opportunity to perform there, I feel so lucky! There is no feeling quite like a standing ovation at a packed Albert Hall.

For chamber music I really enjoy playing house concerts. It can be great to be so close to the audience as you get very direct feedback while you are playing. Large concert halls can feel really impersonal sometimes.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Both to perform and listen to: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. I don’t think I could ever get bored of it.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Leonid Kavakos, Janine Jansen, Ella Fitzgerald, Roby Lakatos…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Well – I’m afraid this one is memorable for all the wrong reasons and mainly because it was completely ridiculous…

I once accidentally got involved with a performance at an experimental art exhibition. We ended up having to perform one of Brahms’s sublime string quartets a with our wrists all chained to one another’s. It was impossible and impossibly funny. Sorry Brahms.

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

Some things I wish I had discovered/ realised sooner:

  1. Performing should be about your audience’s enjoyment. Getting too sidetracked by minutiae could be at the expense of them having a good time. Get your priorities in order!
  2. The most important things your teacher will teach you are the things you didn’t even know were a problem. Your teacher should be teaching you to practise. A ‘good’ lesson is not necessarily a lesson where you play well.
  3. Practise is an art. Be proud of being an amazing practiser. I love practising. I wish I had more time for it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am preparing to give five world premieres written for my group Ensemble Matisse at the New Dots autumn event “Interference Patterns” at Kings Place on the 3rd of November. We will play four works composed in collaboration with film makers by Lisa Illean, Daniel Kidane, Ewan Campbell and Liam Taylor West. We will also give the first performance of ‘Degrees of Freedom’ by renowned Dutch composer Jan Vriend.

What is your most treasured possession?

The most treasured object in my life is definitely my violin, but this does not feel like a possession- rather more that I am its caretaker for a while. Apart from that I think my most treasured possession is my good health.

 

Violinist Francesca Barritt recently graduated with destinction as a Master of Arts from the Royal Academy of Music in London where she studied with Richard Deakin and was previously a pupil of Yossi Zivoni at the Royal College of Music. Francesca was chosen to lead the symphony orchestras at both the RCM and the RAM. She has held the position of principal 2nd violinist in the prestigious Sainsbury Royal Academy Soloists ensemble for the entirety of her time at the Academy and has appeared with the group at Wigmore Hall and Seoul Arts Centre, South Korea.

She has been the recipient of awards from The Stephen Bell Charitable Trust, Arts and Humanities Research Council and has been awarded the Ian Anderson, Leverhulme Orchestral Mentorship and Marjory Bunty Lempford awards by the Academy. Francesca recently participated in a masterclass with Maxim Vengerov.

Francesca has given chamber and duo performances in venues such as the Purcell Room, St. James’s Piccadilly and the Kings Place, Bath, Norfolk and Norwich and Lake District Summer Music festivals. She is also much in demand to perform with established chamber groups and has recently collaborated with section leaders of the ECO, Halle, LPO and past members of both the Allegri and Lindsay string quartets. In 2011, Francesca performed 1000 bars by Kevin Volans as part of a BBC Proms composer portrait, which was broadcast on Radio3. More recently her performance of Hugh Wood’s Horn Trio at the Bath Festival was broadcast on Radio3.

As a freelance orchestral musician, Francesca is gaining much experience through extra work with orchestras such as the Philharmonia, English Touring Opera and Opera North and her regular work with the much-acclaimed John Wilson Orchestra has included performances at the BBC Proms, various tours of Britain and several recordings for EMI.

Francesca’s recent concerto engagements have included performances of Sibelius and Brahms concertos and a series of five performances of Beethoven’s triple concerto. This season she will perform Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Stamford Chamber Orchestra.

Francesca is a member of Ensemble Matisse.

Meet the Artist……Rozenn le Trionnaire

Ensemble Matisse

 

At the Piano with…… Nadine Andre

What is your first memory of the piano?

My parents moved from Hammersmith to Surrey when I was 3 years old, and the house they bought came with an old grand piano that was left behind! I remember being fascinated by the keyboard and what went on behind the lid. I had my first lesson when I was 5, and remember my response to my father asking me if I wanted lessons being “yes, but will I have to practise?” The rest is history.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I studied with Judith Burton for a decade until I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in 2000. She was so dedicated, and her devotion to every one of her students filled me with admiration. She has certainly been my biggest influence with regards to teaching; I always used to think, “if I can spend my time doing what Judith does, I’ll be happy.”

My path hasn’t always been that clear. I struggled with my relationship to music in my later years at music college, and despite achieving an MMus degree, I left feeling convinced that I would convert to law! After speaking to many people about it, the woman who helped me to see the wood for the trees was my piano teacher at the time, Carole Presland, who said, “if you say you love to work with people, what more privileged position can you be in, than to teach students on a one-to-one basis, where you really get the chance to make a difference?”. That was enough to help me back onto my path and I’ve never looked back.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

They are all memorable and significant!

Judith Burton I have already mentioned. We are still good friends, and she was my biggest influence and guide when I was young.

At the RNCM, I studied with Kathryn Stott for 2 years, then Carole Presland for 3 years.

After graduating, two teachers have really helped me in different ways:

Vera Müllerová is a Czech teacher and concert pianist who I met while teaching on a Summer residential course. She showed me some finger exercises that, in one session, solved technical problems I’d been having with trilling in 3rds for years! I now visit her in Plzen once or twice a year to take lessons.

On the same summer course, I met a jazz teacher, who persuaded me to join his student trio for 15 minutes one evening to learn a blues. I had never played by ear and was terrified! In 5 minutes, he had me playing “Sunny Moon for Two”, improvising round it, and taking solos with the band. I was elated, and it felt like the first time I’d really had fun while playing the piano. His name is Paul Cavaciuti, and he is now my husband!

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

This is a difficult question to answer!

My own state of mind is my biggest influence on my teaching. As a professional musician, it is easy for our music-making to become something we MUST do, and this can become tiresome. Also, finding a good balance between teaching and playing is not easy and needs constant adjustment. I put a lot of time and energy into maintaining my own love of music, feeling inspired, and ensuring that what I pass on to my students, predominantly, is a love of music and playing the piano. My husband is wonderful and helps me a lot with this. His expertise is in helping people rediscover their love of music and also helping with stage fright. I’m so lucky to have him available to me 24/7!

Other influences, among my own teachers, are Horowitz, Dr. John Diamond (an educator in the US who has created his own system which involves using the arts therapeutically), and our record collection. We have thousands of LPs, most of which are jazz and classical, and every time I listen to one, I’m immediately drawn to the piano to play, or come up with ideas for my students! I’m sure it has something to do with the analogue sound production. I never feel the same when listening to digital.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every teaching experience is significant, and sometimes we have to trust that what we show our students now, may not sink in until much later on in life. My most rewarding experiences are when I take on a student who has been traumatised by the grade exams, or is about to quit, and within weeks they have found a new approach to playing, and realised that they do, in fact, love music after all. It brings me such joy!

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

One of the most challenging aspects is that many adults have pre-conceived ideas of things, so often they want a detailed explanation of why I’m asking them to do something, rather than just rolling with it and seeing where it takes them. I don’t see it as a negative – it’s natural that adults want to understand first and experience afterwards – however it’s not always the best way to learn.

The most exciting thing is seeing adults enjoying themselves through music, and doing something meaningful with their time. In today’s society, many parents offer the opportunity to learn music to their children, but secretly long to play or sing for themselves. I feel so excited when a parent comes to me and says, “can I have a lesson?” Being an adult brings with it so many responsibilities of the “must” kind. It’s great therapy to commit to something (especially something creative) for the love of it. If I can assist with that, I am delighted to.

What do you expect from your students?

Application. That’s it.

I’m not concerned with achievement or standards. Nor do I mind if their attitude isn’t positive for a while. We all have our struggles, and if I can find a way to use music to help them through troubled times, then my work is done.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Firstly, the term festival is misused. A festival is a celebration of something, and we use the term to describe competitions. Lose the competitive element, (but keep the constructive, positive adjudications) and I think they would be fantastic occasions!

I think exams and competitions are a disaster. I won’t blither on for too long about this (that’s for a future blog!), but developed societies are obsessed with assessment and quantifying ability. This has absolutely no place in the arts, especially in music, and the rise of grade exams and competitions has contributed to:

  • an increase in competitiveness among musicians and parents, (e.g. children in the playground saying “what grade are you on” instead of “fancy a play sometime?”)
  • an increase in performance anxiety and even stage fright.
  • a focus on skill acquisition without a true understanding of music being a language, and to the detriment of having something to say through playing or singing.
  • in the words of Horowitz, “standardisation”. Everything is now the same, instead of people playing as individuals. The idea of playing correctly and incorrectly shouldn’t be at the forefront of a musician’s mind, and it is only with note-reading that it’s an issue at all.
  • a feeling of self-worth being attributed to achievement. Musicians who receive distinctions in exams are often the ones who won’t play in restaurants, at parties or among friends. I think that’s tragic.

I could go on, but I should probably stop there. As a teacher, I want to spend my time convincing people that learning music for the sake of the music, and bringing people together, is enough. Benchmarks are not necessary to become a great musician!

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

To both beginner and advanced students, to love playing music. Another important concept is to realise is that the music comes from the person, not the instrument. The instrument is there to help release the music (though some instruments are more of a hindrance!)

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

I think they are very complimentary; however I think the importance of their connection differs depending on whether the musician has been professionally trained or not.

A musician who has trained to perform professionally, should perform. There are too many teachers who have stopped playing in public, and project bitterness and envy onto their students. This is the most destructive thing a teacher can do, therefore maintaining a balance, in my eyes, is essential. (I’m not suggesting we should all be playing at Wigmore, but some kind of performance is important – like nourishment!)

The advantage of having performed is the advice that can be imparted from the experience of having done so. Performing does feel quite different to playing to the four walls and the dog.

An amateur musician who teaches because they love to teach, but has never really performed, or had the opportunity to perform publicly, is unlikely to pass any such negativity onto their students. Their relationship to music is probably quite different and unaffected by the rigours and strains of the profession. For this reason, it isn’t important that they perform.

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

I’ve been through the mill with performing-techniques. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. The one thing that has helped me more than anything, and that I do to this day, is sing along internally while I play. I do lots of singing aloud at home (and ask all my students to do the same), then on stage, whatever state I’m in, singing under my breath grounds me, helps me to concentrate without thinking too much, and regulates my breathing perfectly – consequently releasing tension. The ceiling could fall in or Jack Bauer could walk past, and I’d stay focused. It really is the best thing, and I learnt it from my husband!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

My favourite classical pianist has to be Horowitz. Every time I listen to him or watch him on Youtube, I sit at the piano for ages afterwards. He’s so inspiring.

For years, my idol was Alfred Brendel. He has an incredible mind, and a wicked sense of humour. He’s a real artist – I’ve been to many of his concerts, and he played differently every time. On a bad day he was great, on a good day, he was sublime. (I went to his final retiring concert at the RFH, and shed tears on and off all the way home!)

In the jazz world, I adore Art Hodes. He was playing in the US in the 30s and 40s, and had the most incredible groove. The amazing thing about him is that his music is often in the spaces between the sounds. He isn’t flashy or a show-off, but boy does he make you want to tap your foot!

Lastly, (I suppose this counts as he was a pianist and a teacher), it has to be Beethoven. Whoever composes music and says, “Music is the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit” knows his purpose as a musician, and to elevate others to something higher, is a wonderful purpose.

Nadine’s biography

Nadine André’s website

For the Love of Playing – Nadine’s blog

Nadine on Facebook

Follow Nadine on Twitter

Nadine’s contemporary trio, Trifarious

And on Facebook and Twitter

Classical Babies

Meet the Artist…… Vanessa Benelli Mosell, pianist

(photo: Roberto Masotti)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

I was inspired by the music and my never-ending desire to be part of such a unique art form, be absorbed by it, forgetting everything around me and becoming the music itself by bringing it to life under my fingers. Only then, being able to communicate it to others.

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

Musicians and artists around me, such as the countless performances, concerts, operas, ballets, expositions I was enriched with since I was a child and now. Also, my teachers, contemporary music and the art and the beauty I was surrounded by in my native Tuscany.

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

Playing Stockhausen for Stockhausen. I was really nervous, and being very young I wasn’t sure at all if what I had carefully prepared by myself was simply “right”.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

My next recording, which will be out soon.  It focuses on the evolution of Stravinsky’s music, starting from his folk roots, his native Russia and traditional folk tunes and themes featured in Petrushka. Stravinsky is then inspired by returning to music of ancient Classicism also following his refusal of the new revolutionary Russian ideals, and it is what we call now his “neoclassicist” period. Here I linked it with the Suite for piano or harpsichord by living French composer Karol Beffa. It features at the same time Stravinsky’s concept of “non descriptive” music as “the music expresses it-self”. It is followed by his serial period: Stockhausen and Stravinsky influencing each other. Stockhausen was influenced in his youth by listening to the Rite of Spring. Less obvious is the influence of Stockhausen’s serial groups music on Stravinsky’s later production.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Everything I love.

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

Ideally every recital I play would feature one new piece and a juxtaposition of music picked from my repertoire. I always follow my wishes when choosing new repertoire.

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

I love to perform at the Wigmore Hall: the projection of sound is very clear and transparent yet rich and warm.

Favourite pieces to perform? 

I have many, and these have been changing over years. At this particular moment I would say Chopin Piano Concerto n. 1, the 4 Chopin Ballades, Petruska by Stravinsky, and Brahms Paganini Variations among others.

Listen to? 

The Rite of Spring

Who are your favourite musicians?

Igor Stravinsky, Sviatoslav Richter, Natalia Gutman.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of them was performing Liszt Piano Concerto n.1 at the Berliner Philharmonie: just before walking on stage the conductor I was playing with said to me the following words: “just think about music”. I will remember that forever, and it gave me huge confidence. Only after the closing chord of the Concerto performance I realized I was surrounded by thousands of people in this amazing artistic architecture.

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

We do it to make people’s lives better.

What are you working on at the moment? 

On my next recitals: chamber music programmes, concertos and recitals including Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, 5 Pieces in Folktunes, Janacek Pohadka, Tsintsadze 5 Pieces, Rachmaninov cello and piano Sonata, Chopin Polonaise Brillante for cello and piano, Bartok Romanian Dances, Beethoven Spring Sonata, Franck Sonata, Chopin Ballades, Rachmaninov 2nd Concerto, Arensky and Shostakovich 1st Trios, C.M. Weber and Nino Rota and Tchaikovsky Trios and a solo recital programme featuring Mozart and Liszt, up to December 2014.

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

Around the world performing every day.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

See above plus my and my dears’ health.

What is your most treasured possession?

Hand written notes.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being surrounded by friends, reading, travelling.

What is your present state of mind?

In constant pursuit of perfection.

 

Vanessa Benelli Mosell is a rising star on the international music scene. She is continuously praised for her virtuosity, her technical brilliance and the sensitivity of her musical insight, which have been shaped significantly in mentorships with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yuri Bashmet.

Benelli Mosell gave her debut appearance at eleven years old with pianist Pascal Rogé, who described her as “the most natural musical talent I have encountered in my entire life”. She has since performed with orchestras such as the Münchner Symphoniker, Berliner Symphoniker, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna.She also performed with the Moscow Soloists, replacing Martha Argerich in 2012. In the same year, Vanessa gave her celebrated debut at Londonʼs Wigmore Hall. Last year was one of new encounters including a tour to South America, concerts with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, as well as a sell-­out solo recital at Hamburgʼs Laeiszhalle.

Vanessa Benelli Mosell began her comprehensive musical studies when she was exceptionally admitted at the International Piano Academy in Imola at seven years old, where she studied with Franco Scala. In 2007 she was invited to the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory to study with Mikhail Voskresensky. Vanessa entered the Royal College of Music in London in 2007, where she graduated in 2012 studying with Dmitri Alexeev, generously supported by the Russell Gander Award.

Full biography

www.vanessabenellimosell.com

The Cross-Eyed Newsletter #1

This is an experiment, inspired in part by the newsletter of fellow  blogger Opera Creep. Each week, I seem to pack in too much to write as many individual posts as I’d like to, so I thought I’d try this format for a change……

Reviewing

Art – William Morris at the National Portrait Gallery. A small but perfectly-formed survey of the work and enduring influence of British designer, writer and social reformer. My review here

Music – Ghosts and Mirrors. A most engaging and interesting concert experience at The Forge, a club-style venue in north London, to launch the new CD by pianist Richard Uttley. My review here

Opera – Marriage of Figaro at ENO. Another delightful evening at the Coliseum, this time for everyone’s favourite opera. Hummable tunes, beautiful singing, particularly by Susanna (Mary Bevan, who won the Critics’ Circle award) and Cherubino (Samantha Price), a revolving minimalist set and masterful directing by Fiona Shaw combined to create a fast-moving and highly enjoyable production.

Reading

Sleeping in Temples. The latest book by pianist and writer Susan Tomes is an insightful and absorbing collection of essays and musings on music and the musician’s life. Recommended

Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas: Charles Fisk’s compelling study of Schubert’s late piano music, drawing relationships between it and his song cycle Winterreise. This is my second reading of this interesting book.

Links

The networks are buzzing with that old chestnut – new ways to present classical music, largely prompted by comments from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. Some interesting contributions to the discussion here:

Live Classical music “off-putting”

10 things we should change in classical music concerts

Change the celebrity musicians, not the audience

10 things we should change at gigs

Practising

Schubert – Impromptus in F minor and A flat, D935 Nos. 1 & 2

Liszt – Paysage (Transcendental Etudes)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 26

Gershwin/Grainger – The Man I Love

Debussy – ‘Prelude’ from Suite bergamasque; ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano

Various – Variations for Judith

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge

Going out…..

27th October – Maria Joao Pires (piano), Augustin Dumay (violin) & Antonio Meneses (cello). Duos and trios by Beethoven as part of Maria Joao Pires’ Wigmore ‘artist portrait’ season. Sold out.

4th November – Alexandre Tharaud at Queen Elizabeth Hall (International Piano Series). I wasn’t totally sold on Tharaud’s playing when I heard him at the Wigmore Hall this time last year, but I am prepared to give him another go in a programme of Schubert, Mahler (Tharaud’s own transcription), Couperin and Ravel. More info here

7th November – François-Fréderic Guy at Wigmore Hall. Beethoven’s Opus 111 and Debussy Preludes Book II. Tickets still available

12th, 19th & 26th November – La Belle Epoque with cellist Corinne Morris and friends at the 1901 Arts Club. 3-concert series exploring French music from the period just before the outbreak of the First World War, including Franck’s ever-popular Sonata in A, plus music by Debussy, Saint-Saens and lesser-known composers of this period. Info here

Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano & Cello. Various dates/venues in November & December (Purcell Room, London on 1st December). A rare opportunity to hear all five of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello in a single concert, offering a wonderful mini-biography, performed by father and daughter duo James and Joy Lisney. More info here

13th November – Federico Colli at LSO St Lukes. Leeds International Piano Competition winner in 2012 plays Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 26 and Schubert’s D935 Impromptus. More info here

Staying in and istening to…..

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 26

Szymanowski – Etude No. 3

Liszt – Paysage

Amongst other things…..

Coming up…… Reviews of Grayson Perry’s new exhibition Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery and Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery.

And finally…. please support this petition to help save The Ulster Orchestra

Richard Uttley: Ghosts and Mirrors

This week I was delighted to attend a concert to launch British pianist Richard Uttley’s new CD Ghosts and Mirrors. Richard is a passionate advocate of contemporary piano music, and this CD, his third, follows his previous recordings with its focus on contemporary and 20th-century music. In addition to works by Toru Takemitsu and Luciano Berio, the disc includes the first recordings of Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy which was written especially for Uttley and was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.

Richard explains the title of his CD as “the works collected here [are] are reflection on something”, and the “ghosts” appear, in part, in memoriam to departed composers, namely Messiaen (Takemitsu/Rain Tree Sketch II and Murail/Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire). There are more metaphoric ghosts and reflections here too: Thomas Ades harks back to the Mazurkas of Chopin and Szymanowski in his Op. 27 Mazurkas, while Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy is a paraphrase on themes from Berg’s opera which charts the rise and horrific fall, ending in death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, of its eponymous heroine. In Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy, the work opens with a fragment of an “alberti bass”, an eighteenth-century musical device in which chords are broken or arpeggiated to create continuous sound.

It can be hard to present a programme entirely comprising contemporary music in concerts (witness the BBC’s anxieties about this in its Proms broadcasts this year – more on this issue here) and some performers seek new ways to present contemporary programmes which challenge and excite the eyes as well as the ears. Thus, Richard Uttley, was joined onstage by Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist, who created the artwork for the CD, and who designed and mixed live visuals as Richard played. These were not a simple “accompaniment” to the music, but rather had been designed to reflect not only the mood and characteristics of the pieces performed (a selection from the CD), but also textures, colours, dynamics and articulation. From trembling, pulsing sea anemones to a dizzying, plane’s eye view of London at night, the frenetic rhythm of a weaving machine to an unsettling tour of a ruined Gothic church, these visuals enhanced and informed the music, without detracting it from it. Perhaps the most powerful was the film which accompanied the Lulu Fantasy, suggesting the horrible fate of the protagonist through shuddering black and white images, hinting at sexual depravity and violence.

It was evident throughout the performance that Richard really enjoys the challenges, both musical and technical, of playing this kind of repertoire. His total immersion in and understanding of this music produced a performance that was entirely convincing, and, more importantly, extremely absorbing.  A pristine sound, clean articulation and broad dynamic range combined to create one of the most exciting concerts of contemporary music I have attended. I was pleased to find even more to delight and intrigue in the CD, which is also elegantly designed with copious and intelligent liner notes by Richard, with contributions from the composer’s themselves.

Recommended.

‘Ghosts and Mirrors’ is available on the ARC label

www.richarduttley.com

Meet the Artist……Inesa Sinkevych, pianist

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

When I was 4, my parents bought a piano from a friend.  No one in my family plays an instrument, so it happened by chance.  Soon after, my musical abilities were discovered – I had perfect pitch and good musical memory, and I started taking piano lessons and other musical classes at the music school in my hometown, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.  Another turning point was when I was accepted at the age of 13 to study at the Special Music School for gifted students in Kharkov, Ukraine.  Somehow, I never questioned my desire and intended to become a musician after that.

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

My piano teachers – Victor Makarov in Ukraine, probably one of “the most wanted” teachers in the country at that time, whose knowledge, musicianship and energy still inspires me; Alexander Volkov in Israel, who taught me to better hear and convey beauty of music; and Solomon Mikowsky, who helped me to refind my musicianship and find my own voice.

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

To find the true meaning of every piece I work on, and to match my inner image to what comes out my fingers.  Also, to find fresh view on the pieces I’ve performed many times.

Which recordings are you most proud of? 

My all-Schubert CD

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona; Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Favourite pieces to perform? Anything by Schubert; Schumann Humoreske

Listen to?  Mozart Symphonies, anything by Bach.  Also, recently – music for Soviet cartoons (I discovered that those are masterpieces! Listening together with my now 11 month old daughter)

Who are your favourite pianists? 

Sviatoslav Richter, Emile Gilels, Vladimir Horovitz, Arthur Rubinstein

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Performing in a two-piano encemble with a blind pianist, Carlos Ibay in a concert dedicated to 60th birthday of Israel in Jerusalem in 2008.

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

Stay true to yourself.  Do not try to copy anyone, or “please” anybody.  Try to find your own, unique calling in music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To be busy working on many interesting projects alone or with inspiring musicians (this may happen!), and to have an adequate time to spend on those projects, family, and rest (this may never happen!)

Inesa Sinkevych is a Ukrainian born Israeli concert pianist, currently living in New York. Her recent CD, ‘Schubert Piano Works’ was released in 2012. She has performed as a soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic, Minnesota Symphony, Gulbenkian Symphony, Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as solo recitals in such venues as the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona, and Merkin Hall in New York. She was awarded top and special prizes at the Arthur Rubinstein International Master Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, Piano-e-Competition in Minneapolis, Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition in Portugal, among others. She received her DMA from the Manhattan School of Music.

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Fidelity

Over the past weeks and months I have been working, amongst other things, on pieces by two great composers of music for the piano – Beethoven and Schubert (the Piano Sonata in A flat, Opus 26, and the Impromptu in F minor, D935/1 respectively). For both pieces, I have been working from the Henle urtext edition of the score.

A good urtext score is the result of careful scholarly research and editing, offering a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful indication of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

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But before we start exploring interpretative possibilities the music offers,  it is important that we study the score carefully, taking note of the composer’s directions and markings. As I say to my students, the score is our “map”, with “signposts” to guide us in tempo, mood, expression, articulation, dynamics. At a simplistic level, these markings tell us “how to play the notes”, and we ignore them at our peril.  These markings are also the composer’s personal “signs”, indicating to us how he/she imagined the music and illuminating for us, at a distance of often several hundred years, how he/she expected it to sound. Some composers write very little in their scores, but what they do write is precious and important; others offer very clear instructions and even some very quirky ones (Olivier Messiaen, for example, even added his annotations about the “colours” of notes and chords as he perceived them as a synaesthete, and Satie’s Gnossiennes are liberally annotated with curious quotes). Composers knew what they were doing and many were experienced performers themselves (Beethoven, for example, before his deafness forced him to retire from public performances), with clear indications of how to bring their music to life, and, in piano music, how to create different textures and suggest different instruments, from a woodwind solo to a full orchestral tutti.

Last year, I worked with one of my students on the Rondo from Beethoven’s Sonatina in F Anh. 5 as part of his Grade 4 exam programme. This (and the other Sonatinas) is a wonderful introduction to Beethoven’s piano music, in particular the piano sonatas, and offered my student (and me as teacher) an important lesson in showing fidelity to the score. I think my student grew quite bored of me saying “Read the score! Look at the details!” at every lesson, to impress upon him the importance of following Beethoven’s directions. This score is not so heavily annotated with directions as the Opus 26 Sonata on which I am currently working, but it has enough in it to demonstrate Beethoven’s clear intentions, in particular suggesting different instruments (staccato in the opening measures suggests woodwind – bassoons and oboes), textures (the forte at bar 4 suggests the full orchestra and demands a rich, orchestral sound), and expression (note that the D minor section is largely played legato, adding to the more sombre, lyrical mood of this section). By accurately observing the markings as written in the score, my student was able to create a colourful and faithful reading of this work, largely based on what he had in front of him on the page.

By the same token, the markings in the Sonata Opus 26 offer clear instructions as to how the piece should be played. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven suggests string-quartet textures and string articulation in both the organisation of the main melodic line, interior harmonies and melodies, and accompaniments, and also through detailed articulation, indicated by staccato, drop slurs and sforzandi. In addition, his very specific dynamic markings lend drama and colour to the music. I find the opening movement, a theme and five variations, most intriguing because of Beethoven’s interest in exploring rhythm, articulation and texture as a means of creating variants on the opening theme: the melody is always there, but in each subsequent variation it is cleverly embedded. In the final variation, all the string quartet textures are given glorious full rein in music of great lyricism and wit.  (It is worth listening to the second movement of the Opus 47 Sonata for Piano and Violin, the ‘Kreutzer’, also a theme and variations, with reference to the opening movement of the Opus 26.)

Schubert, like Beethoven, had clear ideas of how he intended his music to be played. There are certain pianists who choose to ignore Schubert’s directions, perhaps the most cavalier sin of omission being the exposition repeat in the final piano sonata. British pianist Stephen Hough describes this movement as “Schubert’s miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism” – and I feel this sentiment also applies to the repeats in the Impromptu D935/1. The sections in question (bars 69-83 and 84-109) are the first time we hear a beautiful and tender “trio” of duetting fragments in treble and bass, with a undulating semiquaver accompaniment which provides the harmonic structure, a structure which is, in itself miraculous. To hear these sections a second time seems to highlight the delicate poignancy in the music, and lends greater contrast and drama to the sections which precede it and the reprise of the opening motif at bar 115.

Often, the composer’s markings can also tell us a great deal about the kind of instrument with which the composer was working. For example, Chopin’s pedal markings tell us as much about the kind of piano he was used to working on as his musical ideas. Sometimes, coming at these markings with modern sensibilities and a big resonant modern instrument, we might feel his instructions are “wrong”, but it is possible to make small adjustments (a half-pedal mid-bar to avoid a muddy sound or dissonance) and remain true to the spirit of Chopin’s intentions. I was fortunate enough to experience a “Chopin piano” when I played the Pleyel (c1846) at the Cobbe Collection in Surrey. The piano offered many insights into Chopin’s markings and an important reminder that Chopin’s soundworld was more softly-spoken and delicate than some recreations of his sound on a modern concert instrument.

Another prime example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. At the start, Beethoven gives the direction “sempre pp e senza sordini“. “Senza sordini” translates as “without mutes”, i.e. with the dampers lifted away from the strings by depressing the right pedal. If one were to follow this direction literally on a modern piano, the sound would be very muddy, especially on a large, resonant concert instrument, and the wondrous harmonic changes would be obscured. In Beethoven’s day the piano was considerably more “feeble”, smaller and far less resonant than a modern instrument, and the sound of the undamped strings would not last through the slow changes of harmony. To recreate something like the sound Beethoven probably intended, the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old.

So, sometimes we have to make considered judgements in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by the modern instrument. As Charles Rosen says in his ‘Piano Notes’, “historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right” and an effective performance is usually one which “respects the composer’s directions with absolutely fidelity and yet with imagination”. The performer has a responsibility to adhere to the composer’s directions, but this can lead to difficulties too. If we religiously follow the directions, we can of course produce a very faithful rendering of the music, but it may not be the most interesting version.

This leads us to “interpretation”, which can be defined as an ability to bring one’s imagination and personality to the music. This has its own difficulties – too much of the performer’s own imagination and personality can obscure the music, too little may result in a dull and colourless performance. The best and most memorable interpretations and performances are usually those where the performer fully convinces the audience that he or she has taken “ownership” of the music and made it their own, the result of the artist creating a version of the music that is meaningful and convincing to them personally. At this point, the musician has gone “beyond the notes” and the markings to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

This freedom of interpretation is not an easy state to achieve and is something which develops over a long time – time spent living with the music, studying it (away from the piano as well as at the piano), absorbing all the details and nuances, getting to the heart of the music to discover its “meaning” and narrative, “listening around” the music to gain insights into the composer’s style and soundworld, and to set the music in context, an understanding of performance practice, historical contexts and musical taste.

An interesting, simple question of interpretation came up in a recent lesson with a student who is working on Wiegenlied (Lullaby) by Zilcher, a Grade 3 piece. The piece opens in warm F major, with a cantabile figure in the right hand redolent of the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite (I suggested my student listen to this piece for reference). The dynamic range of the music is small, mostly p and mp, retaining the gentle, drowsy mood. The first section ends with a piano marking, before the music moves into D minor and the mood changes. But the dynamic marking is still piano. I suggested to my student that she might consider a more intense sound here, to signal the change of mood. “But how can that p [at the end of the F major section] be different to that one? [start of D minor section] and how do you know that?” asked my student. I explained that not all piano markings are equal (likewise forte, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano et al!) and that it is down to us, as performers, to interpret the markings and make a considered judgement – based on what we see in the score and our knowledge of the music and the context of the music in general.

Back to the D935 Impromptu, and there are similar considerations of interpretation of dynamics. For example, bar 44 is marked pianissimo – and so is bar 45. But bar 44 is a bridging bar from the descending octave passage which precedes it and an introduction to the new material which follows. I feel it is important to differentiate the pianissimo markings here to signpost what is happening in narrative of the music. Later, at bar 90, the decrescendo suggests not only a diminution in sound but also a relaxation in the tempo (“rubato”). Schubert could have indicated this more clearly, with a rallentando or ritardando marking, but he didn’t, and so one is left to one’s musical instincts, knowledge of Schubert’s writing, his distinctive soundworld to decide how to treat bars or passages like this. Likewise, a crescendo may suggest stringendo (“pressing forward”) to create a greater intensity.

There is of course much to be gained in listening to recordings to gain insight into other performers’ myriad interpretations, and to offer inspiration, but never to imitate, for the following reason:

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”. Peter Kivy, ‘Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance’ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197.

(with thanks to Graham Fitch’s excellent blog Practising the Piano).

 

A Beethoven Grand Tour

A rare opportunity to hear all five of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello in a single concert, performed by father and daughter duo James and Joy Lisney, the Beethoven Grand Tour takes this wonderful programme to venues across the UK and Europe the autumn.

At the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 19th October, the Lisney duo  commemorated the 50th anniversary of the legendary recital given at the Edinburgh International Festival by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter. There are further concerts at intimate and unusual venues in the Netherlands, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, St George’s, Bristol, and the Purcell Room at London’s Southbank Centre.

The five sonatas for piano and ‘cello provide a mini-biography of the Beethoven’s creative life, stretching from the innovative virtuosity of the opus 5 sonatas, through the perfect balance of the magisterial opus 69 sonata and onto the breakthrough of the late period with the remarkable sonatas opus 102. To hear all five sonatas in a single concert offers remarkable insights into Beethoven’s compositional life and the development of the duo sonata form, and provides an exhilarating and highly satisfying programme.

The Sonatas

Sonata in F major, Op 5 No 1
Sonata in G minor, Op 5 No 2
Sonata in A major, Op 69
Sonata in C major, Op 102 No 1
Sonata in D major, Op 102 No 2

The performers

Meet the Artist……Joy Lisney

Meet the Artist……James Lisney

The concerts

4th November – Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, UK (includes a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 27, the ‘Moonlight’)

8th & 9th November – Rosario, Bever, Belgium. Fine concerts in a unique and restful setting

15th November – Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mendelssohn-Saal

21st November – Muziekpodium Enschede, Netherlands

1st December – Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London. SPECIAL EARLY BIRD OFFER valid until 5th November: Best remaining tickets £10 (usual price £12.50 or £15) use DISCOUNT CODE Ludwig. Offer can be used online (discount applied after the credit card page), by phone or in person.

7th December – St George’s, Bristol, UK

Snapshot of a life: Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

A Royal Introduction – Joy Lisney on Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello, Opus 5, no. 1

Follow the Beethoven Grand Tour on Facebook

A glimpse of that legendary concert by Richter and Rostropovich in 1964:

Improving the image of the independent piano teacher

As a follow up to my article An Image Crisis in Independent Piano Teaching?, in which I revealed the somewhat alarming results of my survey Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, I would now like to explore ways in which independent piano teachers can improve the overall image of the profession. This will also tie in with a presentation I am giving at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of the month at which we will be exploring ideas of “professionalism” within the field of piano teaching.

Music teaching in the UK has had a very bad press in recent years, with the disturbing revelations about child abuse, physical and emotional, in some of the top music schools and conservatoires. But even before the activities of certain teachers were brought to public attention, private instrumental teachers have suffered from negative stereotypes (“little old lady down the road”, “eccentric person with cats and cardigans”, and worse). The interesting thing about my survey was that the majority of respondents were independent piano teachers and it was they themselves who revealed these negative perceptions of the profession.  And yet many of the piano teachers I know are normal people, who run their teaching practices in an efficient and professional manner. As is usual in all walks of life, it is the minority of poor teachers who give the whole profession a bad name.

Rather than me write a long article in which I outline ways in which I think the profession can improve its image, I would very much welcome contributions from readers. Please feel free to leave comments below, or if you would prefer to respond privately, use the Contact page to get in touch with me. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence.

Thank you in advance for your help.

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