Pianist Clare Hammond appears in a new Alan Bennett film adaptation, ‘The Lady in the Van’

A big screen adaptation of writer Alan Bennett’s celebrated memoir, directed by long-standing Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner.

The film tells the true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the singular Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. Their unique story is funny, poignant and life-affirming. What begins as a begrudged favor becomes a relationship that will change both their lives. Bennett’s play has echoes of the story of Anne Naysmith, former concert pianist, who lived in a car in Chiswick after falling on hard times and being evicted from her home.

British pianist Clare Hammond will appear as the younger version of Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Miss Shepherd. Clare performs in a number of flashback scenes recreating a Proms concert in the 1930s, and enacts Miss Shepherd’s experiences as a novice nun some years later.

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Clare’s recording of excerpts from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, is featured throughout the film. The slow movement of Chopin’s concerto and Clare’s performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major are included on the soundtrack alongside music specially composed for the film by George Fenton, due for release by Sony on the 6 November 2015.

Meet the Artist……Clare Hammond (interview)

Filmed on the street and in the house where Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived all those years, acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner reunites with Bennett (‘The Madness of King George’, ‘The History Boys’) to bring this touching, poignant, and life-affirming story to the screen. The film is due for release in the UK on 13 November 2015.

Official trailer

The Perils of ‘Overthink’

(picture source: de Melo Counselling)

Overthinking a piece of music can kill it – just as overpractising can. We’ve all done it – and we all continue to do it: thinking too much about the details – articulation, dynamics, voicing, pedaling. Often ‘overthink’ occurs when a piece is known well, but we don’t feel confident enough to let the music take flight or to simply allow the music to “be”. It can also create problems which aren’t really there.

Overthink is driven by the logical, self-critical left side of the brain: the hemisphere which is on the look out for errors, hyper-sensitive to any slips, however small, and always ready to send in the committee of corrections to tick us off for our mistakes. Our mind, specifically the left side of the brain, is the biggest obstacle to reaching peak performance – whether at the piano or on the tennis court. Overthinking will result in a boring, lifeless sound and, potentially, a performance riven with errors – because our left brain thinking has set us up for them in advance. The Inner Critic works for the left brain and can do a great deal of damage to our music and our self-esteem and emotional health as musicians. Unfortunately, western societal mores encourage far too much left brain thinking. From the moment a child goes to school (this is true in the UK, at least), they are encouraged to get things “right” (and be rewarded with stickers, or other signs of approval from the teacher). Mistakes are regarded as “bad” and to be discouraged. I come across this mindset time and time again with my students, who want their pieces to be note perfect. I encourage them to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for expression, musical colour and vibrancy in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part.

Over the summer I had encounters with two inspiring teachers who highlighted the need to allow right brain thinking to take charge, to allow one to see the bigger picture of the music, as a whole, and to free oneself from negative self-talk and criticism. In one group lesson I found myself, before I’d even played the piece, justifying why I was going to employ a certain range of dynamics, what my intentions were for the opening phrase and a whole host of other reasons why. Instead, the teacher said, “just allow the music to be. Play with conviction and self-belief and your ideas will come through”. The resulting round of applause from the other members of the masterclass proved her point. In standing back from the details, I had allowed the true character of the music, and my response to and belief in it, to speak, and the resulting sound was convincing, vibrant and, most importantly, natural.

When we have been working on a piece or pieces for a long period of time, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as we become obsessed with making sure all the details of the score are correctly observed. Of course we must do this detailed work and it is important that we do it in an intelligent and methodical way as this ensures a tiny margin of error in performance and enables us to play with a confidence founded on the knowledge that “I know my pieces” (Horowitz). But if you are always thinking deeply when you are playing, you may find yourself suffering from “paralysis by analysis” (a term often used by athletes who fail to meet their potential ahead of a big game or race because of overthinking). If we have overloaded ourselves with detailed information about our music, and have drained ourselves mentally and physically by doing so, we have no resources left for the performance. Music which, in performance, is still undergoing “overthink” can sound lifeless, lacking in excitement and too safe or polite.

The best performances often come “in the moment”, where right brain thinking is allowed to take over. It banishes the inner critic and the continuous commentary of the left brain (“you missed that chord”, “you smeared that scale”), and frees us to be spontaneous, imaginative and creative as we play. Unfortunately, this is not something which happens automatically and is in fact the result of many hours spent meticulously practising and refining the music. Armed with good and proper preparation, one can walk onto the stage and know that a spontaneous “in the moment” performance is possible. In this instance, the final moments before the first notes are sounded can become the most important of the entire performance.

Psychologists and performance coaches talk about “centering”, the act of entering a state where the mind is focused yet relaxed. Observe a top tennis pro such as Roger Federer preparing to serve and notice how he allows himself time to prepare, rather than rushing into his serve. In the moments before we perform, whether in public or at home for friends, family or just the pets, take time to centre yourself. I call this “thinking myself into the music” and this process begins before I arrive at the piano. I imagine myself walking across the stage, sitting down at the piano and preparing to play. At the piano, I hear the opening phrase in my head, imagine the kind of sound I want to create, visualise my fingers moving across the keys. I also try to put myself in a “safe zone”, in my imagination at least, by pretending I am playing at home, on my beautiful Bechstein grand, to my family, or to myself. Or I recall a good public performance and try to take myself back to there, to recreate the emotions, and the sounds.

I have of course experienced left brain interference during a performance, the inner voice interrupting the flow of the music with comments such as “you always play that chord incorrectly and you’re going to do it again now”. But with good preparation during practising I have learnt to banish this voice, usually by using deep breathing techniques. Employing habits learned from mindfulness, allowing myself to perform “in the moment” and banishing damaging post-concert analysis all help to create a performance which is, I hope, convincing, committed, expressive and exciting.

Further reading:

Can Musicians Overthink Their Practice and Performance?

The Bulletproof Musician – a wealth of articles on performance anxiety and how to perform at your best on stage

Charlotte Tomlinson – performance coaching for musicians and creator of Beyond Stage Fright, a series of interviews with well-known musicians on dealing with performance anxiety

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw – resources on dealing with obstacles and learning how to see the bigger picture in our music

Meet the Artist……Peter Murdock-Saint, pianist


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

During a family holiday in Jersey in 1988, I heard a cocktail pianist at the Hotel de France.  I became transfixed with the piano sound, and each evening at the hotel restaurant would stand next to the artist and gaze (realising now how irritating it would have been for an eight year old in chinos and a gaudy shirt, to be peering and examining the artist’s fingers).  I also remember eating each course terribly slowly to maximise on the listening potential!

After much nagging (persistence usually pays off!), and against my late father’s intentions (S.A.S. fighting machine), Ma bought me my first piano for £50.00.  It was an Erard, and I adored it until I wore it out.  My world gradually became totally music and arts orientated, and I felt it was the only thing I excelled in; there was no option other than to forge a musical path.  Looking back, I had no idea what colourful and wonderful opportunities it would hand to me.

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

This is the easiest of the questions to answer.  Margaret Fingerhut, who believed in me at a time when I was having quite a major confidence wobble in my life, taught me at the RNCM, and on occasion privately afterwards.  I learned more in the short time I had with Margaret, than I did from any other principal study tutor I studied with during my degree course.

Before this, Arthur Williams taught me organ (I ended up covering five different church organist posts at the same time!), and piano encompassing everything I needed to know to set me up in moving forward with my career.  He took me on many trips to concerts and hands on playing events across the country, and in his will left me his entire sheet music and recordings collection.  It was one of the most harrowing days of my life having to play for his funeral, and listening to Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ in its entirety looking at the 7 foot gentle giant lay in his coffin!  On a lighter note, I amusingly curse the huge collection Arthur left me, each time I have to move house, as do the friends that help me pack it up each time.

After Arthur had sadly passed away, Doctor Stephen Collisson took on the challenge of preparing me for conservatoire entry auditions, and had playing Bach English Suites, Brahms Ballades, Mozart Sonatas and Rachmaninoff Preludes in the short space between A levels and conservatoire entry.  He had time and patience and gave me extra time whenever I needed, or was having a mini-meltdown, and probably understood me more than I did at the time!

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

This has to be when I went across to the dark side, and organ was my principal study.  I was fortunate enough to land a position as Organ Scholar at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal Hampton Court Palace when I was 17.  This involved learning up to an hour’s worth of new choral accompaniments per week, plus some taxing voluntaries.  My first service there, the setting for Evensong was Stanford in A (orchestral reduction); alone in the organ loft in such an auspicious setting, my heart was in my mouth, all trussed up in the royal livery.  That place was magical, most notably at Midnight Mass.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have one recording available which was awarded a five star review, and demanded a second album.  Also a telling off from the reviewer who had never heard of me, and that my modesty and lack of online presence is holding me back.  The recording was done in whole takes only, and I insisted that the ‘inaccuracies’ were kept in as part of the performance.  Hidden on the album cover is my insignia “there are no mistakes, just happy accidents”, I also have this on a plaque next to my piano at home, as I feel it is vital for students to be aware of this, as well as me.  The recording is very special in another way I have never revealed until now, in that I was head-over-heels for the page-turner.  Shortly after he moved to the other side of the world.

In terms of performances, it has to be 2012 Manchester Pride Concert Series, promoting LGBT composers.  I was due to accompany the Poulenc Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon amongst other chamber works.  Sadly the oboist got stuck in another country the day before, and I had twelve hours to pull together a solo recital to be recorded live and aired on BBC Radio 3, BBC Manchester and Gaydio!  After dealing with a stroppy audience lady who screamed “WHAT, no oboe….I’m off” … Chaminade, Debussy, Hahn, d’Indy, Dukas, Ravel, Saint-Saens and Widor were played, and this recording kick-started my YouTube channel in an attempt to embrace technology and my reviewer’s advice!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The pinnacle two works in my repertoire are unusual French sonatas.  Chaminade and Dukas!  The Chaminade I learned back in 1996, and the Dukas in 2003.  The Chaminade I use as a cornerstone in recitals a lot as it covers many forms; Fantasia, Fughetta, Nocturne, Toccata.

The Dukas has been allowed by programmers twice due to its need to be served with a good dose of happy pills and a course of counselling afterwards.  I also find it is quite an aerobic challenge, and gave it the nickname “French Hammerklavier”.

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

I am constantly on the discovery path, delving far too deep into the byways of the gargantuan repertoire available to us, sadly a vast amount now out of print I uncover from what seems another world.  Often, after playing through the unknown, one can see why it never caught on.  Other times, it makes no sense why it never made it past a first edition.

I leave the core repertoire to the high-masters.  I have far too much fun in the unknown, and tracing ancient scores whose printing plates were destroyed in the wars.  My most recent example of this is the Scharwenka Piano Sonata No. 1 in C sharp minor (first version), and works by Granville Bantock.  The piano works of the great French organists such as Dubois, Tournemire, Vierne and Widor are also an interesting route to follow.

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

I found myself puzzling over this question, then my answer came to me in my own living room.  The recital work I have enjoyed the most is in the salon setting, where people can discuss music, enjoy food, cake and wine, and follow a less formal protocol such as the concert halls.  I always enjoy socialising with people who have come to share the music.  To perform, hide in a dressing room, then retire to a hotel room would not make me happy at all.  Excitement is to be shared.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Although I have what I call phases of favourite pieces, I always end up hurtling back to Chaminade for her simple yet effective turn of melody and exotic harmonies, and of course her largest form of writing, her Piano Sonata, which even then, is totally accessible to anyone.  Many links, (albeit tenuous), can be made to other wonderful works as Chaminade’s brother-in-law and eminent pianist Moszkowski.  Even Stokowski wrote his first opus for Chaminade’s sister, Henriette Moszkowski née Chaminade!

In terms of listening, I adore the freshness of Rameau and the Couperins.  I have also recently discovered Lebegue thanks to a recent trip to Vienna with friends, and some harpsichordal geekyness.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have found over recent years, my personal preferences lie in the hands of lady pianists and accompanists, too many to mention by name here; but, I am pleased to see this fairly recent surge after a male-saturated scene.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

This was actually a ballet performance at a very young age, when Ma sneaked me to see Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker and parked her car outside her place of work in case my father was checking up.  From there Ma’s boss at work drove us to the ballet.  I found the whole evening spell-binding and magical, although still confused as to the travel arrangements!

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

The most important thing I learned at conservatoire was how not to treat people and students.  The favouritism and bullying I witnessed and experienced shocked me to the core.  My impossible situation was such that had I made any more fuss, I’m pretty sure it would have ended my study and career.  I stood my ground, and tunnelled, surfacing into the light at the end with some scratches and bruises, but to the annoyance of some hierarchy, unscathed.

I tell students I work with about my experience, and that there are many wonderful people in the field, and as a minority career group, we should all support each other.  Sadly this is not the case, and I feel duty bound to give warning about the blockades and barriers (aka unpleasant people in powerful positions), students may face.

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

This is a taxing question at present, as I am currently caring full time for Ma.  I would like to say, “exactly what I am doing now”, but when the new start comes, my secret intention is to start again somewhere exiting and new, surrounded by my close network of wonderful friends, and lots of exposure to the arts.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Perfect happiness for me, is spending time with friends, being creative, whether it be baking or what we call “danger concerts” …. all this without having to clock-watch.

What is your most treasured possession?

This has to be the autographed manuscript I am lucky enough to possess of Chaminade’s Piano Sonata.  When my number gets called in, my vast Chaminade collection will be available for borrowing, and viewing via the Cornulier family in France (Chaminade descendants).

What do you enjoy doing most? 

When I’m not working on a musical project, hunting library archives, or catching up with social networking gossip, I enjoy exploring all things Art Nouveau and French cinema.  Period dramas are a big favourite and practising concert harp.

Peter performs Paul Dukas’s Piano Sonata in E-flat minor in a special concert at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo, London on 4 December 2015. Further details and tickets here

Born in 1980, Peter embarked upon piano tuition aged 8 after hearing a cocktail pianist perform in the Hotel de France, Jersey and after much persistence was bought an Erard as his first instrument. Three years later he took up the church organ too, studying with Arthur Williams, Paul Hale and David Briggs. After numerous parish church organ scholarships in Birmingham, Olton, Solihull and Bickenhill, (including work on the famous Handel organ for Lord and Lady Guernsey and The Earl of Aylesford in their private estate chapel), he undertook organ scholarships at Solihull School for Boys and at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace.

Having received a bursary from his L.E.A. Special Awards Committee, Peter entered the Birmingham Conservatoire Junior School where he performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto. He has also performed the piano concerti of Chaminade, Pierné, Boieldieu, Lalo, Massenet, Saint-Saens, Widor, Vierne, and Rubinstein. In 2004 he graduated with a BMus(Hons) from the Royal Northern College of Music after studying with Margaret Fingerhut. Since then he has established a busy career having taught for Manchester High School for Girls and Ashton-under-Lyne Sixth Form College, has a busy private practice, is an instrumental accompanist, and has a full time post specialising in French music at Forsyth Brothers Limited, Manchester.

Now specialising in only piano, Peter continues to seek professional coaching from Margaret Fingerhut (recording artist), and has had duo performance coaching with Peter Dixon (BBC Philharmonic). He is especially keen to champion unjustly neglected solo and chamber repertoire, particularly that of the French Romantic School, Dukas’ piano oeuvre and Cécile Chaminade for whom he gave a BBC Radio 3 interview in 2013. Peter has broadcast on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio Manchester and Gaydio taking part in the Manchester Pride Chamber Concert Series performing Saint-Saens, Chaminade, Dukas, Ravel and Hahn. In March 2005 Peter recorded ‘A Gallery of Miniatures for Piano’, a full length disc of piano byways that received an acclaimed 4.5 star review.

Artur Pizarro at Conway Hall

Rhinegold LIVE concerts at London’s Conway Hall aim to offer a more convivial and relaxed atmosphere in which to enjoy classical music. Called “Rush Hour Concerts”, the evening begins at 6.15pm with a glass of wine and an opportunity to mingle in the lobby of Conway Hall, and the concert itself begins at 7pm. The performance is presented in the round which lends a greater connection between performer and audience, and is followed by a short Q&A session with the performer. The series enjoys useful corporate sponsorship and the piano for the concerts (on this occasion a Schimmel grand) is supplied by Peregrine’s Pianos.

The first concert of the new season was given by acclaimed Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro and was entitled Songs My Grandmother Taught Me, which gave a clue to the theme of the programme. Artur announced the programme himself, explaining that all the pieces had a special connection to his first piano mentor, his grandmother Berta da Nóbrega, herself a concert pianist. Artur is a sociable and engaging speaker, drawing us into the story of his early years growing up in a small town near Lisbon and hearing piano music played in the home by his grandmother and her duo partner. His talk was peppered with anecdotes, including how his grandmother would appear at his primary school, claim there was a family emergency and then take young Artur to a cafe for the afternoon. When he asked her why, she would reply “Oh I was bored!”. One had the sense of a young child enjoying a broad cultural grounding through his grandmother’s music, poetry and her many artistic friends and colleagues who visited the house.

A young Artur Pizarro with his grandmother Berta da Nóbrega

The music performed was a selection of miniatures and salon pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Bortkiewicz, Debussy, Moszkowski, Granados, Turina and a handful of other, lesser-known Spanish and Portuguese composers, including a tender elegy composed for Artur’s grandmother by her composition teacher at the music conservatory. Each piece was played with great care, taste and elegance, and through the music and the words, Artur gave a very special, tender and personal tribute to his grandmother, beautifully expressed.

More about Rhinegold LIVE concerts

Artur Pizarro’s website

Peregrine’s Pianos

Music and Image

A recent article by Musical Toronto questions the need to attach or associate pictures and images with music when we hear it in order for us to appreciate it better. The author cites a concert he attended where he was asked afterwards what images the music had conjured up for him. The author admitted that the music had not conjured up any images in his mind and that in fact he had been focusing on the structure, the harmonies, the shaping of phrases.

Listening to music is a highly personal and subjective experience, one from which we each gain our own pleasure, emotional stimulation, agony and ecstasy. People with a very visual imagination will perhaps more easily make associations between music and imagery, but this still remains a personal response to the music, and one person’s “pictorial” response to, say, Chopin’s Third Ballade will be quite different from another’s.

I tend to respond to music in visual terms, and I think this is probably linked to my synaesthesia which means when I hear and play music I associate colours with it. These colours are unchanging, regardless of the genre of music, the method of delivery (live or on disc) and so forth. For me, D Major is always royal blue, no matter whether it’s a work by Mozart or Stravinsky.

Of course sometimes composers give us visual cues in the titles of their works, the most obvious being Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of pieces inspired by actual illustrations by the composer’s friend Viktor Hartmann, or Debussy’s Estampes, which evokes images one might see as fine art prints. But in both cases, the composer is not trying to impose his own view on the listener and it is simplistic to believe this is the case. Instead, the music and its titles are there simply to stimulate the imagination through the use of distinct soundworlds which evoke, for example, Japanese pagodas or the bustle of a market place. But if these works had no titles, or one did not know the titles in advance, would the listener create the same images as the composer intended? That of course is in no small part down to the musician’s ability to transmit and interpret what is in the score to the listener.

I use visual cues a lot in my teaching, but I do not impose my “image” of a particular piece on my students. Instead, I ask them to describe what the music evokes for them. Often pieces have descriptive titles which makes this exercise very easy, but it is always interesting when I am teaching the same piece to several students, for each will come up with a very personal picture or story for the piece. For some, this is a relatively straightforward exercise, and one which they enter into with enthusiasm, creating all sorts of wonderful, varied and sometimes unexpected images which can then be used to fuel the imagination and assist in shaping the music to create a vibrant and expressive performance. For others, it seems a mystifying exercise and in this case we explore other ideas, such as “how does this music make you feel?” or “what do you think this music is about?”.

Earlier this year, the National Gallery in London organised an exhibition called Soundscapes in which leading contemporary musicians and sound artists, including Nico Muhly, composed new works inspired by paintings from the collection. The concept was very imaginative (!), in principle, but in practice such responses are always going to be deeply personal because by necessity the sound artist or composer is stating “this is what this painting says to me personally“. (What might have been more interesting would be to have several composers respond to the same picture.) It ties in neatly with John Terauds of Musical Toronto’s problem with being asked to state what images the music inspired in him. Not everyone is going to be able, or wish to associate visual images with particular pieces of music. And just as sometimes we would like to simply look at the picture, so we wish also to simply listen to the music.

Read the Musical Toronto article here

An article on music and synaesthesia

Listen to Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes

Introducing 7Star Arts

7 Star Arts promotes performances by a collective of musicians, actors, writers and artists, including acclaimed pianists Anthony Hewitt and Viv McLean, violinist David le Page, actress and writer Susan Porrett, jazz ensembles Partikel and the Liam Stevens Trio and artist Klara Smith.

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Performances often take place in smaller, more intimate venues and feature mixed-genre programmes combining music and words, and music, words and pictures to create unique and accessible concerts which offer unexpected insights into the music being performed.

The official launch of 7StarArts takes place on 31st October – details below.

The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music. Susan’s text brings to life the personalities of Chopin and Sand through letters between them and their friends, and contemporary accounts. The readings set the tone, and the music reflects it, each piece sensitively rendered by Viv with expression and commitment, from the tenderest, most intimate Nocturnes (Op 9, No. 2, Op post. In C sharp minor) to an intensely poignant Mazurka (Op 17 No 4). …..Viv’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.

(from my review of ‘Divine Fire’)

Full details of 7Star Arts artists and performances

Future events include

‘Preludes to Promenades’ – 2 October, Riverhouse Barn, Walton-on-Thames

A fascinating mixed-genre concert combining music and painting with Anthony Hewitt (Piano) and illustrations by Klára Smith (artist).

Preludes by Skryabin, Rachmaninov and Debussy, and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by Mussorgsky.

Further information and tickets

Liam Stevens Trio – 31st October, St Michael’s & All Angels, Barnes, SW13

Official launch of 7StarArts and jazz concert with the vibrant Liam Stevens Trio

‘Divine Fire’ – the story of Fryderyk Chopin & George Sand, 23rd January 2016, St Michael’s & All Angels, Barnes, SW13

Classic Russian – a new “words and music” project is to be launched by 7StarArts. Premiere: January 29th, 2016.

It will feature Viv McLean on piano and Nesli Cavusoglu as narrator in a mixed genre project of piano music by Russian Masters
Medtner, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky interspersed with readings from the works of Anton Chekhov and artwork by Klara Smith.

Artwork from Preludes to Promenades by Klara Smith, inspired by Musorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

F is for……..

F is for Fingers – the pianist’s tools for the job. Crucially, most pianists use all 10 fingers when we play the piano, the thumb being labelled as a finger for fingering purposes, whereas a violinist officially just has 4…and a trumpeter a mere  3 to contend with. The occasional unlucky pianist will have less than 10 available, and even more rarely, a fortunate individual may have more. As with many things in life, it’s not so much about how many you have, it’s about what you do with them.

Fingers come in all shapes and sizes. Slim, long fingers have a natural advantage for finding their way between the black keys and reaching over and finding awkward stretches. Shorter, stubbier fingers have a natural efficiency for playing rapidly and can be more robust in moments of strength and force. Some fingers are straight, some fingers are bendy. Depending on the note to be played, a bendy finger can be a help or a hindrance.

Some fingers sweat profusely in performance. Others remain dry as a bone. Some shake uncontrollably under pressure. Others remain as sturdy as an iron girder. Some fingers fly over the keys in a blur of lofty movement, other fingers gain a similar end result but whilst appearing to glide over the keys with barely a ruffle in the process.

Fingers come in all different shapes and sizes, with different strengths and weaknesses. But with the right instructions, most, if not all can be trained to produce the most beautiful sounds to the human ear.

There is of course a common misconception that we play the piano with our fingers. This isn’t strictly true…… We really play the piano with our brain, of course, which happens to control our fingers. Our fingers are just the final point of contact between thought and realisation of that thought…and a lot happens in between.

So it’s essential that our fingers are kept in excellent shape to ensure that they are flexible, supple and strong enough to do exactly what we ask them to. Finger exercises are designed for this very purpose.

Liszt at the piano

With 10 fingers flying around, the pianist has a serious amount of possibilities on his/her hands. Deciding which fingers to use for a note is an issue that preoccupies many a piano lesson or practise session. Often an individual finger on a particular note will lend itself to creating a particular quality of sound.  A particular finger will, more often than not be dictated by the notes on either side of it. The ‘correct’ fingering is one which encourages both the best effective musical effect and creates the least difficulty for the pianist. Often a pianist will need to make a choice between these two factors when deciding on which fingering to use. Fingering is therefore likely to vary depending on the dimensions and strengths of an individual’s fingers and on what musical effect is intended.

Given how important fingers are to the pianist, they need to be carefully looked after and maintained. Activities such as Taekwondo, carpentry and tree surgery are not recommended for the serious piano student. 

Essential finger accessories for the budding pianist would include a nail file and some leather gloves. (And handcream in the winter – editor)

Warren Mailley-Smith, concert pianist

Warren’s survey of Chopin’s complete piano music continues at St John’s Smith Square. Further details here

Meet the Artist……Clelia Iruzun, pianist

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

My first contact with the piano was the upright piano my parents had at home. My elder sister started lessons and I was very interested in listening and after a while I started playing her pieces by ear. It all happened very naturally from the lessons to winning competitions, participating in concerts and when I realised I was playing professionally.

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

I was very lucky to meet lots of very distinguished musicians early in my life. The two artists that have influenced me the most are both Brazilian. The first was Jaques Klein who was an extraordinary pianist. I played for him several times and his approach to music inspired me forever. There was something organic in his playing, natural but profound and that balance influenced me to search for my style in those models. The other is Nelson Freire whom I know since I was 13 and have played for him throughout my life. Another exceptional artist and again his way of playing with a natural flow and musicality made a great impact in the way I look at music in general. We continue to meet regularly in Brazil, Paris or here in London. Another important part of my musical influences came much later in life and it was my discovery of Philosophy. Reading the great philosophers have changed quite a lot the way I study music and see the infinite possibilities we have to interpret the scores.

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

A life in music is challenging in several ways. I could say that the interesting challenging side is the one of preparing scores which is always an adventure and a conquest but there is also the “practical side” of the profession with the travels, unexpected pianos and circumstances, getting bookings and so on.

But to me a great challenge has been conquering a space for the Latin American music that I so much want to bring to light. People are always afraid of the unknown and it still needs a lot of convincing to get more Latin American music into the programmes.

I feel really happy when I am “asked” to include some Brazilian composers in the recitals as I have been doing for many years and more recently pieces by Ernesto Nazareth which have been extremely well received in the concerts I have played. I remember playing his Tango Brejeiro as an encore on several occasions and always being asked afterwards what that was and how nice it sounded. For the forthcoming launch of my new CD Portrait of Rio tomorrow, I will play five pieces by Nazareth and will end the concert with his Poloneza, a real show-stopper.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Every recording is the result of intensive research and practice and to see the CD coming out at the end of all the work is a wonderful feeling. I couldn’t single out just one because every time I listen to them again, which is rare, I have different opinions about the performances…I think it is only natural as with time we change our views of the music but obviously the first CD, Villa-Lobos was a landmark and then I managed to follow him by other important Brazilian composers who are much less known outside Brazil, such as Francisco Mignone, Marlos Nobre and now Ernesto Nazareth. I must say, I feel a great sense of achievement especially with the Nazareth CD because so much of his music was still unpublished until a few years ago but thanks to the fantastic work of a couple of foundations in Brazil, all his scores are now available online which has meant I have been able to include some debut recordings of certain pieces. It was thrilling discovering some amazing compositions that had not been recorded before including the Poloneza and Valse Brillante, a fox-trot and even a Funeral March. The difficult part was to choose the material and limit it in one CD but I am happy with the varied selection I’ve assembled.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

There are composers that I feel more comfortable with than others and pieces that feel more enjoyable. I like playing for instance Mozart’s Sonatas and Variations, Chopin’s Ballades, Nocturnes and Waltzes, Schumann’s Carnaval, Kinderszenen and Etudes Symphoniques. From the Latin American and Spanish repertoires I love playing Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia and Afro Cuban Dances, Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Cycle and Bachianas No.4, Mompou’s Scenes d’Enfants, Canciones and Danzes, and I am also enjoying the group of pieces by Nazareth that I have so far played in the UK and in Italy with one tango, one polca, one classical waltz and one samba!

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

Each season is different and depends a lot on the bookings I get. There will always be the concertos asked by different orchestras and some recitals with specific requests. Only then I can really choose what else I would like to include in my performances. I like to research and make connections between composers and some historical context and for the new CD launch in London I included to accompany the Nazareth pieces, a Polonaise and a couple of Waltzes by Chopin and a Paraphrase by Gottschalk who were two of his greatest influences. I always try to vary the repertoire so that I am not playing the same pieces for too long as I think there is a good number of times you can reinvent your performances but if it goes for too long it can start to lose the freshness and excitement.

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

I am going to play at Sala Cecilia Meireles in Rio after quite a while because it has been closed for a few years for refurbishment. I am really looking forward to it as it is a wonderful hall with fantastic acoustics and by being in my hometown it has some special vibe to it. It was one of the first halls I played as a professional when still in my teens.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love playing Mozart and Chopin and obviously the Latin American repertoire. I feel happy when the public enjoy music they have not heard previously.

When it comes to listening I prefer to hear operas by Mozart and Wagner and chamber music by Schubert, especially Lieder.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Another difficult question. I love many pianists of the past and we are lucky to be able to continue enjoying their art with their recordings. Pianists such as Clara Haskil, Arthur Rubinstein, Ingrid Haebler and Emil Gilels are among my favourites. I also heard the other day the First Ballade by Chopin played by Claudio Arrau and was amazed, what a wonderful performance! Among the living artists I would say that Daniel Barenboim who is a complete musician and Nelson Freire, who I consider the greatest living pianist today, are my favourites. I also admire many singers such as Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, Barbara Hendricks, Maria Callas, etc

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The concert I will always remember was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The whole experience was memorable. The music making was extraordinary as every word he sang kept you in wonder.

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

I think the most important thing is to keep the love for music whatever happens. It is a difficult profession and there will be many disappointments and frustrations on the way but after all being an artist is working with beauty and emotions and it is what makes this profession so special. Respect to the composer’s ideas and humility as an interpreter are the fundamental values of the true artist.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am preparing the recitals for the ‘Nazareth’ CD launch and I have combined a group of pieces by Nazareth with Chopin and Gottschalk. It is an interesting programme as it shows the influence of these two composers on Nazareth’s work. I am also preparing Haydn’s Concerto and some new repertoire for next season including some Romantic and exciting Spanish music. I am also researching the Latin American repertoire again, looking for interesting projects.

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

If I am alive I would like to be still playing the piano and enjoying music as much as I do now.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness for me is when my family is together.

What is your most treasured possession?

I love my piano, it is my companion.

What do you enjoy doing most?

In love travelling (on holidays!!), discovering new places.

What is your present state of mind?


Clélia Iruzun’s new disc ‘Ernesto Nazareth: Portrait of Rio’, featuring the piano works of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) is out now.

Clélia Iruzun’s childhood was spent in the rich cultural atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro where she began playing the piano at the age of four, winning her first competition at seven and making her orchestral debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at 15. At 17 Clelia won a scholarship to continue her development by studying with the highly regarded Maria Curcio in London, and then with Christopher Elton, who took her under his wing at the Royal Academy of Music where she graduated with the Recital Diploma. Later she also studied with Noretta Conci and then with Mercês de Silva Telles, who encouraged Clélia to develop her own definitive style. Her mentors have included Fou Ts’Ong, Stephen Kovacevich, and her compatriots, the great pianists Jacques Klein and Nelson Freire.


Introducing Muzewest Concerts

Bringing exciting musical experiences to Vancouver – a guest post by Jennifer West, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Müzewest Concerts

Müzewest Concerts has been a recital series for just under 2 years in Vancouver. The goal of the series is to bring live classical music to the next generation of listeners. It is also to provide a space for community to develop by offering ticket prices that are reasonable for most households. This means that culture can become more accessible to all people who wish the enjoy the gift of music. Furthermore, Müzewest Concerts offer performance opportunities to young musicians who have recently graduated and are looking to share their music with an appreciative and warm audience. Their innovative recital programmes often include contemporary compositions by living composers.

With high-calibre concerts and unique accompanying outreach concerts at schools, hospitals etc, Müzewest Concerts harness the power of music to improve less privileged communities.

Müzewest Concerts firmly believes that there is a space in Vancouver for high calibre classical music concerts at an affordable rate for the public. Unfortunately, fundraising and financial support have been a challenge for the organization. The goal is to keep this project going but vast support is needed in order to pay artists properly and rent venues that are welcoming to the audience.

Now let us celebrate women composers

Earlier this week an ignorant, opinionated and badly-argued article appeared in ‘The Spectator’ stating that ‘There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers’. The basic premise of the author’s argument is that there are no good, let alone “genius”, women composers because what they wrote was boring or just plain rubbish when compared to the output of their male counterparts.

I’m not going to supply a link to this article as I feel it is mostly a cynical attempt to encourage clickbait. Personally, I found the contents of the article to be ill-informed, sexist and, frankly, pretty offensive that a man writing in the first quarter of the 21st century should still hold such unreconstructed views. It makes me wonder how far we have really progressed in the last 50 years.

Germaine Tailleferre

The coverage – or lack thereof – of women composers on radio and tv broadcasts and in concerts is a continual preoccupation. Earlier this year, Radio Three devoted one day – yes, a whole day! (International Women’s Day in fact) – to music by women composers. To be fair, the station also ran features on living women composers as part of the Composer of the Week series, and there were other programmes to complement the broadcasts on 8th January. But tune in to the Radio Three Breakfast programme on any given day and you’ll be hard put to find many works by women on the playlist.

If women were considered equally as capable as men in work, the arts and everything outside of family life then there would be no need to have specific events to celebrate our achievements or validate our work. It depresses me write this, but sadly in 2015 this still is not the case.

In response to The Spectator article, the pianist Danny Driver, who has himself recently recorded music by Amy Beach (USA), Dorothy Howell (English) and Cécile Chaminade (France), suggested I compile a list of women composers, along the same lines as the list of British pianists I compiled earlier this year in response to another ignorant article. When I posted a call for suggestions on Facebook, I was deluged with names of women composers, living and dead, well-known and obscure, together with many comments, from men and women, declaring a passionate interest in this subject, and a total disdain for The Spectator article and its author.

Ultimately, of course, the gender of the composer shouldn’t matter and we should simply celebrate music and take pleasure in playing and sharing it. To this end, I’d like to quote from a post by a pianist colleague which expresses very eloquently how we should approach music:

We cannot change history and blaming our circumstances on it won’t change the present. Can we instead turn our attention towards inclusion, admiration and respect towards others instead of perpetuating a world of exclusion, comparison and separateness? 

I choose the music I play and listen to not because of the person it was written by but because it improves my quality of life. It challenges me, brings me joy, makes me ask questions and allows me to discover something new about our world. 

Can we change this conversation, which more often than not turns in to argument, to cultivation and continued celebration of human endeavor and joy? 

Can we remind ourselves that music bypasses boundaries, walls, beliefs and opinions and can we allow it to connect humanity regardless of what gender? [EM]

Women composers – a very incomplete list:

Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach, Grażyna Bacewicz, Roxanna Panufnik, Anna Magdalena Bach, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jenni Pinnock, Alison Wrenn, Judith Weir, Judith Bingham, Rebecca Saunders, Tansy Davies, Sally Beamish, Elizabeth Maconchy, Alissa Firsova, Kerry Andrew, Olga Neuwirth, Thea Musgrave, Elizabeth Lutyens, Sofia Gubaidulina, Betsy Jolas, Chaya Czernowin, Liza Lim, Kaija Saariaho, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Galina Ustvolskaya, Lera Auerbach, Sadie Harrison, Karen Tanaka, Lili Boulanger, Jocelyn Pook, Imogen Holst, Ethel Smyth, Joan Trimble, Margaret Hubicki, Lilian Elkington, Ruth Byrchmore, Dobrinka Tabakova, Elizabeth Ogonek, Madeleine Dring, Mary Plumstead, Diana Burrell, Debbie Wiseman, Eleanor Daley, Angela Morley, Phyllis Tate, Elizabeth Poston, Grace Williams, Liza Lehmann, Cecilia MacDowall, Claude Arrieu, Rebecca Clarke, Pauline Viardot, Janet Graham, Lotta Wennäkoski, Helen Eugenia Hagan, Deidre Gibbin, Jennifer Higdon, Barbara Strozzi, Elo Masing, Litha Efthymiou, Helen Grime, Stef Conner, Nwando Ebizie, Rachel Porter, Joanna Marsh, Unsuk Chin, Freya Waley-Cohen, Eleanor Alberga, Sally Whitwell, Errollyn Wallen

In fact, this list only scratches the surface, and as a colleague of mine commented, “the list of accomplished women composers with international recognition is so long that to list some or even a lot is to leave out many”.

I am pleased to see works by women composers reasonably well represented in the Trinity College of Music graded piano exam syllabus.

For a different angle on this discussion, do read this most interesting article The ‘Woman Composer’ is dead

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture


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