People who know me well – and who have eaten at my dinner table – probably feel it was inevitable that I would eventually combine my twin passions of food and pianism in a blog post.
This time last year I was in the midst of final preparations for my ATCL Performance Diploma. I was also hooked on Masterchef the Professionals, a BBC TV competition for working chefs. This time this year I am once again immersed in Diploma preparations (for the higher LTCL), and nightly glued to Masterchef the Professionals.
So how can a cookery tv game show (which is how Masterchef began nearly 20 years ago) provide inspiration to the pianist, and musician in general?
The programme features some very talented individuals. Many of the dishes they submit to the highly discriminating judges are amazing: creative, imaginative and beautifully prepared. In order to progress through the contest, the participants must complete a variety of tests, including skills tests which examine things like the ability to joint a bird correctly, prepare a lobster or make Hollandaise sauce (three ways). They must also prepare a classic dish, set by Michael Roux Jr, as well as cooking and serving a two-course meal for food critics. As the competition progresses, the tasks become more challenging.
The more I watched Masterchef, and the further the competition proceeded towards its exciting denouement, the more it became apparent to me that the chefs who consistently came out top (and the one who eventually won the competition, Ash Mair), all had their “skills sets” perfected. At the foundation of everything they cooked was a solid understanding of technique, ingredients, flavour combinations, and time-management, combined with creative flair and imagination. And as I watched, it occurred to me that musicians, especially those preparing for concerts, competitions, festivals or exams, also need to have secure “skills sets” (i.e. technique).
Technique is at the foundation of everything we do as pianists (and this is true for anyone who works in a profession/craft requiring skill and dexterity – for example, sportspeople, surgeons, sculptors, plumbers). Piano technique is not just finger dexterity but – just as for a chef – an aggregate of many skills. It is an understanding of how movement can influence the way we play the piano, the sounds we make, our ability to move rapidly around the keyboard. It is “a way of using your body to play the piano” (Maria Joao Pires). I see technique as the solid architectural framework on which we hang our creativity, artistic and interpretative vision, our musicality, and our communication with the listener. And technique must never just be about acquiring “finger technique”; we should always practice in a musical way – because practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music.
Sure, you come across people who play the piano well, but maybe you wonder, when you hear them play, why their fortes are too strident, or their tonal control lacks true cantabile sound. Both aspects require an ability to understand how we use the body to create particular sounds and effects on the keyboard. So, like the chefs on Masterchef the Professionals, we must bring together our skill set and our musicality to enable us to play better.
Another aspect which was very obvious from Masterchef was that all the finalists were highly organised time managers. They knew how long their dishes would take to prepare and they were expert at multi-tasking. They also had a well-developed understanding of how the different components of a dish should come together to create a whole meal. In the same way, the skilled musician understands how to construct a programme that will delight, excite and surprise the listener. The ingredients of a good programme should pique the listener’s appetite well before the soloist arrives on stage (when I select concerts to review, I largely base my choices on interesting repertoire and programming rather than performer). A concert pianist friend of mine once told me that his teacher (Phyllis Sellick) described a programme featuring music by the same composer as “a list!”, but “seasoning” your programme well can make a concert focusing on a single composer a fascinating and engaging experience – for listener and performer.
Let me backtrack a little in the process and explain how Masterchef influenced my Diploma preparations in the run up to the exam last December:
Be well-prepared: allowing oneself enough time to fully prepare each piece. Last-minute preparations are never a good idea, whatever level of exam you are taking. Being well-prepared can also counteract nerves on the day.
Time-management: make sure your programme runs to the correct timings as given in the exam regulations. At Diploma level, you will be marked down if your programme is too short, or over-runs. Time your pieces individually as well as your entire programme. And think about the silences between the pieces too: some pieces hang together naturally (I played a Bach Toccata and Debussy’s Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’ virtually back-to-back in my Diploma recital, to demonstrate the connections between the pieces, but a longer pause between the Schubert E flat Impromptu and Liszt Sonetto 123 was necessary, in part to allow me to catch my breath!)
Plan your menu. Your programme is your menu: plan it wisely. In my experience, as a regular concert-goer and occasional performer, the best programmes are those which offer different levels of energy, perhaps building to the climax of a big virtuosic piece, or piano sonata at the midway point. If the programme is very weighty, remember that the audience needs a break too.
Presentation: at Diploma level you are marked on your presentation skills and stagecraft, and your attire and manner must be professional. Dress appropriately for an afternoon or early evening recital, and practice playing in your concert clothes ahead of the actual date. (I had trouble with my shoes, for example, as I cannot pedal in high heels! And make sure your page turner is correctly attired too: mine wore plain black shirt and trousers).
Stay focussed: nerves can get the better of you but if you are well-prepared you should have no reason to feel nervous (beyond the “positive nerves” of looking forward to presenting your programme to an audience/examiner).
A couple of other tips for practising have come up as I’ve watched this year’s Masterchef The Professionals contest:
Last year, I played the Schubert E flat Impromptu to a pianist friend, twice, as part of my preparations. He told me I was using the pedal too much and ordered me to practice the piece without the pedal (except in the trio). At first, I found this a difficult and unpleasant experience, not least because the piece sounded dreadful without pedal on my piano. After a while, however, I began to notice new details about the music, which had hitherto been hidden by my rather over-enthusiastic foot. Likewise, on Masterchef last year, one of the finalists made a ‘Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie’. He took all the components of a classic chicken pie, stripped them down and presented them in an elegant and witty way. When I made it myself, I realised why my friend had suggested practising the Schubert without pedal: when I went back to play the piece for my teacher, with one-eighth pedal, the result was more refined, musical and had far greater clarity.
So, it’s worth taking the trouble to strip the music back to its components: this does not necessarily mean doing an exhaustive analysis of the score, but being aware of all the little details that make up the whole. Practising sans pedal allows you to hear better what is going on in the music – maybe some interior voices or melodic lines were not obvious before? Understand what makes the whole and try to bring all the individual parts together to make a coherent and elegant finished version.
I’ve been working on my LTCL repertoire for nearly a year now, and soon it will be “decision time” as to when I take the exam (spring or summer 2013). The experience of the previous Diploma – and the inspiration from Masterchef! – means I feel far better prepared this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning aspects of technique including pedaling (specifically for Mozart A minor Rondo, K511, which requires very little, and very sensitive pedaling), and building stamina to enable me to play a brash and exuberant Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau (op 33, in E flat). I’ve done a lot of “tasting” – listening around my repertoire to gain inspiration from recordings, other works by the same composers, live performances etc. My ‘menu’ is nearly ready to be run by friends and colleagues who will sample it ahead of the exam:
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974
Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Rachmaninov – Two Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 – No. 7 in E flat & No. 8 in G minor