Tag Archives: adult amateur pianists

Celebrating amateur pianism

Final of GPP/LPE adult amateur piano competition, adjudicated by Leslie Howard. Saturday 27 June 2015, All Saints Church, West Dulwich

If anyone needed proof of passion for the piano amongst adults look no further than the final of an amateur competition which took place last weekend in south-east London. A joint collaboration between specialist piano restorer and retailer Grand Passion Pianos and London Piano Events (formerly London Piano Meetup Group), the final brought together seven pianists whose playing demonstrated a high level of technical facility, artistry, musical understanding and committment. The first round (YouTube submissions) presented the judges with the unenviable task of selecting eight people to go through to the final.

The competition final was adjudicated by acclaimed international concert pianist Leslie Howard. The finalists had to cope with a church acoustic (great for the audience, but tricky to judge for those at the piano) and little or no time to warm up, and they all rose to the challenge with poise and confidence (any nerves were well disguised!). At the end of the competition, Leslie made some helpful and encouraging general comments, and everyone left with a sheet of more detailed comments on their individual performances.

The results of the competition were as follows:

Winner – David Griffiths

Mazurka op 17 no 4 – Chopin
Etude pour les arpeges composes – Debussy
Etude-Tableaux op 39 no 5 – Rachmaninov

Second place – Michael Cheung

Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (1st movt) Beethoven
Widmung – Schumann arr. Liszt
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 no. 5 – S Rachmaninov

Third place – Claudia Lazarus

Litaney – Schubert arr. Liszt
Mädchens Klage – Schubert arr. Liszt
In Dahomey (“Cakewalk Smasher”) – Grainger

The Raymond Banning Trophy was presented to the winner by Lorraine Womack-Banning, whose late husband Raymond Banning was a concert pianist, professor of piano at Trinity College of Music, London and a keen supporter of amateur pianism.

Download the full programme here

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How social media can support your practising

It may appear counter-intuitive to say that social networking, that most distracting and potentially time-wasting of modern-day preoccupations, could possibly assist in one’s piano practise. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote. A while ago, a renowned British concert pianist posted on Facebook that he was having trouble with a tricky passage in a work by Schumann and asked if anyone could suggest a more intelligent/efficient/comfortable fingering scheme. There followed a stream of replies, many of which offered alternative fingering schemes, while others took the conversation off on interesting by-ways and tangents. A few days later, the same pianist posted that, thanks to the comments, he had found a better fingering for the passage. This is an excellent example of “the wisdom of crowds in action” (to quote from another FB colleague of mine) and demonstrates how social media can, truly, assist in your practising.

When I first started this blog five years ago, I wasn’t very active on social networks: in fact, the blog was the only “social media platform” I regularly engaged with. I started the blog as a way of recording my thoughts about the music I was listening to, enjoying in concerts and studying. I found it helpful to write down ideas about what I was practising – to think about it away from the piano allowed my thoughts to crystallise. As the blog became more well known, interesting discussions developed out of these posts, as people left comments or contacted me for advice about music or technical issues they were struggling with. When I took the decision to study for my first performance diploma, I charted my progress in a series of blog posts. After the diploma was completed and passed, a colleague wrote that I had been “brave” to have been “so public” in my attempt, and that  my efforts were inspiring and “liberating for so many people” (i.e. other adult amateur piansists). I was flattered that someone thought my writing and musical activities could offer support to others who were considering or actively engaged in a similar musical path to mine. In fact, in addition to writing my own blog posts about my diploma progress, I read and followed many other blogs on music and pianism which provided crucial support, especially in the final months leading up to the diploma recitals. Interacting, via comments and on Twitter, with the authors of these blogs made me feel supported and encouraged. Playing the piano is a lonely occupation (though I enjoy the loneliness) and I didn’t see my teacher that frequently for lessons. When we did meet, there was far too much work to be done on the actual music to spend time musing over more esoteric issues of, for example, interpretation, the psychology of performance and managing performance anxiety, stagecraft and presentation, and all the other myriad aspects which go into producing a slick, well-prepared and engaging musical performance. In short, my interactions with people on social networks made me feel less alone in my task.

A few days ago, I tweeted a picture of the final bars of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, which I am working on at present. This is a long-term project, but my tweet was to celebrate the fact that I had, finally, after 7 months work, learnt the entire sonata. (By which I mean, it is “in the fingers”, but is by no means finessed – that hard work begins now, and for the next half year, or more.) A number of people responded to the picture with words of congratulation and encouragement, while others expressed their liking for this sonata or offered links to their favourite performers and performances of the work. As is often the way with social media, an interesting discussion ensued, all of which, for me, feeds into my continuous circle of practise, study, discussion, interaction, teaching, listening, concert-going, and more.

Across the social networks, by which I mean the most widely-used platforms of Facebook and Twitter, there is a plethora of musicians, music teachers and musically-inclined people who regularly post about the music they are enjoying as a listener/concert-goer or studying and practising as a performer and/or teacher or enthusiastic amateur. In addition to people’s personal timelines, there are groups and forums where like-minded people can get together to bounce ideas around, often providing invaluable support, advice and solidarity for those of us who might be “stuck” in a musical impasse. Sometimes someone might flag up difficulties they are having with a particular section of a piece, or ask for suggestions for new repertoire for themselves or their students, or post a recording they have made for others to critique. Sometimes we just have a collective grumble about how difficult it all is! And often Facebook and Twitter simply provide a pleasant antidote to the enjoyable hardship of trying to refine Schubert’s “heavenly length” or get to grips with a knotty section of a Bach fugue.

On a more practical level, Twitter in particular is the place where you will daily find a wealth of links to blogs, articles, videos and other material which can assist in your piano practise – from the simplest “how to do it” videos to academic writing offering detailed critical analysis and commentary on specific works. Sifting through this material can be daunting, but both Twitter and Facebook have functions which allow you to “favourite” or save links to read later.

Out in The Real World, there is another social networking platform which has proved fertile ground for pianists to connect, share repertoire, thoughts about practising and performing, and to socialise: London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group), which I co-organise with a piano teaching colleague, brings adult amateur pianists together regularly for informal performance opportunities and social events. I have made important new friendships via the group and collectively we provide a supportive atmosphere for the keyboard-inclined.

Here are some comments from people with whom I am connected on social networks about the usefulness of these platforms to the musician and music teacher:

I have learned FAR more useful teaching ideas and techniques from Facebook groups than I did by studying for a teaching diploma!

it really helps me as practising can be lonely and it’s nice to have piano chat during breaks

Facebook has helped me considerably (and less so Twitter) both to research piano-related information and has helped me hugely with practice through the support of specialised Groups, and of pianist friends on my News flux. Even my face-to-face teacher (not a lover of the social network society) has noticed!

For me it’s solidarity!!! Knowing that I’m not the only one having problems.

We can find solutions to more than just fingering issues. Plus lots of varying opinions. Without it we’d be at risk of only teaching in the way we were taught!

I think one of the most important aspects of social media is solidarity – it’s so good to be able to share problems, find that others are experiencing the same etc. I think that has a huge influence on our own well-being as musicians.

I think there is an almost unlimited amount we can learn from each other, and social networking helps build those connections both online and (hopefully) in the real world too

Selected resources

Practising the Piano (Twitter @PractisingPiano)

The Musician’s Way (Twitter @klickstein)

Piano Addict blog (Twitter @pianoaddictblog)

Stephen Hough’s blog (Twitter @houghough)

Pianist magazine (Twitter @pianistmagazine)

Musical Orbit (Twitter @musicalrbiter)

Piano Network UK (Facebook group)

Professionalism in Piano Teaching UK (Facebook group)

London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group)

The Bulletproof Musician

Sunday Feature: Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?

Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)

I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.

I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am involved in a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.

The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).

So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:

Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.

A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.

The Complete Piano Etudes – Philip Glass. I’ve just discovered these works by the master of American minimalism. Technically and musically challenging and very satisfying to play

Unicorn in Rainbows – Alison Wrenn. A beautiful short work infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms.

Please feel free to join this discussion by adding your comments below. Suggestions for repertoire are also very welcome.

Why go on a piano course?

Piano courses are the “in thing” right now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again. For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now in its 18th year. Inspired by Lot Music new kid on the piano course block is La Balie, also in the Lot region. Created by high-flying city exec Fiona Page, La Balie promises beautiful and tranquil surroundings, five-star accommodation and expert tuition from concert pianist James Lisney, who has had years of experience as a course leader at the Summer School for Pianists and Hindhead Music Centre, amongst others.

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The swimming pool at La Balie

So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and now La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.

Masterclass with James Lisney at the Summer School for Pianists

Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.

Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.

And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.

Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.

More on piano courses and summer schools for pianists

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

La Balie – summer piano courses in the heart of France

***Dates for 2016 courses***

July 9th-16th and August 13th-20th

Booking opens September 1st 2015

La Balie is the brain-child of Fiona Page, a high-flying former CEO and amateur pianist. After a busy and satisfying career in finance, Fiona felt the tug of a change of direction as she approached a significant birthday. Here she takes up the story of how La Balie came to be:

I was CEO of another successful independent business that I’d really enjoyed building, but I was increasingly looking for other interests and a better balance – I’d started learning the piano and had been thinking for several years of buying a house in the sunshine. So at 49 I set myself the target of buying a house in France by the time I was 50. I thought I’d spend long weekends exploring different areas and looking for the perfect house: as it happened, I chose a few properties off the internet, went to France for one rainy, foggy, November weekend and came back with a house!  

The house was La Balie – a collection of 7 stone farm buildings dating from the 16th century.  

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When I bought La Balie it had three little cottages that were used for summer rentals. I continued with that for the first summer but then started to think about what else I might use the cottages for. It was an easy process for me: there were four key areas that I was interested in and when I talked to other people everyone seemed to agree that music, well-being, cooking and some corporate stuff would be interesting and fun.  

And that’s how it started! 

Along my travels I met concert pianist James Lisney, who I was lucky enough to persuade to lead the piano courses and we were off! This summer we’re offering three weeks of courses – the first open to pianists of all levels and the second and third dedicated to advanced pianists. The ethos of La Balie is to play serious music but in a relaxed environment: the day starts with a breakfast of fresh hot croissants, local breads and home-made organic muesli, class starts at 9.30 with 4 students having the opportunity to play prepared pieces for James and the rest of the group. A lazy lunch is at 1.00 with the rest of the afternoon free for sightseeing, relaxing by the pool, practice or further individual lessons with James. We gather again around 6.30 for a chilled glass of something and an evening recital either from James or one of the course participants. The opportunity to perform has been a great attraction at the La Balie courses and there has been serious competition for the available slots! Dinner is either on the terrace at La Balie watching beautiful sunsets or at one of the many local restaurants.

All the classes take place in The Studio, a beautiful old barn, now converted and equipped with air-conditioning, an acoustic ceiling and audio visual equipment which we use to record performances and some classes. We are lucky enough to have two fine grand pianos in the Studio, with four further practice pianos located in each cottage and in the main house. 

The courses:

Piano Foundations – three, one-week piano courses or both intermediate and advanced pianists with the aim of consolidating technique

Advanced Master Classes – two separate weeks of offering in-depth study of prepared pieces.

All classes will be limited to ten participants, giving each student the opportunity to work closely with James Lisney to enhance, deepen and improve their musical ability as well as to share musical interests with the other members of the group. More than just a “piano holiday”, La Balie offers participants expert tuition in a beautiful and convivial setting.

Each day is structured as a combination of masterclasses in the morning, private tuition in the afternoon, practice time and evening concerts. Each student can expect 2-3 masterclass sessions of 45 minutes each and 2 private lessons (also 45 minutes) during the week

For further information and booking, please visit http://www.labalie.com/about-2/

London Piano Meetup group at Hanna Pianos

On Saturday the London Piano Meetup Group ventured south to Wimbledon for a recital at the showroom of Hanna Pianos. Nine pianists performed an interesting and varied programme of works by Shostakovich, Brahms, Granados, Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin, Stanchinsky and Szymanowski; we also enjoyed a performance of a clarinet piece by Paul Reade.

1452077_600409663360040_497822147_nHanna Pianos has had its showroom on Kingston Road SW19 since 1990. It’s a family-run business and the owner, Fadi Hanna, learnt his trade from a young age, observing and working with his father who established the business in 1960; meanwhile Fadi’s brother, Chucri, looks after the technical and tuning side of the business. When we visited the showroom was graced by a beautifully restored 1900 Bechstein, a Steinway Model O with a lovely burr walnut case and a 1927 Bluthner autographed by Kelenyi (?). We were lucky enough to play the Bechstein for our recital.

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Mr Fadi Hanna with LPMG co-hosts Frances & Lorraine

 

The audience, seated around the piano on stools and chairs, listened attentively and applause was given generously for every performance. The atmosphere was intimate and friendly, and one had the impression of everyone listening very carefully to such high-quality piano music. At the end of the event, Mr Hanna produced the most delicious baklava and other gifts for us. We were absolutely bowled over by his hospitality and generosity, and there was much positive feedback after the event, praise for both venue and instrument. We are hosting a masterclass with Graham Fitch at Hanna Pianos towards the end of this month, and we very much hope to host further recitals in the showroom.

1920 Steinway Model O with burr walnut case

A Hanna & Sons Pianos Ltd

London Piano Meetup Group

Piano Notes – Peter Cockshott

PeteCHow long have you been playing the piano?

Started with lessons at school 60-odd years ago, but never did any exams or grades; Kept it up, informally and somewhat chaotically, until after retirement; (I’ve usually had a piano in the house); started lessons again 3 years ago.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?

Mostly romantic standards: learned a few Chopin pieces recently, earlier did some Granados Spanish Dances. Also, Ravel, but I find most of it too hard, Debussy: a bit easier!

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising? 

I’m retired, so I practise an hour or so most days when at home. Yes, I enjoy it or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience? 

Masterclasses at Broughton in Furness with Anthony Hewitt, Martin Roscoe and others. I feel I get more from the fact of performing in front of people than from what I learn at the class

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons? 

Making discernable progress: e.g. attempted a piece 2 years ago (Ravel: ‘Menuet’ from Tombeau de Couperin) and gave up as it seemed beyond my abilities. Took it up again a month or two ago and realised that it was now quite feasible. I feel I am hampered by having done little work on scales, arpeggios etc – there is no infrastructure to my playing!

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

Socially, we have a Piano Circle, hosted by my piano teacher. We meet once a month and play our pieces to each other. Most of the other members are more advanced than me, but we all encourage each other and I get some compliments about my playing, which is good for my confidence. I find that the challenge of playing to others means that I have to get a piece up to a presentable standard rather than giving up when the going gets tough. (For example I have played the first two pages of Debussy’s Clair de Lune for years but always gave up when the arpeggios begin). I’m planning to learn it properly when I’ve done my present piece.

In addition, we go to local concerts, for which I might not be motivated without social pressure.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

I play at Piano Circle and at masterclasses. I’m a nervous performer, and tend to play much worse than I do at home in private. I wish I could stop making careless mistakes!

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons? 

Go for it!

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

I’ve been trying to learn the Chopin’s Prelude no 17 in A flat. It’s a wonderful piece with those amazing chromatic episodes: trouble is, it’s just a bit too hard for me at present! I gave it a trial outing at Piano Circle a few months ago and made a bit of a mess of it, but doubtless it will come! As we’re thinking about Alan Rusbridger and ‘Play It Again’, perhaps it is my G minor Ballade! 

Peter Cockshott lives in the Lake District. He studied physics at University and went on to a career in industry, working in physics and electronics, retiring from this some 10 years ago. From an early age he has spent his spare time climbing or running in the hills, but now has to fit in piano practice as well.

 

He has piano lessons with Rosemary Hamblett in Ulverston.

Piano Notes – Caroline Wright

How long have you been playing the piano? 

I guess, in total, nearly 20 years. I started when I was 7, and had lessons until the age of 18. Then restarted again at around 25-ish after spending too long at university doing science degrees.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

I have very broad listening tastes – any type of music from anywhere really. I’m a composer too so I think listening widely is really important for broadening your musical horizons. I’m much more conservative when it comes to playing though. I recently discovered I love playing Bach, which is great for the fingers, brain and soul! I played a lot of classical repertoire at school, but now love playing the Romantics (Brahms, Chopin and Rachmaninoff particularly) and really enjoy Debussy. I’d like to learn some works from more modern composers too, particularly Kapustin and Ligeti. I also like playing jazz – Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock, anything really.

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising?

I think people make time for what’s important. I love practising so I usually find time at the expense of other things (like exercise!). I play at least an hour a day, often more. Learning to play a really great piece is quite addictive I think – and really life enhancing to spend so much time in the company of a great work of art. Usually I play in the evenings, but sometimes manage 45mins before work too.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses? What have you gained from this experience? 

Yes, both, multiple times. My masterclass experiences have been mixed – some have been wonderfully enlightening and encouraging, and some rather soul destroying! I think it depends on how well you know the piece (don’t even consider doing it unless you know the piece absolutely inside out!) and the personality of the teacher. As for summer schools – I like to go to one every year or so, to sort of turbo-charge my enthusiasm for practising. I’ve been to Chetham’s a few times, which is amazingly invigorating but absolutely exhausting! I always come back fresh with new ideas for how to practice, and an enormous wish-list of pieces to learn. I’ve also done a week at Dartington and been to the COMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs) summer school a few times, which are much more varied as they don’t just focus on piano. It’s always a real pleasure to meet like-minded people at summer schools and share you passion.

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?

I think being challenged to think and hear in a different way is the most enjoyable aspect of lessons, as well as being introduced to new repertoire. The most challenging aspect of lessons is probably not playing as well as I know I can when I’m home alone. Which is really frustrating!

What are the special challenges of preparing for a piano exam as an adult? 

Fear of making an idiot of yourself! I was scared of having a memory lapse, as I always play from memory. Finding enough time and courage to practice the whole program in front of people can be a challenge too. But overall I’ve really enjoyed preparing for the two exams I’ve done as an adult (ATCL and LTCL performance diplomas).

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

I’ve certainly met more pianists through lessons, which has been great. I think playing piano and challenging yourself to continue learning has enormous benefits in all areas of life, and makes you more mentally alert.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons? 

Do it! But find a teacher who enthuses you and makes you want to practice, not one who makes you feel like you have to start from scratch every week.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Something very long – like Bach’s Goldberg Variations – so I didn’t run out of music!

Though actually it might be Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

Caroline Wright has an MMus in musical composition from the University of London, and a Licentiate Diploma in Piano Performance from Trinity College of Music, London. She is a scientist by profession, and blogs about musical memory at http://memorisingmusic.com.

Book review: Play It Again – Alan Rusbridger

In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.

When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.

Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).

His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry.

Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.

In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.

Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?

The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.

This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.

The Saturday Piano Salon

Another lovely afternoon at London’s Steinway Hall for the second Piano Salon, hosted by Melanie Spanswick and Lorraine Liyanage. Once again, there was a great range of repertoire and some very impressive performances: I particularly enjoyed Claudia’s Chasse-Neige by Liszt, Petra’s Ricercare & Toccata by Menotti, Debussy’s Étude No. 11 played by David Griffiths, and two pieces (The White Mountain and Berceuse) by English composer Ernest Moeran, played by David Barton. (I played Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau in G minor from the Opus 33 set.) The atmosphere was friendly and supportive, with everyone listening in a most concentrated way, and after the music there was time for socialising over a glass or two of wine. It was very nice to catch up with friends, including soprano Jane Wilkinson, who opened the afternoon with a delightful song by Liza Lehmann (Jane is a recent ‘Meet the Artist’ interviewee).

The Piano Salon is a really great initiative as it offers adult amateur pianists the chance to perform, share repertoire and meet in a relaxed and non-competitive setting. There are future Salons planned in the autumn: visit the Piano Salon website for further information.

Saturday Piano Salon

A selection of videos from the event:

Jane Wilkinson & Melanie Spanswick: ‘Evensong’ by Liza Lehmann

 

David Barton: ‘The White Mountain’ & ‘Berceuse’ by Ernest Moeran

 

David Griffiths: Debussy – Etude No. 11 Pour les Arpeges Composes

 

Rachmaninov – Étude-Tableau in G minor, Op 33 no. 8