Tag Archives: At the Piano

At the Piano with Mark Polishook

What is your first memory of the piano?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember what you liked to play?

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

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

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

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

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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

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

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

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

How do you teach?

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

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

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you expect from your students?

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

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

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

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

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we contact you?

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

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

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

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

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

At the Piano With……Janet Jones

What is your first memory of the piano? 

My mother always played the piano. We had an old Aldrich upright that she played while she was pregnant with me and that I played until I was 13 years old. She was my teacher at that time.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I was a performance major and first taught some students for a friend in her absence. I enjoyed teaching but did not have the training for it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I studied with Franceen Downing, who took me through my early teen years and then with Dr. Bob L. Bennett through my last two years of high school and four undergraduate years at California State University, Fresno.

I studied with Ena Bronstein while working on my Master’s Degree. She had a beautiful way of imparting the Arrau technique. I also studied accompanying with Tait Barrows, a wonderful and humorous collaborative pianist and wife of the late John Barrows, horn player.

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

By far the most important influence on my teaching was a one-year internship with Margaret Talcott who gave me a teaching curriculum specific to piano that introduces concepts and skills at appropriate age/cognitive levels.  Curriculum-based teaching enables anyone who practices regularly a chance to play the piano with confidence.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

Most lessons I teach are memorable (to me anyway). The only lessons I find difficult occur when a student loses interest and stops practicing for a period of time. Fortunately, this does not happen often.

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

I find it exciting to teach adults when they progress. Adults are a challenge because the business of life can easily get in the way of practice. Their time is not protected by their parents as a child’s would be.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect regular practice, the ability to work out a piece independently with correct notes, rhythms and dynamics, regular attendance at lessons, performance on some recitals, and a solid understanding of the theory behind their music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are fine if they don’t interfere with the process of learning skills and concepts. If the extra activity throws off the curriculum or forces concepts to be taught before I would normally teach them, then it is not worth the imbalance it produces in my teaching. I have no personal stake in whether my students impress adjudicators or other teachers by their playing and I am more interested in how well they are learning. They are happiest and want to continue piano lessons when they feel confident in their ability to teach themselves.

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

To beginners: solid rhythmic playing, reading skills, the use of creative improvisation to reinforce concepts

To advanced students: persistence, technical ability to play what they want, freedom to choose the type of music they like to learn

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

I think it’s wonderful to begin a student when they’re young and watch them grow up. The worst aspect is the pay.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I like to teach any music and prefer to play “classical”, especially chamber music. I also enjoy singing and playing my own songs accompanying myself on the piano or  guitar.

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

Claudio Arrau was my all-time favourite because he often took slower tempi, enabling the listener to hear everything that the composer wrote. Ena Bronstein is my favourite pianist-teacher.

Janet Jones began piano lessons at age four and has taught many students of all ages, preschool through adult. She also teaches Musikgarten, birth through age five. She grew up in Fresno, California and received her Master’s Degree in piano performance from CSUF, Fresno. She also has a Master’s Degree in Education, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Phoenix. She currently teaches at her own small piano studio in Madison, Wisconsin. She also enjoys performing folk tales and original songs and stories for children and adults.

At the Piano with……..Nico de Villiers

What is your first memory of the piano?

My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.

I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.

Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.

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

The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.

It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.

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

I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!

What do you expect from your students?

A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.

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

For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.

For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.

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

Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.

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

Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.

South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Read Nico’s full biography here

At the Piano With……GéNIA Part 1

Recently, I had the very great pleasure of interviewing GéNIA, Russian pianist and teacher, and creator of innovative piano technique, Piano-Yoga®. We met at London’s prestigious Steinway Hall to talk about many aspects of piano teaching and performing, and, in a departure from the usual format of the At the Piano….. interviews, our conversation was filmed.

The videos will be published in six short instalments. In the first, we discuss GéNIA’s musical heritage, her first piano, the influence of her great-grand uncle Vladimir Horowitz, significant teachers and other influences that affected GéNIA’s musical development.

For more information on Piano-Yoga® please visit

www.piano-yoga.com

More At the Piano…… interviews

At the Piano With……David Nelson

David Nelson

***The inaugural Hebden Bridge Piano Festival, conceived by David Nelson, takes place from 19-21 April.

Further information and tickets here***

What is your first memory of the piano?

Age 5 picking out tunes on a neighbour’s piano. She encouraged my parents to get me an instrument. To this day I’m not sure whether she recognised my innate talent -or whether she just needed me to make that row in my own home!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? Nothing really: I just wondered whether I could do it. Made a start and found that I could.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? My current teacher, concert pianist Paul Roberts. Also Katerina Wolpe at Morley College.

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

Probably all the other musical things I do in addition to playing Classical music. So…jazz, pop, world music, playing guitar and bass, singing, writing music and lots more. All these things  help explain music differently and sometimes better than more formal routes, and add  vibrancy and colour to lessons (and to the music too)

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

The moment a student plays beautifully for the first time – in their piece, or in their lives perhaps. That’s when you know it’s all been worthwhile!

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

Keeping them going! They often demotivate when other aspects of their lives get tough. Musically: bridging the gap between what their highly formed musical minds know the music should go like -  and what their fingers are actually able to do!

What do you expect from your students?

Their best.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? I don’t really have a view on these things. I have a view as to whether they might benefit or be detrimental to the progress of each individual student which is based on their own needs, wishes and abilities.

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

Perhaps the holistic nature of the intervallic relationship between notes. We read, see, hear, and (at the piano) feel them too. Oh, and rhythm obviously. I think these things might be the same regardless of the ability of the student.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

It’s all good: I love it! Worst thing is when good students leave (for whatever reason)

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

Those who are inspirational, with a good sense of humour and infinite patience! Their ability to go deeper into the heart of the music, but into the microcosmic detail too

David Nelson has been teaching piano for over 25 years, giving lessons to hundreds of students/pianists both in London and in West Yorkshire. A sizeable number of these have gone on to become professional performers or teachers, whilst others have become influential in jazz and popular music. Many others have continued to play long after their lessons had ceased and value the life-enhancing qualities of such activity.

More about David Nelson at www.piano40.co.uk

 

At the Piano With……Karl Lutchmayer

Karl Lutchmayer

What is your first memory of the piano?

Actually, and rather embarrassingly, I used to use the spaces between Bb and C# and Eb and F# to park my Dinky cars – and run them along the fronts of the white notes! It always vexed me that the spaces between other black notes weren’t wide enough for such a clearly useful purpose. However, it is also true to say that, at about the same time, I would hear my mother playing those timeless classis such as Rustle of Spring, Maiden’s Prayer and In a Persian Market.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I am ashamed to say that in my 20s it was simply an economic necessity! However that changed significantly when I was awarded the Lambert Fellowship to return as a member of the keyboard faulty at the Royal College of Music, and it was here that I realised that I was far better at connecting with older minds, and it was at this time I stopped working with younger pupils.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

One always remembers one’s first teacher! June Luck (with whom I had tea recently!) taught me from middle C up to my Diploma and entry to the RCM, and I know it’s a cliché, but probably taught me as much about life as she did about playing the piano. Then there was John Barstow, who, somehow, and I really don’t know how he did it, managed to turn youthful dreams into grown up realities (as long as students were willing to work!). And here again too, broader culture was as important as practice – he expected students to go to concerts, the theatre, read literature, follow current events. After that there were of course many other extraordinary musicians who helped me to grow, but perhaps Lev Naumov (formerly Neuhaus’ assistant) stands out for showing me how to throw away the score!

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

Of course my own teachers, but also the many extraordinary treatises, from CPE Bach, and Czerny to Schnabel, Brendel, Rosen etc. Each time I open up one of those tomes I become acutely aware of my own ignorance, and try to become a little better! Also Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which has been by my side for a couple of decades now, but most importantly, as any teacher knows, my students, from whom I learn at least as much as I attempt to impart.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every time a student tells me that I’ve made a difference to their life – I can’t imagine anything more significant than that.

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

The passion – the idea that amidst a busy life here are people who want to be part of the tradition of human creativity. Of course, bringing such a wealth of experience, often quite, quite different from one’s own is also exciting as it offers so many various ways of discussing and understanding a concept. But it is so hard for adults to get used to the idea of necessary repetition, when its something they usually left behind at the school gate.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect them to do all they can with all that they have. The results don’t actually matter, as long as the journey is honest, which is why I get upset with the lazy ones, and those just in it for the buzz/fame/ ego, no matter how good they are, but the honest student with meagre talents is always a joy. If it isn’t about the journey of a whole person I really don’t know what the point is.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Gyorgy Sandor once told me that in his day pianists played concerts, but now they played piano competitions because there were no concerts left! In some ways he was probably right. A judicious use of exams/festivals/competitions in order to fire the work ethic/enthusiasm seems very wise – so that the young artist understands what it is to throw themselves at a particular goal at a particular moment (and let’s be honest, unlike most professions, we can’t just stand up in the boardroom and say ‘sorry been very busy, will a week next Tuesday do?’!), but as soon as they become an end in themselves they can only harm the art. After all, the artist has to throw himself wholly at his art every single day. I remember, when I was teaching in America, how students would ask whether it ‘would be in the test’ – when music becomes about jumping over hurdles, or acquiring laurels then it inevitably forgets about touching souls.

However, perhaps we should start being more honest in the big international piano competitions. We all know they’re fixed, whether through outright skulduggery or old fashioned juror bias, so why not instead make it a purely sporting event. Speed trials with time penalties for wrong notes and split-screen TV coverage, loudest chords and fastest octaves measured electronically, a speed learning competition, audience prizes for the most dolefully dreamy stare into the middle distance etc – what a great spectator sport, and at least it would be honest! ;)

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

I don’t really teach beginners, but from the wrong end of the telescope it seems to me that the fundamentals must be entirely thorough – fluency and lack of tension in the body, a real understanding of notation (I have yet to meet a 1st yr college student who understands the very different purposes of a slur and a phrase mark), a sense of musical style and an understanding of how music works.

For my advanced students these are all the same issues! But most particularly the idea of interpretation – the art of investing a score with life in an honest and coherent way. Once that is understood, adapting one’s skills to allowmit to happen in concert is just a matter of hard work!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Best is to see a musician grow and be able to help that process, and to meet so many wonderful people (anyone who loves the piano is going to be a friend of mine!). Worst is dealing with the many terrible neuroses which seem to come out so clearly in music making and so hamper the individual.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

To teach – Haydn. He knows all the rules, and constantly subverts them! It’s just so joyous!

To play – hmmmm. I love playing Liszt and Busoni, and at the moment I’m thrilled to be immersed in Alkan for the bicentenary next year, but every time I approach Beethoven I know I’m in for a rollercoaster ride – so vexing and daunting, but there is nothing like that moment after you’ve just played the last chord of one of the sonatas!

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

Pierre Laurent Aimard – an extraordinary artist at his best (although it does sometimes appear that he does too much) and his masterclasses combine the practical with the truly revelatory.

David Dubal – although he rarely plays the piano these days, his unique way of challenging, beguiling and even outraging his students, and his unbelievable breadth of culture pays the most extraordinary dividends. A true educator (recalling that the word ‘education’ actually means to draw forth, quite different from instruction, which is putting in!).

Karl Lutchmayer studied at the Royal College of Music under Peter Wallfisch and John Barstow and also undertook periods of study with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatoire. For his Masters’ degree he conducted extensive research into performing practice in the piano music of Busoni, since when his research interests have grown to include Liszt, Alkan, Enescu, The Creative Transcription Network, reception theory, and the history of piano recital programming. He later returned to his alma mater and started his lecturing career when the prestigious Constant & Kit Lambert Fellowship was awarded to him by the Worshipful Company of Musicians – the first time in its history that it was awarded to an instrumentalist.

Full biography here

www.karllutchmayer.com

At the Piano With……Alan Fraser

Alan Fraser teaching

What is your first memory of the piano?

I was learning a piece called ‘Baby Bear’, and I was having difficulty with it. It was about the sixth piece in my grade one book, and I think you actually had to play hands together or something incredibly challenging like that. My mother sat down with me and patiently helped me through it. For some reason that always stuck in my mind – it’s one of the few memories I have of a warm and caring feeling between my mom and I.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

The lack of good piano teachers. I figured there has got to be some way of offering students better than what I received. But it was also just by chance – some neighbourhood kids needed lessons, so I taught them. I was 16 which means I’ve now been teaching over 40 years.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

First off the bat is Richard Hunt, an Englishman who ended up in Montreal and later founded Quartango, one of the best tango groups around. He taught me for only two years when I was 8 and 9 years old, but he instilled a love of music in me that I carry to this day. He was very clever and he let me have fun! We even had some of our lessons on the church organ instead of the piano.

Then there was Phil Cohen who had been Yvonne Hubert’s assistant (she had been a student of Cortot and taught such Canadian greats as Janina Fialkowska, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Ronald Turini who later studied with Horowitz, Andre Laplante and Louis Lortie). Phil was fascinated with the psycho-physical aspects of performance and would do strange things with your hand that made you play way better but you weren’t sure what exactly was going on.

When I finished my studies with Phil I wanted to understand what had just happened to me, so I did a training in Feldenkrais Method, and I count Moshe Feldenkrais as my next most memorable and significant teacher.

I concluded that Phil had given me an amazing degree of refinement, but I had never acquired the firm foundation upon which such sophistication needs rest. So I went to study with Kemal Gekić in Yugoslavia. More or less a product of the Russian School, he rebuilt everything from the ground up and indeed gave my hand a strength and security it had never had before.

Finally, in the past few years I have again been having occasional sessions with Phil – getting some reminders about that sophisticated part and synthesizing what I’ve learned from both Phil and Kemal to develop what I call Craft of Piano Method, the approach presented in my three books on piano technique.

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

All of the above. Also Richard Feynman, the physicist and author of ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’, and Werner Erhard, whose work now goes by the name Landmark Education. Also G. I. Gurdjieff. And various psychological disciplines…… what they gave me is the idea always to make it a positive, creative experience. To respect the person. To try to discover the person. Never to fault the student for not understanding but to fault myself for failing to discover the language that would have him or her understand.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Hoo boy, there are hundreds of those… Recently I worked with a violinist in Pensacola, Florida, who had shoulder pain. I had him continue his up bow way past the violin, towards the ceiling, then around in a big circle. Then his down bow expanded into a big circle in the other direction. Then I had him play not moving his bow at all but moving his violin back and forth underneath the bow. Finally I explained to him where his arms are attached to his body: do you know? It is only at the central end of the collarbone where it attaches to the sternum. I put my bunched fingertips one on each of these collarbone-sternum joints and palpated them while he played, just kept physically in touch with them. His sound went through the roof. It had been improving steadily but this was a quantum leap, it had power, sonority, richness, expressivity – it gave us all goosebumps.

I recently worked with a young Italian pianist in Geneva. She had been given a steady diet of arm weight technique and told not to move her fingers too much. When I showed her a way of moving her fingers which gave them activity and tonus without stiffening them or causing any stiffness elsewhere, her playing became amazingly poetic. I was blown away because I didn’t have to tell her to be more expressive or poetic, we just worked to undo the physical block which had been preventing her natural expression from finding its voice.

I taught an American pianist in Trossingen, Germany many years ago. Her hand suffered (as so many do) from over-relaxation, and I worked to build up its structure, just to get it to stand nicely on the keyboard even before we tried to play anything. All of a sudden she says, “Gee, I feel so muscular!” We all laughed, because of course, it wasn’t her muscles at all that were giving her the sense of power, it was her skeletal structure.

I remember teaching a Chinese student during my year in Wuhan. She was playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata and couldn’t really get the special atmosphere of the second theme. I tried explaining to her how Liszt was pulled in two directions, towards divine love but also towards carnal love, and that we don’t really know which one this theme represents. I myself feel it as towards the divine, how about you? No result. I try another tack: “Imagine you are the Emperor of China and it is your yearly pilgrimage to the Sun Temple. You must pray to the Gods for rain, and if you fail, your people will die of famine. You enter the temple, you pray with all your heart, and suddenly, a sound of brass from the sky, a divine melody descends from the clouds – you know your prayers have been answered. Play this theme as if it was that heavenly melody.” She played and we were literally in tears. It was indeed heavenly. It was a prayer. I was fascinated because I had to go into her culture to access the universal quality of that theme. Trying to get her to understand Liszt’s culture met with no success, but her own culture proved an admirable path for her to understand that music, music which does indeed speak to us all. She needed her own culture to access the right side of her brain, which of course possesses a perfect understanding of the spiritual element in this theme.

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

Exciting: their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity, their receptivity, and their willingness to be beginners. Challenging: 1) the slightly rusty nature of their brains, compared to the incredible flexibility and speed of their younger colleagues. 2) having to fix the sometimes vast amounts of garbage they have been taught over the years…

What do you expect from your students?

Curiosity, engagement, dedication….

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are excellent, a stimulus to high level work. Competitions are the equivalent of a scientific congress where people go to meet their colleagues, share ideas and be stimulated. It’s a chance to feel like you are part of a community instead of this weirdo who mostly sits between four walls practicing on his or her own. Whenever I prepared a competition I played better, because I knew I had to. Perhaps theoretically I should play my best simply out of love for the composer, but I find the practical stimulus of a concrete goal a much more effective kick in the pants.

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

Beginning:

  • Sing a simple song, sense your own voice. Let your fingers begin to find that song on the piano. Experience your fingers on the piano as an extension of your voice.
  • Tap simple rhythms, one hand on your knee, the other on a piano key. Let rhythmic sense be as important as the sense of the notes from the very beginning.
  • Play first, read second.
  • Never let the task of reading distract you from the task of making music.

Advanced:

  • Never let relaxation lead you into a state of emasculated collapse.
  • “Don’t bang” does not mean “play like a wimp,” it means “find a way to play where you stand up into your hand’s structure instead of letting it collapse. Banging mostly comes from weakness not too much strength.
  • Have your hands learn to stand, walk, run and jump well on the keyboard, then give them musical tasks that give them a reason for doing these things.
  • Never let technique distract you from the sound you are making, the music you are making. They are intimately connected.
  • Understand your hand’s structure and function, then find out where it is not working optimally for you. Find out how the body participates in supporting the hand in working well.

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

They feed each other. I couldn’t really do one well without the other.

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

Passed on: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, de Pachamann. They all had supreme virtuosity, compared to which most of the best pianists today only move their fingers well. This virtuosity is way beyond digital dexterity – it’s creating orchestral sonorities and emotional characterizations that grow naturally and organically out of the soundscapes the composers created.

Living: Kemal Gekić. He is the one pianist today who is breaking new ground in this realm. He is using his transcendent mastery of the keyboard to explore new emotional and spiritual elements in the music he plays, and dealing with adjustments to the sonority at the micro- or even nano- level to evoke unbelievably huge changes in the expressive dimension.

Canadian pianist Alan Fraser is best known as the author of three major volumes on piano technique: The Craft of Piano Playing (also in DVD), Honing the Pianistic Self-Image, and All Thumbs: Well-Coordinated Piano Technique. Fraser’s new approach grows out of his many decades’ study with Phil Cohen and Kemal Gekić, synthesizing the best features of previous schools of piano technique in order to move beyond them. Analyzing piano technique in the light of the Feldenkrais Method of neuromotor reeducation (Fraser is a senior Feldenkrais practitioner) allows Fraser to unlock the hand’s innate potency at the keyboard by returning to its inherent structure and function. Instead of distracting from musical aspects of piano playing, Fraser’s focus on the physical brings the pianist, by improving his physical relationship to his instrument, back into contact with his essential artistic self. Thus Fraser’s students gain not only in technical mastery; but in their artistic expression which develops a whole new dimension of tonal breadth, emotional subtlety and spirituality.

In 2011 Fraser inaugurated the Alan Fraser Piano Institute, a week-long intensive course designed to create a breakthrough in one’s piano technique. Branches of the Institute have already sprung up at Smith College, Massachusetts; Salt Lake City, Utah; Concord New Hampshire; Stuttgart, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; Nice, France; and Haarlem, the Netherlands. In addition to his Institutes, Alan Fraser gives recitals and master classes throughout Europe and North America, and continues to teach at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. He has composed several vocal works including two masses and a Magnificat, and is a respected digital sound engineer who edited Kemal Gekić’s monumental recording of the 27 Chopin Etudes.

At the Piano With……David Barton

What is your first memory of the piano?

I don’t think I’d really come across the piano seriously until I started school. I was very lucky to go to schools where music was a valued and important part, not just of the curriculum, but of the life of the school. At the infant school I attended, the headmistress was musical, and the deputy head played the piano; after I’d seen her play, I was hooked! I started lessons shortly after, and nearly 25 years on, I’m still in touch with that teacher; I’m always pleased to be able to go back to her and say “You’re the one who started it all off…”

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Like many teachers, I ‘fell’ into teaching almost by accident. When I was in the 6th Form at school, I was asked by a friend at church who knew I played whether I’d be willing to teach her daughter. Reluctantly, I agreed, and within a couple of years, several other pupils had come via the same route. Initially, I didn’t see teaching as a job, or even a career; the inspiration for teaching didn’t come until several years later when I no doubt concluded that maybe it was a good idea! Although it’s had many ‘ups and downs’, I’m glad I made the decision to continue, and I still thoroughly enjoy it. I was lucky to have had good teachers at all the schools I attended and I suppose that my inspiration would rest with several of them.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

There have been so many… As I mentioned earlier, I attended schools where music was seen as important; whether the teachers were musical or not was largely irrelevant as they all supported and encouraged us, whatever we chose to do. The larger-than-life music teacher at the grammar school I attended certainly proved a lot about the value of music. In the days before any sorts of government initiatives, he found no problems in organizing school concerts several times a year; 90% of the boys, right through from Years 7 to 13 took part in the choirs who sung. Although I had some misgivings about the academic side of his teaching, there was no denying his passion for music and I feel very grateful for having experienced such an inspiring foundation to my musical studies.

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

It has to be the pupils themselves; without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Their enthusiasm, commitment and enjoyment have shaped my teaching over the past 11 years, and I’m enormously grateful for the support they’ve given me.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I have always been concerned that learning an instrument should be about more than the weekly one-to-one lesson. Some of my most memorable experiences have come from events such as concerts and workshops in which pupils have had the chance to work with and share their music with other pupils. In addition to these, there will also be particular pupils who’ve been both significant and memorable (not always for the right reasons!). It might have been their personalities (giving the sight-singing test back to examiner and saying “I don’t like this one, can I have another one” must surely rank high on the list!) or their individual achievements.

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

Whilst I know not all teachers feel the same, I thoroughly enjoy teaching adults; currently, around 80% of my pupils are adult learners. They do present their own particular challenges and it’s often necessary to take a different approach to the one you might take when teaching children. I’m always very conscious that as well as the time and financial outlay required for learning an instrument, there’s an enormous emotional investment to be made too. Many adults, particularly those coming to it later in life, have already been successful in their chosen careers; starting again learning something from scratch requires an almost infinite amount of patience (also on the part of the teacher too!). It can be very frustrating, and as a teacher, you have to strike the balance between enjoyment, encouragement and progress.

What do you expect from your students?

Above all, to get anywhere with learning an instrument, you have to be committed; there is no denying that enjoyment and progress will be lacking for those whose music doesn’t feature regularly in their everyday lives. I’m keen that all pupils take some responsibility for their learning; after all, for most, the lesson itself accounts for a tiny percentage of the time in each week. Overall, I want to ensure that pupils remain adaptable, that they’re open to new ideas and that they retain a willingness to experiment.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Generally, not all pupils wish to take exams and I entirely respect their decision. That said, and without me exerting any pressure, I’ve come across very few who don’t wish for an independent assessment of their ability at some stage or another. We are very lucky that there are so many options out there in terms of external assessments. While a large number of pupils still follow traditional graded exams, many have opted for other assessments such as the LCM Leisure Play exams and the ABRSM’s Performance Assessment. I want any exam taken to be as positive an experience as possible, and therefore it’s very important to match the requirements of the pupil to the exam most suited to them. I am very clear though that I do not teach to exams; where required, I use exams along the way as a benchmark for progress, but they do not form the basis for my teaching.

For me, I have never seen music in a competitive sense and so I have mixed feelings about festivals and competitions. As a child learning the piano, these weren’t things I was exposed to and consequently, they’re not something I’ve explored with my own pupils. Unfortunately, even when I’ve sought to look into these options further, I heard too many negative stories which only went to further put me off! I’m sure there are some fantastic festivals and competitions out there… For me, music is a sharing activity, whether that is playing in an exam, performing in a concert or simply entertaining family and friends.

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

For me, above all, the most important concept, whatever the level, is that the learning should be enjoyable. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be easy and that we’re only going do the things the pupil wants to do, but that we should never lose sight of the wider enjoyment of not just our chosen instrument, but of music in a much more general sense.

I am particularly concerned that beginners need a good grounding in basic musicianship. The ability to understand, explain and experience such basic concepts as pitch, pulse and rhythm is hugely important and paves the way for far quicker progress in the future. I’m particularly interested in the way in which Dalcroze and Kodaly principles can be introduced into the individual lesson, and whilst I don’t advocate any one method over another, I feel that they have an important role to play. In terms of the piano itself, a solid technical foundation is important; this is what I lacked when I had lessons. Such basic concepts as posture, hand shape and arm weight will provide the pupil with a real solid basis for future progress.

When it comes to more advanced students, this becomes a harder question to answer. The important concepts which need to be imparted will largely depend on their own particular needs at that time. Generally, as pupils progress there is likely to be a greater emphasis placed on interpretation and musicality. There’s still a lot of technical work to cover, and as the pieces become more demanding, the more pupils need a solid technical foundation to support and underpin their playing.

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

The most satisfying part of the job has to be seeing pupils achieve things which they didn’t think were possible. This is particularly the case for adult learners where the littlest step forward is often a huge milestone. I have always been concerned that above all, pupils should be enabled to reach their potential: for some it will be that elusive Grade 8 distinction, and for others it might be simply playing a piece in front of other people.

Teaching isn’t as rosy as perhaps people think it might be! Private teaching is a lonely business, and this combined with the inevitably unsociable hours means that it’s hard to maintain any kind of work-life balance. People often tell me how wonderful it must be to be able to do something I love, to be able to work from home, and to be able to pick and choose my work as if choosing from a menu…I doubt that many have experienced the world of self-employment. The uncertainty and lack of stability which this brings can be overwhelming. For 99% of pupils, music lessons are a luxury, and when money’s tight, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside. As a teacher, you have to attempt to be everything to everybody; you’re not just a teacher, but also an accountant, marketing specialist, record-keeper, researcher, mediator and a whole host of other things too…it’s hard work!

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I suppose that in a very twee sort of way, I enjoy teaching music which inspires pupils. I want them to enjoy the pieces they’re learning and I want to ensure that each piece presents something with which they can engage with. In terms of my own playing, I enjoy a whole host of things; if I like a piece, I’ll probably learn it but very rarely do I get fixated on having to play all the works of one single composer. For many years I was led to believe that you weren’t a ‘proper’ pianist if you didn’t play ‘this’ sort of music, or music by ‘that’ composer. Now I enjoy the music for what it is and am not in the slightest bit bothered about whether I’m considered a ‘proper’ pianist! At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying the piano music of Ernest Moeran which is much-neglected!

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

I suspect it’s a generation thing, but I don’t really have favourites. I’m probably more interested in the music, and will simply look for a recording which I like. I rarely buy recordings because it’s a particularly artist. Come to think of it, I’m the same with concerts; I look first at what’s being played, then at who’s playing it! I’ve seen many pianists over the years, but for me, the versatility and sensitivity of Imogen Cooper stands out.


David Barton runs a busy private studio in Lichfield, Staffordshire where he has taught flute, piano and singing for the past 11 years. In addition, he is a piano accompanist and composer, with music published in the UK, USA and Canada. More information about David’s work can be found at www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk