The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeper into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.
Perfection is not very communicative

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist 
The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation and the assimilation of knowledge – all crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

‘A Little Night Music’ – a playlist for IDAGIO

Launched in August 2015, IDAGIO is a music streaming platform where musicians can share their recordings and connect with a growing global classical community.

I’ve recently joined the IDAGIO team as a creator/curator of playlists, compiled from their archive of both new and vintage recordings. My first playlist for IDAGIO explores the ‘Nocturne’ – music evocative of the evening and night-time, generally calm, mellifluous, expressive and rather languid in character, perfect for evening or late-night listening.

Listen to the playlist

Read more about IDAGIO here

 

Meet the Artist……Renée Reznek, pianist

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

When I was four years old, my parents went away on a long European holiday, leaving me and my younger brother in the care of our grandmother and a much loved adopted “auntie”, a retired piano teacher. To keep her happy, they rented a piano which she played every day. One evening, Auntie Bessie played Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18 and I vividly remember the overwhelming emotions which resulted in floods of tears! She responded by teaching me to play; by the time my parents returned I could perform simple pieces. It is my belief that from that time, music became an essential resource for me, filling the hole left by the absence of my parents. I didn’t envisage a performing career; that developed later on, but I knew there was no other path for me but to study music.

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

I grew up in South Africa where very little 20th century music was performed. However, when I was a B. Mus. student at the University of Cape Town, my Harmony and Counterpoint lecturer, now Professor Emeritus James May, asked me to play Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 and Webern’s Variations Opus 27 in a concert. Despite not knowing these pieces at all and initially finding them incomprehensible, I was determined to honour my commitment and in the process became “hooked”. What fascinated me in the Suite for instance,was recognising the phrasing of a Gavotte or Minuet despite the unfamiliarity of the serial language.This felt exhilarating, like learning a new language. So thanks to James May, this was the start of my journey into 20th century and new music.

The teachers who influenced me most for very different reasons were Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Susan Bradshaw in London. Sandor changed my piano technique with advice on arm weight and a flexible wrist; he was a pragmatic teacher, a problem solver. Lessons on the music of Bartok, who was his teacher, were revelatory, but his interest in 20th century music stopped there.

Susan Bradshaw was the perfect guide to performing 20th century classics and new repertoire. Her incisive intelligence simplified complex textures. She taught me how to articulate phrasing in unfamiliar contexts and to make new repertoire as accessible as possible at a first hearing. She introduced me to composers such as Robert Saxton who wrote a Sonata for me, which led to my giving my first London premiere in the Purcell Room. The experience of working together with a composer like Robert to produce a first performance was life changing.

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

I could say that performing the complete solo works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from memory in the Wigmore Hall was one of my most challenging concerts.

However the real challenge for me was returning to performing after a long break following the birth of our two children.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of my new CD of recent South African piano music which I hope will introduce some fantastic composers to those unfamiliar with South African contemporary music: Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Neo Muyanga, David Earl, Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr and David Kosviner. The majority of the pieces on the CD are rooted in traditional South African music though some are European in origin; this is diverse repertoire which reflects a rich and varied culture. With one exception, these works have never been recorded and many have been dedicated to me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Schoenberg’s piano music occupied me for years so thank goodness I am told I play it well! I treasure the review from Peter Stadlen, a pupil of Webern, who liked my performance of Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 : “Schoenberg has come of age” he wrote; thank you Peter Stadlen!

However, maybe what I do best is what I enjoy the most, which is trying to communicate unfamiliar music in as clear a way as possible.

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

Sometimes one is free to choose, or a festival or concert series may stipulate a particular work or composer. On the whole I have been able to perform the music I want to play. I enjoy creating programmes which are cohesive in some way, not merely a collection of disparate pieces.

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

It is the audience who create the atmosphere in a concert and an enthusiastic audience can transform any venue into somewhere special.

However, recently, I loved performing at the Turner Sims in Southampton; fabulous piano and intimate hall. I will be recording there again soon on the Fazioli.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I admire musicians who engage with the music of their own time as well as performing traditional repertoire. Maurizio Pollini comes to mind or Stephen Hough who is that rare musician in today’s world, a composer-performer. Both Pollini and Hough bring an illuminating intelligence to whatever they play. Having said that, I will go anywhere to hear Angela Hewitt play Bach

What is your most memorable concert experience?

At the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in 2015, I gave the first South African performance of Neo Muyanga’s Hade Tata (Sorry Father) composed in tribute to Nelson Mandela. That was a very special occasion for me.

One of the most memorable experiences was taking part in the Park Lane Group’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; 25 pianists playing 25 Steinway grand pianos on raked stages, conducted by Sir Colin Davis!

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

When I am asked to talk to young musicians, I advise them not to choose a career in music if they think it will make them rich or famous but only if music is their reason for getting out of bed in the morning! This is a difficult and unstable profession.

Being a professional musician requires hard work, humility, curiosity, passion and stubborn persistence! It requires an ability to “bounce back” from rejections.

Keeping fit and well in order to deal with the rigours of practice, performance and travel is vital; regular exercise, meditation and control of the breath also aid relaxation.

In practice, it is important to work from the inside out, from the notation, not outside in, imitating a favourite recording; it is essential to understand how the music is put together. Every performance should sound like a first performance even if the repertoire is very familiar.

I encourage young musicians to remember that while there is a vast legacy of repertoire from the past, we are living in the 21st century and there is a wealth of music being created right now which deserves some of their attention!

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

I hope I will still be excited about playing new music.

What is your most treasured possession?

Peace of mind.

Renée Reznek’s new disc ‘From My Beloved Country’, new piano music from South Africa is released on 31st March on the Prima Facie label
Renée Reznek was born in South Africa. As a child she studied with Adolf Hallis, who was a pupil of Tobias Mattay. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree. During these years Lamar Crowson was her teacher.
Read Renée’s full biography here

Learning from Listening

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There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example. You are unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall – you’re often too far away from the stage to see details – but listening attentively is helpful. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. We should never seek to imitate what we hear, but there is much to be learned from this kind of focused listening and I regularly come away from concerts of music I am working on with new ideas and insights.

Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, and continue to work on, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this has really informed my practising.

In broader terms, hearing a group of pieces in performance is instructive in demonstrating how a good (or bad!) programme is put together. At one time, performers were concerned with things like key relationships between pieces, but now a programme that “works” tends to be one which contains a variety of contrasting moods, tempi and characters which help to create flow from the start of the concert to the end, or which focuses on a particular theme. Audiences – and performers – enjoy different levels of energy within a programme, while a programme with too many longeurs of tempo and mood can seem overly long or dull.

Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too. Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly offer ideas and inspiration, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing. It is important that we form our own special relationship with our music, and in order to do that we must investment time and effort in our study, while remaining open-minded and receptive to new ideas or approaches.

The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it more distinctively their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.

So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.

Meet the Artist……John Joubert, composer

A special Meet the Artist interview on the occasion of the 90th birthday of composer John Joubert

 

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to do something creative. At first it was painting. I got quite far in this, partly because we had a marvellous art teacher at my preparatory school but also because my father was an accomplished draughtsman. In my early teens music began to take a more central part in my life largely because my mother, who had studied piano in London with Harriet Cohen, saw to it that music was integral to our domestic and educational background.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Two names occur to me – W.H. Bell and Claude Brown. Bell was a distinguished composer who had emigrated to South Africa in 1912 to become Head of the newly-formed Faculty of Music in the University of Cape Town. Having played an influential role in South Africa’s musical life he was living in retirement when I was first introduced to him by my mother. She had taken it upon herself to show him some of my first juvenile attempts at composition. What he saw in them I can’t imagine, but he must have recognised some potential as he offered there and then to take me on as a pupil. For the next three or four years until his sad death in 1946 we would meet as and when we could. During that time he gave me a thorough grounding in compositional technique which was to stand me in good stead as a basis for further development towards my then fixed goal to become a professional composer.

Claude Brown, my other main musical influence was the music master at my school. He came from an Anglican Cathedral background, having previously been Sir Ivor Atkins’s assistant at Worcester. The school had a strong musical tradition and it was here that I absorbed the influence of both Elgar and the the Anglican musical repertoire which Brown had experienced in England. Here again my mother played a part, as during a period of ‘straightened circumstances’ in our family, she insisted on keeping my brother and me at school despite strong pressure from other family sources for us to leave and get jobs to ease our financial situation.

Following my entry to the Royal Academy of Music in 1946 my ‘significant influences’ became the three composers I studied with there, namely Theodore Holland, Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Each had their own contribution to make on my development as a composer.

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

A big challenge was getting acclimatised to a new country (the terrible winter of 1947 was my first winter in England). I had no English relatives to turn to and for a long time my closest social contacts were the fellow South African students I had travelled over with on my 3-week voyage aboard the Winchester Castle (then still in its war-time adaptation as a troopship).

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The pleasure of receiving a commission is having the sign that somebody out there likes your music and wants more of it. The pressure of meeting a deadline is of course a challenge, but challenges can be a stimulus that keeps you on your toes.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

As a practising musician my principal activity apart from composing has been conducting whether choral or instrumental, professional or amateur. One of my most congenial tasks as a University Lecturer was to conduct the University of Birmingham Motet Choir. With such a group one could tackle quite demanding music, and we quite frequently did so, including some of my own.

Of which works are you most proud?

It is difficult from a catalogue of over 180 works to pick personal favourites but I think I would have to include the following: my Octet, the opera ‘Jane Eyr’e, song-cycle ‘Six Poems of Emily Bronte’, oratorio ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, Second Symphony, Sonata No 2 for piano, Pro Pace motets, String Quartet No 2, Temps Perdu (string orchestra), ‘South of the Line’, Piano Trio, ‘Landscapes’ (song cycle), oratorio ‘Wings of Faith’, ‘An English Requiem’, St Mark Passion and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I try to achieve a personal voice based on traditional classical principles and carrying as lucidly as possible a strong emotional message.

How do you work?

Most mornings I am at my desk – which doesn’t mean I compose only in the mornings. I compose most of the time away from my desk whether consciously or unconsciously. I don’t compose at the piano, but I need a piano in order to try out different ways of seeking the clarity of expression I always strive for.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love all the great classics up to and including Wagner. After him I love Mahler, Strauss and Elgar and after them, Stravinsky, Bartok, Walton, Britten and Shostakovich.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing (and hearing) Richard Strauss conducting his Sinfonia Domestica (a greatly underrated work) at the Albert Hall during the Strauss Festival of 1947.

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

I think it was Eliot who advised aspiring writers to ‘work out your salvation with diligence’. I reckon the same goes for composers too!

www.johnjoubert.org.uk

 

John Joubert was born in Cape Town in 1927. Aged 19 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has lived and worked in England ever since. Joubert’s long composing career encompasses all genres from symphonic, operatic and chamber works to the ever-popular choral miniatures, Torches and There is no rose. The two Symphonies, three String Quartets, Oboe Concerto and Cello Concerto are recent additions to a growing catalogue of recordings from across his work list. Commissions of the last few years include An English Requiem for the 2010 Three Choirs Festival and Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra for Raphael Wallfisch as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Joubert was featured composer at the new music wells 73-13 festival in June 2013 which included a new mass setting and anthem for the choir of Wells Cathedral. 2016 saw two major premieres: Joubert’s substantial St Mark Passion at Wells Cathedral and his opera ‘Jane Eyre’ – recorded live for Somm as one of several new releases to mark his 90th birthday in 2017.

 

 

Slowly, and with feeling

The opening track of pianist Lucas Debargue’s debut album is a fleeting sonata by Scarlatti (K 208). It’s a miniature miracle of control, voicing and expression, its emotional impact helped in no small part by the pianist’s choice of tempo and tasteful use of rubato. Here and there he lingers over the more piquant harmonies or intervals, creating delicious moments of suspense and delayed gratification.

It’s a wonderful opener to a fine debut disc, and the tempo of the piece has the effect of drawing the listener in, encouraging concentrated engagement with music and performer. In a live performance, opening a concert with a slow or slower work can have a very special effect on the audience: it causes them to focus on the music, to listen intently.

Tempo can have a profound effect on the way we respond to music. Upbeat or rapid music can raise the heart rate, blood pressure and skin response, making us more excited, more alert (why else do people choose fast-paced music as the soundtrack to exercise such as running or cycling?). Conversely, slow music is often used for meditation or relaxation because it has the effect of slowing the heart rate which makes us feel more calm. Listeners, especially the non-specialist listener, will normally equate slowness in music, particularly in classical music, with seriousness or more profound emotional content, and a performer’s choice of tempo can deliberately lead the listener into a particular emotional realm.

Some well-known works now seem to come with “standardised” tempi which have been set in stone by certain performers, critics, teachers, recordings, scholars and so forth. Take the Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2, for example: more often than not this is played as a ponderous Lento which immediately evokes (for those of us of a certain age) the passing of Soviet leaders. It’s sombre and gloomy, but if the tempo is increased very slightly, in the right hands it becomes majestic and proud, the contrasting Trio lyrical and eloquent. Similarly, the funeral march from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 26 (which was played at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral): this is actually marked Maestoso (“majestic”) and too plodding a tempo will rob the music of its heroic grandeur (and Beethoven is quite specific in his marking in the score that this movement is a funeral march on the death of a “hero”).

I wonder whether audiences have received notions about the speed of certain works, notions which are perhaps inculcated in them by certain acclaimed pianists, critics, and benchmark recordings where a not inconsiderable “bending of the rules” of the score has taken place and a new standard way of performing the work is thus established and acknowledged by many to be the “right” way (the subject for a future article).

Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of tempo “rule bending” comes from the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in his reading of the first movement of Schubert’s G major Sonata, D894, where his interpretation of the Molto moderato tempo marking really pushes the boundaries of what is understood by the term “moderato”. Moderato usually means “not rushing or dragging” and Schubert often uses the German marking “mässig” in relation to Moderato, which implies the calm flow of a measured allegro. Coming in at 25 minutes (the length of an entire Beethoven piano sonata), Richter’s version is not rushing anywhere! For some this Moderato-verging-on-Adagio is far too slow, but there is, for me (and others), something about the concentrated, meditative yet expansive quality which Richter brings to it which convinces. Not everyone can pull it off, and most pianists prefer a walking pace moderato. In the right hands, the first subject of the movement retains some of the same qualities which Richter brings to it. Here is Sokolov, where his treatment of the dotted rhythms brings a lightness and dance-like quality to the first subject:

And here is Richter:

I’ve been pondering the nature of tempo, in particular slowness in music, as I continue to work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. As noted in earlier articles on this work, the second movement preoccupies pianists, scholars and audiences more than any of the other movements of the sonata. It is generally acknowledged to be the most extraordinary piece of music ever written by Schubert, and many believe it is a direct musical manifestation of his mental state and his response to his illness (advanced syphilis), with its melancholy opening and closing sections, and frenzied middle section.

In terms of its tempo, it is marked Andantino, a rather ambiguous direction: as the diminutive form of Andante, Andantino should indicate a slower tempo than Andante, but  since the 19th century it has actually came to mean the opposite. It is absolutely not the same as Adagio, which means slow and stately, yet some pianists, who shall be nameless, treat this movement of the D959 with an almost funereal slowness, perhaps in the belief that slow equals profound emotion and seriousness, thus heightening the audience’s perception of the composer’s feelings of depression, melancholy, despair, impending death etc.

By choosing to take the Andantino at a funereal tempo, I feel the pianist is at once misinterpreting the direction indicated by the composer and forcing his or her opinion of how the music should sound upon the audience, emphasising the belief that the slower the speed, the more profound the music will appear. In fact, I am not even sure this is done deliberately: the interpretation may have been handed down to that pianist from a teacher or mentor, or is an imitation of another, greater pianist’s interpretation….. But for me, the profundity and emotional depth comes not from the tempo, but from the way in which the music is structured and organised.

So how does Schubert create such extremely emotional music? First, the key of the movement is curiously alien from the first movement – and yet it shouldn’t be because it is cast in f-sharp minor, the relative minor of A Major. But the opening movement avoids proper references to this harmony except for a few places towards the end of the exposition and thus the second movement seems very remote indeed. Secondly, there is the sense of stasis which Schubert creates in the opening section. The movement begins with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by falling seconds over a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The hypnotic main melody recalls ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, and an almost static quality is created in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register. It feels constrained and restricted.

Daniel Barenboim has described the opening section of this movement as “a melancholy folksong”, a description which has informed my approach, and which for me suggests a lilting rather than a plodding tempo. Played well, at around 90 BPM (the speed at which I choose to play it), the lyrical melody with its sighing gestures creates a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation without the need for extreme slowness.

Some may argue that a faster tempo will lessen the impact of the middle section, but in my experience, as a player and listener, this is not the case. Again, it is Schubert’s careful handling of material which creates the drama. The middle section unfolds like a Baroque fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers, the use of trills to sustain tension, and the sub-dividing of notes to create thicker textures, increased propulsion and a sense of “hysteria”. The music eventually arrives at c-sharp minor, culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative-like section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. It is as if we have run up a mountain with Schubert, stared into the abyss, and then pulled back from the edge of the cliff at the last moment. Or to have been battered by a fierce storm only to look up and see a shaft of light in the louring sky as the music settles back into the landscape of the opening.

Of course there are some very fine performances in which the performer’s choice of tempo for this movement is decidedly slow, and while these are not to my taste, I can understand why the pianist may have made that particular interpretative decision. I have compiled a playlist to offer some comparison between different performances – it is interesting to note the wide range of timings, from a mere 6:16 to 9:25. I have also included some recordings of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 27/2 (‘Moonlight’), another work in which the choice of tempo is quite varied.

Meet the Artist……Julia Morneweg, cellist

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

Genetic predisposition! My dad was a cellist in the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne. I didn’t however start playing the cello until I was 12 years old. When I was younger I always had a natural interest in the piano and at about 7 or 8 we got an electronic keyboard which quickly became my favourite toy. However for some reason still unbeknown to me, my parents never arranged formal piano lessons for me so I was almost entirely self-taught and didn’t have a proper piano lesson until I got to the RCM, by which time I was playing Beethoven Sonatas and all sorts of repertoire with far more enthusiasm than proper training!

At around 10 or 11 my parents suggested I should take up another instrument and I distinctly remember not thinking very much at all of the idea at the time (I just wanted to play the piano!), so I didn’t really get going on the cello for quite some time. Gradually the interest grew, but it wasn’t really until I started having lessons with Raphael Wallfisch at 15 that something clicked and I decided that this was what I wanted to do. Of course by that point I was so far behind everyone else that I had to do what other people would do in 10 years in 2! I worked incredibly hard and got into music college at 17, first in Hannover and then in London at the RCM.

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

I think my time at the RCM was hugely influential in terms of opening my eyes to the huge range of possibilities one has as a musician. Growing up and studying in Germany that wasn’t high on the agenda – you were expected to get an orchestral job and that was certainly the done thing in my own family! (My dad worked in the same orchestra for 43 years!) I think I am temperamentally wholly unsuited to knowing my schedule 12 months in advance, so discovering that your career can encompass many different aspects of performing and teaching was great and I ran with it. There is certainly no lack of diversity in my career now and I rarely know my full schedule even one week in advance!

As a cellist I think I always have soaked up influences not only from my teachers but also from many fantastic players (of all instruments) I have had the privilege of working with and that’s very much an ongoing process. I think it’s hugely important to be able to look at any piece of music you play not just through the prism of your own instrument, but to have a much wider base of knowledge and inspiration to drawn upon.

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

At the moment my greatest challenge is trying to find the perfect cello. This is hugely complicated by the fact that I am quite tall, but have absolutely tiny hands! Trying to find an instrument with the right proportions that also has the power and the quality to project in a large hall and keep up with the amazing instruments I am regularly surrounded by, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So far I found one perfect match – regrettably about £200,000 above budget!

Apart from that, the never-ending challenge is trying to keep on top of all my commitments (concerts, rehearsals, practice, travelling, students, managing a concert series etc…) and still have some sort of home life and down-time. Especially when your partner leads exactly the same life, trying to arrange going out for lunch or dinner, let alone a proper holiday, becomes a major logistical task! (And the laundry basket is constantly overflowing…)

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Hmmm…tricky! I think playing Shostakovich’s second Piano Trio at the Purcell Room a few years ago would have to be up there. It’s such a scary piece for any cellist, so to do it well in a very pressurised environment was a huge relief.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think whatever I really get my teeth into, but very often that happens to be 20th century music.

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

Unfortunately I have found the choice to be less and less mine! In more than 10 years of touring the UK chamber music scene with my trio I found that, no matter what pieces we offered – and there were many, what promoters asked for remained largely unchanged. The repertoire favourites, sure to bring in a capacity audience, with only occasional forays into anything more adventurous.

So last year I took matters into my own hands and founded ChamberMusicBox, a London concert series where people only find out what’s on the programme as the concert unfolds! This year we have a pool of 25 fantastic players and each and every concert is a completely mixed bag of music for strings, woodwind, piano and occasionally even voice. I have had to learn phenomenal amounts of notes since the series began, but it is so satisfying!

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

I have been fortunate to perform in so many fantastic halls around the world, including some amazing brand new ones in Asia, but I think one of my favourite halls to play in would have to be Zurich’s Tonhalle. Both the small as well as the large hall have wonderful acoustics.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One piece I never get tired of playing is Schnittke’s Piano Trio. It was actually the first trio I played at the RCM, and what was supposed to be a one-off concert actually started off my chamber music career path. We were incredibly fortunate to work on the piece with the late Alexander Ivashkin, Schnittke’s close friend and biographer, who brought the story behind the piece to live so vividly that it has ever since remained one of my very favourite works to perform. Sadly Sasha Ivashkin died three years ago, but everything he shared with us goes on stage with me every time I get to play it. It’s the most emotionally draining piece, but I just love it.

As a listener I am absolutely addicted to opera and singing in general.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, singers feature very heavily in that list: Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, the great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, and many great singers of the 20th century such as Mirella Freni.

As a cellist growing up I have always had huge admiration for Leonard Rose. His playing was everything cello playing should be. But there are so many other players I love, too many to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think I would have to go with the most comical one of my career to date here! Several years ago I played at a festival in Sussex on a hot July day. At the time I was (yet again!) trying out a very nice Italian cello which I considered buying and this cello happened to be fitted with a certain type of mechanical metal pegs (they have largely gone out of fashion – thankfully!) which really didn’t seem to like going from a hot car into a cold church. Less than an hour before the concert the first peg started to slip. And the next. And another. No amount of tuning, pushing or shoving would keep these pegs in place and half an hour before the concert I had to admit my predicament to the organiser. He calmly told me not to worry and that he’d quickly nip home to fetch a cello he had. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a cello rather peculiar in colour and even more peculiar in sound. I had no choice but to play the concert on this cello. Only afterwards was I told its history: bought for £2 in an antique shop in Plymouth, it was completely stripped of its original varnish and repainted in a different colour – with fence paint!

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

Being a great player isn’t enough to guarantee you a great career! Today’s music profession demands so much more of those who enter it and I think as teachers we have a responsibility to be very open and honest about that. I would encourage aspiring musicians to be incredibly proactive and open-minded as to where their career path as performers may lead as, quite frequently, it will be somewhere totally different from where you thought it would lead when you entered college. Of course the reality is that, especially in London, you are eventually likely to be combining numerous different types of work, from chamber music to sessions, orchestral freelancing, teaching etc… You need to be extremely adaptable.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Cooking for those around me! I can regularly be found in the kitchen late at night after a concert cooking for whoever happens to be sat around our dining table at the time.

 

Since graduating with honours from the Royal College of Music in 2007, Julia Morneweg has quickly established a remarkably versatile career as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player.

The recipient of an EMI Music Foundation Award, she made her London concerto debut in 2006 performing the Elgar Concerto at St John’s Smith Square which immediately led to further engagements including a performance of Haydn’s C major Concerto with the International Mahler Orchestra at the same venue as well as Elgar with the Ternopol Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine. Other concerto performances have included Lalo in London and Vivaldi in Cologne. As a recitalist she has appeared around the UK, Belgium, Italy, Germany and at venues such as the Purcell Room, Oxford’s Holywell Music Rooms, Trieste Opera House, St. Martin in the Fields, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the 2007 Charterhouse Festival (by invitation of renowned flautist Susan Milan) and the Tacoma International Music Festival, USA when she was only 16. Most recent festival appearances have included the Leamington, Lower Machen, Uckfield and Shipley Arts Festivals. Julia has collaborated with many renowned artists including Shlomo Mintz, Anna Kandinskaya, Mikhail Bereznitsky, Joan Enric Lluna, Sergei Podobedov, Kathron Sturrock, and Oleg Poliansky to name a few.

Julia Morneweg’s full biography

London Piano Festival 2017 announced

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“This piano day was altogether exemplary

Sunday Times | October 2016

Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva announce a Russian-themed programme for the second annual London Piano Festival, which runs from Thursday 5 to Sunday 8 October at Kings Place, London. The stunning line-up of pianist’s include Nelson Goerner, Ilya Itin, Lisa Smirnova, Jason Rebello, Danny Driver and Melvyn Tan. Co-Artistic Directors Owen and Apekisheva have commissioned Russian-born British composer Elena Langer to compose a new work and they perform her Kandinsky during the Two-Piano Marathon on 7 October.   Melvyn Tan gives the world premiere of a new composition by Kevin Volans.

The Festival links all aspects of the piano together, from traditional recitals to a family concert and jazz-fusion.  The inaugural festival last year was met with critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences in particular for the spirited Two-Piano Marathon, which saw multiple pianists grouping in different configurations with colleagues.
 
“This year’s concerts promise to build upon the excitement of the previous festival with many more superb artists, all of whom will perform music with which they feel a special affinity”
Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva, co-Artistic Directors

On the opening night Charles Owen performs music by Brahms, Schumann-Liszt, Liszt and Wagner-Liszt, and Katya Apekisheva performs Tchaikovsky and Weinberg, followed by a second-half duo recital of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.On Friday 6 October, Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner will give a solo recital of Chopin, Albéniz and Liszt.  Goerner states that “Chopin is one of the closest composers to my heart […] he played an important role in my destiny as a musician”.  As a contrast, Goerner has chosen to pair the Chopin Nocturnes with music by Albéniz and Liszt.

To kick off Saturday’s daytime, bite-size recitals, Austrian-Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova brings a programme of Scarlatti, Mozart and Handel to Kings Place at 11:30am.  Smirnova has chosen repertoire by Scarlatti and Handel, who she described as “two of the most amazing keyboard virtuosos of their time” and pairs them with her favourite composer, Mozart.

Melvyn Tan’s afternoon recital on 7 October is centered around the world premiere of South-African composer Kevin Volans’ L’Africaine.   Tan explains that the piece “will spike the listener with vigorous rhythms and chants from the Continent”.  Tan has paired the premiere with Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Miroirs.  

Described by the New York Times as “a brilliantly insightful pianist”, Russian pianist Ilya Itin has put together a programme of Schubert and Rachmaninoff for his afternoon recital.  As Itin states “there is an unusually grand scope and great sense of a journey into uncharted territory for both composers”, which he feels will be both challenging and rewarding for the audience.  Itin won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996.

For the Two-Piano Marathon, Saturday recitalists come together with Owen, Apekisheva and Danny Driver for an evening of duets in different combinations.  With a programme of John Adams, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schumann, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski and the world premiere of Kandinsky by Elena Langer, the evening promises to be very special for both performers and audience alike.  Kandinsky is inspired by a selection of Kandinsky paintings to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution (8 March – 7 November 1917). This follows last year’s commission of Nico Muhly’s Fast Patterns (watch here). The Telegraph stated that last year’s Two Piano Marathon was “a reminder of what a fabulous variety of sound can be conjured from two pianos.  

Elena Langer wrote that “Katya and Charles asked me to write a short piece for their Festival. They wanted something connected to the 1917 Revolution. I was looking at pictures by Wassily Kandinsky from the same year: colourful, bold works which are very Russian, but also strange and unique. None of them actually depicts the Revolution, as if it weren’t happening! I would like my piano piece to achieve something similar in spirit.”

Owen and Apekisheva want the Festival to appeal to piano lovers of all ages. Following the success of last year’s family concert with Noriko Ogawa, Owen, Apekshieva and Driver present a children’s programme of Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by actor Simon Callow (subject to availability).

The Festival finishes with a performance by jazz-fusion artist Jason Rebello.  Rebello has explained “I like to think that when you come to hear me play, you come on a journey with me and we both arrive at a joyful place together”.  He will perform material from his recent album ‘Held’ which won the Best British Jazz Album award in 2016, in addition to music from Sting to Errol Garner and beyond.

Explore the full programme

Critics’ response to inaugural London Piano Festival in 2016

***** “A reminder of what a fabulous variety of sound can be conjured from two pianos” Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph

***** “A remarkable evening of exceptionally fine pianism and inventive programming, hugely enjoyable and highly engaging” Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist), Bachtrack

“This piano day was altogether exemplary” Paul Driver, The Sunday Times

 

[Source: Nicky Thomas Media]

Practising a diploma programme effectively

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of time-management, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regular to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the kind of gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stage craft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

Stepping Back in Time at Wigmore Hall

For one night only, audiences at the Wigmore Hall were treated to a glimpse of the hall’s origins, in those pre-First World War days when it was Bechstein Hall and home to the German piano maker C. Bechstein’s London showroom.

bechstein-hall

When Bechstein Hall opened in 1901, Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker (it produced 5000 pianos in 1901),  its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roof “shoebox” design, beloved of many musicians, the hall still boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber and piano recitals.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein Hall on London’s Wigmore Street was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stage breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts a year.

During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led to the hall’s closure in June 1916, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917. Today Wigmore Hall enjoys an international reputation for high-quality music in an elegant and intimate setting.

To give the modern audience a flavour of those halcyon pre-war days of concertising in London, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a concert on an 1899 Bechstein grand piano, a piano which may well have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom next door to the hall on Wigmore Street.  The concert, which included music by composers active at the time when the Bechstein piano company was at the height of its powers, was preceded by a talk with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Salisbury, a leading piano technician who restored the piano, and composer Julian Anderson, whose work ‘Sensation’, written for Pierre-Laurent, had its London premiere at the concert.

As Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained, the event was the culmination of a long-held dream: to present a concert of the kind of repertoire and composers – and instrument – contemporary with the hall when it first opened. Peter Salisbury talked about the difficulties of preparing a piano for a specific hall, for each space has its own distinct acoustic and the piano must be adjusted and voiced to suit venue, performer and repertoire. When the 1899 Bechstein was brought into Wigmore Hall, Peter noted how closely instrument and venue suited each other, evidence that Bechstein built concert halls to showcase their instruments at their best – and vice versa!

Prior to the First War, piano design and manufacture was still evolving, and each make had its own distinct sound and character. Bechsteins of this period are notable for their special resonance and projection, which result from their manufacturing process. Pierre-Laurent commented on the piano’s uniquely rich palette of colour and tones, combined with great clarity. Every note seems to have “many overtones”, resulting in an orchestral sound which is rich but not cloying.

For composer Julian Anderson, the Bechstein piano has a special place in his life: his own piano is a 1913 Bechstein, passed on to him from his father, and is the instrument on which he composes. He admitted a “great affection for the Bechstein tone”, and that it has a range of colour which “encourages metaphor” and makes it easier to imagine other sounds or instruments when composing.

The 1899 Bechstein has been restored by Peter Salisbury and retains the original soundboard and bridge. A new mechanical action was fitted to provide technical accuracy, with new hammers voiced according to Bechstein’s original sound concert. An attractive instrument with a polished black case with scrolled details, the piano has turned legs and a fan-shaped music desk. The instrument is 275 cms (9 foot)long, with 88 notes (not all pianos were at that time – my Bechstein has 85 keys), and it took 3 months to rebuild it fully. For Peter the piano represents “a portal to the past, a lost era of tonal distinction”.

Peter Salisbury’s 1899 Bechstein concert grand on the stage at a Wigmore Hall

After 1910, piano design and manufacture became standardised across makes, and today most concert pianos (most commonly Steinway) have a consistency of sound and touch which enables performers to move fairly effortlessly between a piano in a Tokyo concert hall and one in London or New York. Concert pianos have also grown bigger to project into larger halls, and in the 10 years that I’ve been going t concerts regularly, I’ve noticed the sound of these pianos is, generally, much brighter and often quite strident.

As the owner of a 1913 Bechstein model A, I was very curious to hear this slightly older piano in a concert setting in an acoustic for which it was built. The programme included music by Liszt (the first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses), Scriabin and Debussy (both of whom owned Bechstein pianos), Julian Anderson (b.1967)!and Nikoly Obukhov, a colouristic Russian composer whose music bridges the Russian and French compositional traditions of the first decade of the twentieth century. The first half of the concert proceeded without interruption for applause (something with several audience members near me seemed to find quite “difficult”, though I enjoyed the flow of music from one composer to another). From the first notes of the Liszt, I felt I was hearing my own piano in concert – those distinct resonances and layers of colour which drew me to my instrument when I first played it in my tuner’s workshop were made more explicit in Pierre-Laurent’s hands. A surprisingly deep bass resonance, but clear and bell-like, without the chocolatey Sachertorte richness of a Bosendorfer, and a remarkable sustain with unexpected harmonics evident in the sound decay. In the Scriabin pieces, the piano’s multi-faceted sound came to the fore, responding perfectly to Scriabin’s sensual textures with harmonies superimposed on different registers and layered overtones.

The selection of Debussy’s Études was particularly fascinating. Here Pierre-Laurent balanced clarity with tonal sensitivity and the studies burst into to life with delightful shifting colours. The sweet lucid treble was wonderful, so different to the rather strident treble sound one finds in modern instruments, and there were further opportunities to enjoy this sound in the works by Julian Anderson and Nikolay Obukhov. Despite the piano’s resonance and sustain, there was no sense of the sound being too big or overly domineering (again an issue, for me at least, with modern concert grands in medium-sized or small venues). For me, the highlights of the evening, aside from the opportunity to hear this period piano in concert, were the works Debussy and Obukhov – had I not seen the programme, I would have thought the latter was post-Vingt Regards Messiaen, yet this was music written prior to the Russian Revolution, avant-garde and way ahead of its time.

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Wigmore Hall today (photo: The Telegraph)

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture