The Art of the Piano Etude – a playlist for IDAGIO

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing Études to provide material for perfecting a particular pianistic technique, such as playing octaves or rapid scalic passages, developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

A passionate pursuit – the pianist’s mastery

What is ‘Mastery’?

Mastery is about fulfilling your own intrinsic potential. It is not simply the commitment to or achievement of a goal but rather a constant pursuit. “It’s about the journey not the destination” is a neat platitude that is often trotted out in the aftermath of a failed exam or missed goal, but it is relevant to the process of mastery for which the actual point of arrival may be quite elusive. Specific goals can be curiously anti-motivational: if all your effort is focused on a single goal, what else is there to work for when that goal has been reached? Mastery, in contrast, is an ongoing process – a process which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.

We are all capable of mastery. In his book on the subject, Robert Greene explains how the attainment of mastery is hard-wired into us, the result of our evolutionary development, a dogged and persistent acquisition of skills through which our ancestors learned the necessary expertise which enabled them to survive and rise to the top of the food chain. Thus the “intensity of effort” required to achieve mastery is genetic and is driven by a powerful inclination towards a particular subject.

Those who achieve mastery are not necessarily geniuses or former child prodigies, nor highly talented individuals or those with a high IQ. Creativity and brilliance do not come from nowhere (though many believe that they do, that they are inherent, “inborn” in some people), but rather from a passion for one’s chosen subject combined with persistence and determination and an intense desire to learn.

Mastery is about embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence. Mastery is the antithesis of “dabbling” or “having a go”. It is the commitment to really stick with something – be it music, writing, chess, tennis – until we excel at it. The moment at which we believe we have attained excellence is ambiguous; as such, it has no fixed end point, and it is this ambiguity which drives the continual pursuit.

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one

– Sarah Lewis, ‘The Rise’

What Mastery is not

Mastery is not about perfectionism, which is an artificial construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such an impossibility. No matter how hard you practice the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Mastery is the pursuit of excellence – and for the pianist, it is about appreciating and accepting our own fallibility, enabling us to learn from our mistakes and to draw satisfaction from incremental improvements and marginal gains, rather than large, potentially unattainable goals. This approach allows us to make long-term progress towards excellence, which is far more valuable and achievable than short-term results or instant gratification. And long-term fulfillment actually comes from the process of mastery.

The acquisition of Mastery

For the pianist (or indeed anyone else) seeking mastery, the first step on the path is identifying your lifelong passion, then undertaking an “apprenticeship” (or becoming a student) and finding a mentor or teacher to guide you. It is a simple process, accessible to us all, but only if we are willing to commit time and effort to it.

Mastery is hard won, by necessity. And so it should be, because the striving sets us on a path to self-determination and fulfillment, and allows us to move towards a goal which is imperative for any musician: autonomy. It requires an open-minded, ever-curious, spontaneous and mindful approach to one’s passionate pursuit and a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way.

The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated

– Goethe

Mastery comes not simply from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretive or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner. Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

Such finesse or craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

The ability to work independently, without a teacher acting like a coach running alongside us with megaphone encouraging us to let go, play more freely, play more simply, to get the notes right, is crucial in the acquisition of musical mastery. Much of this independence comes from confidence and the ability to recognise one’s own strengths and weaknesses and to act upon them. But it goes further than that: the autonomous musician does not look for approval from colleagues, the public or the media. Instead one seeks approval from the music itself, by living with it and in it. Thus we take ownership of the music by recognising the value of what we have to say, rather than imitating more senior or more advanced musicians or acclaimed recordings, or constantly referring to a teacher or mentor for approval.

As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi

Robert Schumann

The effort to achieve mastery brings with it a host of psychological difficulties, including feelings of inadequacy as a musician which may be born of a former teacher’s or parent’s criticism, unfavourable feedback from peers or critics, career setbacks including injury, negative self-talk and feelings of guilt or self-blame. To move further on the path to mastery, these difficulties must be confronted, examined, and rejected or befriended – with or without the support of mentors, friends and trusted colleagues – and only by creating a personal toolkit to deal with such exigencies can we move forward with greater self-confidence. For example, when one asks of oneself “Am I good enough?”, it is worth examining the bar by which one’s skill and talent is measured. Comparing oneself to others is not helpful: there will always be people out there whom we perceive as “better” – and good luck to them! Does it really matter if they can play ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ and you cannot? Instead, draw confidence from positive endorsements and feedback from trusted mentors, colleagues and peers, know that one is good at what one does, and disregard the “chatter” and competitiveness (sadly, something which is rife in the piano world, both professional and amateur). To accept and appreciate one’s own abilities and be trusting of one’s musical self is an important part of our autonomous musical development and maturity.

Another significant aspect in the acquisition of mastery is shutting out the “noise” of others’ commentary or criticism, however well-intentioned it may be. The musician seeking mastery knows that intelligent advice or critique given by a trusted mentor or colleague can be valuable, but he/she also knows when to ignore or reject criticism (the didactic teacher who says there is a “right way” to play Bach, the sneering critic who dislikes your use of the pedal). Because the creative process requires an absence of interruptions to develop, we need to be free of “noise” to build a “safe space” where innovation and creation can be nurtured. The practice room thus becomes the test bed, the laboratory, where ideas are explored and examined, embraced or rejected, and where the inner critic is interrogated, challenged, accepted or dismissed. Eventually, this way of thinking and working becomes intuitive, and at that point we develop an instant instinctive realisation of our musical imagination unhindered by technical obstacles, able to react to complex or unexpected situations without becoming overwhelmed or losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and much more open to possibilities. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are better able to connect with self, music and audience, and we become more objective, individual and resourceful in our approach to our music making

When we practise we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth. In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.

‘Failure’ and the ongoing quest

I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work

– Thomas Edison

Often “failures” or errors occur because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape, narrative and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable.

To carry with us always the sense that our musical study is an ongoing process, that despite many performances a piece can never really be described as “finished”, encourages a growth mindset and a forward-looking, open-minded attitude – another crucial aspect of mastery. This is related to the idea that “failure” encourages further endeavour. In her book ‘The Rise’, Sarah Lewis offers another word for “failure”: she suggests “blankness”, a 19th-century alternative, which offers the possibility to clean the slate and start again from scratch after an unsuccessful attempt. Instantly this feels far more positive than recovering from a “failure”.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

– James Joyce

When my students tell me they wished they had achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, or that they had “played better” on the day, I remind them that the exam is a one-off, a moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire or reviving old repertoire. All that good, important work can never be taken away from us nor undermined by any examiner or adjudicator or critic, and knowing how to build on it and progress is another important facet of mastery.

As our authority and autonomy in our music making grows and our confidence and self-reliance deepens, we become more insightful, more aware of what needs to be done next, learning always from what we have already done (and not done), created and built. We reach a state where the divide between intention and realisation has been narrowed such that they become one and the same. This is far, far more valuable than any certificate or exam report, newspaper review or letters after one’s name (which are, after all, merely exterior indicators of achievement or ability).

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If you, like me, are someone who by nature thrives on purpose and “incompleteness”, the feeling that there is much more to be done, so much more to be revealed in the music, you are already on the path to mastery, motivated to try harder, to grow and to improve. From childhood, I’ve thrown myself into passionate pursuits – first dinosaurs and ancient Egypt, later writing, art and music/the piano. I believe my ability to focus, often quite obsessively, on one or two areas of study/personal fascination, have enabled me to now fully immerse myself in my music. It has become my most passionate pursuit and one for which I am more than willing to put in the required effort to progress and develop.

You may be unaware of how the necessary struggles of your own unconscious mind, if misunderstood, will bruise your heart, arrest your efforts prematurely, and prevent your staying absorbed in your errand. Yet, the same struggles, appreciated, will enable your creativity and the larger processes of mastery

– Janna Malamud Smith, ‘An Absorbing Errand’

The musician’s life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, the ability to deal with rejection; the willingness to be alone with oneself and to be kind to oneself; to be disciplined, but at the same time, take risks; to be spontaneous and playful, yet able to submit to a daily routine; to be willing to fail – not once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. For those willing to embrace this life, the road to mastery becomes one of discovery and continuous self-improvement leading to deep and lasting personal fulfillment.

As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world…as in being able to remake ourselves

– Mahatma Gandhi

 


Further reading

Mastery by Robert Greene (Viking Books, 2012)

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery by Janna Malamud Smith (Counterpoint LLC, 2013)

What does it take to become a master?

Overcome Nerves with Mastery Goals

 

 

 

‘Classic Gershwin’ at The Bull’s Head – special ticket offer for readers

The vibrant music of George Gershwin is interwoven with his fascinating life story from his birth in the colourful, teeming New York of 1898 to his tragically early death on 11 July 1937.

A special performance on the 80th anniversary of Gershwin’s death.

Tuesday 11th July 2017, 8pm

The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, 373 Lonsdale Road, Barnes, London SW13 9PY 

Performed by acclaimed pianist Viv McLean and narrated by actress Susan Porrett, ‘Classic Gershwin’ is an exhilarating, intriguing and foot-tapping journey through Gershwin’s life. Follow him through his early years in Brooklyn to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and finally to his tragically early death via an eclectic mix of Gershwin’s music from the much-loved ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘I got Rhythm Variations’ and ‘Swanee’ to the rarely-played, classical Preludes.

Tickets £10 (save £5)

BOOK TICKETS

 

“Vividly illustrated…..highly recommended.”

 

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Viv McLean, piano

St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 season 

On 19 June 2017, St John’s Smith Square announced its 2017/18 Season. 

In a characteristic programme, punctuated by a range of Festival celebrations, St John’s Smith Square continues its core mission to provide a home for Baroque music within the UK’s only concert hall dating from the Baroque period while equally championing new music. International artists sit comfortably alongside emerging talent and St John’s Smith Square also continues to provide a vital and unique central London home for the best in community music.

Festivals at St John’s Smith Square

This season, St John’s Smith Square presents seven festivals, each with their own distinct identity, featuring the highest calibre artists and repertoire as expected of its renowned programming approach.

The 32nd Annual Christmas Festival curated by Stephen Layton (9 – 23 December 2017) includes concerts with regular favourites Ex Cathedra, The Tallis Scholars, Solomon’s Knot, the choirs of Clare College Cambridge, Trinity College Cambridge, Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford, King’s College London, City of London Choir, the National Youth Music Theatre, Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. New to the Festival this year are Vox Luminis and the London Choral Sinfonia. A very special bonus for December will be organ curator David Titterington’s marathon undertaking to perform the organ works of JS Bach on the magnificent Klais organ at St John’s Smith Square. The Bach in Advent series comprises daily recitals, usually at 6.00pm, from 3 – 23 December 2017, and these will be open to all, free of charge.

The Holy Week Festival (26 March – 1 April 2018) returns after the huge success of the inaugural festival in 2017. Curated by Nigel Short and Tenebrae and featuring a mix of ticketed concerts and free late-night liturgical events, St John’s Smith Square will once again resound with choral music for Passiontide. Artists include Tenebrae, Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, Gabrieli, Skylark (from the USA), Aurora Orchestra, Ex Cathedra and The Tallis Scholars.

The London Festival of Baroque Music (11 – 19 May 2018) will have a French theme. In this, the 34th Festival since it was originally launched as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in 1984, the LFBM commences its new system of working with different Guest Artistic Directors for each festival. To develop the French theme, the Guest Artistic Director for 2018 is the conductor Sébastien Daucé who will be bringing his own Ensemble Correspondances for a staged setting of Charpentier’s Histoires sacrèes (17 May 2018). The Festival will also celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Couperin.

Following the ‘taster day’ in May 2017, Rolf Hind and friends will return for the iconoclastic Occupy the Pianos festival (19 – 22 April 2018). The growing stable of pianistic trailblazers will be joined by percussion, voice, film and elements of theatre in an exploration of the two broad subjects of Nature and Technology. The festival will also feature a performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ ground-breaking Eight Songs for a Mad King.

The Brook Street Band (and friends) lead a weekend Festival in February (23 – 25 February 2018) exploring the varied musical styles that informed and shaped the composer Georg Muffat. The Band will explore his legacy in the form of chamber and orchestral music by composers including Bach and Handel, with four concerts (plus a dance-music workshop and illustrated pre-concert talks) providing a comprehensive musical survey, as well as a natural ebb and flow in terms of mood and scale, small chamber versus orchestral line-ups, and art music versus dance music. Concerts include music from Muffat’s Armonico Tributo as well as a selection from the two volumes of Muffat’s ground-breaking Florilegium 

Also in February, St John’s Smith Square welcomes back the Principal Sound Festival (16 – 18 February 2018), which this year will focus on the music of Luigi Nono, alongside works by Rebecca Saunders, György Kurtág, Claudia Molitor and, once again, Morton Feldman. Artists featured include Exaudi, Explore Ensemble, the Bozzini Quartet, Siwan Rhys, George Barton and Jenni Hogan.

Americana ’18

Throughout the calendar year of 2018, St John’s Smith Square celebrates music from America in a series of concerts curated by the conductor David Wordsworth. Highlights include a celebration of Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday (9 March 2018) with a day of events including his complete works for keyboards and the London premieres of a number of his concertos. There will be a whole day of events, stretching for 13 hours (to represent the 13 stripes of the Stars and Stripes flag) on Independence Day (4 July 2018) and in Autumn 2018, there will be a focussed festival of American music.

Other features of Americana ’18 include the Carducci Quartet playing Philip Glass (23 March 2018), the London Chorus with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, celebrating the centenary of Bernstein’s birth (8 March 2018) and Orchestra Nova in a programme that includes the complete chamber version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring (22 May 2018). The pianist Zubin Kanga will give a concert of music by Terry Riley and John Adams among others (9 February 2018) and the Crouch End Festival Chorus will collaborate with the Brodsky Quartet in a programme including music by Randall Thompson, Copland and the Barber Adagio (10 February 2018). For everyone, there is an opportunity to ‘Come and Sing the Bernstein Musicals’ (17 March 2018).

Period Instrument Performance

Period instrument performance is always at the forefront of St John’s Smith Square’s programme. La Nuova Musica and The Holst Singers, both familiar to St John’s Smith Square audiences, collaborate for the first time in a programme of Handel and Mozart (13 November 2017).

London Bach Society make their contribution to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with a concert which brings together the Steinitz Bach Players and Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short (30 October 2017). St John’s Smith Square continues marking the Reformation’s anniversary when Gabrieli and Paul McCreesh return with their recreation of a 17th century Lutheran Christmas morning (7 December 2017) 

Following their debut performance back in April, the Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra with Christopher Monks will give a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (4 October 2017), continuing the celebrations of the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.

The young conductor, Joel Sandelson, brings his period instrument orchestra Wond’rous Machine for a concert of Corelli, Purcell and Lully (28 October 2017) and soprano Anna Dennis will give a concert of Purcell songs with Sounds Baroque directed by Julian Perkins (19 January 2018).

The European Day of Early Music (21 March 2018) will be celebrated at St John’s Smith Square with a performance in collaboration with the London Handel Festival, and there will be more Handelian celebrations when Stephen Layton directs a concert with Florilegium, soprano Mary Bevan and countertenor Tim Mead (27 February 2018).

Opera

Opera always plays a significant role in St John’s Smith Square’s calendar. Bampton Classical Opera continue to champion the work of Salieri (12 September 2017), this time with his The School of Jealousy, a work that almost certainly inspired Da Ponte and Mozart to create Cosi fan tutte. Later in the season Bampton return to give a programme illustrating the life of the legendary singer Nancy Storace (7 March 2018) marking the bicentenary of her death.

In October there is a chance to hear the opera stars of the future when St John’s Smith Square hosts the final of The Voice of Black Opera Competition (3 October 2018) featuring six young singers accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia , conducted by Kwamé Ryan. There is a further showcase opportunity when Irish Heritage Opera visit to celebrate 44 years of bringing Irish operatic talent to the stage (12 April 2018).

La Nuova Musica return with Handel’s Orlando (1 February 2018), the start of an annual cycle of Handel operas at St John’s Smith Square. There is more Handel in April when Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company return with Giulio Cesare (11 April 2018). Further opera can be found during the London Festival of Baroque Music when La Nuova Musica return with Iestyn Davies in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo (13 May 2018). 

Moving on from the baroque period, Kensington Symphony Orchestra present Puccini’s La Bohème conducted by their music director Russell Keable (21 May 2018).

Orchestral Performances

St John’s Smith Square enjoys close relationships with many of the UK’s top orchestras. The London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley’s innovative explorations of great piano concertos this season features works by Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Grieg whilst the Orchestra of St John’s continues its My Music series with celebrity guests including Sir Simon Jenkins, Lord Archer and Lord Hague. 

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief series Matthew Barley leads a performance of Sir John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil with the City of London Sinfonia (2 December 2017).

Orchestra Vitae return with an intimate programme of Mozart and David Lang which will be presented ‘in the round’ (7 November 2017) and then in the spring with a programme within the Americana ’18 season including Copland’s Third Symphony and the Gershwin Piano Concerto (2 March 2018). Another classic American Third Symphony, this time by Ives, is featured in a programme marking the return of the English Symphony Orchestra which also includes the Copland Clarinet Concerto, Piston’s rarely performed Sinfonietta and a newly commissioned work from Jesse Jones (18 April 2018).

In Spring 2018, St John’s Smith Square welcomes the European Union Chamber Orchestra for a programme of Haydn and Mozart (21 February 2018). 

The Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra have five concerts this season, and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra once more brings its unique programming style to St John’s Smith Square in its 17/18 concert series. The Royal Orchestral Society and the Salomon Orchestra also return to St John’s Smith Square for regular concerts including a performance of the Berg Violin Concerto with violinist Ben Baker and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 conducted by Holly Mathieson (16 October 2017).

Choral and Vocal Music

Given the outstanding acoustics at St John’s Smith Square, many choral societies return year after year and 2017/18 is no exception with performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius given by the 1885 Singers and Orchestra and the Malvern Festival Chorus (14 October 2017), Brahms’s A German Requiem with The London Chorus (11 November 2017), Islington Choral Society (18 March 2018) and the Anton Bruckner Choir (28 April 2018), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony with Twickenham Choral Society (8 July 2018), Handel’s Joshua with the Whitehall Choir (17 November 2017) and Haydn’s The Creation with Vox Cordis with the Orchestra of St Paul’s (21 November 2018).

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival St John’s Smith Square is delighted to once again welcome The Cardinall’s Musick with a programme of music from the 16th Century to present day. The English Baroque Choir celebrates its 40th birthday with a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor (24 March 2018) and the London Choral Sinfonia return with a programme that places music by James MacMillan, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen around the Requiem of John Rutter (22 February 2018)

New Music and Emerging Talent

The celebration of new music has always been central to the programming at St John’s Smith Square and this season is no exception. Among those whose works will receive premieres at St John’s Smith Square in 17/18 are Gregory Rose, Sally Beamish, Alexandra Harwood, Hanna Kulenty, Patrick Brennan, Khyam Allami, Nimrod Borenstein, Owain Park, Arlene Sierra, Kareem Roustom and Jesse Jones.

The highly praised Young Artists’ Scheme at St John’s Smith Square enters a fifth season with three extraordinary talents. The Bukolika Piano Trio present music by Boulanger, Hanna Kulenty, Messiaen, Górecki and Panufnik alongside more familiar works by Beethoven and Dvořák; the violinist Mathilde Milwidsky performs music by Arvo Pärt, Janáček, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Richard Strauss, while the piano and percussion duo of Siwan Rhys and George Barton offer programmes including music by Vinko Globokar, Kagel, Cage, Feldman and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. All three Young Artists will be showcased as part of a special concert (17 September 2017) within Open House London. 

Regular Concert Series & Chamber Music

St John’s Smith Square hosts its regular Thursday Lunchtime Concerts, which feature, among others: Yeomen from The Musicians’ Company; prize-winners from the Oxford Lieder Festival; performances from St John’s Smith Square’s Young Artists 17/18; artists featured at the Dartington International Summer School and a monthly organ recital series programmed by St John’s Smith Square’s organ curator, David Titterington. Particular highlights of the lunchtime series include the Pettman Ensemble with Stephen De Pledge and guest violinist Clio Gould (7 September 2017), the chamber choir Siglo de Oro (9 November 2017), the Duke Quartet (1 February 2018) and the violinist Daniel Pioro (22 March 2018).

The Sunday at St John’s programme, in its fourth year, once again includes a number of mini-series within it. Returning artists include I Muscanti and Leon Bosch who will give a series of concerts juxtaposing Russian chamber music with premieres by the composer Alexandra Harwood. Lucy Parham also returns with her Sheaffer Sundays ‘Composers in Love’ concert series featuring well-known actors such as Harriet Walter, Tim McInnerny, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell Beale.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room reaches the Razumovsky Quartets as it enters the second year of the complete Beethoven Quartets cycle (concluding in the 2018/19 season) and the pianist Julian Jacobson gives four concerts in his 70th birthday year that bring together masterpieces by Schubert, Beethoven and Prokofiev. Deniz Gelenbe and friends give two concerts of romantic chamber music while Ensemble de Note makes its St John’s Smith Square debut with a series of early classical chamber music performances. The Prince Regent’s Band will give a fascinating programme of 19th century band music (5 November 2017) and the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas together with Elizabeth Kenny (lute and theorbo) will set the scene for Christmas with their programme ‘Now Winter Comes Slowly’ (3 December 2017).

The virtuoso brass ensemble Septura opens the audience’s ears to new sounds as they make their St John’s Smith Square debut in a sequence of concerts entitled Kleptomania, playing arrangements of great works written for other instrumental combinations.

Piano recitals include a performance with Sibelius scholar Joseph Tong in a Nordic themed concert to mark the 60th anniversary (to the day) of Sibelius’s death (20 September 2017) and Blüthner Pianos present a series of concerts to showcase their instruments with the pianists Tom Poster, Dmitry Masleev and Martin Sturfalt. Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev is another pianist celebrating his 70th birthday at St John’s Smith Square (2 November 2017).

Southbank Centre at St John’s Smith Square

The collaboration with Southbank Centre continues for 17/18 during their period of refurbishment. Highlights include the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion (25 September 2017) and Rachel Podger playing and directing the OAE in a concert featuring two of Mozart’s Violin Concertos (27 November 2017). The London Sinfonietta return under their founder conductor David Atherton to give a performance of Henze’s landmark work Voices, based on 22 folk songs from around the world (11 October 2017) and St John’s Smith Square will also host some of the London Sinfonietta’s 50th birthday celebrations as they revisit many of the most iconic works from the past 50 years including music by Xenakis, Colin Matthews and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Highlights from Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Series at St John’s Smith Square include the Emerson Quartet in concerts on two consecutive nights with the late quartets of Beethoven (31 October and 1 November 2017) and Steven Osborne returning with friends to perform Messiaen’s monumental Quartet for the End of Time alongside Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio (14 November 2017). Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series at St John’s Smith Square includes concerts with Bertrand Chamayou, Víkingur Ólafsson, Boris Giltburg, Alice Sara Ott and George Li.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: “St John’s Smith Square is unique amongst London’s concert halls. It is the oldest, yet most flexible, concert hall in London and as such I am very proud that we are able to offer a programme that is so diverse but equally filled with events and festivals of deep integrity. The programme at St John’s Smith Square is forged through collaborating creatively with many hugely talented and generous musicians and my grateful thanks go to all those who enable this programme to be offered. We look forward to welcoming artists and audiences to this iconic venue throughout the coming season.”

 

Booking information:  

Box Office 020 7222 1061   

Book online http://www.sjss.org.uk  

 

St John’s Smith Square 2017/18 Season booking opens:

Monday 3 July 2017 for St John’s Smith Square’s Patrons

Friday 7 July 2017 for St John’s Smith Square’s Friends

Monday 10 July 2017 for General Booking
(Source: press release)

The Pianist’s “MUSTerbation”

As a pianist, do you suffer from “MUSTerbation”?

The term was coined by American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, the father of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy. It is a cognitive trait often present in people who are maladaptive perfectionists, who strive to achieve unattainable ideals or goals, and is a classic recipe for general anxiety and unhappiness.

“Musterbators” live by a set of inflexible, highly polarised beliefs, such as

I MUST do well and be treated with respect, or it is AWFUL and I can’t bear it

Is your piano playing and music making driven by ‘must‘ and ‘should‘ and ‘ought‘? Maybe you regularly make statements to yourself and others like:

  • I must practise
  • I should be practising
  • I ought to be practising
  • I have to practise

– and feel guilty and angry with yourself when you don’t act upon them

Such statements demonstrate a very inflexible and unrealistic mindset, and leave musterbators feeling angry, frustrated and resentful (of self and others) if they fail to fulfil a “should have” activity – such as piano practise.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” these shoulds, oughts, musts and have to’s create unrealistic and over-generalised absolutes. If we don’t stop to look objectively at these inner statements, we become enslaved by them. In addition, when we think we should be acting in a certain ‘ideal’ way, we create a judgmental Inner Critic and a part of us puts pressure on ourselves to follow these rules. We then feel guilty and depressed when we don’t. This often leads to strong feelings of guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression, and to procrastination, withdrawal, and obsessing about what has been (“I should have practised more”).

“The tyranny of the shoulds.”

Karen Horney

Such feelings can be deeply inculcated in us and often stem from parental pressures when we were children (“You should be practising!”) or from teachers, for example. We carry these behavourial traits with us into adulthood and may not even be aware of how much they impinge on our day-to-day life.

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Most pianists – professional or amateur – know they should practise, and most know that regular, focused, and intelligent practise leads to noticeable progress and deep learning. An important part of the practise process is retaining a sense of creativity, curiosity, spontaneity and experimentation. These aspects prevent practising from turning into mindless note-bashing and encourage us to find joy and excitement in our music making. There’s not much joy or vibrancy in a mindset which is continually under the sway of the tyranny of the should, and a whole lot of dissatisfaction and resentment. Unfortunately for musicians, much of formal musical training is geared towards the pursuit of perfectionism, even though perfectionism is an artificial construct and an unattainable goal.

As a musician, such obsessive perfectionist behaviour can stifle musical growth and creativity. The musterbator sets unrealistic or unachievable goals and then feels angry or depressed when such goals are unfulfilled. Musterbators worry excessively about mistakes, they dislike uncertainty, fear negative evaluation by others (teachers, peers, colleagues), and feel frustrated by the gap between what you expect of yourself and your current level of achievement/ability. The musterbatory mindset can lead to over-practising which in turn can lead to injury or greater susceptibility to injury, as well as feelings of low self-esteem and self-loathing, and resentment towards the instrument.

Last year, when I was working towards my Fellowship performance diploma (a high level professional exam), I found myself indulging in musterbatory behaviours, though I wasn’t aware of the term at the time and did not really recognise my obsessive perfectionist attitude as being anything other than taking a “professional” approach to my practising and study. I have always enjoyed practising, I know how to practise productively, and I work best when I have a clear focus or end goal. These attributes are not negative in themselves. My self-imposed practise schedule was such that I would be at the piano by 8am and would schedule at least 3 hours practise into each day. I felt I needed to practise every day and if I missed a day, I berated myself for lack of focus. I think it is important to note at this point that I am not a professional concert pianist and I did not, and do not, need to work at such a concentrated level day in day out. There were periods of time when I felt very angry with myself for not making greater progress and several occasions when I felt I had a reached an immovable impasse with the music (Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). On these occasions, the piano, which resides in my living room, became a negative presence looming over me, reminding me of my failings. In addition, I suffered several bouts of extremely painful tendonitis and developed a shoulder problem which has still not been fully resolved. There were many times during the process when I felt deeply dissatisfied and disappointed with myself, that I was “not good enough” and I was ready to give up. On reflection – and I took 4 months away from the music after failing to pass the diploma to do some serious re-evaluation – I can now see that my personal unhealthy perfectionism, my “musterbation” was actually harming my relationship with the piano and my enjoyment of music, in addition to causing harm to my body and my emotional well-being.

Fortunately, it is possible to reframe one’s way of thinking to escape the tyranny of the shoulds and the musterbatory mindset. Not all perfectionism is negative, and unlike the musterbator, the “adaptive” or “self-oriented” perfectionist derives “a sense of pleasure from their labors and efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation to succeed…….Self-oriented perfectionists may then use their pleasure in their accomplishments as encouragement to continue and even improve their work“*

Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyzed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.

– Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

These “healthy” perfectionists set themselves realistic goals and high personal standards which are achievable. They enjoy the process of striving, have a strong sense of personal autonomy and self-determination (“I choose to….” instead of “I must”), and notice incremental/marginal gains as well as larger achievements, and feel good about them. This in turn encourages greater effort and further achievement. In piano practise, this attitude enables one to regard mistakes as learning tools, to be imaginative and resourceful about problem-solving (of technical issues, for example), to be positive in self-evaluation and reflection, and be open-minded about critique from others (mentors, peers). The healthy perfectionist finds joy, spontaneity and love in their music making, which leads to greater feelings of satisfaction, self-worth and motivation.

If you find yourself prone to musterbatory traits in your piano practise, it’s probably time to question where this negative way of thinking or behaving has come from and why it must be followed. Are you placing undue pressure on yourself to meet unachievable goals, or maybe the pressure – real or imagined – is coming from an external force, such as a teacher or peers? Query whether this mindset is really benefitting you and your music (does it make you happy? Probably not……) and consider how setting realistic goals may improve your musical progress, your relationship with your instrument and your overall emotional health. It may be necessary to do this in consultation with a sympathetic teacher or trusted colleague.

Only when you banish toxic musterbatory thinking and free yourself from the tyranny of shoulds can you truly rediscover the love and joy of making music.

I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something – Yo-Yo Ma

 

Further reading

The Problem With Perfection

 


*(Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46

 

If you listen to one thing this week……

primafaciepfcd061……make it Kenneth Hamilton’s new disc ‘Liszt, Rachmaninov, Busoni: Back to Bach – Tributes and Transcriptions’

Liszt- Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH. Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’.

Bach/Rachmaninov – Suite from the Violin Partita in E Major.

Bach/Busoni – Choral Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. Chaconne from Violin Partita in D Minor. Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’.

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This rewarding new disc of the music of Bach viewed through the lens of three great Romantic composer-pianists forms the first in the Prima Facie labe’s Heritage Series, which aims to shine a new light on familiar repertoire

Kenneth Hamilton’s imaginative playing is clearly founded on a passion for this repertoire combined with his extensive study of nineteenth-century pianism*, which includes historic recordings by Rachmaninov and Busoni themselves and the reminiscences of pupils of Franz Liszt. Thus one has the sense of very “informed” playing (though it never becomes overly intellectual nor dry). Thus the Bach-Busoni Chaconne features the revisions from Busoni’s own piano roll of the work, while the heartfelt performance of Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen” reflects Liszt’s own performance advice, as well as Hamilton’s assertion that the work is an emotional tribute to Liszt’s children Daniel and Blandine, whose tragically early deaths are depicted in the music. But like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), which this work seems to foreshadow, it ends on a note of hope for future redemption.

The two works by Liszt bookend this satisfying recital disc. Virtuosic in scale, the Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH and Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’ pay tribute to the genius of Bach through Liszt’s distinctive pianistic voice, but these are not show pieces. Here we find Liszt at his most serious and ruminative. and Hamilton’s clean, sensitively-nuanced playing reveals the dramatic contrasts in this music from quiet introspection to impassioned gestures.

This contrasts well with the works by Busoni which are played with warmth and refinement, with clear attention to the sophisticated harmonic details and voicing. The Bach/Busoni Chaconne, too often ponderous in the hands of the less skilled, is here grandly expansive, but never heavy. The interior details and individual voices have a lucid clarity which brings the music to life with ever-increasing drama.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninov’s glittering transcription of the Violin Partita in E major provides a joyful and witty interlude. In a way, this is the closest of all the transcriptions presented here to Bach’s original, but infused with Rachmaninov’s inventive, muscular textures (the Prelude has contrapuntal elements redolent of the Etudes-Tableaux) and piquant harmonies.

This is a splendid tribute not only to J S Bach but to the ingenuity and superlative pianism of three great composer-pianists of the golden age, pianism which is matched by Hamilton’s own.

Highly recommended

 


*Hamilton, Kenneth: After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

 

Kenneth Hamilton is a concert pianist, writer and broadcaster, and former student and colleague of Ronald Stevenson.

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Seong Jin Cho at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

“A fresh take on Mozart” – Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek in Amsterdam

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11 June 2017

Mozart – Sonata in F, KV 332

Chopin – Four Ballades

Debussy – Images (Première série), L. 110

Debussy – Images (Deuxième série), L. 111

 

South-Korean rising star and Chopin competition gold medallist Seong Jin Cho made his solo debut in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 11th June 2017. The concert was a part of the legendary 30-year series ‘Meesterpianisten’, organized by Marco Riaskoff. His made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Great Hall in 2015, almost straight from the stage of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not very long after that, in January 2016, he returned to Amsterdam with almost a ‘pop-up’ recital in the Recital Hall and I was really lucky to grab the last seat. He presented himself proudly as winner of the most prestigious piano competition in the world and gave the audience a flavor of what he served to the esteemed jury in Warsaw a couple of months back: a Nocturne, the Sonata in B flat op. 35 ‘Marche Funebre’ and finally the Preludes op. 28, which in my opinion guaranteed him the gold medal already in the third stage.

This time, still at such young age (23), he arrived at the Concertgebouw to rightfully take the stage in the Great Hall and claim his spot among the other master pianists. There was a slight last-minute change of programme, which finally consisted of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332, followed by the both books of Debussy’s ‘Images’. After the break we heard Chopin’s Four Ballades (which also appear on Cho’s latest CD for Deutsche Grammophon, along with the First Piano Concerto).

The opening piece sounded to me like a warm up, a way to test the feeling and acoustic of the hall now filled with the audience. Cho’s interpretation had everything that you would expect from a fresh take on Mozart: clarity, brightness, energy, vigour. I really appreciated that he emphasized a few polyphonic, fugue-like moments, which then later smartly contrasted with romantic fragments. The Adagio was played in an almost meditative manner and I was captivated by the way Cho produced the sound, focusing so much on exerting the right touch to yield the highest quality results. The final movement was the place to discretely show off his phenomenal technique and great control of dynamics of the instrument.

I feel that by bringing ‘Images’ by Debussy to the stage the young pianist made a statement, that he clearly doesn’t want to be labeled as a ‘Chopinist’ (Chopin-specialist – this term actually exists in Polish). Six pieces that are the essence of impressionism were performed pensively, with great confidence and the highest care to produce quality of sound. This wise choice of repertoire presented him as a mature, multi-dimensional artist. It was clear that he spent a lot of time experimenting and searching for his own identity in each of the pieces. Yet, the strongest feeling radiating from the instrument was freshness: fresh to the point that one could forget that it is still classical music – so jazzy and free, the music just flew from beneath Cho’s fingers. He showed the strongest command of the instrument; the precision with which each sound, tone and colour was executed was phenomenal. I felt that by playing Images he could fully express what he is going through, that this is what occupies his mind. His performance at this point was truly stunning, however, it felt that he is not yet done with the search for the key to these pieces and he may still work on them and experiment more. He is already very convincing in his interpretation, but youthful hunger and curiosity may lead to, hopefully, something unexpected on a new recording, perhaps? He was awarded a well-deserved standing ovation before leaving the stage for a break (the Concertgebouw audience does not do it very often).

And although the interpretation of Debussy was something new and captivating, I was most looking forward to Chopin’s Ballades. Sadly, these turned out not to be the pinnacle of the performance. Usually I am very sensitive to Chopin’s music (maybe because we are both Polish people living abroad) and often I shed a tear or two during public performances, but this time I was left just feeling puzzled. In my opinion, Cho set off too fast with the first Ballade and he could not calm himself till the end of the piece. Everything was in its place – the changing moods, the dynamics – but I cannot shrug off the feeling that it was all rushed and even nervous. The second Ballade started softly as it should, and I hoped that he had fought off the nerves after coming back from the break, but the more he got into the piece, the more chaotic it sounded. He lost clarity and brilliance in the high registers and right hand; the heavy chords in the left hand overpowered the piece. Things were back under control for the last two Ballades. Nevertheless, I was rather disappointed with the second part of the concert. However, a warm and sincere standing ovation for the debutant invited him to perform two short pieces for encores, one of them being Debussy’s ever-popular ‘Claire de lune’.

To sum up, it was a very good debut by Seong-Jin Cho, but I got the impression that the young artist felt the pressure of performing at such as prestigious venue and maybe a little overwhelmed, which showed especially in the openings of his pieces. Surprisingly, he felt most at ease when performing the more difficult to interpret Debussy, as if this was so close to him in that particular moment. On the contrary, coming back to Chopin, after the competition and all that buzz, seemed to be something that he would rather leave behind, or put aside for the time being. Seong-Jin Cho is such a young man, it is only natural that he is still searching for who he is or who he wants to become as an artist. The wonderful news is that along that search he leaves behind him beautiful, already very mature piano music for us to enjoy.

Shock and Awe: Igor Levit at Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture