Every Good Boy Does Fine, the title of pianist Jeremy Denk’s recently-published memoir, will be familiar to anyone who had piano lessons as a child. It’s a mnemonic of the notes e, g, b, d and f which sit on the lines of the treble clef – other variants include Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

The title suggests this will be a book about pianistic progress and the smooth path to achievement and success, the fairy-tale of the child prodigy which morphs seamlessly into an account of What Jeremy Did at Music College or How I Became A Concert Pianist.

It’s not that, not at all. In this honest (sometimes painfully so), witty, intelligent, entertaining and eloquent memoir Jeremy Denk explores the exigencies of the path he chose for himself while only 11 – “the piano now seemed inseparable from me…..the only way I’d found to express myself, a shelter and a persona“. We encounter his teachers, each significant, formative in his learning, some kind, others tough, even monstrous, yet each giving him more pianistic food for thought (though at times he wonders if lessons with his teacher Lillian were intended to kill any pleasure he might take in music, a sentiment many of us who had lessons as children can understand).

Pianists’ memoirs are few and far between, though there are many books about the mechanics, technique and artistry of piano playing, most notably Piano Notes by Charles Rosen or Susan Tomes’ excellent books. In fact, Denk’s book is the first I’ve read where the reader is really taken to the heart of what it means to be a pianist in a way that is both honest and inspiring. Denk makes no bones about the hardships, the hours of practice in grim rehearsal rooms, the daily grunt work required to finesse and refine music that goes on behind the notes we the audience hear (“Dohnányi was a new horizon of boring“).

But alongside this is the love story element of his writing (the book’s subtitle is A Love Story, in Music Lessons). As a precocious child, Denk’s curiosity seems unstoppable – and curiosity is, to me, one of the crucial aspects of the musician’s creative and artistic persona. His interest and passion is piqued by specific pieces of music – for example, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K364, which he first hears on cassette tape, or Brahms’ D minor piano concerto, which becomes almost an obsession for him – and the book is chock-full of analysis and commentary on the music he is playing. But this is not dry, musicological writing, rather he animates the music for both fellow pianist and listener with his own observations and insights which will have you running to your music desk or stereo to play or listen with new ears.

But it is the cavalcade of teachers and Denk’s description of them that is perhaps most intriguing, for teachers are often the most significant influence on the shaping and development of the young musician. We all remember the good teachers, and the bad ones even more so, perhaps, but if, like Denk, one goes into lessons with a curious, open-mind, the insights and wisdom one can accrue stay with one for years to come.

While adding new lessons, you have to keep listening to the old ones – as it happens, just like the unfolding notes of a melody. 

Encounters with some of the greats (and now late, sadly) are described – amongst them Leon Fleisher and György Sebők, perhaps the greatest of all the teachers with whom Denk studies. As Denk grows ever more fluent and confident in his playing, it is teachers who temper the ego, reveal errors in his playing, but also offer intriguing and challenging new insights. In these encounters we see the paradox of the developing artistic persona – the pull between fidelity to the score and the attempt to get inside the composer’s soundworld, and the desire to illuminate it with one’s own distinct music voice. This is the lifelong challenge of any serious musician. 

It is György Sebők who also reveals the fundamental simplicity (another paradox!) of something so extraordinarily difficult as playing the piano – that it is possible to go beyond technique and simply imagine the sound one wants to produce, eyes closed. When Jeremy plays the passage again, the sound is “deeper and richer”, and suddenly all the struggling to create a big, bold sound is replaced by “a moment of ease”. It’s a lesson I would recommend to any pianist! Sebok also points out to Denk that he is a perfectionist and that this is holding him back – another paradox of the musician’s life where one’s training is all about the pursuit of perfection. It’s another musical life lesson: perfection is an artificial construct, but one must keep striving anyway. And Denk is more than willing to rise to the challenge, such is his love of the music.

You never “still know” a piece, really. You have to force yourself to know it again, even rebuild its foundations.

I first encountered Jeremy Denk through his writing and his blog Think Denk (which was, in part, an inspiration for this site) and I’ve always liked his ability to ground this high artform we call classical music in a place that is unpretentious and readable. In the book, he explains the complexities of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al in a manner which is simple without being simplistic, illustrated with hand-drawn diagrams to explain musical structures, harmony etc. And he peppers his commentaries on specific pieces with some wonderful aphorisms

Beethoven makes you earn your difficulties. You can’t just go wild. The fireworks are always held in tension against some spine of meaning.

Young Schumann is a miracle, really, an outpouring of mostly piano music with unprecedented inspiration and imagination, and a model for turning confusion into art.

People often complain about Schubert’s length, and for good reason. He likes to let his ideas spread out, like pets that hog the bed.

(And before all you Schubert fans exclaim at such a statement, Denk goes on to explain how Schubert uses his “heavenly length” to accumulate meaning, “so that the music becomes less about things themselves, but processes operating, like tectonic plates….”)

I love these quotes because they both bring the music down to earth while also revealing its greatness, something Denk fully appreciates, and revels in. It’s an approach that will appeal to serious musicians and classical music fans, and also the non-specialist reader. To add to this, a generous appendix further illuminates with Denk’s own commentaries on specific pieces and his recommended recordings.

 

This engaging and engrossing book is a journey of self-discovery, about coming out as an artist, and also as a person, a gay man, the latter most tenderly, poetically expressed towards the end of the book – but it’s also a love letter to the piano, its literature, those who play it and those who teach and inspire the next generation.

Highly recommended.

Every Good Boy Does Fine by Jeremy Denk is published in the UK by Picador


Meet the Artist interview with Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

There are certain habits of piano practice which are ingrained in us from an early age and which have become a form of “piano dogma”. As young piano students, we may accept these practices without question, trusting in our teacher’s seniority and greater knowledge – and the assertion that these activities are “good for you”, that they will make you “a better pianist”. These include scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises (Hanon, Czerny etc), separate hands practicing, slow practice and use of the metronome. Many of these practices come from theorists, lesser musicians, traditional teaching, and exam boards, who perhaps exert far too much influence on what is “good practicing” rather than actually listening to active musicians who have formulated their own ways of doing things which reflect the realities of learning and performing music today.

Scales, broken chords and arpeggios

These are generally considered an essential part of the pianist’s practice regime, still seen by many as the path to superior technique. By the time the piano student is approaching Grade 8, they will have learnt scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys, plus various permutations such as scales in major and minor thirds and sixths, octave scales and arpeggios, chromatic scales (also in thirds), dominant and diminished seventh arpeggios, and contrary motion scales and arpeggios. Scales and arpeggios have a use – they teach us about keys and key relationships.

But, like the technical exercises devised by Hanon et al, scales and arpeggios are generally mechanical exercises used to build greater finger dexterity, independence and velocity. Although one can practice such exercises in a musical way (fluctuating dynamics, different articulation or rhythms), in my opinion, they are fundamentally unmusical.

How often are you required to play a full four-octave arpeggio or scale in major thirds in a piece of music? Sure, we encounter many scale and arpeggio patterns within pieces but these are devices to illustrate the drama and narrative of the music or to create specific effects (a descending chromatic scale can be darkly, spookily dramatic, for example). You may have practiced octave scales in a book of exercises but the test is whether you can play them musically in the context of real repertoire.

Not scales, never. Exercises, never….. I worked on pieces. Then if that didn’t work, I’d work on individual passages.

~ Martha Argerich, in an interview with Charles Dutoit

Separate Hands Practicing

This is one of the “holy grails” of piano practice – perhaps the holy grail! – that we should learn the music hands separately first and then bring the hands together. This was how I was taught as a young piano student and many, many students have the benefit of separate hands practice drummed into them from their early years to conservatoire level.

There are many occasions when separate hands practicing is very useful; but there are also occasions when separate hands practice is less helpful or even a hindrance to learning. Sometimes it is necessary to hear the complete harmony of the music or to have the foundation of a bass line or melody to support the other hand.

Slow practice

Another holy grail of piano practice! Like separate hands practice, there are occasions when slowing the tempo right down can enable us to manage a tricky section, get the notes learnt and under the fingers before speeding the music up. Slow practice also allows us to hear details in the music (but only if you are actually listening while practicing – and you’d be amazed how many pianists, including advanced or professional pianists, don’t listen to themselves!). But if you always practice the same passage at below tempo, the procedural (“muscle”) memory will find it harder to cope with playing at full tempo. In reality, tempos should be able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge).

Practicing with the metronome

Tick tock tick tock tick tock…..The insistent tick of the metronome is one of the abiding memories of my childhood piano lessons; my teacher made me play scales to the beat of a metronome. It was pretty hellish, but I submitted anyway. As a result, my scales were fluent, accurate and even.

The metronome can be useful in helping you establish a clear pulse, but practice too much or too often with that insistent tick and your playing may become overly mechanical without the necessary nuance of tempo which adds ebb and flow to music.

I’ve observed a certain metronome addiction amongst some student and amateur pianists: nearly all exam repertoire comes with a suggested metronome speed – note suggested. Yet some people believe they will be marked down in their exam performance or play the music incorrectly if they don’t adhere exactly to the metronome marking. It’s often worth pointing out that the metronome wasn’t invented until 1815; before that time musicians relied on an innate sense of pulse and an understanding of what tempo was appropriate for directions such as allegro, largo or adagio, for example – and that’s what we should all aim for. By all means use the metronome to get a feel for the pulse in the music, but don’t become addicted to it!

A music-led approach

While I may employ all of the above activities in my own piano practice, I have found that a “music-led” approach allows me to practice more productively and, importantly, enjoyably. The first teacher I had when I returned to the piano as an adult after a 25-year absence encouraged me to create exercises out of the music I was learning – a far more useful tool than turning to boring, mechanical exercises. There is so much beautiful music out there for us to play and a Bach Prelude, for example, can offer far greater technical and artistic challenges than a book of exercises by Hanon.

Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives and to experiment with practicing. Fundamentally, it’s about finding an approach that works for you as an individual, rather than a “one size fits all approach”.

You should diligently play scales and finger-practices. There are many, however, who believe they’ll achieve all, by practicing daily on technique for hours on end, up till high age. It’s like practicing every day to enumerate the alfabet faster and faster. One would think one could make better use of their valuable time.

~ Robert Schumann

This article first appeared on my sister blog A Piano Teachers Writes….


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Guest review by Michael Johnson

International Acclaim: One Piano, Eight Hands is a factional novel by Michael Lawson told by an omniscient narrator who slips seamlessly in and out of anonymity as the action unfolds. Four generations of the talented but fictional Steinfeld family parade through the plot, performing in the piano’s golden age, the height of the Romantics. Many of the greats appear – Rachmaninov, Godowsky, Taneyev, Siloti, Hoffmann, Medtner, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Gabrilowitsch, Blumenfeld, Schnabel and one of Lawson’s own teachers, the “tender tyrant” Nadia Boulanger.

Readers must be on their toes as 68 characters rotate to keep the narration spinning. Lawson’s knowledge of 19th century Europe through his Polish ancestors enrich the story, notably with several scenes of terrible tragedy – fictional injuries in fires, psychological conflict, the near extinction of the family name in a Polish pogrom, and finally the death in public of the latest family star, Daniyal.

This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.

Author Lawson is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books. Rounding out his career, he is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies. He brings all these strands together in a breathless story.

“I am and always have been fascinated by the great Romantic pianists,” he tells me in email exchanges over several days. It shows.

Originally inspired by accounts of virtuoso Simon Barere’s death in 1951 at a Carnegie Hall recital, Lawson says he “knew how the novel would end but not how it would begin”. The story occupied his attention for some 40 years, the last six months of which were dedicated to non-stop research and writing six days a week. For easy reading, he has structured his story in five ”movements”, each consisting of several brief chapters, some only two pages long.

He takes interesting detours to fill in backdrop of the environment – the German bombing of London, the pogrom in Lvov (now Lviv) in 1918, Jewish family life, piano competitions and the history of the piano. The subtitle takes its name from the fictional four generations of virtuosi – imagining his main players, Abramczyk, Aleksander, Daniyal, and Kovi making music together, on one piano, eight hands.

Lawson brings in a sub-theme of exceptional interest, the phenomenon of the child prodigy, an accident that he estimates occur once in five or ten million births. He invokes his therapeutic expertise to warn of over-praise of prodigies from family and the public. “Can a child ever receive too much love? … We are now discovering that sustained exaggerations of esteem from parents or any circles of admiring approval can be harmful.” (It) can inhibit the growth of a healthy and robust, self-critical super-ego.”

The great teacher Leschetizky carries on, cautioning that an “excess of applause at an early age may help cerate unhealthy performance appetites in later life”. Audiences sometimes help create such the prodigy, and, adds Lawson: “ … some will flock to see a child perform as they might jostle for the best seat at the circus.” Aleksander’s parents stepped in to slow the process. They decided that he would not undertake public concerts until his seventh birthday.

Lawson’s career at the piano also translates into some of the more dramatic passages in the repertoire. Discussing Chopin’s Etude No. 11 op 25 (“Winter Wind”), he writes of the pianist’s intense concentration in the slow theme at the outset. “Then, like an exploding volcano, a tumultuous cascade of sixteenth notes erupted from the top of the keyboard; the left hand leaping in punctuation fury, driving forward the rhythm of the raging wind and sudden lighting flashes, and the final theme, bringing Chopin’s death-defying Etude … to its breathless conclusion.”

(performed here by Yulianna Avdeeva):

Lawson takes a swipe at pianists whose acrobatics onstage “let us know they have danced with death and prevailed”. “Their shoulders rise and fall with their heavy breathing, their hands run maniacally through their tousled hair (and) they practically swoon there on stage in front of us.” He adds that Franz Liszt was the inventor of this “bizarre behaviour”. Many of today’s prominent players have gone further. Lang Lang, for example, wears makeup and winks at the audience between swoons while bouncing on the piano bench.

Family life is enlivened with the joy of Jewish humour and culture. At one point, Aleksander receives in the post an invitation to perform with the New York Philharmonic. The family and guests burst into a singing, dancing version of the popular Russian folk song “Kalinka My Kalinka” gradually ratcheting up the tempo to breakneck speed.

The dance is performed here:

The text is peppered with tips on piano performance, one of which is the need to practice relaxing. “Remember that tension is the enemy,” Lawson writes. “It squeezes glue all over the keyboard and in all kinds of ways gums up your playing.”

Critical reception to the novel has thus far been favourable, as has reader reaction. One reader wrote to Lawson that the connections and convergences in the plot are “so beautifully written, it brought me to tears.”

I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale.

Why did Lawson set himself the monumental task of researching and writing this epic? This book might seen as swan song or a cathartic exercise, but Lawson disagrees. He considers it it as “a celebration of music, musicians, and the creative spirit that animates my present and future.” I totally agree.

International Acclaim: One Piano—Eight Hands by Michael Lawson is available from Amazon.


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

Michael Lawson is a Psychotherapist, Composer, Writer, Film Maker and Broadcaster. His varied career began in music as a composer and concert pianist in the early seventies, having studied with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris and Fontainebleau conservatoires, with the British composer Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music, and at Sussex University with Donald Mitchell, the leading Britten and Mahler scholar. His piano professors were David Wilde and James Gibb.

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This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff  (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is 4th December 1976, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.

A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.

The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.

Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration. 


‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne

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Guest posts are invited for this series. If you would like to submit an article about repertoire you are working on or enjoy playing, please get in touch


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Birmingham International Piano Competition (BIPC) is to make a welcome return after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. Under the proud custodianship of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC), part of Birmingham City University, Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies, Professor John Thwaites, will act as Artistic Director, with the initial rounds taking place in June and grand Final open to the public at the Bradshaw Hall on Sunday 3rd July 2022.

The Bradshaw Hall

Rejoicing in the revival of this important annual performance platform and contest for the brightest keyboard stars of the future, the City can continue to celebrate the long-cherished place it has occupied for so many years within the cultural life of Birmingham.

Professor Thwaites said, “We have designed BIPC 2022 to offer a wonderful opportunity to a wide variety of international artists currently living in the UK. The entrance fee is modest, we are allowing Free Choice programming, and all our live rounds take place in the Conservatoire’s flagship concert venue, Bradshaw Hall.”

With state-of-the art performance facilities, including the Conservatoire’s exceptional fleet of concert grand pianos, the Bradshaw Hall provides an ideal venue for the Competition heats and the Final.

My hope is that those who travel to Birmingham will feel that the Competition has done everything possible to help them play at their best and to be rewarded accordingly”, added John Thwaites.

Professor John Thwaites

Proud Birmingham history

The BIPC has a legacy going back to 1979 when it was founded by and later named after, Gladys Lily Brant, who administered the Competition in the city for nearly two decades. The administration then passed to Town Hall/Symphony Hall and in 2017 the event was rebranded as Birmingham International Piano Competition before being inherited by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, in November 2021. Previous winners of the BIPC can be found on the BIPC website, and include Mark Bebbington and Di Xiao, both of whom are on the RBC piano faculty.

Exciting future development

Now, as one of the foremost international performance platforms, and with a designated Administrative Director, Ella Lee, in place, this stellar event continues to provide young pianists aged from 18 to 28 an opportunity to further their career and perform in a world-class venue.

Going forward, I feel the competition will really embody exactly what the Conservatoire is about: a unique atmosphere that challenges everyone to play at their very best, whilst never losing the wonderful undercurrent of support and community”, said Ella Lee. “It seemed an only natural fit for the Competition’s new home to be Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, given that it plays a major role in Birmingham’s musical landscape, and the Bradshaw Hall has already welcomed a myriad of world-class artists in the few short years since its opening. Ultimately, we are very happy to be providing further opportunity for young pianists to be heard, and to welcome new faces to RBC.”

2022 Competition

Over the course of two preliminary rounds – this year taking place on 23 and 24 June – four outstanding pianists will be chosen for the Final, to be held on 3 July, in which they will each perform a forty-minute recital in front of a public audience.

The international jury is to be drawn from across the music industry and will include Katya Apekisheva, Philip Fisher and Carole Presland.

BIPC programme and how to attend

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 200 Jennens Road B4 7XR

23 June – preliminary heat (open to the public)

24 June – preliminary heat (open to the public)

3 July, 14:30 – Final (open to the public)

Tickets will be available on the door, and in advance via the website: www.bipcomp.co.uk

Previous winners www.bipcomp.co.uk/recent-winners.html

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire www.bcu.ac.uk/conservatoire


Source: press release

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

My primary influences are my Catholic faith and the art and folk music of the Slovacko area of South Moravia, to which I am connected through both my parents.

Teachers: the composer Miloslav Ištvan (with whom I studied at the Janáček Academy in Brno) and the way of life of St. Francis of Assisi,

From the European music tradition: Gregorian chant, Moravian folk music, the late orchestral works of Antonín Dvořák and the late works of Leoš Janáček.

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

The greatest challenge in my career has been (and continues to be) exploring the possibilities of unison technique since the end of the 1990s. It has also been a challenge to hide away and completely concentrate on composing to the best of my ability and as much as my own character, my family life and my teaching profession allow.

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

Without a doubt a most special experience for me was my collaboration for over 30 years with the Schubert Ensemble – both with the Ensemble as a whole and with its individual members. This collaboration brought me an independence from the music life of Brno; it is a very important thing in a composer´s life to be independent of one’s position in one’s own birthplace.

I should also mention an important collaboration in Brno throughout my whole working life with the excellent percussionist Martin Opršál

Of which works are you most proud?

My proudest creative works are my three daughters, Magdalene, Veronika and Miriam, and, at one remove, my granddaughter Julia.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It is not easy to answer this question: I try to clear a path from the mess of complexity to the order of simplicity

Tell us more about your 24 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano. What was the inspiration behind this set of pieces? Were the templates set by Bach and Chopin influential at all?

From the very start the inspiration for my Preludes and Fugues was the Bible. From the point of view of the musical form, I was influenced more by the thinking of Anton Reicha than by the counterpoint of J.S. Bach or by Chopin’s Preludes. But everything I have written is strongly connected to the classical European tradition.

During my military service in Prague (1981-2) I wrote a single Prelude and Fugue for piano, which stands alone. In 1989 William Howard asked me to write something for him. I composed two Preludes and Fugues and the cycle continued from there. The inspiration for the cycle from the very beginning was the Bible.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Pianist William Howard has recorded the entire set. What was the experience of working with William on this music?

My collaboration with William was like my real composition degree course. Thanks to his extraordinary patience in studying and re-studying my endless corrections, I had the chance to pursue and to develop my own musical imagination – and not just in writing for piano. But certainly it also helped me to develop a new feeling for piano composition, which has continued in further piano pieces (a left hand piece for Steve Warzycki and my 6th and 7th Sonatas, both for William), and has influenced other aspects of my composing. William’s experience as both a soloist and a chamber player has given him a sense of colour and a rhythmic precision that you can admire in the recording of the Preludes and Fugues.

As a composer, how do you work?

I try to imitate the great composers of the past, composing every day, but the result is a bit different. They wrote hundreds of fantastic pieces in an extraordinarily short time. I add five bars in the morning and cross out seven bars in the afternoon every day…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I remember some successful premieres (my piano quintet ‘Royal Funeral Procession on Iona’ at Wigmore Hall with the whole Schubert Ensemble, the premiere of my Third Symphony for piano and strings at Dartington with William at the piano, the UK premiere of the Preludes and Fugues at St. Giles, Cripplegate in London), some great occasions, friendly audiences, nice reviews, perfect recordings, ongoing collaborations with musicians…. but then I think of Schubert and of Van Gogh and reflect that there are other ways to define success in the world of art. Maybe for the composer success is also the perfect score, the ideal piece, without the need for any response from the world around. And for a painter it is the ideal picture, regardless of how it is perceived in the artist’s lifetime.

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

1. Write the first version of your pieces by hand. It is all too easy these days for us to become greatly estranged from our own work.

2. Rewrite pieces by classical masters (e.g. Perotinus, Bach, Webern). By following every note of their scores your imagination will develop and you will be able to compare your own solutions and your own ideas with their way of thinking. I am worried that two thousand years of well-tried and tested techniques are in danger of being lost.

3. Maintain a basic classical music education; play a string instrument and sing in a choir. When composing you can easily lose connection with live instrumental and vocal performance.

4. Do not interpret your own music! Sit in the audience and listen. Players have quite different worries from composers.

5. Sit at home and work every day. Do not organise performances of your pieces – they will come by themselves.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

In the Czech Republic, programmes for bigger ensembles and for orchestras could be improved – they repeat famous pieces from famous composers again and again. They should play more early works by well-known composers (e.g. the early symphonies of Dvořák and Ives…..) and they should perform more early music on modern instruments (e.g. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Bach…..). Glenn Gould showed us how to play this repertoire on a modern instrument in his recordings of early music.

What are your most treasured possessions?

My faith, my family, my musical gift.

Pavel Zemek Novák’s “dazzlingly original” 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano is now available in a newly published edition, available as a digital download from Music Haven Ltd. Find out more

Pianist William Howard has recorded the 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label