Conductor and festival director Tom Hammond thinks we should all bother with music. In this guest post, he explains why and previews this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music.
I’m writing this a month before the opening of the 2021 Hertfordshire Festival of Music (HFoM), with the sweaty brow of the accidental concert promoter desperately hoping to see more tickets flying off the shelves. Postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Festival is particularly special because for many people it will be the first time they will have enjoyed live music in over a year. For me, my co-artistic director, James Francis Brown, and indeed the whole Festival team, the challenge this year is presenting live music in a COVID-secure environment to ensure the comfort, safety and enjoyment of our audiences, performers and staff. There is the additional challenge of social distancing which means that venues cannot operate at full capacity and we can only offer a limited number of tickets for each performance. We are fortunate to receive the support of Arts Council England and a number of charitable trusts and foundations, county, district and town councils, while a growing Friends Scheme allows individuals to play an important role in furthering the Festival’s scope and potential.
Of course, we are not the only music festival or concert promoter trying to square the circle of socially-distanced events and the consequent reduction in ticket revenue, but there are always solutions if you look for them, and to accommodate as many people as possible, within the limitations of social distancing, many of our concerts will be repeated. This has also allowed us a certain amount of flexibility with regard to concert start times, so people may choose to attend an early evening concert and then go on to dinner, or come and enjoy some post-dinner music with us!
We’ve programmed some fabulous music and musicians in this our fifth year: Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir CBE is our Featured Living Composer and her music will be performed by Albion Quartet, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and Chloē Hanslip and Danny Driver. Inventor of the string quartet Joseph Haydn, who has a special connection with Hertfordshire, is celebrated in Albion Quartet’s opening concert, and we’re also featuring music by Pärt, Walton, Sibelius, Bartok, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and James Francis Brown. Pianist Florian Mitrea will also give the world premiere of a work by Alan Mills.
It’s not just classical music traditionally presented (although there’s plenty of that, and no apologies for it!). We’re delighted to welcome back the exuberant ZRI, who will mash classical music with gypsy and klezmer styles in a performance at McMullen’s Brewery in Hertford. Recorder ensemble Fontanella present a themed programme based around the year 1670, a period in musical history which is strangely parallel to our own times. The concert is also a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Friends Meeting House in Hertford, which has been in continuous use since it was founded.
Alongside the music, we have education and outreach projects – masterclasses with Chloe Hanslip at Queenswood School, and Music in Mind with members of Orchestra of the Swan, bringing music to people with dementia in selected care homes throughout the county. The irrepressible “virtuoso of the arts” Matthew Sharp weaves bewitching words and magical music in an enthralling afternoon of storytelling for younger children and their families, and there’s even an opportunity to explore historic Hertford on a guided walk.
Basically shed-loads of stuff – and really good stuff!
Since the Festival began – the initial germ of the idea coming to me back in 2015 – we’ve welcomed around 3000 people to concerts in Hertford and Hertfordshire, given education and performance opportunities to around 500 younger people (schoolchildren as well as conservatoire-level students) and raised something like £150,000 in external funds and Box Office revenue. Raising that sort of money for music is incredibly hard work as anyone who’s ever tried will know, taking hours of your life that could be spent doing vastly more enjoyable things….
The money that we’ve raised has gone directly into the music economy via paying our artists – about £75,000 on musician’s fees alone, and we pay at a decent rate – plus all the other elements of the musical food chain, including commissions, hire of copyright materials, piano tuners, keyboard hire, sound and lighting equipment, etc., etc. The pandemic hit musicians and the musical food chain hard, and it feels especially important to be breathing life back into the industry through our activities this June.
Where that money certainly isn’t going is into my back pocket, nor that of my co-Artistic Director. We’ve also got a very hard-working board of trustees, because we’re now properly formalised as a charity, plus our FOH team who also do it for the love of music.
Why on earth would anyone do this?!
I have asked myself that question many times, not least as so many areas of running a Festival are things for which I’ve had absolutely no training, experience nor aptitude and I’m already pretty busy with my main work as a conductor and producer. But, when I read my social media newsfeeds, or see classical music mentioned in the national press, it’s too often report after report about cuts in music education and how music is being marginalised. Or how to make it ‘relevant’. Or how it’s seen as for only posh people…. You don’t need me to go on because it’s jaw-clenchingly boring to do so, and moaning is too easy and the time could be better spent doing something about it.
What I and my colleagues at HFoM are trying to do, albeit in a nascent way which needs constant refinement, is simply to present amazing music in appropriate spaces that heighten the audience experience, plus open out opportunities for young people, and try to buck the above trend. As a colleague of mine once said to me, we are attempting to act as incubators of this amazing art form and when the day finally comes and politicians actually read the gazillions of studies that show how music helps people in so many ways and fund it again, someone can buy us all a pint.
Until then, if anyone fancies coming along and helping us continue beyond this year, we have tickets to sell! Hertford is only 20 miles from by central London, easily accessible by road and rail, and has a good selection of shops and eateries with attractive countryside nearby. It will be light well into the evening, hopefully sunny and warm too. Why not come and join us?
Hertfordshire Festival of Music runs from 4-10 June 2021. This year’s Principal Artist is violinist Chloë Hanslip, who will be giving masterclasses and performances during the festival. Full programme of events
Tom Hammond is co-Artistic Director of Hertfordshire Festival of Music, and a conductor and record producer.
The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.
In the many tributes to him, his wisdom and good sense, as a musician and a human being, and his rich legacy will live on in the memories of his performances, his recordings, his pupils (who include Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman), and teachers, who pass on his wisdom on to their own students.
Back in 2008, in an interview with The Times newspaper, Leon Fleisher said of pianists: “We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles. There is a limit. Now you get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”
Fleisher was primarily referring to practising and the habit of pianists to work themselves too hard, to the point where practising becomes harmful rather than helpful. But I find his comment about the circus and keyboard athletics, and the artistry of musicians interesting too.
How many of us have marvelled at the fleet fingers of young pianists, some as young as 10 or 11 (and the internet is awash with videos of these mini ‘virtuosi’)? The ability to play very fast, very accurately is, for many, both inside and outside the profession, a mark of the pianist’s facility and executive function. For those less versed in the true exigencies of the profession, it is a sign of brilliance – and the younger, and faster, the player, the more we exclaim “genius!”.
And in addition to all those videos of fleet-fingered would-be Ashkenazys and Argerichs, there are any number of tutorials offering advice on how to achieve such velocity: finger drills and exercises to train muscles and reflexes, while simultaneously numbing the mind.
Fleisher is right: keyboard circus tricks have nothing to do with music-making. Pianists are not performing dogs – because the craft of the musician, and the art of music-making, goes far, far beyond mere piano pyrotechnics. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if you cannot communicate the deeper message of the music, its emotion and its truth, then you are nothing more than a circus showman, a mere typist albeit with executive function, and what you present in the music is merely surface artifice. The pianist’s repertoire contains plenty of music written to test the player’s facilities and display astonishing keyboard athletics, but pure virtuosity should never take precedence over artistic vision, tone quality, and a proper appreciation of the narrative structure and architecture of the music. Add to this one’s musical knowledge, accrued through training and experience, and a broader discernment of what music-making is truly about, and at this point the music is truly brought to life, with integrity, honesty and communication.
Amateur pianists – how has lockdown been for you?
What have you been playing?
Have you practised more or less during lockdown?
How has your motivation been?
Have you been able to continue with piano lessons? (If you have regular lessons.) How have you found Zoom lessons?
What has lockdown “taught” you?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section or contact me if you’d prefer to talk in confidence
Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, gave us some fascinating insights into the world of the amateur pianist in his 2013 book ‘Play It Again’ – a world hitherto regarded by many as the realm of eccentric hobbyists and ‘Sunday Pianists’ note-bashing their way through Chopin and Brahms, and old ABRSM exam books….
What Rusbridger’s book reveals is something quite different, and anyone who has attended a piano course or belongs to a piano club will have come across the exceptional amateur pianist, the one for whom “the distinction between the feats they can manage on the keyboard and that of an accomplished professional pianist is pretty negligible” (Alan Rusbridger).
Who are these exceptional amateurs and how have they achieved a standard of playing which, if presented in a blind audition, would be indistinguishable from a professional pianist?
Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the amateur and the professional pianist is simply mercantile: the professional gets paid for their performances. Aside from this, there is no reason why an amateur pianist cannot achieve the dizzy heights of a professional standard of playing
I’ve met a few exceptional amateurs myself, on piano courses and in my piano club. They are individuals whose playing one would happily pay to hear in concert, yet they have “day jobs”, perhaps the most famous being Condoleezza Rice, who served as US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and who has played at Buckingham Palace for The Queen. Then there is British-Australian pianist Paul Wee, a barrister by day, with two acclaimed discs to his name, including one of Alkan’s notoriously challenging Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano, works which require an exceptional level of technical and artistic executive function, and certainly not the repertoire would one normally associate with an amateur player.
But here’s the thing: amateurs can and do play repertoire like this, and the fact that they do debunks the notion that amateurs are cack-handed dilettantes. We know exceptional playing when we hear it – and being “exceptional” does not necessarily mean the ability to play the most demanding, virtuosic music. What distinguishes these people from other amateur pianists, what makes them truly exceptional, is their ability to play at and maintain this level, piece after piece, performance after performance.
“Aspiration is everything” says Julian, an amateur pianist friend of mine who plays at an extremely high level of both technical and artistic fluency. But surely the ability to play at such a level goes beyond mere aspiration: we can all aspire to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne or Gaspard de la Nuit, or any of the other high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire. But only a handful of amateurs can do so convincingly and, more importantly, consistently.
Some exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, a training which ingrains in them good practice habits, how to practice efficiently and deeply, and an appreciation that one must ensure the foundations are in place on which to build technical and artistic assuredness. This includes selecting appropriate repertoire, and listening and studying around that repertoire to broaden one’s musical knowledge and place the music in the context in which it was written.
Commitment and time management are also crucial for the exceptional amateur (as indeed for anyone who wishes to improve their playing). Music is “always something I’ve made time for” says Paul Wee in an interview for Gramophone magazine. Other exceptional amateurs to whom I spoke when researching this article said the same thing, that making time to practice is very important to their pianistic development. For many, this means a regular daily (if possible) practice regime. Paul Wee admits that he blocks off several weeks to devote to his piano playing and that he is lucky that his job as a self-employed barrister allows him to do this. He also points out that this approach to practicing is often used by professional players who, because of concert and touring schedules, may not have the luxury of a daily practice regime.
While many exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, they have chosen a different career path while keeping music as a significant part of their life. I think this goes beyond merely “playing for pleasure”; as mentioned above, one must be willing to commit to the task and adopt the ethos of continuous improvement, with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to put one’s ego to one side, rather than wanting to “prove oneself”. But amateurs enjoy considerable freedom too: they are not bound by concert diaries, the demands of agents or promoters, and they can choose when to be exceptional – unlike the professional who is judged on every performance and who is under pressure to be exceptional all the time.
Is there really a difference between the exceptional amateur and the professional pianist? No – because they are both pianists and the same technique, musicianship and artistry applies.
Elan Sicroff is one of the leading interpreters of Thomas de Hartmann’s music and his extensive recording project with the Nimbus label brings de Hartmann’s chamber and solo piano music to a wider audience. Here he talks about the project as well as his own influences and inspirations and the experience of recording and performing de Hartmann’s music.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There were two people who influenced my decision to become a professional musician:
I met J.G. Bennett in December 1972. He directed an academy in Gloucestershire modelled after the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded by George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher and polymath. At the time I was ambivalent about my path as a musician, and he said to me “If you have talent, it is a gift. It doesn’t belong to you, and you have an obligation to share it.”
Bennett was particularly interested in Beethoven’s music, and we worked together on the late sonatas Op. 110 and 111. During this time I also came across the music of Thomas de Hartmann, beginning my lifelong involvement with his music.
A second important influence is the guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced my CD Journey to Inaccessible Places – the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Since 2006 he has helped me with a 21-year effort to bring de Hartmann’s classical music back to public awareness. In 2010 he introduced me to Gert-Jan Blom, Artistic Producer for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. We embarked on a five year recording project in 2011, resulting in six hours of music for solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble, now being released by Nimbus Alliance Records.
I would like to mention one other, overwhelmingly important influence on my pianistic and musical development. This was Jeaneane Dowis. When I first met her in 1964 when she was 32 years old: elegant, beautiful, and brilliant. In her early 20s she had become assistant to Rosina Lhevinne, on the strength of her ground-breaking discoveries in piano technique. Rosina had taught Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, and students flocked from around the world to study with her. She sent those with technical problems to Jeaneane, and soon she was teaching 70 hours a week. I was 14 years old at the time, and she agreed to teach me if I was accepted by the Juilliard Preparatory School. The four years I spent with her were consistently exhilarating. She had astonishing insights, not only in technique but also in musicianship and interpretation. I went back to her again in the 1980s for further study, and her teaching had moved to another level: her remarkable discoveries about ease of movement, related to skeletal anatomy and visualization, deserve to be more widely known.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
After nearly 40 years teaching piano, I was thrust into the world of professional musicians in 2011, due to the needs of the Thomas de Hartmann Project. The recordings in the Netherlands that began in 2011 presented many firsts for me.
The repertoire was very demanding. Many of the pieces contained technical difficulties, and once those were surmounted the task of turning them into music could be challenging. This was especially true for the later works, like the Commentaries on Ulysses Op. 71 and Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77.
Accompanying vocal music was something I had never done before. Working with musicians of the calibre of Claron McFadden – a celebrated soprano in the Netherlands; and Nina Lejderman, a talented young opera singer, was quite a stretch.
Recording is an uncomfortable process and presents its own challenges. I have had to overcome my self-consciousness, which was magnified whenever the engineer said “You’re On!” After five years in the studio I have learned to trust the process. I now find myself looking forward to it: the birth pains are unavoidable, but the result is worth it.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
In 2016 the Thomas de Hartmann Project gave two memorable performances at Splendor in Amsterdam. The venue is quite special, founded in 2010 by a group of musicians, composers, and artists who needed a place to experiment and perform as they saw fit. When the de Hartmann recording project in Hilversum came to an end, many participants offered their services, pro bono, for the recitals. Music for saxophones, a trio for flute, violin and piano; sonatas for violin and cello, works for solo piano as well as de Hartmann’s songs were among the works featured. The response was very positive, confirming our belief that the listening audience was becoming ready to embrace de Hartmann’s music, after many years of neglect.
As for recordings: I have made 3 CDs of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. I like all of them, but my favourite is Laudamus…, released in 2010.
That said, the Thomas de Hartmann Project CDs, now being released by Nimbus, occupy a special place for me. They represent the first commercial recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s work, ever. I am so happy that this music is now available for the public to enjoy, and also to play. The contributions of Gert-Jan Blom, producer extraordinaire, and Guido Tichelman, one of the leading recording engineers in Europe, cannot be overstated. Gert-Jan brought his wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm to the project, and the sound quality that Guido captured is of the highest order.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I find myself attracted to composers who are able express deeper meaning in their music. In May 1970 I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was strongly affected by how Mozart expressed the meaning of the words through his music. It was a seminal moment, which lead me to look for more works by Mozart and other composers that had this power.
Beethoven’s struggles with deafness are well known – he even contemplated suicide in his thirties as a result, but decided to continue and compose for the benefit of mankind. His compositions became a chronicle of his inner life. The same can be said for Schubert – contracting syphilis was a death sentence, and his music often reflects his inner struggles, sometimes leading to defiance, at others to acceptance.
Thomas de Hartmann attempted to express psychological ideas that he encountered through his work with Kandinsky and Gurdjieff, in addition to wide-ranging literary influences. Along with the colour, vibrancy and beauty of his music, his attempts to insert meaning in his music continue to fascinate me.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I find that physical work of various kinds is essential to my feeling of well-being. These days I walk and have a vegetable garden. I also practice yoga and the Alexander Technique, which help to tune the whole body, before sitting down to the instrument.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Since 2011, there has been a flow that has made choices for repertoire fairly easy. The aim to present a body of representative works by de Hartmann for the public, resulted in our recording a substantial portion of his output for piano solo, voice, and chamber ensemble…though to be accurate, we’ve only scratched the surface of his vocal output.
A group of musicians has now come together to form the Thomas de Hartmann Consort. The aim for our programming has been to integrate de Hartmann’s work into the rest of the classical canon. The programming possibilities are almost endless:
— Music by de Hartmann’s composition teachers, Anton Arensky and Sergei Tanaieff.
— The music by Debussy and Ravel, to compare and contrast de Hartmann’s own work with Impressionism.
— Music that relates to de Hartmann’s quest for meaning: Beethoven and Schubert.
— De Hartmann’ Bach transcriptions for Pablo Casals provide the opportunity to perform them next to the originals.
— Music by contemporaneous Russian composers, from Rachmaninoff to Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc.
— Music by Bartok and Kodaly, delving into early attempts to bring World Music to the West.
As for recording, the Piano Concerto Op. 61 is next on the agenda, scheduled for this autumn. There are also a few solo piano pieces that need to be recorded, including a 25 page sonata written when de Hartmann was 17, and some very late works from the 1950s.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Most of my performances have taken place in small halls that seat several hundred people. I particularly like Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for its intimacy and acoustic. I’ve played at many universities and conservatories, including the University of Anchorage, Alaska, UCLA and UC Berkeley in California, and the Longy Conservatory in Boston. I always enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of these audiences. Young musicians represent the future, and if de Hartmann’s music is going to be established, it will be those people who will give it voice.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Quality education is the highest priority. Very young children should hear top-notch recordings and performances to develop an ear for music. This means that parents need to get involved. It also helps when elementary and high schools have good music programs: Zoltán Kodály brought solfège to the Hungarian school system, and Japanese schools also have a quality music program. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized violin teaching when he developed the “mother-tongue approach,” in which young children learn to play an instrument in the same way they learn to speak. He has been a major force in bringing youngsters to classical music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Following are two answers to this question, from opposite perspectives: first as performer, secondly as audience participant:
In 1975 Mme. de Hartmann had organized a recital of her husband’s music at McGill University in Montreal. I had been asked to play the Two Nocturnes Op. 84, written in de Hartmann’s late classical style.
This was my first meeting with her. Madame may have been diminutive in size, but she was truly a force of nature. She had been a member of the Russian aristocracy, close to the Tsarina before the Russian Revolution, and had strong ideas that sometimes ran contrary to the relaxed attitudes of young people in the later years of the hippy era. She didn’t approve of women wearing jeans, of young men with beards, or grand pianos on movable platforms being used in performances of her husband’s music. She told me to ignore the audience and play only for her, to look up at the ceiling before playing ‘the Music of the Stars,’ and that a musician must rest on the afternoon of a performance to conserve energy for the event. I was still impressionable at the age of 25, and took it all in.
When my performance was a success, it began a relationship that lasted for 4 years until her death in 1979. It opened the door for further recitals under her tutelage, as well as instruction in de Hartmann’s music.
One of the most memorable performances I ever saw took place in London in the mid 1970s, when I heard the cellist Paul Tortelier give a solo recital. I had not heard his name before, and had no idea what to expect. He came onto the stage, an elderly man, thin, with a shock of white hair. He seemed to float over the cello when he played. The first piece, a Boccherini sonata had 3 movements, but he was so pleased with himself after the first two that he stood up, took a bow and moved onto a Bach cello suite! Then he stopped, began speaking in French, and changed to English: “If you want to cough while I play, please leave the room!” The audience was noticeably taken aback.
In the second half he played the Franck Sonata and (if I remember correctly) also the Debussy cello sonata. By the end he had won the audience over, and began playing encores – without leaving the stage, he continued for another 45 minutes, even including the entire Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. By this time the audience was in a frenzy, with some people standing to watch him in amazement. Finally he stood up, closed the lid of the piano, and walked off the stage, not turning back….
In the programme notes I noticed that he had studied with Gerard Hekking. De Hartmann had dedicated his cello sonata to him, so I went backstage to ask Tortelier if he knew of the piece. “Yes,” he said, “it has a beautiful second movement, but the rest is not for the masses.”
I walked out of the hall feeling that I had witnessed an event that was a throwback to the Romantic Age, reminiscent of stories I’d read about Liszt and Paganini in performance.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I view my work in music as a process, with different stages, and it is necessary for some form of success to enter into each of them. First there is the functional work of learning the notes, understanding the structure, and overcoming technical challenges. Then another level comes: the music must begin to speak. In some ways it is the opposite of the functional work – activity ends and receptivity begins: one must listen, be still, be open, questioning. This stage is sometimes quite agonizing: the piece still is not music, and one cannot “make it happen.” When one completes this stage and is prepared, the final stage comes with performance. Here the audience becomes a participant, adding its listening to the music. There are then three aspects: the performer, the audience and the music. Occasionally there is an “event,” where something new and memorable occurs. Success!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
In 1972 I went to see Nadia Boulanger in Paris, to inquire about becoming her student. One of the most memorable things she said to me was “If you can live without Music, do!”
This statement has resonated with me over the years. It covers a lot. Anyone considering a career in music should have an all-consuming love for it. If one is fortunate enough to realize that there is nothing one would rather do than make music, then there really isn’t a choice…!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Seven years remain until the end of the 21-year Thomas de Hartmann Project. For a long time I’ve an image of what completion would look like: I will be standing in front of Carnegie Hall, looking at the billboard announcing the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Thomas de Hartmann’s Symphonie-Poème. This would indicate that de Hartmann has finally “arrived.”
I’d be happy to substitute specific works in this visualization – it might be another symphony or concerto by Thomas de Hartmann. Another orchestral work by Beethoven might also be acceptable….!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I would say that true happiness results from a life well lived, in which one manages to achieve one’s goals. As a working musician, I find that self-satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles in learning the repertoire that I value, and performing it well. Each time this occurs, it gives a taste of happiness.
On 2 April, Nimbus release three volumes of the Music of Thomas de Hartmann. More information here.
Elan Sicroff is known as an interpreter of the music written by Thomas de Hartmann, both the classical works as well as the music from the East composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff . In the 1960s he studied with Jeaneane Dowis, protégée and assistant to Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. From 1973-75 he attended the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, England, as a student and later Director of Music. The Academy was directed by J. G. Bennett, a leading exponent of Gurdjieff’s teachings. It was here that Elan was introduced to the music of Thomas de Hartmann. Between 1975 and 1979 he studied with Mme. Olga de Hartmann, widow of the composer, focusing on the music which de Hartmann composed in the classical idiom. He performed many recitals under her auspices, and in 1982 toured the United States.
(video credit: Victor McSurely )
Professional instructor and internationally celebrated pianist Matthew Xiong teaches musicians how to battle through performance anxiety
Guest article by Alexander Ross
Australian concert pianist and educator Matthew Xiong is bringing his talents to the United States, teaching musicians of all levels, as a specialist in the skill of helping pupils work through performance anxiety issues. Matthew began learning the piano at age five and went on to an internationally celebrated career. An instructor at multiple schools, including his school, Talent! Music Academy, and the well-known Merry Melody Music Academy in Boston that produces piano students who have won multiple awards at national piano competitions and performed at the renowned Carnegie Hall in Manhattan New York, Matthew began embracing the techniques and psychology behind defeating performance anxiety after battling through his own stage fright issues as a performer.
“My students’ fears are very real, and I completely empathize with their situation,” said Matthew. “Performance anxiety holds so many back from realizing their true potential. It’s a common problem, but very important that it be addressed methodically and carefully. Musicians can learn to work through these issues, but it takes slow, patient instruction from a seasoned performer who’s been through it.”
Matthew received his B.M in piano performance at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and holds a Master of Music degree from Boston University. He has worked with some of the most prominent piano pedagogues of this century, including John Perry, Margaret Hair, Robert McDonald, Gabriel Chodos, and Boaz Sharon. He has concertized at an international level as an artist, working at celebrated festivals such as the Kawai International Piano Masterclass Festival; the Sydney International Piano Masterclass Festival; the International Klaviersommer in Cochem, Germany; the Ian Hobson Steinway Society Festival in Puerto Rico; as well as the Beethoven Institute at Mannes, where he played works in dedication to the late composer, George Walker – the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music composition.
Matthew was a prize-winner at several prestigious piano competitions, including the Sydney Classical Concerto Competition at the national Sydney Eisteddfod, where he won 2nd place, and he took runner-up in the Carnegie Concerto Competition at Boston University. Currently the Piano Director at Talent! Music Academy, Matthew now draws on his extensive experience in performance psychology to help scores of students overcome their fears, having first developed his teaching style while studying at the New England Conservatory. His innovative approach involves prolonged exposure to performance under pressure, by gentle, incremental intensity. By doing this, musicians slowly develop confidence on stage, without becoming overwhelmed by their fears.
“Many musicians come to me suffering from what looks like, a mild kind of PTSD. They are brilliant musicians that have been shell-shocked by the pressures of performing on stage,” said Matthew. Indeed, even the most renowned musicians have tasted the bitter fruit of anxiety that often goes hand in hand with performance. From mainstream artists such as Adele and Katy Perry to classical superstars such as soprano Renée Flemming and the legendary pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, they have all attested to feeling the claws of performance anxiety on their ankles, holding them back from their full potential. Many musicians claim that it only took one poor performance for their anxiety to spiral out of control as they become fully aware of just how vulnerable they are on stage.
Matthew holds classes with his piano studio where the students can choose just how much pressure they are willing to shoulder as to not become overwhelmed or tense. This may mean, they only play a few pages of music in front of 2 people; the student is in control of their environment. Matthew monitors the student carefully as they perform and stops them if he notices any indication of anxiety. It may be tension in the body, rushed and anxious playing, or hyperventilation, which he says is a physical embodiment of anxiety that generally doesn’t arise if the performer is calm and confident on stage. He points out what he notices to the student, and asks the student to draw their attention to the area which is showing the signs of anxiety (perhaps it’s tension in the arms, or shoulders shrugged up to their ears). The student will resume playing, and as their awareness of the part of themselves that generates the anxious response grows, the calmer they become on stage. After each performance, Matthew gives the student positive reinforcement so that they feel triumphant over their anxiety. He then keeps a log of the pressure level that each student willingly submitted to and encourages them to add a little bit more pressure in each subsequent session.
In conclusion, Matthew says, “We are often told that the act of performing is a muscle that needs to be trained to get better. Yet what happens if that metaphorical muscle is torn? – are athletes asked to push through a torn muscle? No. They go through rehabilitation to learn how to use that muscle again. Musician’s need to think the same way, performance anxiety is a trauma that is developed from psychic injury, and should be approached with the same care as a physical injury; gently and without overexertion.”
Matthew Xiong is an Australian classical pianist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Born into a family with no musical roots, Matthew fell in love with classical music when he had a close encounter with Brahms’s 1st Symphony at a young age. Soon after, Matthew began his studies in piano. He has studied under many of the leading musicians of this time, among them are Margaret Hair, John Perry, Ian Hobson, Robert Mcdonald, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn. An avid chamber musician, Matthew has also worked with members of the Borromeo and Brentano quartets. Matthew received his Bachelor of Music at the New England Conservatory under the tutelage of Gabriel Chodos and Bruce Brubaker, and his Masters of Music at Boston University under Boaz Sharon.