Oh those international piano competitions….!

Competitions are for horses, not artists

Bela Bartok

Whether or not you agree with Bartok’s statement, or indeed approve of music competitions, they are an integral part of the culture and landscape for today’s up and coming musicians. Major competitions such as the International Tchaikovsky Competition (held every 4 years), the Leeds International Piano Competition (every three years) or the Chopin Competition (every five years) reveal new talent and have launched the international careers of some of the finest pianists active today. The competition format is by no means perfect – for some it is a highly subjective and artificial way of judging musical talent – and it comes as no surprise that some feel moved to comment on the system, including these recent observations on a blog by Pavel Kolesnikov, the young Russian pianist who himself was Prize Laureate of the Honens Competition in 2012.

British pianist Peter Donohoe, recipient of the Silver Medal in the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition, serves on the juries and adjudicating panels of many piano competitions worldwide and has years of experience in this particular sphere of the international piano world. Here he responds to Pavel Kolesnikov’s comments:

I think the anti-competition lobby needs to be very careful not to tar us all with the same brush. Competition prizes have sometimes been won by people who have gone on to make great contributions to the world of music, and in most cases they would not have been in a position to do so without those prizes. On the other hand, some juries have obviously been better than others, and results speak for themselves.

The degree to which the organisers of competitions have been clueless, thoughtless, arrogant, self-important, financially motivated, and interested in neither young musicians nor indeed music is variable, and needs to be balanced against the number of genuinely concerned people who want their competition to contribute to the music world, to make a good future for those who enter, to help those who do not win, and to work tirelessly to improve year after year the way their events are organised.

I have to say that the majority of those who have invited me on their juries have been members of the latter group, and I may have many faults, but naïveté is not one of them.

I have had issues with certain of the results to which have contributed a single vote, but that is either because I was wrong – or at least in a minority – or it is a flaw in the democratic voting system, which is, I promise, virtually impossible to make work totally fairly. After all, my own country has just had a referendum, so many people have had a taste of what happens when you consult a group of people with varying degrees of knowledge about a specific result.

We are trying, I promise, to make the system better and better. There is after all now no effective alternative for young musicians – other than comprising yourself of a good business opportunity for large companies, connections, financial backing, networking and good luck. There are too many, for sure, there are some very strange results sometimes, and jury members vary in their ability to spot potential long term talent – the choice of jury members is of course a testament to the quality of those running the competition.

But by and large they are good things, they are occasionally great things, they create goals for young people, stimulate media and public interest, and are a representation of life in the real world once you leave the protection of family and teachers.

That some people let the system down is almost inevitable, but please don’t give the impression that all prize winners have won because of their teacher being a jury member, or that we are all as stupid and manipulative as that unfortunate minority who apparently spoil it for everyone else. I could point out that I had never met any of the 1982 Moscow jury – in fact I had never even heard of most of them, and there was no jury member from the UK at all – so I have a personal reason for railing against the widely-held view that competition prize winners are by definition well connected.

Two more points:

It is obvious that no jury member should try to excuse some poor decision on the basis that someone either included the posthumous variations of the Etude Symphoniques or didn’t, or any similar ludicrously irrelevant observation. That is a truly pathetic and self-important issue when you are there to try to discover and support a young talent. That sort of person should never ever be on a jury.

The second is to mention that if someone is a genuinely great teacher, they are quite likely to be invited onto several juries, their students are likely to enter multiple competitions, and those students are likely to be very good ones. That a student of one of the jury members is in the competition must not place that competitor at a disadvantage; that would like a boss refusing to give a job to a woman because she is attractive. If you exclude teachers from competition juries where their pupils are entering, there will be virtually no one left worth asking; that I have no one-on-one students myself – because I am not really confident to be a good private teacher – makes me an exception; the vast majority of good jury members are experienced teachers. How could it be any different?

 

(source: Peter Donohoe, via Facebook. Reproduced with Peter’s kind permission.)

Practising the Piano Online Academy

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia contentinteractive features and resources such as musical examplesworksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theoryimprovisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updatedeasily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

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Meet the Artist……Martin Roscoe

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

I started piano aged 6 and didn’t show much interest in the first few months but a family trip to London when I was just 7 included a night at the Proms, with Malcolm Sargent conducting the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique which just blew me away. When I got back home they couldn’t get me off the piano ! As far as a career was concerned I really had no idea what was entailed … I just drifted into it…one thing led to another. 

Who or what have been the most important influences on your career as a musician?

My teachers to start with: Marjorie Clementi, who sorted out my technique when I went to her aged 13 and who taught me to listen to myself for the first time. Gordon Green, who taught me how to practise in so many imaginative ways, and whose infectious love and enthusiasm for music overall was very inspiring. He really was a great human being. When I was a student Alfred Brendel’s early recordings were a great inspiration, and also the playing of so many pianists… Richter, Rubinstein , Kempff and Curzon to name a few of the most important.


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

Recording all the major Schubert works for Radio3 in the 1980’s and more recently recording all the Beethoven Sonatas for Deux-Elles. Playing at the Proms was a great experience , but very challenging!

You’re performing in the inaugural London Piano Festival – tell us about your programmes

With Ronan O ‘Hora I’m playing the immense Busoni Fantasia Contrapunctistica, and with Kathryn Stott the Percy Grainger Fantasy on themes from Porgy and Bess. A tremendous contrast between the towering intellect and gravity of the Busoni and the great fun and panache of the Grainger.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto at the Proms in 1989, and my recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best?

Beethoven and Schubert for sure. Mozart’s Concertos, Brahms, Dohnanyi, and Debussy.

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

I’ve started to play themed programmes in the last few seasons….The piano and nature for example this year including Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata and shorter works by Liszt, Schumann, Dohnanyi Ireland and Debussy all inspired by nature. Next year The piano and Art …works by Liszt, Debussy and Granados culminating in Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Also a lot of all Beethoven programmes when recording the sonatas. Now all Schubert programmes in preparation for recording his works.

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

S0 many – but Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall for concertos…. The clarity and immediacy make it so exciting. For solo it’s difficult to beat Kings Place. For chamber the warmth of sound in the Wigmore is very special

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list….but for listening I’m still as obsessed by Wagner now as I was when I discovered his music as a teenager. Haydn Quartets are an endless treasure trove…..

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, where to start ? Just recently I heard two stunning performances from very contrasting pianists whose work I love and admire…….Richard Goode and Martha Argerich

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Taking part in the final concert of Kathy Stott’s Piano 2000 festival at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester…all the Rachmaninov Concertos in one evening. I played No.2

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

Fidelity to the score and the communication of the music without personal interference. Meaning is more important than style, yet a sound knowledge of style is also necessary. An interest in all the works of the major composers, not just the piano music.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from playing Schubert and Beethoven, walking on the hills of Scotland and the Lake District, cooking, watching films, and listening to Wagner

With an extraordinary career spanning over 4 decades, Martin Roscoe is unarguably one of the UK’s best loved pianists. Renowned for his versatility at the keyboard, Martin is equally at home in concerto, recital and chamber performances. In an ever more distinguished career, his enduring popularity and the respect in which he is universally held are built on a deeply thoughtful musicianship allied to an easy rapport with audiences and fellow musicians alike.

Read more about Martin Roscoe here

‘Composed’ – a film by John Beder. World premiere screening in New York

Documentary ‘Composed’ announces world premiere with special guests on October 19th 2016 in New York City

A feature film exploring performance anxiety, ‘Composed’ will premiere at the SVA Theater, New York, with special guests Dr. Noa Kageyama, Gerald Klickstein, and Jennifer Montone

‘Composed’ is a documentary film which features musicians and mental health experts from the US and UK, including members of major US orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and many more. The film utilizes these musicians and experts to discuss the issue of performance anxiety; what it is, why it happens, and what we can do to address it. Musicians in the film share candid stories and perspective on what causes these fears and doubts, as well as what’s worked for them to address such issues.

“Like no film before it, Composed illuminates the attractions and challenges of music making. Its portrayal of musicians overcoming performance anxiety opens doors for all performers to surmount obstacles and rise to their potential.”

Gerald Kilckstein, author of The Musician’s Way

Following the screening, Beder will be joined by three of the film’s cast for an audience Q&A. Dr. Noa Kageyama is a performance psychologist, a violinist, and a staff member at The Juilliard School. Gerald Klickstein is the author of The Musician’s Way and founder of the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at Peabody Conservatory. Jennifer Montone is the principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra and faculty member of the Curtis Institute and The Juilliard School.

Tickets are available now for the premiere and can be purchased through the Composed website or through SVA Theater’s events page.

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John Beder is a percussionist, classical musician, and filmmaker based out of his hometown of Boston, MA. ‘Composed’ is a documentary about understanding and addressing performance anxiety through the lens of classical musicians. Learn more at www.composeddocumentary.com.

Contact

John Beder, Bed Productions LLC
617 383 4407; info@bedrocklab.com facebook.com/composedkickstarter; twitter @composedfilm

(Source: Composed press release)

Lessons in making music 

If you, like me, had piano lessons as a child, I expect there were rather too many times when you sat at the piano and wondered what this thing called “music” was all about? The daily grind of practising, tedious technical exercises, seemingly endless scales and arpeggios, dull pieces which you played without imagination in a way which would please your teacher and earn you rewards and praise. And then each summer the excruciating and artificial experience of displaying your pianistic abilities to an examiner who had probably already heard 20 versions of the same pieces you were playing. When the exam results were published, you would start on the next grade’s repertoire, and so the process would repeat itself. There never seemed to be much fun, or joy, in the activity of playing music.

When people discover I’m a piano teacher, they often confide in me about their childhood piano lessons, their memories of their piano teachers and how the experience obscure the pleasure and joy of music making. Some shudder at these memories, and such anecdotes often reveal how much baggage from our childhood we carry into our adult lives, and how these experiences inform and influence the way we approach our music making as adults. I’ve come across adult pianists who seem stifled by fear that their childhood teacher could rear up beside them at any moment, and heap criticism and disapproval upon them. I have encountered adult pianists in masterclasses who, when asked why they approach a certain passage in a certain way, reply “My teacher told me to do that”. Their body language and their piano sound hints at great inner tension, resulting from fear of criticism, fear of making mistakes; and the recollection of those difficult, joyless childhood piano lessons.

Some of the young people I teach, and have taught in the past, seem to be accumulating similar tensions (though not, I hope, from their lessons with me). One student told me of her previous teacher who regularly made her cry, another whose lessons were dull and boring (and even dull and boring lessons can have a profound effect upon our attitude to music and music making). Some of my students still find it hard to appreciate that music and music making is meant to be pleasurable, stimulating, exciting, entertaining and satisfying.

I blame this partly on the U.K. state education system with its obsession with “results” and league tables. Kids are tested so much these days it’s as if the creative spirit has been sucked out of them. They aren’t encouraged to think or behave creatively at school and so being asked to be creative at the piano is almost anathema to them. They have also been peddled the idea that classical music is universally “serious”: it took nearly a year of coaxing to demonstrate to one student the wit and humour in a Rondo by Diabelli. The day that student made me laugh out loud in his rendering of this piece was a significant step forward for him (and me).

Parents too can be unintentionally complicit in this stifling of creativity, insisting that only the repertoire set by teacher should be practised, and using exams (yes, more testing!) as the only benchmark of progress and success. It piles pressure on the child – I see it every week in the student who is overly anxious and apologises to me for “playing badly” (she doesn’t) or who says “you must think I’m a terrible pianist” (I don’t – and she’s not!). She loves music, loves the piano and violin and playing in the local youth orchestra, but she places far too much emphasis on right notes and forgets that music is enjoyable, and that people get a great deal of pleasure out of her hearing perform. As for what needs to be practised, if a student comes to a lesson having learnt something without any input from me, which is not assigned “homework”, I’m not going to tick them off. Instead, I’ll praise them for their initiative and independent learning. Although most of my childhood piano lessons were quite boring, I was lucky because I was actively encouraged to seek out new repertoire, whether it was assigned by my teacher or not. I would take my discoveries to my teacher and she would help me find a way through the more challenging sections – and she never once said “You shouldn’t be learning that”. Yet as an adult pianist, I have encountered an attitude amongst some teachers and professional pianists that certain repertoire is “off limits” to amateur pianists. Such attitudes can only discourage adult pianists in their quest, and I take issue with anyone who says some repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professional.

Some professional musicians lose sight of what the music and music making is about too. The pianist who described his working day to me as “strictly 9 to 5”, reducing his wonderful craft to nothing more than a “day at the office”; or the international concert pianist who complained in an interview with me that the rigours of keeping the repertoire going combined with the demands of the career – concerts, traveling, recording, making a living – could obscure one’s love for the music to the point where one begins to resent it. Another professional pianist told me she “envies” amateurs because they can play for pleasure whenever they like.

Here is the cellist Steven Isserlis responding to one of Schumann’s statements from his ‘Advice to Young Musicians’:

Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm

Yes – what’s the point in even trying to be a musician if you don’t love, love, LOVE music with all your heart? Great music is the best possible friend one could have: it will be with you in times of happiness and of sadness; and it will never let you down or abandon you

Last weekend I attended an event at St John’s Smith Square, that beautiful baroque church in central London which is home to many fine concerts and other musical events throughout the year. I performed there as part of Music Marathon, 24 hours of music making to coincide with the annual Open House London weekend. The week before had been rather difficult for me: I’d just found out I’d failed an important (for me) professional performance qualification and the comments from the adjudicators still stung when I recalled them, despite the reassurances of friends and trusted colleagues that I was a dedicated and skilled musician. In short, it was a major knock to my confidence. Playing at St John’s, and hearing others play, was the most potent reminder of why we do it, why we make music. It’s about sharing – sharing our love for the music with others, sharing great works, such as Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas or Bach’s WTC, sharing the experience of music as performer and/or listener (I am fortunate to do both regularly). Music is about emotions and emotional release, escapism and storytelling, excitement, pleasure, contemplation, humour, philosophy…….and so much more than that. It’s personal and highly subjective, and it can provoke profound emotional responses in both performers and listeners. It’s not about dry exercises and “getting it right”; or about playing a certain piece in a certain way to “please teacher”. At the SJSS event, I met several other pianists whom I had either interviewed or corresponded with online. All three of them (one of whom is a young concert pianist) revealed their passion for the music – in their performances and the conversations we had afterwards. Regardless of our level of ability, our enthusiasm and commitment to the music shone through. For me, having come through several difficult days of reflection and re-evaluation about my own musical life, to be amongst like-minded people doing the thing we love in a place as beautiful as St John’s Smith Square was the perfect tonic.

Playing at St John’s Smith Square Music Marathon

I’ll leave you with some further thoughts from Robert Schumann, and Steven Isserlis:

If music comes from your heart and soul, and if you feel it inside yourself, it will affect others in the same way

Yes: if your music comes from deep inside you, it will speak to a place deep in others

 

(Quotations from Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians: revisited by Steven Isserlis)

 

Listenpony releases its first live EP

58386342367a289b279c863089709a30Listenpony is a concert series and commissioning body for new and old and pop music, run by three composers Josephine Stephenson, Freya WaleyCohen and William Marsey. The group has been producing eclectic music events in odd venues around London since 2011, premiering over 60 new works alongside international-standard performances of repertory classics, and sets from the most exciting up-and-coming bands.

Bringing the intimacy, eclecticism and high quality musicianship of the concert series to a wider audience, from 1 September 2016 Listenpony will begin releasing EPs of its live recordings, each release dedicated to one performing group, and including a mix of classical music and new commissions.

A triumph both of music programming and an awareness of how to have a good time at a concert. 

Nico Muhly

The first EP, taken from performances by violin duet Mainly Two recorded at our last event in March 2016, includes excerpts from Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, as well as new commissions from Dani Howard and Lawrence Dunn.

Mainly Two is formed of violinists Marie Schreer and John Garner, who came together to foster the creation of new work for two violins. Since forming the duet in 2014 they’ve built up a repertoire of over 20 new works written especially for them.

Dani Howard studied at the Royal College of Music and won a Royal Philharmonic Composition Prize in 2015. Her piece, Symmetry, moves at breakneck speed, seamlessly shifting between the leading and accompanying roles of the duet and spinning out joyful, dancing melodies.

Lawrence Dunn is a current Sound and Music New Voices composer. His intimate duet your wits an E la takes the form takes the form of a long, drawn out glissando framed by the repetition of a short melody. It takes its name from the highest note in the medieval gamut: E la. The word ‘Ela’ came to mean a high-flown place, a place of great strain, a place perhaps above which nothing could quite reach.

The EP is available on iTunes, Spotify and all major streaming platforms worldwide

www.listenpony.com

 

(source: press release)

Setbacks – and solutions

The musician’s life is a journey and sometimes there are setbacks along the way which challenge us and lead us to question what we are doing. Setbacks should not be regarded as negative obstacles, but rather an opportunity to pause, reflect, evaluate and then move on.

This week I had a setback in my musical life which initially caused me to question what I do – from my teaching to my own playing and performing. Fortunately, I have supportive family and close friends who were willing to listen to me while I allowed the news to sink in, who did not try to tell me to “snap out of it”, but who listened and talked to me with understanding, care and intelligence. In the great scheme of things, what happened was very minor, but it was important to me personally. But I am not given to wallowing in self-pity or endlessly asking “what if?”, and quite soon, with the support of a valued mentor, another close colleague, and friends, I was able to reflect on what had happened and begin to draw positives from it to enable me to move on and formulate a new plan.

We all have setbacks in our musical lives – a performance about which we are less than happy, a not so flattering review, an injury or a failed exam. These things can be tough, but any setback or failure can be turned into a positive resource from which we can learn and move on. Sometimes reflecting on what happened and why can be painful – holding a mirror up to one’s own weaknesses is never easy – but if one does so with an open, positive mind, trial and error, exploration and experimentation offer us useful feedback and enable us to adjust our approach, if necessary, before trying again and progressing. And remember that in the eyes of friends and trusted colleagues, we have not really changed because of the setback: we are still the same person these people around us likes and respects. So when a setback trips us up, it is worth recalling positive endorsements and feedback we have received from teachers, colleagues, friends, and others in the profession.

A more practical method to examine why something happened is the Root Cause Analysis (RCA). It is often used in medicine, and it helps answer the question of why the problem or setback occurred in the first place. RCA assumes that systems and events are interrelated and the process seeks to identify the origin of a problem using a specific set of steps, to find the primary cause of the problem, in order to:

  1. Determine what happened.
  2. Determine why it happened.
  3. Work out what to do to reduce the likelihood that it will happen again.

In music, we might use RCA to determine why the performance we had worked so hard for did not live up to our expectations. Factors leading to this might include: lack of proper preparation, insufficient warm up, feeling under the weather. Writing these things in a chart (usually under 5 headings) allows us to de-personalise them and examine everything in an objective way. A RCA exercise may not give us all the answers we are looking for, but it can go a long way in helping us identify and process what happened and to dig deeper beyond merely superficial factors. In this way, we can draw positives from the experience and, hopefully, find solutions or adjustments to enable us to progress.

So I did a RCA to examine my setback this week, and formulated a plan to enable me to move forward, but by far the best tonic has to be the support of trusted colleagues and friends, including the person who brought me this beautiful bunch of roses which are now filling my piano room with their special scent and sunshine.

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Further reading

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw

Meet the Artist……Kathryn Stott, pianist

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(photo Nikolaj Lund)

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

I’m not sure I was particularly inspired by anyone at the age of 5, but we had an upright piano in the house as my mother gave piano lessons to little ones after her day job. I don’t remember she pushed me to start but I was easily drawn to the instrument and picked up the basics pretty quickly. I had no wish to sit there for hours on end, so I think my saving grace was being able to read music quickly and get on with whizzing through my little book! I’ve never felt that I made a conscious decision to pursue a career in music. I went to the Yehudi Menuhin School at the age of 8 and it just naturally led to studies at the Royal College of Music – actually I never felt there was a choice NOT to continue!

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

Although my lessons were infrequent with Vlado Perlemuter, he did influence me a lot in the way he approached clarity and intensity of sound. Nadia Boulanger influenced my ears to be as wide open as is humanly possible but the teacher who actually had the most profound influence, was Kendall Taylor who I studied with for 4 years at the Royal College of Music. He basically put me together after I had become very fragmented and most important, was the first person who believed in me. I’ve known Yo-Yo Ma for all of my adult life (and worked with him for 31 years) and without doubt he has influenced me tremendously, both as a pianist and a person.

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

I’ve had a number of challenges along the way. Perhaps the greatest was balancing being a mother and trying to maintain a focus on having a career which often took me away from home. My other great challenge was to accept I didn’t really like performing from memory and just deal with the fact I prefer using the score. I’ve now been doing that for about 20 years. I remember a promoter told me the critics would shoot me after I gave my first full recital using the score. It appears I’m still here.

You’re performing in the inaugural London Piano Festival in October – tell us about your programme?

I initially thought it would be a good moment to perform the Dutilleux Sonata again – a piece I absolutely love. I performed it for a whole season 10 years ago but then it disappeared from my repertoire until I recorded it for BIS 2 years ago. Then of course comes the question of what to perform with it. Somehow I couldn’t escape the idea of F sharp and now here we are with music by Ravel, Messiaen and Fauré. I’m often fascinated by keys and why music sounds the way it does because a composer chose a particular key. I think it will be interesting to explore the contrasts of F-sharp for an hour. 

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I don’t particularly dwell on whether I’m proud of something or not so there are probably performances which went especially well which I’ve totally forgotten about. I think I’m proud of the fact that I performed Rachmaninov’s 4th Concerto for the first time only a few years ago. As I get older, adding works such as this seem a bigger mountain than when I was younger, but I would have been gutted to get to the end of the performing road and never have played it…what a piece! Recordings – I’d probably have to say my complete Fauré for Hyperion. Not because I think it’s better than anything else I’ve done but it was such a beautiful labour of love to learn the complete works. I know I would play everything differently now but that’s how these things go. I don’t listen to my recordings – that’s for other people to do.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I think there are certain pieces I perform better now simply because I’ve had some life experiences which have definitely affected how I express myself. For example I feel I now play the Britten Concerto in a way which makes much more sense than when I was younger – same with works by Shostakovich. I have no idea really – my interest in repertoire is vast so sometimes it’s good to explore even if I don’t think it’s for me.

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

It depends on the season and what is generally going on. I always have a lot of chamber music in my season, so as that repertoire is not necessarily determined by me, I might decide my own recital repertoire according to other things in place. Concertos I don’t play as often and it’s always been rare to dictate repertoire. Then of course, there are festivals where you might have a million things to play in a short space of time. I try to think how I’m going to be able to prepare everything time wise and so some choices are made on that. It goes without saying that I’ve programmed or hinted strongly I want to play a certain piece just simply because I have to play it!

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

I don’t have one favourite but on the list would be Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires for its beauty and history, the Concert Hall in Luzern for being contemporary but warm and Symphony Hall in Boston for its acoustic, relationship to audience and wood floor (stage) which tells a thousand stories. I generally dislike very high stages so even a great hall where I’m too far from the audience is not in my top ten.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

No favourites – depends what day it is. I love silence more and more but I love listening to Symphonic Music, Opera, Lieder –rarely piano music just for pleasure

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I don’t have favourites but I’m currently enjoying listening to Philippe Jaroussky.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If you mean me performing then performing at the Hollywood Bowl with Yo-Yo and lots of lovely, wonderful Brazilian musicians. I remember we all held hands to take a bow and I said to guitarist Sergio Assad ‘remember where we are’. He knew what I meant. It was a happy evening for us all in an iconic venue. If the experience is me sitting in the audience – I’ve just been to my first Wagner Ring Cycle performed by Opera North. Truly memorable.

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

I always think it’s important for young musicians to find their own voice and I often discuss the concept of being true to ones self, to think about why they want to be part of the music profession and to try to balance the wishes of a composer with what they have to say as an individual. Learning to tell stories via their instruments is what I’m interested in and most important, I do like to stress we all mess up and performances are not ruined thanks to some wrong notes. In the end, I hope to help them be creative, independent, courageous and above all curious.

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

Anywhere where I feel to be alive and well

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

I don’t think it exists

What is your most treasured possession? 

My photo albums – I’m very nostalgic

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Walking in the countryside with my dog, Archie

What is your present state of mind? 

Always lots going on!

Kathryn Stott performs music in F-sharp by Fauré, Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux as part of the inaugural London Piano Festival at Kings Place on Saturday 8 October.

Further information here www.londonpianofestival.com

www.kathrynstott.com

 

 

Duly Noted

A guest post by Dr Katy Hamilton

About ten years ago, when I first started my PhD, a fellow student explained to me the concept of self-efficacy. It’s a simple, logical premise: you are more likely to do well at something if you believe that you really can do it well – and visualising yourself doing whatever it is to the best of your abilities is a key tool. Whether it’s running the 100m faster than Usain Bolt, or playing the Elgar Cello Concerto to a packed concert hall and live TV cameras, you should imagine it happening, in as much detail as possible, to prepare for the actual event.

Rather less glamorously, I have a simple scenario that I like to play in my head from time to time. It goes like this. Audience members arrive at an evening concert. They say hello to old friends, buy a programme, wave their ticket at the usher, and sit down. They read the programme and chat amongst themselves. They might even chat about some of the things they’re reading about. Then, comfortable and hopefully a little edified or enlightened, they listen to the performance. On a really good night, they might glance again at the notes in the interval and even after the concert. When they get home, they’ll either throw the programme into the recycling, or keep it, if they are the collecting sort, or if it was a very special occasion.

It’s not smashing a world record, I grant you, but whether or not you enjoy your programme notes matters to me. That’s because I write quite a lot of them, and I do so not because it’s a good way of paying the bills, or an excuse to show off, or an outlet for academic material I couldn’t fit into an article, or any of the other negative reasons the cynics might imagine. I write them because I love finding out more about music, and learning new repertoire; and I love communicating – or at least trying to communicate – some of that sense of discovery and excitement to audience members just before they get the chance to hear the music live.

The process of writing a programme note is different for everyone, and obviously since I’m not the performer, there’s a great deal of information I can’t give you. I can’t tell you how they feel about the work in question. I can’t talk you through the experience of playing it (or at least, I can if it’s a piano work, since I’m a pianist, but it’s not my experience you’re interested in, and rightly so). I can’t tell you why the programme consists of that sequence of pieces in that order, unless the performer has thought to tell me, or I can work it out as I read (which is one of my favourite games).

But I can tell you a lot of other stuff. When something was written, where and perhaps why; what the composer, first performer or early reviewers thought of it; if there are diaries or letters from the composer about it; what the highs and lows of its reception have been; and how it’s put together, what it is exactly that you’re listening to. And no, that doesn’t mean ‘dry’ analysis. Anyway, if I gave you a blow-by-blow account, it would be a complete waste of words when you’re sitting in a dark concert hall with no chance of making out the tiny print as the sounds whizz past. But I can mention the structure, and a few things worth listening out for.

I won’t have many words to do this in, probably. The average programme note is 250 words long, for a chamber concert. That’s about a quarter of this post. And it often remains 250 words whether you’re writing about the Diabelli Variations or a single Chopin waltz. If you want a sense of how much work that takes, how much reading, research, listening and score examination, I can tell you that a set of notes I’m working on at the moment, destined to be 1,000 words when I’m finished, will be hewn from a lump of around 3,000 words of notes – and I haven’t quite finished the reading yet.

I was delighted that Fran (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) asked me to write this post, because there are a few things I’d like to say on behalf of those of us who write programme notes. The first is, quite simply, that the programme note is not dead. It is not a waste of paper, not a patronising attempt at educating ‘you little people’ in the audience. It is not a job that is ever ‘done’, and it evolves over time – when I write a concert’s worth of notes, even if I’ve written on half the pieces before, I always tailor my writing to create a unified whole. We have not said everything there is to say about Bach’s Italian Concerto, and even if we had, we would only have said it to one or two very particular audiences’ worth. Every concert is a new experience, a new musical construction, and a new opportunity for different listeners in a space they might never have visited, with a player they might never have heard.

The second is that whatever you might think about the label ‘musicologist’, we are not attempting to create something removed from the live music you are there to hear. I wish I could talk to more performers about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Or interview them. Or get them on stage to talk to them. But time, planning and logistics often conspire against this. I’ve given plenty of pre-concert talks where I’ve never met the performer. I wish it weren’t the case, but there it is. So we are trying, sometimes against rather unhelpful odds, to draw that connection between words and performance.

Last but not least, we are the creators of the thing that will most likely serve as your enduring physical reminder of the evening: the programme. I still have (and from time to time, re-read) programmes for every concert I’ve been to since the late 1990s. So we writers make something which can be as ephemeral as the concert itself – straight in the bin on the way out – or as enduring as your memory of it. It’s a privilege to produce such things, and we do so with you, the audience, at the forefront of our minds. So spare a thought for us, now and then. We are thinking of you with every word we write.

Katy Hamilton is a freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music.

www.katyhamilton.co.uk

Twitter: @klhamilton

Your own private masterclass: Tido Music app

Tido, in partnership with renowned music publisher Edition Peters, has created a smart new iPad application for pianists which takes the educational app to new heights. Tido has already developed the Mastering the Piano app with Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, and therefore already had a stack of tech and musical know-how with which to build its latest app, Tido Music.

Most iPad music education apps are designed for children and young people, or for teachers to use with their students (such as Wolfie). Others, such as Tomplay, encourage independent learning combined with piano fun, but few offer detailed historical context, analysis, and instruction in the way Tido Music does.

What makes it special?

Tido Music is a platform for the discovery and performance of music. To achieve this, Tido has used Music Encoding Initiative’s open source framework which supports the development of dynamic notation. Put simply, for the end user, the app delivers interactive sheet music seamlessly layered with audio, video and text to allow musicians to feel more immersed in the music.

‘In designing Tido Music, our starting point was to find an architecture which could unite all the varied ways of experiencing music: notation, audio, literature, video and more…….We’ve created an app that does just that. Not only does it bring all the facets of music together in one place to create a truly immersive experience; it also features the very best content from some of the world’s leading performing artists and scholars.’

Brad Cohen, founder of Tido Music

The app has an attractive clean design and is very easy to navigate. Music is stored by composer in “volumes” – for example, Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, Chopin’s 24 Preludes – and for each piece, the user may listen to the music (played not by a MIDI player but beautifully by a real live pianist) and view the score. Tido’s technology includes a magic cursor, a mauve shadow which guides the user through the music (and which is far more comfortable on the eye than a coloured marker which some other music apps use). Within the score, the user can adjust the pulse and annotate the score, and there’s a useful help option too. The app also offers a revolutionary automatic page-turning facility that works by allowing the app to listen to the player. Page turns can also be programmed depending on how far ahead you read/memorise what is coming next – and the app will turn the page for you even if your performance isn’t 100% accurate.

So far so similar to other score-reading apps….but the real achievement of Tido music is the inclusion of filmed live performances of the music being played. The audio and visual quality of these films is really striking, and the user can enjoy multi-angle performances of the pianist’s hands at work. While the video plays, you can also read the score at the bottom of the screen with a cursor which moves in sync with the performance. In addition, there are masterclasses where the user can explore the piece in the company of a real concert pianist or musicologist who offers their own insights into the music and how to play it. In future, the app will include masterclasses of multi-movement works as well.

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Concert pianist Daniel Grimwood introduces a Bach Two-Part Invention
There is information about the composer’s compositional style and techniques, and an in-depth guide to the music in each volume, including social and historical contexts. It is this additional content which, for me, makes the Tido app far superior to anything else I have seen. To be able to watch, close up, the music being played, and hear the pianist talk about it, is a compelling learning tool – in effect, one can enjoy a private masterclass with a top-flight pianist in the comfort of one’s living room or piano studio.

Edition Peters, who are responsible for developing the first set of content that flows into the app, has secured an impressive roster of international pianists for the app, including Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Adam Tendler, Richard Uttley, Joanna Macgregor and French piano music scholar Roy Howat. Each brings their own personal insights and “pianistic hacks” to the pieces (Richard Uttley, for example, has a neat “fix” for dealing with a tricky flourish in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 119, no. 3). These are the sort of details one would normally only expect to obtain from a master teacher.

Tido’s partnership with music publisher Edition Peters also gives them access to a vast archive of scores for use in the app, from J S Bach to John Cage. Some of these are free, others can be purchased singly or in volumes. Those downloading the app can experience and explore its many features by signing up to a free, 30-day trial, and take advantage of a special introductory £2.99 monthly subscription. Tido promises that the app, “will continue to grow with a range of content from leading publishers”. The first collection, Piano Masterworks, offers a great selection, including popular favourites such as Beethoven’s Für Elise, Ravel’s Pavane, Chopin’s Preludes and Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, but it is cheering to also find music by Cage, Field, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Clementi and Janáček, thus offering the user a wide variety of repertoire to explore and play. I’d like to see more contemporary piano music, and also more advanced repertoire, but hopefully this is in the pipeline.

This is an impressive and innovative  music app, particularly suited to amateur pianists or piano students who are looking for the opportunity for independent but supported study of the piano and its literature.

Recommended

Key features:

  • acoustic audio recordings, aligned with interactive scores from Edition Peters
  • exclusive video performances and in-depth tutorials from leading experts and concert pianists
  • historical context and critical commentary from established scholars and editors
  • powerful practice tools, including annotation and auto-paging

http://www.tido-music.com

The app is available now via the iTunes app store

ipad_screen_perspective_03_downsize(pictures: Tido Music)

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture