In a large early nineteenth-century former church – its previous life still evident from the grand organ situated above an elegant balcony – a group of people are ranged across plastic seating on tiers more usually occupied by orchestras in rehearsal. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a better view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. Below us are two beautiful gleaming Steinway concert grands, nose to nose like sleek racehorses. Players are called forward alphabetically and each person introduces their repertoire before sitting down to play. There’s an added frisson to today’s gathering because of the choice of pianos, a rare treat for these ‘piano nuts’ more used to playing at home on uprights or digital instruments (few have the luxury of space or money for a grand).
The performances are varied, some highly polished, a couple near-professional in their finesse and virtuosity, others are more tentative, a little hesitant as nerves get the better of the player and turn fingers trembly and the mind blank. But each performance is greeted with enthusiastic applause and there’s a palpable sense of community and collective experience.
I can’t remember exactly what I played at that particular gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG), a club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded back in 2013 when I was keen to meet others like me (being a pianist can be lonely!), but I do recall what Howard Smith played because it was by Satie, something of a rarity at LPMG events – and indeed in the concert hall. I’d not met Howard before, and I remember being struck by the sensitivity with which he played. Later, in the pub, we got talking and he admitted that he had felt very nervous playing in front of others, and had also found the advanced players quite intimidating. I assured him that he was not alone in feeling like this and that many of us were nervous (but had learnt to hide it!). We talked about the exigencies of practicing, the pleasures and the frustrations, and I discovered that Howard, like me, was a “returner” to the piano, and was working towards his Grade 6 exam. As we chatted, I sensed a quiet determination in him, to improve his playing, overcome his performance anxiety and connect with other pianists like us. Later, in an email, he told me he was writing a book about his experiences as an adult amateur pianist.
The world of the amateur pianist is a curious one – obsessive, often nerdy, richly varied, as our LPMG membership attests. We’re a motley bunch – several doctors, an actuary, a video games designer, a retired OU lecturer, a handful of piano teachers – of mixed ability players, from almost beginners to those who’ve had a formal musical training in conservatoire but who decided to take a different career path. Some have played the piano all their life, others have taken it up in retirement, or, like me and Howard, returned after an absence. But there’s one thing that unites us….
These are all people who confirm and reinforce the true meaning of the word “amateur” – not maladroit, dilettante “Sunday pianists”, but people who absolutely love the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of LPMG and this love is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our obsession: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, instruments, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, recordings and more. Released from their living rooms, basements and garden studios, where practising is often undertaken in pleasurable solitary confinement, regular meetups allow these people to indulge their passion and share it with likeminded others.
“You’re all weird!” says my cycling-obsessed husband. But when I point out to him that I have encountered a similar passion amongst his cycling fraternity, he concedes that we are all “nuts” of one kind or another!
Amateurs may never touch the professionals, but they might just conceivably touch the audience with their fidelity and commitment to the piano and its literature. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the sheer amount of hard work, and anxiety, grit and determination, that has gone into preparing for that performance.
And it is this hard work – the practising, the striving and a desire to improve, the sheer bloody-mindness to stick to the task – which colours Howard Smith’s book ‘Note for Note’.
In part a memoir, ‘Note for Note’ is a Pilgrim’s Progress for the amateur pianist, and in it Howard charts the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”, as well as the sloughs of despond when one can feel stuck in a rut due to lack of progress or having reached a plateau in one’s musical development with no clear way of moving forward. These are aspects which all pianists, indeed all musicians, whether professional, amateur or student, will recognise, and Howard describes the setbacks and the triumphs, small and large, in an engaging, candid and witty narrative. There’s an immediacy to his writing too, which reflects his excitement in the discoveries or progress he makes: those wonderful breakthroughs when one thinks “Oh yes, now I understand!”.
Having had some lessons as a child, Howard decides to revisit the piano in his retirement, throwing himself into his practising and musical study with all the dedication and passion that befits the word “amateur”. That Howard loves the piano is clear from the outset: beguiled by the instrument, its literature, those who play it, the practice of practising, and the will to improve, he sets out on the rocky road to mastery, with the support of teachers, friends and other pianists (amateur and professional). The result is a remarkably honest book that will resonate with others on the same path and will provide inspiration and practical information for those who are just starting out on the journey.
But there’s more to this book than a straightforward ‘What Howard Did Next…..’. His intellectual curiosity and a voracious appetite for information lead him to explore music theory, harmony, improvisation and song-writing, and all his discoveries are documented within the pages of the book, as Howard shares his growing musical understanding with his readers. Such information is explained clearly, in some instances with diagrams, to assist the reader, and because it is presented from the point of view of someone who has only recently grasped the concepts, it is easy to understand and absorb. Thus, this book is also a primer for those interested in exploring harmony, and particularly jazz harmony, lead sheets and the building blocks of jazz improvisation, in more detail. Meanwhile, the ‘Postlude’/appendix includes a helpful checklist for the piano student and advice on managing performance anxiety, a perennial issue for many musicians.
I sense a courageousness in Howard too. It’s not easy to set oneself on a musical path such as this: playing for a teacher or in front of others at piano club or on a course, or taking practical music exams are perhaps the hardest things for the amateur pianist, yet Howard’s willingness, tempered with a healthy dose of humility, to “just do it” (to quote a famous advertising slogan) is admirable and inspiring.
This personal testimony, written by someone who understands both the daily practicalities and exigencies of learning a musical instrument and who also has a deep appreciation of the art and craft of music, regardless of genre, is a celebration of the wonderfully enriching experience, both physical and emotional, that music brings to so many people – as players and practitioners, teachers and listeners.
Above all, this book is a love story – for the piano and those who play it, and music and musicians in general.
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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.
Piano Day was founded in 2015 by composer and pianist Nils Frahm, and a group of like-minded others, and it celebrates all things piano – the instrument and those who play it, its extensive repertoire, and other piano-related projects. It takes places each year on 29th March, the 88th day of the year, chosen because the piano has 88 keys.
“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” – Nils Frahm
In a year when pianos in concert halls have largely fallen silent, Piano Day seems even more significant to me. I have to admit a certain estrangement from my own piano – I have not felt much motivation to play over the past year, despite having more time to devote to an instrument which I love, but in spite of this, I have made some new musical discoveries which I would like to share here.
Woven Silver from Seven Traceries – William Grant Still
A chance hearing of this piece on BBC Radio 3 one morning led me to listen to the entire suite and order the sheet music direct from William Grant Still’s estate in the US.
Chaconne – Jean-Henri d’Anglebert
Another piece which I discovered via BBC Radio 3, listening late one evening to the Night Tracks programme which is broadcast after 11pm
Every Morning, Birds from The Book of Leaves – Rachel Grimes
I discovered Rachel Grimes’ piano music when I was invited to suggest music for the new London College of Music piano syllabus. This atmospheric miniature is from her Book of Leaves album.
Blue Air from Colour Suite – Madeleine Dring
In 2020 I was asked to contribute teaching and performance notes for Trinity College of London’s new piano syllabus, and this was one the pieces for which I wrote notes. I like its lazy swinging rhythms and piquant, jazz harmonies.
Quiet Rhythms: Prologue & Action No. 9 – William Susman
This piece appeared in one of those “if you liked that, you’ll like this” playlists which the Spotify algorithm creates based on one’s listening.
Some Other Time – by Leonard Bernstein, played by Bill Evans
This is very similar to Evans’ Peace Piece, which I play quite frequently, and it shares its tranquillity and ostinato bass.
Allegro Moderato from Gargoyles – Lowell Liebermann
Another chance discovery, the sheet music for this piece by American composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann was included in an issue of International Piano magazine. It’s been on my piano for awhile, but I haven’t yet got round to learning it properly, beyond a brief sight-read. (Read my review of Lowell Lierbermann’s Personal Demons here)
Film en miniature, H. 148: III. Berceuse – Martinu
I don’t know very much of Martinu’s piano music and I discovered this piece through French pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s wonderful ‘Good Night!’ album (one of my favourite recordings of 2020 – review here).
Elf Dance – Moondog
American composer Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin, May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) was blind from the age of 16 and wrote most of his music in Braille. I like the Baroque/folksy flavours of this miniature, which appears on Vanessa Wagner’s disc Inland.
Listening back through these selections, I notice that most have a rather meditative or ambient quality, perhaps reflecting my taste for quieter, more reflective music during the past year.
Opera in Recital
Guest post by Joanna Harries
One of the many inexplicable snobberies I picked up from music college was that a recital should only ever include song and Lieder. Perhaps one aria – a party piece, or an audience favourite – was permissible as an encore, but otherwise opera was written for an orchestra. Performing it with piano was somehow second-rate.
It wasn’t until I’d left college that I realised how ridiculous this idea that “it’s not opera unless there’s an orchestra” is. After all, every singer spends far more of their life working with a pianist than an orchestra. Coachings, auditions, opera scenes – even the majority of rehearsals for full scale orchestral productions take place with piano. And full blown theatrical productions are expensive to put on. It’s simply not always feasible. Add to that all the amazing operatic repertoire that never gets an outing in the theatre for one reason or another and there’s quite simply no compelling reason not to perform opera in recital.
Don’t get me wrong – I love artsong and Lieder. I’m a massive Brahms fan, I love both the Schumanns, and I’ve spent the lockdowns pouring over collections of Rebecca Clarke and Wilhelm Stenhammar. I’ll never be short on material – but I wondered why I was so assiduously segregating opera and artsong in my programming. Were my college mentors right? Is opera in recital pointless?
Pianist Ashley Beauchamp certainly doesn’t think so. “Performing opera in recital is an amazing opportunity to strip the story-telling and music back to its most simple form,” he tells me. “It allows us to present opera in such an intimate way, and I find that audiences respond positively to that.”
We’re rehearsing for our upcoming recital for Opera Live @ Home on 30th March and, as the name suggests, it’s a full programme of opera. The series began in 2020 during the pandemic to bring opera live into people’s homes via Zoom. Each month a singer/pianist duo perform a carefully chosen selection of arias, followed by a Q&A, where the audience can ask any questions they like. In these most distanced of times, it’s a very intimate way to share music.
In fact, Ash and I have performed opera to all sorts of different audiences over the years. We first met performing opera in a recital at Pushkin House – repertoire from Russian operas that never get staged in the UK. And our last gig before the pandemic (on the very day the theatres closed) was to young children at the Royal Opera House’s “Opera Dots”. There is nothing like singing Hansel and Gretel to a room of five-year-olds to remind you what’s important in opera. You don’t need the set, costumes or indeed orchestra to tell a musical story.
The idea that performing opera in recital could reach a wider audience isn’t new. In 1884 a letter in the Musical Times called for a “Music for the People”:
“At present we cannot with the best intentions expect the working classes to attend opera or expensive Concerts far away from their homes…let operas in recital and chamber music be given, with piano and American organ as ground work; for I maintain that it is in recital that you can best appreciate opera works, from a purely musical point of view.”
The author of this letter – a mysterious O.L. – proposed they should “write to the mayor of every town throughout the United Kingdom” to initiate these regional opera recitals. (One to suggest to Oliver Dowden, perhaps…?) I wonder what O.L. would have thought of the Zoom recital – a phenomenon that can reach more audiences than ever before, all over the world?
Opera, but not as you know it
So how does performing opera in recital compare to the stage?
Well, from a singer’s point of view, working with the right pianist is key. Some pianists instinctively click with the drama – and that’s important, because they’re telling that character’s story as much as you are. In fact, you’re no longer a singer performing “over” an orchestra – you’re in duet with the pianist. The hierarchy is completely different from performing on stage – you are both the conductor; it’s a collaboration.
Unlike with song, pianists have the added responsibility of embodying an entire orchestra. “The challenge of playing opera in a recital is that the audience is completely reliant on the pianist to create the sound-world of the piece,” says Ash. “You’re the only other thing that the singer has with them in the room to help set the scene.”
I asked Ash how performing opera compares to Lieder: “The most obvious similarity is that, ultimately, we are trying to tell a story through music, and it can feel like you’ve travelled as far through a three minute song as through a three hour opera! The crucial difference with opera is that the piano part I’m playing from is a reduction of the orchestral full score. These reductions are very often a complete minefield – they can be full of mistakes, crammed with too many notes or even missing entire chunks of important material. My job is to be as faithful as possible to the full score – recreating the music in the same way that an orchestra would in performance.”
There are challenges for the singer too. In some ways, it’s more tiring – on stage, even the largest roles don’t sing all their big arias back to back! So you have to programme strategically. You’re also in charge of the audience’s emotional journey through the evening, instead of the composer or librettist – so you have to think about the pace of the drama too. In an opera you’re usually playing one character all night, but in recital, you’re an entirely new character in an entirely new scene every five minutes.
“An aria that appears at the very climax of a three hour opera can be difficult to present in middle of a recital, sandwiched between very different repertoire,” adds Ash. “We have to learn how to present these arias in isolation, without the benefit of all the contextual information that we enjoy in a staged performance.”
Colour and character
But for all the challenges, there is so much to be gained.
For one thing, it makes me a better singer – I’m sure of it. Not relying on set, costumes, staging means that you really focus on delivering the drama and finding out who that character really is. You’re unencumbered by a particular director’s vision or an exact staging you have to fulfil. You’re also able to play with vocal colour and dynamics in a way that isn’t always possible onstage. In many ways it’s the purest form of musical storytelling.
Ash finds he learns from performing opera too: “Playing opera has definitely informed how I approach solo music. I enjoy trying to imagine what instrument might be playing at any given time. Is that gorgeous left-hand melody a cello, or a bassoon? Are those chord in the right-hand a full string section, or perhaps brass? It definitely helps me to find colours in my playing.”
With our recital fast approaching, I ask Ash what his favourite and least favourite opera repertoire is from the pianist’s perspective. “I have a love/hate relationship with Handel, because I love the music but I hate how hard his fiendish string writing can be for the piano!” he admits. (We are performing Handel’s sublime ‘As with rosy steps’ from Theodora, but luckily I think I’ve been fairly kind with this one, and Ash captures the caressing parallel thirds in the upper strings beautifully.) “French opera scores seem to always be full of mistakes, so I have to spend so much extra time preparing them,” he continues. “My favourite opera to play is anything by Britten – I absolutely adore his operas, and would happily play them forever.”
For myself, it’s not so much any particular composer or aria I love, but the joy and challenge of the kaleidoscope of characters, emotions and stories I get to tell, all in one night.
We’ll also be including Mozart, Bellini, Massenet and Walton arias and – just to buck the trend, we might even throw in an actual song as an encore…
Joanna Harries and Ashley Beauchamp perform for Opera Live @ Home on Tuesday 30th March 2021 at 7:30pm; also available on-demand for 30 days for ticket holders. Tickets: operaliveathome.co.uk
Joanna Harries is a mezzo-soprano from South Wales who studied Cambridge University and went on to train at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Alexander Gibson Opera Studio). She has performed with Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Grange Park Opera, Opera Holland Park and Longborough Festival Opera, and her roles stretch from the seventeenth to twenty-first century.
This week I was reminded that it’s a year since the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the Wigmore Hall and countless other music, opera and theatre venues shut their doors in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
At the time, it felt shocking, because for those of us who frequent these venues (and despite living in Dorset, I was travelling up to London at least twice a month to attend concerts and opera performances) it was a stark reminder that this virus, which until that point had felt rather unreal, was something we should now be taking seriously. That week, I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang in concert at the Barbican; both events were of course cancelled, and now the virus had encroached directly upon my world, and my cultural and working life. The directors of a music festival, with whom I was working, hung on until the absolute last minute to announce the postponement of the festival, and then all my publicity/PR work dried up. The next weekend, the UK went into its first lockdown.
Looking back, I recall feeling anxious; I wasn’t worried about catching the virus (in fact, I think I almost certainly had it in January 2020 when I had what I can only describe as “a weird ‘flu”), but I was very concerned about my family, in particular my chef son who was out of work, and my mother-in-law, who lives on her own. When previously I might have taken refuge in music to alleviate or distract myself from the stress, I found I could not play the piano nor listen to classical music on the radio, or on disc. It just served to remind me what we had lost, and I found the prospect of no live music for goodness knows how long a depressing one.
In those early, anxious months of the first lockdown, the only classical music I listened to was the complete Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Jonathan Biss. This was special music – and I don’t need to elaborate here why Beethoven’s music is so meaningful to many of us – not only because I thought it was one of the most interesting interpretations of the piano sonatas I had encountered in recent years but also because the last concert I attended at Wigmore Hall was given by Jonathan Biss, playing a selection of Beethoven piano sonatas, just a few weeks before the Hall was forced to close. So this music felt significant for a number of reasons.
Meanwhile, amateur pianist friends were filling Facebook and YouTube with videos of them playing all manner of repertoire. For many of my pianist friends, this period of enforced isolation was a wonderful opportunity to do more practising, and, confined to their homes, they found they had the luxury of time. I wished I had their motivation – there was plenty of music I wanted to learn and play – but instead I felt a growing sense of estrangement from the instrument and music which I loved. My piano was out of tune as well (the tuner was due to come in the last week of March) and that quickly became another excuse not to practice.
So BBC Radio 3 and my classical playlists on Spotify were exchanged for my son’s playlists of hip hop and rap, reggae and (curiously) mixes of 80s pop music which took me back to my teens and student years. We listened to this music when we were cooking and it quickly became the soundtrack of most of 2020 (my son left London to live with us during lockdown). Occasionally, I would dip back into the music I thought I loved, but it just served to remind me, yet again, of what we missing.
By the early summer of 2020, things began to feel a little more positive and the Wigmore Hall launched a series of livestream concerts which were at once brilliant and incredibly poignant (I cried while watching Stephen Hough’s opening concert – it was wonderful to see beloved Wigmore Hall again but rather tragic to see it devoid of its audience).
As society began to unlock in early summer 2020, my piano tuner was able to work again and came to give my 1913 Bechstein some much-needed TLC. I played a little after that – the piano sounded wonderful and I had some new repertoire to learn and old favourites to revisit, but still I felt a strong sense of estrangement from the instrument and its literature.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Several professional musician friends expressed similar feelings of detachment from their music and instrument – perhaps understandably since the covid restrictions had decimated their concert diaries, and without the prospect of performances, and the focus and motivation which these bring, there seemed little point in practising.
The issue I have now is that I have spent too long away from the piano. It sits in its room in the basement of my house, and where previously I found its presence benign, I now find it rather hostile. It seems to be challenging me, and I feel guilty for neglecting it.
Of course I have nothing to feel guilty about. I don’t earn a living from playing or teaching the piano and it is entirely my choice whether or not I play it. But I am mindful of the fact that without regular practice, or simply playing for pleasure, it becomes harder to get back into the routine of playing. And routine is what I need.
I hope that when the concert halls reopen and I can enjoy live music again, with other people, the sense of estrangement will pass and the stimulation to play the piano once again will return.