Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
It was a long time coming. Though I had already played the piano for six years before entering the Curtis Institute of Music, it was the colleagues and friends I made there that really inspired me to see music as a way of life.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My teachers at Curtis and the Hannover Musikhochschule have shaped the way I see music. My family and friends give the life experiences I need to tell interesting stories. In an ever-changing environment, I’m grateful to have a stable network of people I can trust and count on for advice.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There are many difficult things about being a concert pianist, whether its learning a particularly tricky piece, getting over a defeat at a competition, but these are so minor in the grand scheme of things. It’s an ongoing challenge to give your all every time you step out on stage. Even if you’re tired or fatigued, it’s a musician’s responsibility to inspire and bring memorable moments to audiences. But this is a challenge that I cherish.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Certain concerts stick out in my memory. I had a wonderful experience performing a benefit concert for the Multiple Sclerosis society with Howard Griffiths and the Camerata Schweiz at the Tonhalle Maag. We performed the Beethoven violin concerto in the piano version and as an encore, Hallelujah, where the audience joined in the chorus. A moment of goosebumps, the good kind.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I can’t answer such a question, but I have lots of music I love to perform. At the moment, I’m particularly interested in the Viennese classics of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s a given that I only perform works I feel I have something special to express. I’m very open to learning different repertoire, and I gather a lot of inspirations through regular trips to different opera houses and symphonic concerts, something Germany abounds with. Finding a central work is important in each program, then it’s a question of finding matches and themes.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Hamburg Elbphilharmonie kleiner Saal is fantastic, not least because of its prestige. The pianos there, the acoustic and an enthusiastic audience are unique.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Cecilia Bartoli, Kristian Zimerman and Sviatoslav Richter.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I performed in Beijing NCPA last year, and my three grandparents came, all over 90 years old. I was so proud and happy to share with them one of my favorite pieces, Chopin concerto No. 2.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Staying true to yourself and never wavering in your faith in music.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Live a full life, embrace multiple interests, because the more you know about the world, the more you can share.
Claire Huangci, the young American pianist of Chinese descent and 2018 Geza Anda Competition first prize and Mozart prize winner, has succeeded in establishing herself as a highly respected artist, captivating audiences with her “radiant virtuosity, artistic sensitivity, keen interactive sense and subtle auditory dramaturgy” (Salzburger Nachrichten). Her unusually diverse repertoire, in which she also takes up rarely performed works, is illustrative of her remarkable versatility.
The Exhale, an online holistic mastercourse and retreat for musicians, created by violinist Gwendolyn Masin, is delighted to welcome leading music educationalist and clarinettist Paul Harris to its faculty. Creator of Simultaneous Learning and author of numerous books on music teaching, music theory, sight-reading and composing, Paul will be leading a series of workshops on Music Theory, starting on Tuesday 2 June with Does Theory Matter? He discusses “is theory dreary?” or can it become an engaging, helpful and practical part of music education for younger (and older) pupils? Paul will help course participants to find ways of making the inclusion of theory a meaningful part of their instrumental or singing lessons.
Renowned violinists Peter Sheppard-Skaerved and Pavlo Beznosiuk return to The Exhale to lead a range of classes on the Violinists’ Practice Desk, learning Corelli’s violin sonatas and the essentials of Baroque orchestral music. Cellist Ruth Phillips, creator of The Breathing Bow, leads a class on how to approach Bach’s Cello Suites through breath and kinesthetic learning. Gwendolyn Masin herself will be taking a class on teaching beginners.
After the success of the inaugural edition of The Exhale, which saw some 250 participants sign up for classes with leading international artists and teachers, including cellists Natalie Clein and Gary Hoffman and violinist Robert Gonzalez Monjas, Gwendolyn Masin has decided to continue The Exhale in a series of weekly events over the coming months.
The enthusiastic response to the first edition of The Exhale confirms the need musicians feel to come together, to learn, share insights and draw encouragement and inspiration from world-class artists, and also one another. The ethos of The Exhale is to create a strong sense of community and a supportive and inspiring learning experience, particularly at a time when so many of musicians are not able to engage in the concert hall or the classroom.
“Incredibly uplifting and inspiring”
“huge thanks for the wonderful opportunity over the last two weeks to immerse myself in this new learning environment. I have gained a lot of insight and it has helped shift my moments of uncertainty and fearful mindset into one of positivity and hope”
The next edition of The Exhale begins on 2 June. Classes are hosted via Zoom and booking can be made through Calendly
The Exhale was created by renowned violinist Gwendolyn Masin. Originally planned as a retreat for musicians in a beautiful location in Switzerland, the coronavirus pandemic forced a rethink and Gwendolyn decided to launch the event online, offering participants a series of courses with leading artists and practitioners, covering a wide range of subjects from Baroque violin to Bircher muesli. Each day began and ended with a yoga session led by Clare Nicholls, while classes on technique, repertoire, teaching beginners, playing with freedom, improvisation and much more were interspersed with sessions on Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, meditation, career development, and even food and nutrition. Some 250 people signed up to take part in The Exhale and over 1000 tickets were sold. Leading musicians Natalie Clein, Gary Hoffman, Máté Szücs and Robert Gonzalez Monjas joined the faculty as guest speakers.
Do you ever get the feeling you are watching yourself playing, seeing yourself from a distance, as if sitting in the audience?
Sports people describe this quasi out-of-body sensation as being “in the zone”. It is related to “flow”, a psychological concept first proposed in 1969 by Hungarian psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, deep involvement, and enjoyment in the process. In short, flow is a total absorption in what one is doing. It occurs when one is engaged in an activity regarded as highly self-rewarding and characterized by clear goals, unambiguous feedback, a loss of self-consciousness and a balance between the challenges and skills required to best perform it.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a single-minded immersion and represents the ultimate in harnessing the emotions to perform and serve. The emotions are contained and channeled, energised and aligned to the task at hand; one may also experience a heightened sense of freedom, disengagement and lost time, as if everything is happening unconsciously. Flow can create a sense of confidence, enjoyment or even ecstasy, but fundamentally it is about absolute focus and intense concentration.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990
A flow state also includes physical attributes, such as a feeling of synergy between mind and body, and the sense of everything working smoothly: the joints feel well-oiled, the muscles are warm and super-responsive, movement feels effortless.
Csikszentmihalyi defines the eight characteristics of flow as:
- Complete concentration on the task
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding
- Effortlessness and ease
- There is a balance between challenge and skills
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
- There is a feeling of control over the task
Flow state, in musical practice and performance, is hard won, however, and while Csikszentmihalyi believes that music and flow are closely linked – mainly because music is a positive, pleasurable activity that can sustain intrinsic motivation, one of the chief features of flow experience – people with particular personality traits are more likely to experience flow than others. Such people have what is called an “autotelic” personality, characterised by curiosity with a predilection for doing things for their own sake rather than chasing an external goal, persistence, conscientiousness and the ability to successfully manage a rewarding, positive balance between the challenge and one’s skill level. Research has shown that people with a tendency to anxiety, neuroticism and self-criticism are less likely to experience flow.
For the musician, flow is a significant intrinsic motivator because a flow state can induce positive emotions and pleasurable sensations, and achieving flow in practising, for example, will encourage one to stick to the task. In this respect, flow is related to self-determination, self-esteem, autonomy and resilience – all imperatives for the musician – and the ability to find joy in challenges and the motivation for mastery is essential to one’s personal musical development.
Csikszentmihalyi’s nine dimensions of flow:
1. Challenge-skills balance: If the challenge is too great, we grow frustrated; too easy and we get bored. In the flow experience, an equal balance between the challenge and our skill ensures we are engaged by the task, not overwhelmed by it.
2. Action-awareness merging: Merging results in a feeling of body/mind unity and unity between musician and music.
3. Clear Goals: in a flow experience, when musicians have clear goals, they know what needs to happen, engage with the task, and let go of irrelevant stimuli and distractions that may interfere with their performance.
4. Unambiguous Feedback: Direct, immediate feedback is constantly present so that we can remain connected to the activity and adjust our reactions accordingly to meet current demands.
5. Concentration on the task at hand: intense concentration narrows our attention to exclude unnecessary distractions. When absorbed in the activity, we are only aware of what is relevant to the task at hand.
6. Sense of control/no fear of failure: Control helps us overcome anxiety. When in flow, musicians often report feeling they give their best performances.
7. Time transformation: When in flow we experience a distorted sense of time – it speeds up, slows down or stops. This can occur during practising or in performance, when one is intently absorbed in the task.
8. Autotelic experience: Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience: the activity is done for its own sake, an end in itself, and produces feelings of satisfaction, fulfilment and pleasure.
9. Loss of self-consciousness: When in a flow state, we experience a reduced self-awareness, including a transcendence of the self. Lack of self-consciousness results in an pleasurable experience because we no longer experience anxiety, fear, or self-doubt, and the inner critic is silenced.
The unselfconscious musician is unconcerned with criticism, real or imagined. There is no fear of failure, no consideration of an unsuccessful performance. These moments of unselfconscious action allow one’s potential to be fully realised, without the limiting influence of anxiety. Musicians treasure such moments, as they bring physical and emotional freedom, and a sense of conviction and natural artistry to their performance.
The paradox is that when one is performing in a flow state, the music will appear effortless, spontaneous, created “in the moment”, yet is the result of many thousands of hours of concentrated, focussed practising, the intense honing of one’s skills and the acquisition of mastery. The British pianist Stephen Hough has a good description for this, that one must be “a bohemian on stage” and “a perfectionist in the practice room”; in effect, that artistic freedom is achieved through intense discipline.
We can create the right circumstances in the practice room to achieve flow. These include:
- a heightened awareness of touch (for the pianist, the pads of the fingers)
- tension-free whole-body movements to create a sense of oneness with the instrument and the music
- quality of sound and constant self-feedback (“do I like this sound?”, “what can I hear?”)
- avoid over-thinking and replace negative self-talk with positive affirmation
- appreciate and transmit the meaning of the music and be alert to its imagery and narratives
- always play with expression, even when practising scales or exercises
- remain “in the moment” when playing
Practising with this mindful awareness increases our ability to bring joyful and absorbing feelings of flow into performance, resulting in greater expression, conviction and emotional engagement, physical freedom, quality of sound, and reduced anxiety.
For the audience too the experience may be equally absorbing, a sense of being at one with performer and music, a state of relaxed concentration, and, literally, “going with the flow”…..
No Dead Guys is the blog of American pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo, and is dedicated to new piano music, living composers, and thoughts on the intersection of music and life.
Frances Wilson, AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist, talks about her work as a publicist and how her love of music, concert-going and admin has informed her role.
I’ve always enjoyed admin – when I worked in publishing back in the 1990s I was an executive PA – and I like using my organisational skills. Working as a publicist allows me to utilise these skills to ensure material is produced on time, deadlines are met etc. In fact, it sits well with being a musician, since this is also a role which requires organisational skills such as forward planning and time management.
I also wanted to learn more about another aspect of the music industry. I’m a keen concert-goer and have always been alert to the presentational aspects of concert-giving – from advertising material to programme notes to how musicians behave on stage or engage with audiences. I enjoy drawing on my experience as an audience member to inform my publicity work, and regard this as a strength.
Find out more about Frances Wilson’s publicity services and client testimonials here
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I began conducting seriously at University before embarking on postgraduate conducting studies in London and beginning a freelance life. I had been surrounded my music growing up, singing and playing in choirs and orchestras, and doing lots of accompanying. Conducting and composing became natural extensions of this, and I haven’t looked back since.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
The musicians around me making the music, and those who have gone before to create it.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
Conducting requires hard work, determination, patience, planning, none of which are particularly easy – but this pays off when making great music with others, whether untrained amateurs or seasoned professionals, and sharing this with audiences, however large or small. Nothing beats that.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the choir/orchestra?
Being a performing musician is all about listening and respect: listening to yourself and others, and respecting everyone around you and the score in front of you. Communicating your ideas as a conductor is about listening to the music around you and suggesting ways to craft the sound organically in a collaborative process that includes gesture, body language, and eyes. Most of the work takes place in rehearsal, but there always needs to be an element of spontaneity in the performance itself.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
Fully respecting the score in front of you and bringing it to life with the best possible performance is the single most important role for any conductor. Especially so when the composer is present!
Is there one work that you would love to conduct?
There are so many works I’d love to conduct. I had been hugely looking forward to conducting my first St Matthew Passion in April 2020 in the Netherlands, but alas it was not to be because of the Coronavirus outbreak. But, as with all musical events that have had to be postponed, I suspect that it will make any rescheduled performance in the coming seasons even more special.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I count myself fortunate to have seen so much of the world and performed in some extraordinary venues already, and every occasion has provided me with its own cherished memory. Performing in Barcelona’s Palau, Washington’s Library of Congress, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sydney Opera House, Wigmore Hall – they have been and always will be significant memories for me. But equally special have been an outdoor concert perched on top of Penang Hill in Malaysia, a surround-sound recital scattered around Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building, and a bare-footed antiphonal performance standing in the River Jordan either side of the Baptismal Site. I love travelling, making new friends, and sharing my music making around the world – so I look forward to exploring more in the years to come.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I admire so many. But if I had to name a few it would have to include Bach, Shostakovich, John Eliot Gardiner, Bernard Haitink, Janáček, and René Jacobs.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Music making at the highest possible level, whatever the circumstances.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Respect each other, respect the music, be kind, be encouraging, be prepared to work hard, don’t waste time, and listen.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still making great music with colleagues old and new.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Great company, music, food, and wine.
What is your most treasured possession?
What is your present state of mind?
Calm and grateful: the current lockdown because of the Coronavirus crisis has given the world a rare moment to pause, think, and reflect – and to be grateful for the extraordinary work of our medical professionals who are battling to save lives.
Graham Ross conducts the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Dmitri Ensemble in a new recording of music Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks and James Macmillan. Further details
Graham Ross has established an exceptional reputation as a sought-after conductor and composer of a very broad range of repertoire. His performances around the world and his extensive discography have earned consistently high international praise, including a Diapason d’Or, Le Choix de France Musique and a Gramophone Award nomination. As a guest conductor he has worked with Australian Chamber Orchestra, Aalborg Symfoniorkester, Aurora Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, and Salomon Orchestra, making his debuts in recent seasons with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers, DR VokalEnsemblet (Danish National Vocal Ensemble), London Mozart Players, European Union Baroque Orchestra, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as acting as Assistant Conductor to Vladimir Jurowski. He is co-founder and Principal Conductor of The Dmitri Ensemble and, since 2010, Fellow and Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he conducts the internationally-renowned Choir.
(Artisti photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
The arts don’t exist in isolation.
David Byrne, musician
Musicians, like writers and artists, need quiet time and solitude to pursue their work. The desire to withdraw, often for hours on end, is not necessarily a sign of unsociability nor introvertedness but rather a signifier of deliberate intent and purpose. We choose to withdraw into our work spaces – whether it is a purpose-built music room or studio, or simply a corner of the home which is designated as one’s “creative space” – in order to get on with our work. For those who live with musicians, artists and writers, appreciating and respecting this need, and the creative space, is both important and supportive.
The lockdown in response to coronavirus is seen by many as an opportunity to “get creative” and in the first days of the UK lockdown, my Twitter feed was full of tweets by well-meaning people urging us to “learn a new language”, “finish that novel you always wanted to write”, “take up art” and make use of all this new-found “spare time”. Musicians were told they should think themselves “very lucky” to have all this “extra time to practice”, but while amateur musicians are relishing this time, professional musicians are more ambivalent, and some are quite hostile to the idea that they should welcome this grand fermata in their busy lives.
The trouble is, we didn’t choose this period of isolation; it was imposed upon us. And that affects inspiration, because in normal circumstances when we take ourselves off to our creative space, we control that intent, we have autonomy over our own time and how much of it we choose to spend alone.
It may be true that inspiration is about 80% solitary graft, day in day out, and that most inspiration comes from a regular routine rather than “lightbulb moments”, but the lockdown has, for many of us, caused a massive rupture in our routine. Musicians, for example, are not able to attend rehearsals, where regular interactions with colleagues fuel creativity – and if there’s one truism about creativity, it is that one must “feed the muse”. Interactions and experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. Unfortunately, almost all of these experiences are impossible at present, and this physical confinement can seriously limit the imagination.
Another important factor is motivation. Several musician friends have commented to me that without the focus of concerts to prepare for, they see little point in practising. And without regular practising or rehearsals, one slips out of a daily routine, leaving one feeling disoriented, out of sorts, and in some instances, depressed.
In addition, music, art, words need an audience – and this is what I think David Byrne means in his quote at the head of this article. The arts and creativity cannot really thrive in isolation: the musician needs the performance to work towards, the artist the exhibition, the writer the deadline. This is not attention-seeking but rather a significant motivator, and more fuel for the muse.
Of course many creative people are finding inspiration in isolation (and it remains to be seen how many Requiems for the Victims of Coronavirus are premiered when the concert halls reopen, or Lockdown Diaries published!), and for some of my musician colleagues, this pause has been a reminder of just how hard they work in normal times – rehearsing, teaching, performing, travelling, plus all the other admin and minutiae of daily life. If nothing else, the lockdown is an opportunity for a much-needed rest.