Piano Notes – Chris Underhill

I met Chris at one of my teacher’s weekend courses in March 2011, where he impressed us all with a very committed performance of Liszt’s ‘Vallée d’Obermann’.

I started to take an interest in the piano at around the age of 9. My father, a keen amateur pianist and dance band leader, died when I was very young and I have no clear recollection of him.  What he bequeathed to me – apart from some vestiges of his musical talent – were an old but still functioning upright piano in the living room – a Challen, if memory serves – and a huge stack of sheet music which included much of the pianist’s basic repertoire – the Beethoven sonatas, numerous Mozart and Haydn sonatas, Book 1 of the 48, lots of Chopin, almost everything by Mendelssohn and Weber, a few pieces by Liszt and one by Debussy – Reflets dans l’eau, which remains my favourite Debussy piano piece to this day.  Plus some more popular stuff, in particular a selection of pieces by Billy Mayerl…

My mother, a keen music lover, guided me in the early stages and taught me to read music and the rudiments of piano playing. Once I got hold of the basics there was no holding me back. I soon acquired a huge appetite for trying out the pieces available to me – bashing them out note by note, chord by chord, determined to reach the end. The musical results were of no value, but that wasn’t then the point: what it did was to breed in me an ability to sightread and a constant need to seek out new music, both of which have remained with me.

This early phase, before any formal training, culminated in my performance of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy at a primary school concert at the age of 10. How did I manage it? No idea. What did it sound like? I shudder to think – mercifully no recording of this event exists.

Ah, the confidence of youth… How one’s attitudes change. That’s the sort of piece I would now spend weeks or months getting up to performance standard. And even then be dissatisfied with the result.

After that I had lessons with an excellent local piano teacher and went through the usual run of exams – Grades 5 to 8, an LTCL diploma, then on to university where I met many other musicians and had the chance to play in ensembles for the first time. After university I spent a year at the RCM under David Parkhouse. He was a very good teacher but alas I was not a good student; 3 years of the relative freedom of university life had ill prepared me for the relative straitjacket (as I saw it) of music college. Yet despite that the things I learnt from him about piano technique – notably phrasing and how to relax and avoid stress in performance – have stood me in good stead ever since.

My life then followed a predictable course – building a career, marriage, children, a mortgage… I never stopped playing the piano, though time and opportunity were not always on my side. Not to mention the fact that in the pre-digital age living in flats, terraces or semis limited the time in which you could play for fear of annoying the neighbours. Thank heaven for the brilliant Clavinova which I’ve had for the last 10 years and which does everything a mechanical piano does, and more, with only a very limited downside. In the last few years I’ve had a little more available time, during which I’ve become a member of an excellent London music club, the OCMC, which is full of talented amateur instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors and has opened up to me a wealth of possibilities for making music in groups large and small.

The piano is the ultimate solo instrument and you can be self-sufficient in your music making, as I was for years. But there’s a strong social aspect too, especially if you’re interested in performing in chamber groups and accompanying, or if you’re lucky enough, as I have occasionally been, to play concertos with an orchestra. Through the piano I’ve got to know, and to make music with, a whole range of people I would never otherwise have met and my life is richer as a result. One opportunity leads to another and I now do more playing than I’ve ever done since my student days.

Despite cajoling from friends I haven’t yet tried my luck at any summer schools. I have attended some of Penelope Roskell’s 3-day courses and found them beneficial. The social aspect of gatherings like these is just as important as the playing; it’s another way of meeting fellow musicians, making contacts and exchanging ideas about piano playing.

For those wanting to take up the piano, or who had lessons as children and want to start where they left off, I’d say don’t hesitate – do it. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; making an effort to create something beautiful, however imperfectly, as well as the sheer physical thrill of running your fingers across the keyboard, are enriching experiences. And there’s surely nothing better to keep body and brain working in harness.

I don’t play scales and arpeggios much – too boring. I prefer to get my exercise through playing real music. It’s the difference between taking a walk through a beautiful landscape and pounding away on a treadmill in a gym.

There’s only one book of exercises that I’ve ever bothered with – the ones by Dohnányi. They’re totally cut to the bone – they make no claim to any musical quality but just concentrate on mechanical processes – scales, thirds, octaves, broken chords, wrist-, arm- and finger-strengthening and flexibility. You can spend five or ten minutes a day on that sort of stuff if you want to and it’s enough.

As for repertoire, I flatter myself that my tastes are fairly broad. They range from Bach and Scarlatti onwards, but I find the 19th and early 20th century repertoire the most congenial – Beethoven (the sonatas are probably the first ‘big’ music that I got to know), Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms (the early work far more than the later stuff), and somehow I feel a particular affinity with the Central and East European repertoire – Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Bartok, and Russian masters like Balakirev, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. And I’m a recent convert to the music of Nikolai Kapustin, with its unique take on classic-jazz fusion .

Nowadays my appetite for sight-reading new music has to some extent been replaced by an urge to spend longer getting pieces up to a high standard. I practice far more than I ever did when I was younger. Whether that’s because the goals I set myself are higher or simply because advancing age makes learning that much harder, I don’t really know. Probably a bit of both.

Practicing can be a frustrating activity since you often feel that you’re making massive efforts for little gain. Yet it does bring results in the long run if you stick at it. I don’t work to any specific number of target hours but I’m always ready to grab an opportunity – a few spare moments in the morning before leaving for work, waiting while the microwave warms up the food, last thing at night before going to bed as well as longer periods at weekends and on free days. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife who puts up with my presence at the piano and the music that flows from it. Well, not music exactly – more likely the click click of the (to her) silent keyboard, while I hear things with perfect clarity through my headphones.

Despite determined efforts there are some special pieces which remain obstinately beyond my reach. One that has sat for decades on the top of my piano and which I try from time to time to get to grips with, but never quite succeed, is Rachmaninov’s transcription of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think this is the greatest piano transcription ever – a near perfect recreation of a near perfect original. There are a few little piquant harmonic twists typical of Rachmaninov but other than that it’s pretty much note for note. The ingenuity of the way Rachmaninov transforms a piece which seems quite unsuited to the piano into an elegant pianistic tour de force leaves me amazed. Oh, and giving a half-decent performance of the Hammerklavier would be rather nice. I like to aim high and challenge myself to the limits. That’s all part of the fun.

1 Comment

  1. Chris sounds like a thoroughly nice person. His enthusiasm makes me long for piano lessons (which I stopped at around age 13, from memory). The idea of the silent keyboard is a bit spooky, though.

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