How long have you been playing the piano?
33 years, since age 12, sparked off by a friend in the first year at Lancaster Grammar School. I didn’t so much as touch a piano before this and took little active notice of any music, although I remember my father playing records of ‘Your Top 100 Tunes’ and Beethoven symphonies and concertos throughout my childhood. I have no doubt it laid a subliminal seed of love for classical music.
What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?
I enjoy listening to more styles than I play. For example the style of Bach ‘eludes’ me, but I do enjoy listening to him and I always play a handful of the 48 for the excellent musical and technical discipline of it. I like everything from Clementi to living 21st century composers, with most of the romantics and certain 20th C composers (Kabalevsky) being particular favourites. I’m particularly keen on Grieg because I love that type of culture and country too, and he’s so accessible in ‘easy bites’ yet can be challenging.
I enjoy listening to various Jazz styles, and like to play Scot Joplin (excellent technical discipline and easily accessible style) but true Jazz mystifies me to play. I think movie music is a tremendous medium and I enjoy making my own transcriptions of it as a counterpoint to the ‘serious stuff’. The act of doing this is great for musicianship, having to be sensitive to elements of harmony, melody, texture, instrumental colour and what techniques are idiomatic for piano.
How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising?
I’m fortunate in that I effectively work only part-time as a freelance piano teacher, and am a carer for my Down Syndrome son. I can quite easily get on with practise when he’s playing on the floor nearby, and even if my other young son is in the house. In this way I did 3-4 hrs per day for the last several years, but have reduced it a lot lately – wanting to give them more attention before they grow up! I manage at least an hour nevertheless. I’d describe it as enjoyable with a strong element of frustration!
Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience?
At college (RWCMD) I had masterclasses with Michael Ponti and Peter Donohoe. I played the Polonaise in A flat for Peter, and even today vividly remember his key pieces of advice and his demonstration of it. I think there is nothing so useful as simply ‘hearing’ a top pianist up close. Nowadays I play in most of the Eccle Riggs masterclasses, 3 times per year. It focuses the mind on preparing repertoire and is a very intensive dissection of whatever qualities are lacking in my playing (plus the odd good thing!).
If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?
I have never taken lessons as such since finishing music college at 24, apart from the above masterclasses. I’m now 45 and feel I should be artistically mature enough to know what I’m doing, with the prompts from those top professionals at the classes and self-discovery being enough. If they’re not, then I believe nothing much else would help! It ultimately has to come from within.
What are the special challenges of preparing for a piano exam as an adult?
I haven’t done any since my LTCL and LWCMD at college, but contemplate an FTCL, or FRSM or something. I’d be much more painfully aware of any shortcomings and probably know in my heart whether I was good enough before I even stepped in there. That’s the difference.
Has participating in masterclasses enhanced any other area of your life?
Yes. Simply meeting many interesting new people, but also seeing that certain top professionals are very human! Not only that they share struggles or mishaps of their own, but they are rounded people with hobbies outside music! In fact this is probably vital to being a rounded musician.
Do you play with other musicians? If so, what are the particular pleasures and challenges of ensemble work?
Only a bit (should ideally do more!) – the solo stuff demands so much time and is the ultimate medium for me, the piano being the solo instrument par excellence. I find accompanying a singer particularly challenging, and very effective in drawing out more musicianship from me (supporting a melody line, rhythmic discipline with flexibility, learning to ‘sing’ on the piano). It’s a challenge and a pleasure at the same time to have to ‘give and take’ on ideas for interpretation. This is one reason why I prefer solo playing – I can have it my own way! I feel the piece is mine, regardless of how good my performance is or isn’t.
Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?
Yes, as much as I can get and/or find time to prepare for! I enjoy the feeling of sharing my ideas on great music, and the intensity of the experience. There’s the allure of ‘risk sport’ about it, especially as I try to memorize everything. The fear of forgetting it my main dislike, which takes a lot of emotional energy (especially leading up to the performance), but that’s kind of a masochistic pleasure too.
What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons?
Do it, and don’t be negative about how much talent you think you’ve got – much of it is just a matter of practise, working on the right things and loving the music – but don’t let it consume you either!
If you could play one piece, what would it be?
It always was the Liszt B minor, but I learnt it last year, although it’s really still a work in progress (probably always will be!). The Chopin Etudes (as a cycle), as I think if you can play those you can play anything. They’re an acid test of just about any aspect of technique you could need. Those things that they don’t give you, I’m sure could be inferred from the lessons learnt in doing them. I see them therefore as nothing less than my nemesis and/or the gateway to virtuosity.
Phillip Fawcett LWCMD LTCL