Piano Mojo

Mojo

N.
1. Self-confidence, Self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation. Esp. I context of contest or display of skill such as sexual advances or going into battle.
2. Good luck fetish / charm to bolster confidence.
3. ability to bounce back from a debilitating trauma and negative attitude

[Source: Urban Dictionary]

It’s been some time since I posted something specifically about piano playing. I have enjoyed so much live music in the last month, some of which I have reviewed for this blog and Bachtrack, and I haven’t had as much time at the piano as I would have liked due to building work going on in my home. While I could practise while the builder laid bricks or tiled the roof, somehow sitting at the piano while he laboured, alone, seemed rather self-indulgent.

And to be truthful, in the immediate weeks after receiving my LTCL Diploma results, I experienced a curious flatness, a post-diploma ennui, not unike the tiredness that comes after a virus like ‘flu or a bad cold. I had worked solidly for 15 months for the Diploma, starting my practising at 8am religiously, almost every day of the week, and eschewing a social life to the extent that a good friend commented “you’re chained to that effing piano these days!”. Only those who do it seriously, both professional and serious amateur musicians, understand the need to turn into a hermit in order to undertake such a task. The Herculean effort of learning all the notes, and ordering them into such a way that they make beautiful, expressive, insightful and thoughtful music; feeding the artistic temperament without allowing the ego to take over; doing the reading and research to write the programme notes; the pre-Diploma performances; and then – The Day. No wonder I was tired afterwards!

After the initial euphoria of receiving a result which astonished me (no, I really wasn’t expecting to secure a second Distinction), and far too much champagne, I decided I should start to focus on new repertoire. Each day the piano glared balefully at me from its niche in the corner of my living room, the open score of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage challenging me to come and practise. But I just didn’t want to go there.

An enjoyable Saturday piano event with my friends and colleagues Lorraine Liyanage and Manny Vass, and assorted amateur pianists, at which I played what I now consider my ‘signature piece’, Takemitsu’s haunting Rain Tree Sketch II, failed to rouse me from my gloom. I consigned my scores to the bookcase and rediscovered my social life.

Rather rashly, or so it appeared to me when I found myself in this slough of despond, I had, on the crest of the wave of exam jubilation, booked myself a set at The Little Proms, a wonderful initiative to take classical music out of the formal setting of the concert hall and into places where it is accessible and informal – in this case, the basement bar of a Soho pub. I played at The Little Proms last August and enjoyed it very much. But with the concert looming, I felt bored by the repertoire and the prospect of performing it.

However, as the concert date approached, I found more time to practise and instead of resenting the piano, I began to enjoy it again. I started working on what might become the greatest challenge of my pianistic career to date – Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op110, my most favourite of all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, or indeed anyone else’s, and a work I have long wanted to learn and play properly. Going back to the nitty-gritty of learning something from scratch, as opposed to finessing very well-learnt pieces, was interesting and engaging. One afternoon, when the builder had gone, I played for an hour and a half – and I loved it.

I took myself off to Soho on Sunday afternoon to arrive at the venue in time for a sound check. When I go there, one of the other acts, Brasilliero Big Band, were warming up with much vibrancy and laughter. I had a brief warm up on the piano and then went to brush my hair, apply my “lucky” lipstick and quietly await the signal to go on. I was to open the event (a relief, as no one could possibly compete with the exuberance of Brasilliero Big Band!). My programme was mostly a now very well-trodden path of Diploma pieces, with a couple of new things thrown in. Beginning with the ‘Adagio’ from the Bach Concerto BWV 974 was an excellent idea, as a friend later pointed out. The slow tempo and hypnotic bass quavers drew everyone in, and by the time I started on the mysterious opening chords of the Takemitsu I felt I had everyone’s attention.

And this is where it got interesting for me. You’re close to the audience in a small venue. You can almost hear them breathing and you’re very aware of the people around you, so much so that you actually have a sense of people listening, very concentratedly and carefully. The people sitting behind me were close enough to read my scores, if they cared to.

This sense of intense concentration and attention is very potent, and is surely the reason why performers get a buzz from, well, performing. (On a purely physiological level, it is the release of adrenaline that creates this feeling.) There is also a very strong sensation of everyone being engaged in a special and unique experience. There are certain performers who have an amazing ability to create this intimacy in the biggest venues – Mitsuko Uchida is one, Stephen Osborne another – drawing the audience into that wonderful, enchanted circle that is impossible to recreate when listening to music on disc in the privacy of one’s home.

Adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, does interesting things to us as performers. It can unleash a whole host of unpleasant symptoms – sweaty, trembling hands, headache, nausea, palpitations, cold fear – but it can also, if we use it positively, enable us to raise our game, to rise to the occasion, and play well. A professional pianist I interviewed some years ago, during research for a book, admitted that he rarely had time to feel nervous before a concert, but that adrenaline did induce a certain lightness in the hands and arms. I felt this on Sunday night, so that by the time I reached Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Op 62/2, I hardly had to remind myself to keep my hands and arms soft to produce a rich cantabile sound in the right hand melody (a friend in the audience told me afterwards that with the amplification this came across very effectively). The final piece of my set, ‘Muted and Sensuous’ from Aaron Copland’s atmospheric Four Piano Blues, was receiving its premiere, at least in my hands, and such was the atmosphere in the venue that a piece which had, the previous week, felt horribly unpolished, suddenly poured out of the piano with all the sonorous and shiny sounds I had tried, and failed, to achieve in practise.

Interesting things happen in performance – which is why it is important to perform. Anyone who has performed, or performs regularly, knows that the bar is raised considerably higher as soon as you take your repertoire out of the comfort of your home and put it before other people. But by playing for others, we endorse all the lonely hours of practise and, more importantly, offer the music up for scrutiny. Sometimes in performance issues with a piece are revealed, which inform our practise when we go back to it, and sometimes really remarkable things happen, which create a special magic for performer and audience.

When I returned to my seat near the bar, to rapturous applause and whooping (that’s pretty potent too!), I felt excited. I had enjoyed every minute of my 35-minute set, and despite a slight mishap in the opening of the Liszt (note to self: don’t try something new in a familiar piece on the morning of a concert!), the pieces went well, and, by all accounts, communicated effectively to the audience. My friends and family were very complimentary, and a couple of members of Brasillieiro Big Band even came to congratulate me. I had rediscovered my ‘piano mojo’, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the piano and on with new repertoire. But the best part of the evening was my husband’s very evident delight and pride in my performance: he has been basking in my reflected glory ever since I received my LTCL results.

4 thoughts on “Piano Mojo”

  1. Ahhh that’s sweet about your hubby / my fella doesn’t understand anything I play. Perhaps it’s time to move away from the 16th century repertoire… Maybe I shall explore the dizzying music of the 1600s but that seems to
    MODERN!

  2. I clicked on “comment” to find that isdigby said just what I was about to say! All I can add is you’ve inspired me to do another 1/2 hour before I go to bed. I *think* that’s a good thing.

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