At the Piano with……Dr Michael Low

What is your first memory of the piano?

Growing up in Malaysia, my first memory of the piano was not a particularly happy one. When I was about 7 my parents decided that I should begin formal music lessons. Unfortunately I had a teacher who was neither sympathetic nor encouraging. I remembered being constantly shouted at and whacked for playing wrong notes (perhaps there was a clash of personality between the two of us…) and I will never forget writing 5 pages of treble and bass clefs (both front and back) as well 6 pages of middle C! (and to think that my students complain when I ask them to write 2 lines!). Needless to say I gave up the piano very quickly. Even though I don’t want to admit this (as I pride myself on being a purist), it was a few years later when I heard a recording of ‘Ballade for Adeline’ played by Richard Clayderman (who was practically the greatest pianist in the world according to all Malaysians at the time) that inspired me to play the piano again. Shortly after my encounter with Monsieur Clayderman, my parents introduced me to the ‘Yellow River’ Piano Concerto, the one piece of music my mother listened to and loved while she was 6 months pregnant with me (perhaps you can say that my musical education started way before I was 7). My family then emigrated to England in 1988. There I met the teachers who started me on the journey to where I am today.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

To be honest, I never saw myself as a teacher; all my life I wanted to be on the stage, to be a pianist, a performer. I think this had much to do with the glamour of the concert platform and never having the opportunity to work with brilliant teachers. I am from a culture (and period in time) where it was normal for a teacher to humiliate and belittle a student and it was not until I lived in England that I came in contact with fantastic teachers who changed my opinion about teaching. The real advice to start teaching came from the mother of a good friend, Ricki Lombard (Ricki’s son Benn is a brilliant pianist who studied with Martino Tirimo in London). Ricki heard me ‘play through’ a recording programme and told me afterwards that perhaps I should also look into teaching as (in her humble opinion) I have a ‘knack’ with children. (I had not written progamme notes for the performance but instead introduced each piece before playing) Ricki was convinced that I am able to introduce Classical music to the ‘little ones’ (in her own words) while at the same time make learning fun and enjoyable. With hindsight I must say that the best part about Ricki’s advice was that I listened and looked into it!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I do not believe that there is such a thing as one teacher for everyone. Every teacher has something to contribute and therefore it is difficult to say who my most significant (or memorable) teacher was. All of them played an important part at a certain point of my musical and pianistic development. My first teacher in England, Richard Frostick (currently the Artistic Director of British Council’s World Voice) set a high standard of technical attainment and instilled in me the discipline of musicianship. When I joined London’s CYM (Centre for Young Musicians), I was extremely fortunate to study with Graham Fitch, who is (sweeping statement perhaps) a genius of a teacher. The attention to detail in Graham’s teaching is really something to behold – especially when it comes to producing endless layers of musical colours within the most complex of musical structures. Graham was also obsessed (I meant this in the most complimentary sense) with the musical line and his for respect for the musical text was a real eye-opener. My teacher at Surrey University, Clive Williamson (a wonderful exponent of the 20th century repertoire) taught me the discipline of rhythm and what it means to play what is written as oppose to what I think is written. I will never forget Clive saying to me ‘Michael, you have the easiest yet hardest job as a musician, all you have to do is to play what Beethoven has written.’ My teacher after Clive, Nils Franke, showed me that music (and playing the piano) is not something that is entirely detached from life itself, whereas Niel Immelman taught me what it is like to work more independently. I consider my Doctorate supervisor – Hendrik Hofmeyr – a musical genius in every sense of the word. I learnt from Hendrik the ability to go for the ‘guts’ of the composition as well as the ability to read the musical score (in the more profound sense of the word). In other words, don’t just play a crescendo when you see a crescendo, what comes before the crescendo? What comes after it? What musical effect that the composer is trying achieve by writing such a marking? I have very fond memories of my times at CYM, especially of the teachers who took the monthly piano studio classes – John Biggs, Catherine Riley, Petra Casen, Peter Croser and Julie Taylor. I also considered it a privilege to have played for eminent musicians and teachers such as Nina Svetlanova, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden. The prominent American Rabbi Harold Kushner noted in one of his books that everyone carries within themselves one or more piece of the jigsaw which will go towards helping others. None of my teachers could have made the impression that they had without the work of their predecessors.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

All my teachers played an important influence when it comes to my own teaching. I think it is worth mentioning that as well as being great teachers they are also wonderful human beings. This meant that all of them were able to communicate and get their ideas across very successfully. I remember Richard Frostick told me to be ‘an artist’ instead of a pianist, a view echoed by Clive Williamson (when we were working on Tchaikovsky 1): “‘For goodness’ sake, Michael, you have proved that you can play all the notes, now be a musician!” Both Richard and Clive’s statements made little impression at the time until I came across an interview given by the eminent Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong – “In life, one must first be a man, then an artist, then a musician, and finally a pianist.” Fou Ts’ong was right, of course. Art and music have always been a reflection of life, whereas life has never been about just playing the piano! If one has not had certain life experiences, how are you supposed to translate them into playing and performing, or teaching, for that matter? I recall saying to one very talented and musical student, ‘I am happy that you enjoy practising, but please do yourself a favour and go and have some fun! Go and do something an eight-year-old is supposed to do! Funny though this may sound, I also learn as much from my students as they learn from me. Furthermore, one of my hobbies (since my student days) is comparing interpretations by various artists, finding out which performance ‘works’ for me. I also enjoy interacting with my colleagues, often swapping ideas on the methodology of teaching and how to achieve ‘breakthroughs’ with certain students. I do not take it for granted that I work with so many terrific musicians and I am learning all the time.

Perverse though this may sound, it is occasionally enlightening to come across bad musicians and teachers (some of the posts on YouTube are quite extraordinary, to say the least!). Looking at these can be aesthetically reassuring as they show me what not to do, both as a musician and an educator.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

It is difficult to say which is the most significant or memorable teaching experiences because there are so many of them! I am very fond of the interaction with my students at Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel High School as all of them are so different – and to see their progress is extremely rewarding. I particularly enjoy the sense of honesty and directness when it comes to working with children (they often tell you what they think and you know exactly where you stand with them) – maybe this is because I am still a child at heart! (My sister once remarked that although my real age may be 35, my mental age is 15.) It warms my heart that quite a few of my former students still keep in touch, and it is always wonderful to see what they are doing with their life. What makes me really proud is that many of them still love their music and have kept up their piano playing even though they have not chosen music as a career. I was also in Singapore recently working with students from Kawai Music School Elite, which was an incredible opportunity. It was particularly interesting to see the differences between the East and West in terms of musical mind-set and culture. Also amongst my memories was the very first time I entered students for ABRSM exams and all of them came back with Distinctions and Merits. There was also the occasion when a former student greeted me in a shopping mall; I will never forget his words after I embarrassed myself by not being able to recall his name: ‘Dr Low, I’ve only had four piano lessons with you, but I so enjoyed them and will never forget you.’

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

I have often been asked by adult students if there is a ‘cut-off point’ when it comes to starting piano lessons, and I always tell them that one is never too old (or in the case of Benjamin Button, too young) to learn something new in life – my most elderly student is a seventy-year-old lady who absolutely adores her piano lessons. Perhaps the most challenging aspect about teaching adults is to ask to them to be patient (especially as most of them find it difficult to set aside a daily practising slot). I recall falling in love with the game of golf a few years ago and spending many hours on the driving range (with my golf coach) trying to learn the mechanics of the golf swing. At the same time it was particularly humbling to see junior golfers as young as ten who could swing the club so naturally! Learning to play the piano is exactly the same: if you have never played before, don’t expect everything to come at once; it sometimes takes a while to learn how to utilise the muscles in your hands. I will never forget Graham telling me in one of our first piano lessons that I am in charge of ‘ten circus monkeys and I am the ringmaster.’ Like most things in life, I truly believe that if one persists long enough, then things will happen, but – and this is the important part, especially for those who find it difficult to practise every day – practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. If (for whatever reasons) you don’t feel like practising, then rather don’t, as that will set you back in the long run. My colleague Marianne McLean has a good analogy for this: she likened unproductive practising to having a virus that gradually took over your computer.

What do you expect from your students?

One word: Commitment. I do not mind in the slightest what level the student is at or how talented the student is, as long as they approach piano playing with a sense of responsibility, then I am happy. I do not believe in enforcing a strict practising routine on students because I always believe that one practices because one wants to. You don’t play the piano for your parents or your teacher(s), you play for yourself. It took me a long time to grasp this, until one of my teacher told me ‘Michael, if you must play the piano for someone, then do it for Jesus, but even Jesus may have reservations…’) I truly believe that the happiest people in life are those who do things with commitment – whether it is going to church, being a parent, running a business, playing a golf shot, or doing a questionnaire J.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

In my opinion they can be very good if one approaches them with the right mind-set. Performing is such a fickle and (at times) highly stressful activity that is almost impossible be ‘on the money’ every time one appears on stage – Vladimir Horowitz once noted in an interview that the secret about performance is that you have to be feel great on the actual day itself! If you play in a competition and don’t get to the next round – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a bad musician or a bad pianist, it could just be that it is not your day. Similarly, if you enter a competition and win, it doesn’t automatically guarantee a performing career as there is a distinct difference between being able to play your competition programme stunningly and having a repertoire that is able to consolidate your prize-winning engagements. Furthermore, competitions can be full of subjectivity, for every Argerich, Berezovsky and Perahia, there must be at least fifty international prize winners who never consolidated their performing career. Niel Immelman always encourage his students to go listen to the next round of a competition whenever they get eliminated, in Niel’s words, ‘one of the two following things will happen; either the student will learn a lesson or they will disagree with the jury’. I am tempted to add that if the student is lucky enough – sometimes they will end up learning a lesson and disagreeing with the jury! Exams and festivals can be very useful as they give the student something to work towards. However, the candidates also need to approach them with the correct mind-set – a person that scores 128 for his/hers ABRSM exam is not an inferior musician to someone who scores 132. This is because like competition, the marks can be very subjective and different examiners look for different things. There have been occasions when I felt that the exam mark is by no way a reflection of the student’s effort and there have been occasions when I thought the examiners were perhaps a touch generous with their marks. I remember telling a few students a couple of years ago, ‘In my opinion your score of 30/30 is unacceptable, there is no such thing as perfection in my book when it comes to performance’. At the end of the day, if competitions and exams can be approached with a positive attitude, then I am all in favour of them.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginner students, and to advanced students?

For beginners there are a few things: I considered it important to teach any beginner student the importance of rhythm: to make them count out the beat explicitly – sometimes to the extent that I ask them to nod along with their counting (to quote Hans von Bulow, ‘In the beginning there was rhythm’. It is only when I am convinced that they have understood the rhythmic construction of the composition that I am open to discuss the concept of interpretation. I feel that this is particularly important, as there is a difference between playing what is written, as opposed to what you think is written. I have come across quite a number of students with the following mind-set when learning a piece of music, ‘Let me first get the notes and then I will get the rhythm’; to which I response, ‘Surely you never eat your sushi first and then have your soya sauce? Or the other way round for that fact, the two of them goes together!’ Equally important to impart to a beginner (or anyone else for that matter) is the love for music, along with all the discipline that comes with learning an instrument. This (in my humble opinion) has become even more important in an age of social media and instant gratification: why should you practise the piano for 25 years with the prospect of perhaps becoming a good musician, when you can be on Idols and be famous the next day? One doesn’t teach the piano in order to turn every student into the next Lang Lang (the world wouldn’t be big enough for starters) although it is always a privilege to work with talented students. Similarly, one doesn’t learn the piano in order to be the next pianistic superstar. One learns the piano (and other musical instrument) because along with acquiring the mechanics on how to play the piano, one also attains a set of life skills which will make you a better person. These include grit, persistence, integrity and honesty amongst many others. As for teaching more advance students – one merely play the role of a ‘facilitator’, not to impose one’s ideas on the student but instead to present the student with different opinions on interpretation. This could be finding a hidden melodic line within a complex musical composition, highlighting a bass line, or helping them to overcome a particular technical problem.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

For me, I felt that I became a better performer after I started teaching. Up until then my playing was plagued by the lack of internal rhythm (this has much to do with not being taught the importance of rhythm at a young age) and the situation reached its all-time low (no pun intended here) when a very famous professor told me to ‘sort out my rhythm or never play the piano again’. Perhaps you can say that this has something to do with ego and reputation, but when I started teaching I don’t want any of my students to go down the same route where I have been. Even more so, how hypocritical will it be if I am constantly preaching the importance of rhythm but neglect the same thing in my own playing? So I changed my mind-set and approached learning pieces differently, instead of worrying about the technical challenges I concentrate on getting the rhythmic structure before anything else. It was hard work and humbling at the beginning, but as things begin to fall into place, it is almost like curing my playing of cancer – the real eye-opener came when I revisited old repertoire and realised what I had originally conceived rhythmically wasn’t quite what the composer had in mind! The rhythmic discipline in my playing is now more important than ever having recently put together a chamber ensemble to perform and record the last eight Mozart Piano Concerti (amongst other repertoire). Looking back, what was said to me might be harsh but it was exactly the thing I needed to hear.

No disrespect to teachers who only teach, I strongly believe that only those who perform can bring a different dimension to their teaching when preparing the student for a performance and exam. Performance preparation and performance itself can only be taught by those who are constantly involved in performing. All of us are the world’s greatest pianist within the confines of our practising room, but how many of us can rise to occasion when we are asked to play in front of a mike, a video camera, or an audience? And sometimes we have to perform in front of all three!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

The list is endless, but I will try! From Ax to Ashkenazy, Arrau to Argerich, Berman to Barenboim, Gilels to Gulda, Arthur Rubenstein to Sviatoslav Richter, plus everyone else in between! I truly believe that everyone has something to say, it just so happens that some of us have just a bit more to say than others.

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

http://michaellow.co.za/