Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chair and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition and grand elder stateswoman of piano teaching, has been in the news this week as she has announced that she will be standing down from the prestigious piano competition after next year’s event.
Dame Fanny is “a living institution of British music” (source: The Guardian) and her views and opinions command much respect in the piano world and music education community in the UK and beyond. In today’s Observer, she expresses her fears for the future of pianism in the UK. I read her article with interest and have enjoyed a lively discussion in response to it with members of my own pianistic and piano teaching community on social networks. Based on these discussions, I would like to offer some points in response to Dame Fanny’s view:
Electric pianos and keyboards
I don’t like these instruments either. They are not a patch on a “real” acoustic piano, upright or grand, but they do offer an affordable alternative and for beginning students, child or adult, I would not hesitate to recommend a digital piano. There are some excellent models on the market at the moment. Many people simply do not have the income nor the space to purchase an acoustic piano for their children when starting piano lessons. (And I have seen some truly awful pianos in the homes of some of music students – out of tune and badly maintained.) One of my students has recently acquired a piano, having been studying with me for c4 years. Her parents took the decision to upgrade to a proper instrument because they could see she was committed to her piano studies and they appreciate that a real piano will enable her to develop as a young pianist.
Some children show aptitude for a musical instrument from a very early age, some later. And some come to music in adulthood. What is important here is encouraging and supporting an interest in music. Sure, there are kids out there who “are capable of “amazing” performances aged just four”, but delve a little deeper and I think most of these proto-Lang Langs display exceptional technical facility without any proper insight or musical understanding. This comes with maturity, time spent with the music, understanding the context in which the music was created, and listening around the music – and much more besides….
There are no great British pianists today?
Dame Fanny, I beg to differ. They may not be well known on the international circuit (yet), but I have encountered some extraordinarily talented British pianists through my concert reviewing and interviews on this blog. What about Benjamin Grosvenor, a young British artist who already shows tremendous maturity, beyond his tender years? Other artists I would cite include Danny Driver, Daniel Grimwood, Clare Hammond, Richard Uttley, Lara Melda, Cordelia Williams, Daniel Tong. There is a terrible tendency, especially amongst more senior members of our society, to continually hark back to an earlier “golden age”. But we should look to the future and nurture and encourage the talent we have.
British pianists are not entering the Leeds competition
As one contributor to the discussion on Facebook said, one needs a hefty amount of wherewithal to enter international competitions. Music is notoriously badly paid in the UK, and not many people have the financial support (including parents who will fund such ventures) to consider the risk of entering a competition. It’s not because British pianists aren’t good enough; it’s because many of them simply can’t afford it!
And competitions should never been seen as the be all and end all. Sure, winning a prestigious competition can launch one on a successful international career, but it’s not a dead cert.
Students today lack “a grounding in the instrument’s complexities”
Here I agree with Dame Fanny. In my experience as a regular concert-goer and reviewer, I come across too many young artists (of all nationalities) whose sound has become “dumbed down”, if you will. They aim for middle of the road expression and dynamics which they believe will please audiences and critics, and (some) teachers. I think part of this is due to bad teaching – the teachers themselves do not understand the complexities of the instrument – and also the fault of exceptionally high-quality recordings whose sound artists feel they should replicate in live performances.
Young pianists have too narrow a repertoire
In fact, I think many young artists have too wide a repertoire, as they feel they must have the big warhorses of the standard piano repertoire in their fingers by a certain point in their career in order to gain recognition and respect. This goes back to my earlier point about maturity. But I agree with Dame Fanny’s point that piano students today do not spend enough time studying a composer’s complete oeuvre: one cannot study one piece in isolation. I teach context from the get go, encouraging students to understand where the music they are learning comes from and suggesting “further listening” and study to offer a broader picture.
Young people lack the discipline to study the piano seriously
In addition to the discipline that is required to practise and apply oneself to musical study, students also need encouragement and support from family and teachers. Parents also need to understand that genuine musical talent comes from day-in-day-out commitment – and on this point I agree with Dame Fanny. But children should not be pushed to the extent that they lose their childhood in the process.
Music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off
With poor provision for music education and instrumental teaching in many of our state schools, sadly, private music lessons are becoming the preserve of the better off. The cost of learning an instrument is a major barrier for many. Only a relatively small sector of our society can afford to put students into specialist music schools or offer the necessary funding for their study, both at school and beyond.
Initiatives such as James Rhodes’ ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ are laudable, but I think a major shift in attitude towards music and the arts in general needs to take place, from the Department of Education down, in order for music education to be respected and accepted as a necessary part of our children’s education. My own recent research into attitudes towards private piano teaching in the UK reveal an alarming viewpoint: that music is regarded as a “soft” subject, or simply a “hobby”. This view extends into the world of professional music making, where musicians are not properly valued and receive poor or no pay, because they are perceived as doing a job they love, or that music is not regarded as “a proper job”. This is part of a wider discussion, but it is touched upon in Dame Fanny’s article.
Another related aspect is the British attitude towards “achievement” and that peculiarly British dislike of “show offs”. Achievement and excellence have become dirty words in this country, and this dumbing down begins in primary school (at least in the state sector) where, for example, sports day has become some bland running about pointlessly with teachers cheering kids on and saying anodyne things like “everyone’s a winner!”. Culture, excellence and personal achievement need to be supported, nourished and encouraged.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion via my Facebook thread.
I was also interviewed by LBC in response to Dame Fanny’s article. Listen here