P is for……


A plethora of P’s PP’s and PPP’s by three guest writers for this entry in A Pianist’s Alphabet

Piano……Whisper it softly, everything we do as pianists is indicated in advance by the letter ‘P’. If we play the piano as a piano – which is to say play it piano – then we are simply following this alphabetic instruction.

We might, therefore, be tempted to say that the most pianistic pianist was Chopin, who played his piano so piano that his audiences often struggled to hear him play at all. Importantly, Chopin achieved this pianism not through the use of another ‘p’, the una corda pedal (signed ‘ped’), but through the fingers. He played with great touch, preferring to practise and perform on instruments that suited his style – notably, on Parisian Pleyels.

And yet, shout it loudly, the great strength (or forte) of the piano is that it holds within itself its polar opposite. It was originally conceived by Cristofori as a harpsichord that could be played both quietly and loudly. It is the gravicembali col piano e forte. The piano, that is, is always the pianoforte or ‘pf’.

Thus it was that Liszt, who had been inspired by Paganini (another ‘P’), was able to perform in places like La Scala, Milan, and to thousands of gathered aristocrats in St Petersburg without any loss of sound. Not that it was it just about sheer volume for Liszt. The Hungarian was, by all accounts, the master of pianoforte playing in the fullest sense. In performance, one of his strengths was that he played the pianoforte ‘pf’, moving from quiet to loud, from lyrical passages to bravura runs and back again. For him, the pf was to be played ‘pf’.

James Holden is a writer working across the critical-creative divide. He is a specialist in British and European culture from the birth of Chopin in 1810 to the death of Monet in 1926. His published work includes In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). He is currently working on a philosophical reading of romantic pianism. James also writes experimental prose and poetry. He is currently associated with the HOARD art project in Leeds. 

His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he tweets as @CulturalWriter 


P  is  for  Piano. Many call it the Perfect instrument. It can Play every note, high and low, that the orchestra can. It can be both melody and accompaniment. Or a wash of sound and colors. Or even five individual voices all vying for their chance to sing above the others. It can be Percussive, Pulsating, Pounding, or Powerful. It can be Pensive, Profound, Philosophical, or Prayerful. It can be Playful, Presto, or Peculiar. It can be Pleading, Poetic, Plaintive, or Pianissimo. The Piano can express a range of emotions, to the audience of course, but also to the Performer, who often experiences the music in a totally different way than the audience. It can at times sound Pompous and Pretentious. Or Produce the most Private, Personal, innermost thoughts and feelings.

P  is  for  Practicing. Many a Pupil will Procrastinate on this essential Part of Piano Playing.  Picking apart a Piece to understand it, analyzing minute details like the chord to chord Progressions, and the overall structure and compositional form. Researching Performance Practice, to ensure that the Pedaling is appropriate for the Period, or that the Portato touch is not too short. Practicing means Painstaking Preparation. Patience. Persistence. Repeating Parts, over and over, literally thousands of times. Purging wrong notes and solving Problems that arise along the way. It means Pleasure in Perfecting a Passage. Or Sometimes Physical Pain, when a Pianist overworks his muscles and Pushes himself too hard. Or even emotional Pain, because Practicing Piano also means being alone.

P  is  for  Psychology. As performers and teachers, not only do we need to know how to Physically Play the Piano, but we need to be our own and often our students’ Psychologists. We Practice Performing to Prepare ourselves for Principal dates and venues and maybe even Premieres. We try out our Programs, Playing for whoever will listen, making ourselves nervous with the hope that at the “real” Performance we will be calm and collected, and therefore able to make music more easily. Mistakes still happen, though, even though we Played our Program Perfectly many times in the Practice room and beyond. Bad mistakes can sometimes lead to a Phobia of Public Performance, which is tough to overcome. With our Psychology in one hand, and solid Preparation in the other, however, we Push down the Panic, the Palpitations, and the Perspiration (often on our Palms!) and get back on stage, encouraging our students to do the same, hoping to share a musical moment with the audience. After all, Playing the Piano is not about Perfection, but about making a connection: to the music, to ourselves, and to the audience.

Francesca Hurst

Francesca Hurst is a New Music and Classical Pianist and teacher in Washington, DC. 



P is for PPPP –  Plan, Practise, Prepare and Perform!

It’s Spring 2016, and I’ve just been planning my repertoire for concerts in 2017 and 2018. In this post about the Performance of a new piece, let’s begin with the Planning, which starts a long time in advance. Yes, we must be conversant with different periods of music and different styles, but think long-term, play to your strengths and play music you respect, believe in – and enjoy; this will communicate itself to your audience.  Keep learning new repertoire, investigating the unusual as well as the familiar, to keep programmes fresh and interesting.

Then comes the Practice. If a musical performance can be likened to an architectural structure in sound, then the score is the blueprint, and much can be gleaned from studying it away from the instrument. See how the piece is put together; what are the musical motifs which form the building blocks, how are they used, and which sections reappear in different guises? What stylistic features are apparent; to what stage of the composer’s life does the composition belong, what else was he/she writing at the time in other genres, and what does the title tell us? What were the characteristics of the instruments of the day, and what else was going on in the world ?

Having grasped an overview of the piece and ascertained its context, it’s time to start the Practice. Be strategic; learn similar sections simultaneously. I would always start with separate hands and careful fingering in small sections, gradually building into longer sections with hands together when they are fluent. Memorise as you go using not only muscular memory, but an awareness of keys, patterns, harmony and structure.

After learning the piece, we then enter the crucial Preparation stage before the first Performance.  Here we need the aim of a complete play-through some weeks, or even months, before – keep going, no matter what happens. Seek to replicate performance conditions, and try ‘stress-testing’ by getting friends and family to reproduce the noises which seek to distract us in public. Coughing, rustling, mobile phones, glasses clinking… you’ll think of others, I’m sure. Try recording yourself in private or making a video –  anything that raises the expectation and which highlights areas that need reinforcement. Seek out opportunities for trying-out pieces in informal settings. Have a dress rehearsal; ensure that clothes –  and shoes –  are suitable. Brendel writes amusingly of a piano duet performance with Daniel Barenboim wherein he became tangled in Barenboim’s concert outfit; they had rehearsed in their shirtsleeves.

And so – The Performance. Everyone approaches Performance differently; some withdraw into isolation before it, some are gregarious. Find what works for you. Try the piano in advance. Before you play, take deep breaths, smile, walk tall and enjoy! You’ve Planned, Practised and Prepared; be confident.  And afterwards …  Ronald Smith used to say that pieces always improve themselves after the first performance, and he was right. Learn from what went well, note what still needs attention – then move on. Tomorrow is another day.

Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson enjoys a distinguished career as a recitalist and concerto soloist in the UK and abroad. She is a Director of the Summer School for Pianists, and is on the staff of the Royal College of Music Junior Department in London.

Her concerts continually draw critical acclaim for her virtuosity, musicianship, and the engaging rapport she establishes with audiences of all ages.



Meet the Artist……Christine Stevenson