“my jump is not high enough, my twists are not perfect, I can’t place my leg behind my ear…..Sometimes there is such an obsession with the technique that this can kill your best impulses. Remember that communicating with a form of art means being vulnerable, being imperfect. And most of the time is much more interesting. Believe me.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov – ballet dancer

Music, like ballet, is a creative, artistic activity, but that creativity must be underpinned by secure technique – a range of mechanical skills, such as how we move our limbs, manage breathing and airflow, or control our embouchure, which enable us to execute musical ideas. These skills are developed and honed over time, and a large proportion of the musician’s training and practice is devoted to fine-tuning and maintaining their technical facility.

Musicians use a variety of means to practice technique, including scales and arpeggios, exercises, etudes and excerpts from the music currently being worked on. Technical skills require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.

Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which  to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire.

As the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says in the quote at the head of this article, “an obsession with technique can kill your best impulses”. The obsessive need to find perfection in one’s technique, coupled with the anxiety of achieving perfect arpeggio runs or intonation, can deaden musical and artistic expression, leading to performances which may be note-perfect and faithful to the score, but lacking in emotional depth and communication. In addition, this quest for technical perfection may lead to over-practicing and even injury. It can also rob us of curiosity and joy in our practicing and music-making.

“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”
David Mamet, playwright & director

Technique must always serve the music – the two are inseparable – but if one becomes too obsessed with technique alone, one risks overlooking the expressive, communicative and emotional aspects in the music. A willingness to look beyond technique, to accept that perfection is unattainable (because we are all human), leads to greater artistry and imagination in our music-making, and allows us to play “in the moment”, creating performances which are spontaneous, exciting and memorable.

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In a large early nineteenth-century former church – its previous life still evident from the grand organ situated above an elegant balcony – a group of people are ranged across plastic seating on tiers more usually occupied by orchestras in rehearsal. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a better view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. Below us are two beautiful gleaming Steinway concert grands, nose to nose like sleek racehorses. Players are called forward alphabetically and each person introduces their repertoire before sitting down to play. There’s an added frisson to today’s gathering because of the choice of pianos, a rare treat for these ‘piano nuts’ more used to playing at home on uprights or digital instruments (few have the luxury of space or money for a grand).

The performances are varied, some highly polished, a couple near-professional in their finesse and virtuosity, others are more tentative, a little hesitant as nerves get the better of the player and turn fingers trembly and the mind blank. But each performance is greeted with enthusiastic applause and there’s a palpable sense of community and collective experience.

I can’t remember exactly what I played at that particular gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG), a club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded back in 2013 when I was keen to meet others like me (being a pianist can be lonely!), but I do recall what Howard Smith played because it was by Satie, something of a rarity at LPMG events – and indeed in the concert hall. I’d not met Howard before, and I remember being struck by the sensitivity with which he played. Later, in the pub, we got talking and he admitted that he had felt very nervous playing in front of others, and had also found the advanced players quite intimidating. I assured him that he was not alone in feeling like this and that many of us were nervous (but had learnt to hide it!). We talked about the exigencies of practicing, the pleasures and the frustrations, and I discovered that Howard, like me, was a “returner” to the piano, and was working towards his Grade 6 exam. As we chatted, I sensed a quiet determination in him, to improve his playing, overcome his performance anxiety and connect with other pianists like us. Later, in an email, he told me he was writing a book about his experiences as an adult amateur pianist.

The world of the amateur pianist is a curious one – obsessive, often nerdy, richly varied, as our LPMG membership attests. We’re a motley bunch – several doctors, an actuary, a video games designer, a retired OU lecturer, a handful of piano teachers – of mixed ability players, from almost beginners to those who’ve had a formal musical training in conservatoire but who decided to take a different career path. Some have played the piano all their life, others have taken it up in retirement, or, like me and Howard, returned after an absence. But there’s one thing that unites us….

These are all people who confirm and reinforce the true meaning of the word “amateur” – not maladroit, dilettante “Sunday pianists”, but people who absolutely love the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of LPMG and this love is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our obsession: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, instruments, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, recordings and more. Released from their living rooms, basements and garden studios, where practising is often undertaken in pleasurable solitary confinement, regular meetups allow these people to indulge their passion and share it with likeminded others.

“You’re all weird!” says my cycling-obsessed husband. But when I point out to him that I have encountered a similar passion amongst his cycling fraternity, he concedes that we are all “nuts” of one kind or another!

Amateurs may never touch the professionals, but they might just conceivably touch the audience with their fidelity and commitment to the piano and its literature. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the sheer amount of hard work, and anxiety, grit and determination, that has gone into preparing for that performance.

And it is this hard work – the practising, the striving and a desire to improve, the sheer bloody-mindness to stick to the task  – which colours Howard Smith’s book ‘Note for Note’.

In part a memoir, ‘Note for Note’ is a Pilgrim’s Progress for the amateur pianist, and in it Howard charts the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”, as well as the sloughs of despond when one can feel stuck in a rut due to lack of progress or having reached a plateau in one’s musical development with no clear way of moving forward. These are aspects which all pianists, indeed all musicians, whether professional, amateur or student, will recognise, and Howard describes the setbacks and the triumphs, small and large, in an engaging, candid and witty narrative. There’s an immediacy to his writing too, which reflects his excitement in the discoveries or progress he makes: those wonderful breakthroughs when one thinks “Oh yes, now I understand!”.

Having had some lessons as a child, Howard decides to revisit the piano in his retirement, throwing himself into his practising and musical study with all the dedication and passion that befits the word “amateur”. That Howard loves the piano is clear from the outset: beguiled by the instrument, its literature, those who play it, the practice of practising, and the will to improve, he sets out on the rocky road to mastery, with the support of teachers, friends and other pianists (amateur and professional). The result is a remarkably honest book that will resonate with others on the same path and will provide inspiration and practical information for those who are just starting out on the journey.

But there’s more to this book than a straightforward ‘What Howard Did Next…..’. His intellectual curiosity and a voracious appetite for information lead him to explore music theory, harmony, improvisation and song-writing, and all his discoveries are documented within the pages of the book, as Howard shares his growing musical understanding with his readers. Such information is explained clearly, in some instances with diagrams, to assist the reader, and because it is presented from the point of view of someone who has only recently grasped the concepts, it is easy to understand and absorb. Thus, this book is also a primer for those interested in exploring harmony, and particularly jazz harmony, lead sheets and the building blocks of jazz improvisation, in more detail. Meanwhile, the ‘Postlude’/appendix includes a helpful checklist for the piano student and advice on managing performance anxiety, a perennial issue for many musicians.

I sense a courageousness in Howard too. It’s not easy to set oneself on a musical path such as this: playing for a teacher or in front of others at piano club or on a course, or taking practical music exams are perhaps the hardest things for the amateur pianist, yet Howard’s willingness, tempered with a healthy dose of humility, to “just do it” (to quote a famous advertising slogan) is admirable and inspiring.

This personal testimony, written by someone who understands both the daily practicalities and exigencies of learning a musical instrument and who also has a deep appreciation of the art and craft of music, regardless of genre, is a celebration of the wonderfully enriching experience, both physical and emotional, that music brings to so many people – as players and practitioners, teachers and listeners.

Above all, this book is a love story – for the piano and those who play it, and music and musicians in general.

‘Note For Note’ is available to order via Amazon


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Guest post by Amy Boyes

Especially loved in Canada, the music festival has been a fixture in our communities for decades. These are not the raucous music festivals held on lawns with big stages and four hundred portapotties that most people associate with the term “music festival.” These local competitions are hosted for the educational benefit of young performers.

Amy Boyes has adjudicated music festivals from as far east as Prince Edward Island and as far west as Manitoba. She teaches piano and theory in Ottawa, Canada.

In this guest post, Amy reflects on the sights, sounds and smells of rural Canadian music festivals while confronting out-dated practices. Both a love letter and criticism of competitive music festivals, Amy explores the history and transformative power of the music festival on developing musicians.   

“Your destination is on your right,” my phone chirps. And what a destination this old Anglican church is. Two thousand square feet of nave, chancel and vestry, capped with a turret and a bell tower, supported by buttresses in an otherwise residential neighbourhood cast long shadows over the street.

I shut off my phone’s GPS, step out of the car and look around. The morning air is fresh. Birds sing and runoff trickles from a grungy snow pile on the curb, down the street to the storm sewer. I step across an uneven concrete walk and, at the top of three steps, push open the church’s heavy wood door. Carved with a cross, the door hangs from decorative iron hinges. Despite my efforts to dull the effects of its automatic stopper, the door bangs shut.

“Good morning!” I cheerfully call to the volunteer at the admission table.

Music festivals are impossible to run without volunteers. Often seniors, these volunteers are reliable and dedicated. Unafraid of ice or cold weather, they do their bit. This particular volunteer looks nearly ninety, with paper-thin skin and a cardinal on her mauve sweater. I step around her table, heading to the main area where I expect to find the festival coordinator.

“Excuse me, Miss!” The volunteer waves a program at me frantically. “There’s an admission fee.”

I stop. “I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Amy Boyes, the adjudicator.”

“But you look too young to be an adjudicator!”

I smile and wonder how old I’ll be before my baby face has enough wrinkles to imply experience. What about the lines around my eyes? Don’t they scream “over thirty?” And if I look too young to do the job now, how many prime, productive years will I have before I look too old?

I step into the sanctuary, across thin red carpet to a desk wedged between the narrow wooden pews favoured by generations long gone. Creaky and uncomfortable though they be, pews give a certain grandeur, a reverential aura.

I find the festival coordinator and introduce myself in a low voice. We chat softly because the church is quiet. Dead quiet. As the two of us work out the details of marking, assessment sheets, certificates, and provincial recommendations, we use pianissimo voices, careful not disturb, not to give away secrets. My job is to be objective. I will listen, write comments, and give feedback. I will do my best to inspire, teach and encourage. I will be a guest teacher, of sorts.

But there’s another duty I’m not so fond of, that of judge and juror.

I sometimes wonder if by adjudicating I’m encouraging an outdated cultural attitude. The practice of identifying and rewarding young musicians is dangerously subjective. If I were to hear a class on two consecutive days, I might mark it differently. It’s just one performance, a tiny glimpse into a much larger picture. After all, I don’t know if the student began playing six months ago or has been playing for six years. I don’t know if the student has the making of something marvellous or will stop practicing forever two weeks from now.

I’m making a judgement that may be disregarded by the student or taken to heart for years to come. I can make them want to practice or I can make them never want to play again. I always hope they listen to my more constructive words, my kindest encouragements. But I never know.

Only a few people sit in the pews, just the four or five performers in the first class, flanked by parents and grandparents. But the tall ceilings and old wood act as an echo chamber for whispers and dropped books. Nerves are evident. Young performers are anxious about playing. The festival coordinator is anxious about the organization. I’m anxious the dreadful coffee I drank at the Days Inn at breakfast is going to finish my stomach.

The church is three degrees too cold, so coats are left on. Crinkly, polyester taffeta ski jackets; wool, slightly sweaty, pea coats; flannel plaid button-ups, with a few dog hairs clinging, in from the country—the coats remain. It’s only the first week of April after all, and it doesn’t matter if the festival is held in Moncton, Kingston, Boissevain, Moose Jaw, Red Deer, or Penticton, the church will be cold.

The church has a smell too, an elixir of dust, mould, old wood, and two week-past Good Friday dinner. Every church smells the same—United, Anglican, Presbyterian. Old church smell has ecumenical leanings.

I sit at the desk and begin signing certificates. As I scrawl, Amy Boyes, Amy Boyes, Amy Boyes, on one certificate after another, I imagine the back of my head being inspected. Do we like this adjudicator? I imagine people thinking. Perhaps last year’s adjudicator didn’t have much to say or too much to say. I picture them wondering if I’ll be amusing or if I’ll drone on and on about sonata form and compound metres.

At nine o’clock, the festival coordinator greets the assembled in a loud but welcoming voice. The festival coordinator is “thrilled” to introduce me. She may have had a sinking feeling at the sight of me, but she wears excitement well, like a good makeup job—brightening the eyes, widening the smile. She reads my biography, forging through degrees, institutions, associations and organizations like she practiced, which she may well have. During this recitation, I write cheerful comments on assessment sheets for performances yet to come: “Thanks so much for playing today!” or “What an enjoyable performance!” I write to distract myself from the banality of my biography and nagging self-doubt. Is that really all I’ve accomplished? What a thin biography. Never performed in Europe. Or the States. Didn’t study abroad either, for that matter.

The festival coordinator introduces Carl, an elderly gentleman sitting in the front row. Carl will announce the classes and performers. And so he does.

With a voice so profound in its depths that Sam Elliot’s would seem flippant in comparison, Carl recites the first class’s name and number, always a cryptic code filled with Ps and Ks. It’s a class of Baroque pieces. Grade 4.

“Olivia Reedman will now play ‘Rigadoon in A minor’ by Babell,” announces Carl.

Olivia knocks a hymn book off the pew rack as she makes her way from the very back of the sanctuary to the grand piano at the front of the room. She wears a sleeveless fuchsia frock with gold sequins, perhaps a recent Easter treat. On her feet, she wears bright green Sorel boots. Maybe her Sunday School shoes were forgotten at home in the early morning rush.

Olivia approaches the big and black piano with bold, gold letters, “Y A M A H A,” slowly, even reverentially. She mounts the bench and may find it too close to the keys for she looks at her little toes, jammed into the carpet, with panic in her eyes. The bench is heavy which seems to discourage her from moving it. Moving it might make noise and she’s likely terrified of that. Olivia lifts her hands onto the keys with a tentative gesture like she’s only just been given these hands and they are a bit new to her. With an E to A4 pickup, Olivia’s right hand begins with her left hand following two beats later.

BRIGHT! SHINY! LOUD! The sound seems to shock Olivia, for her head whips up and her eyes pop wide. Notes ping from the Yamaha then pong against the wood panelling in the back of the hall. The second phrase is to be played more quietly than the first, but Olivia plays the second phrase exactly like the first. It’s a stream of loudness, spirting from the open piano, spraying up into the open rafters, showering down on us.

Then new things happen. Repeated notes. Forte. More forte! The notes echo from the back wall like shots in the night. Olivia appears to panic. She speeds up. Then she must notice the hammers drilling up and down inside the grand piano, for she stares at the mechanism as she plays—up, down, hammer here, hammer there. Perhaps she’s never seen inside a grand piano before for she seems mesmerized. She’s making this huge, black beast work! All by memory! All with her own hands!

Suddenly, everything stops. And that’s it. The piece has ended.

Olivia slides off the bench looking slightly stunned. She faces the smattering of applause throughout the church, quickly dips her head in lieu of a bow, and then scampers back to her pew.

I applaud, then return to the assessment I’m writing, my pencil scratching in the now silent church. The performance was lovely, I quickly write. You have beautiful stage manners. Now, could you try to make a bigger difference in the volume between phrase one and phrase two? The two phrases are an echo of each other… a parallel construction with a slight twist on the second cadence. The ear needs contrasting dynamics. Could you also try to shape the loud, repeating notes in the second section? Again, an enjoyable performance. Good choice of tempo but aim for steadier playing. Nice memory work.

I nod at Carl, who has been steadily watching me. I’m ready for the next performer.

The first music festival in Canada took place in Edmonton, Alberta, in May 1908. Over two days, musicians from Edmonton and throughout the province competed at the MacDougall Methodist Church. The final evening’s mass choir concert saw over two thousand people packed into the charmingly-named Thistle Rink. Eager volunteers had decorated the walls with bunting and bear skins, of all things.

Undoubtedly it was a mixed event, staged long before the era of television and YouTube. A sample of Handel, for example, was followed by a rousing rendition of “Annie Laurie.” Mendelssohn; by “I Sing to Thee Songs of Araby.” Regardless, Alberta’s thirst for culture was evident and contagious. Following the successful 1908 event, music festivals sprung up across Canada. Alongside grain elevators and oil wells, lumber mills and fishing shacks, communities only boasting two struggling churches, a school, a post office and a grocery store mounted music festivals. These events were good for the students, and they were good for the town.

However, Canada’s oft-capricious weather often conspires against culture. In the dead of winter in Manitoba where I grew up, someone must blow snow out of the laneway, hope the municipality plowed the highway, start the four-wheel-drive truck, bundle everyone up and head to town in a howling blizzard. Whether it be for music lessons, coffee house performances, choir practices, band rehearsals, or music festivals, every trip to town is an investment. Every action is deliberate.

It is this deliberateness, however, that drove volunteers in Edmonton in 1908 to turn a curling rink into a concert hall and hang bear skins on the walls. It is what keeps music festivals alive today.

After all five students play, Carl asks them to come up to the front pew. They are more relaxed now, chatting and smiling at each other. They sit in the same order as they performed which is a god-send for me. I can never keep performers straight unless they’re in order.

Olivia Reedman. Emily Foster. Cayden Johnson. Xiao Chen, and Olivia Boyd. I review their names in the program as I walk to the front of the room.

“Well, what a treat it is to be with you all this morning!” I begin. I speak in the general direction of the performers in the front row, but with a loud enough voice to carry to the rest of the audience. None of the performers return my smile. They look wary, suspicious even.

This segment of the festival is generally my favourite part. I talk with the kids, asking questions about themselves and the pieces they play. I talk about key signatures, harmonic scales, leading tones. I work slowly—they are still quite young, after all, out of their comfort zones and likely feeling a bit stressed. I have to gain their confidence before they’ll respond.

“So what key this piece is in?” I ask, assuming the title of the piece, “Rigadoon in A minor” has illuminated them already.

I get blank stares, so I turn the score around and lower it to their eye level.

“Do you see a key signature?” I ask, pivoting the book slightly so everyone can see.

After a moment of excruciating silence, Emily says, “There isn’t any.”

“Very good, Emily!” I congratulate. “So what scales or keys only use the white notes?”

“C?” says the boy named Cayden with noticeable doubt in his voice.

“Absolutely!” I respond. “C major only has white keys.” I walk over to the piano and play a C major scale. “It sounds rather cheerful, doesn’t it?” I play it again and all the performers in the front row politely nod. “Now, let me play its sad cousin, A minor. It uses all the same notes as C major, but it begins on an A.”

I play the A minor scale in natural form and suddenly Olivia R. pumps her hand up into the air.

“I know now! I forgot before!”

“Go ahead, Olivia,” I say.

“Rigadoon is in A minor and it uses a G# because it’s in harmonic form which means you raise the 7th note of the scale!”

Most of the heads bob up and down enthusiastically. This was common knowledge after all. Everybody knows this stuff, I’m sure. We had to dig for it.

I push further. The G# disappears in the middle section as the piece modulates to the relative major, C major. Suddenly, the piece is lighter, brighter. Forte is marked as the tonality is uplifted, cheerful even. This section could be played more brightly.

I walk them through all the dynamic markings on the score, demonstrating a variety of sounds on the piano as I go. I ask for a volunteer and Olivia R. returns to the bench. I give her some suggestions for dynamic changes and phrase shaping. She makes an attempt and although the results are not wildly better than her initial performance, at least she’s worked with a new teacher and a different perspective, even for a few minutes. She smiles when she’s finished. Perhaps she enjoyed herself.

I’m already running two minutes behind schedule as I tack on a few words about the importance of a steady tempo and consistent articulation. Then I finish with my least favourite part—announcing a winner.

The practice of marking is subjective and outdated, a surviving feature from an era where all effort was quantified and marks were printed in the local newspaper. In reality, I know Olivia R.’s missed dynamics are no worse a sin than Cayden’s rushed tempo or Emily’s tiny memory slip, or Olivia B.’s detached legato line. All these errors are typical for a young performer. Anyone of these students, with consistent practice and good teaching, has the capability of becoming a solid, dependable performer. The concept of a winner at this stage is absurd. However, Xiao’s performance was as close to perfection as one hears at the elementary level. It was steady and clean, with well-shaped phrases and crisp, lively tempo. She probably practices twice as much as everyone else in the room and should be rewarded for her effort. She deserves a first place ribbon and the applause that comes with it. There’s nothing subjective about that.

I take a big breath and call out the results. Third place for Olivia Reedman. Second place for Cayden Johnson. First place for Xiao Chen.

There is enthusiastic applause from the audience and a mixture of expressions from the students. Elation. Disappointment. Typical reactions in competitions.

I hand out certificates and ribbons, congratulating and confusing names and books as I often do. We shake each other’s cold hands and I wish them a good day at school. They thank me and that’s it. One class down. A full week’s to go.

I return to the adjudicator’s table and signal the start of the next class. However, there’s a slight problem, I’m told. The first student is running late; their country road flooded this morning with spring runoff. They’re taking a circuitous route into town so that the student will perform at the end of the class.

No problem, I say, then smile. I picture myself, twenty-five years ago, being driven into a minuscule prairie town from a hog farm in rural Manitoba. Parka zippered over an Easter dress. Sunday school shoes under my arm. Bulky Sorels on my feet. Humming my little piece under my breath.

And so it continues.

profile_photoAmy Boyes is a private music teacher in Ottawa, Canada. Her time is split between teaching, examining, adjudicating, and writing. Her work has been featured in the American Music Teacher Magazine, the Piano Magazine (Formerly Clavier Companion), the Canadian Music Teacher Magazine, No Dead Guys Blog, Melanie Spanswick Blog, The Columbia Journal and The Humber Literary Review. Amy holds a Bachelor of Music from Brandon University, Master of Music from the University of Alberta and diplomas in piano performance and teaching from the Royal Conservatory and Trinity College, London. 



Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Schubert – C Major Sonata, D. 840

Schubert – G Major Sonata, D. 894

Like almost every other festival this year, Petworth’s annual summer music festival, which normally takes place in July, fell victim to the restrictions imposed in response the coronavirus pandemic, but rather than cancel this year’s festival altogether, its organisers sensibly moved the music festival to the autumn and combined it with the literary festival. The events are all online, though some are live, with audience, to create “a real ‘Petworth’ feel about them” (Stewart Collins, Artistic Director) and, as always, there’s a fantastic line up of performers and guests, including Sheku and Isata Kanneh Mason, The London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley, and Mitsuko Uchida. Petworth Festival always attracts an impressive roster of performers and amply confirms that there is very high quality music-making to be found outside of the capital.

We’re all pretty used to watching concerts via livestream and videocasts now; superior technology allows such broadcasts to be presented with high-quality sound and visuals, which undoubtedly enhances the experience. It’s impossible to entirely recreate being in a concert hall, but one of the advantages of livestream is that you can choose when the view the concert: watch it live or at your own convenience, perhaps in the middle of the afternoon, as I did with this particular concert. With my laptop connected to the tv in the living room and a cup of tea in hand, I settled down to enjoy Mitsuko Uchida playing two sonatas by Franz Schubert.

I’ve only ever seen Uchida performing in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall, yet every time she has managed to shrink the space, drawing us into her personal, musical world to create the atmosphere of a salon concert. This is particularly true when she plays Schubert, a composer who despite writing large-scale works, is a master of the introspective, and, as I have written on this blog, a composer for these corona times.

Uchida is very alert to Schubert’s idiosyncrasies, his chiaruscuro and elusive, shifting moods, and I always feel that she is very at home with this music. She creates the most remarkably sense of intimacy through hushed pianissimos, tapered sonorities and a sensitivity to Schubert’s “psychological dynamics” – where a fortissimo, for example, is tempered by a certain restraint and emotion is implied rather than made explicit in sound. She highlights details or moments of significance with a touch of rubato here, a little more pressing forward there, and these feel spontaneous, of the moment, never contrived (of course the ability to do this so effortlessly comes from a long association with the music and a deep knowledge of it).

Uchida also seems to subscribe to Andras Schiff’s assertion that one must “follow” Schubert, allowing the expansiveness of this music to unfold gradually. Her melodies have a warm cantabile, her dynamics subtly shaded, often revealing dark, mysterious layers beneath.

In the D894, described by Robert Schumann as “most perfect in form and conception”, she created a timeless serenity in the opening movement, opting for a relaxed moderato (rather than Richter’s famously ‘meditative’ slowness) to allow the narrative to flow naturally into the dramatic grandeur of the development. What followed was a second movement with a contrasting rhythmic vigour in the more passionate passages, a tender, folksy lullaby in the third movement, and an elegant, supple finale replete with pastoral charm.

122117455_4474452515958519_7672388628339138679_oSchubert isn’t a showy composer, and nor is Uchida a showy performer. For this concert, she was dressed soberly in a dark fluid trouser suit, but there was a glint of showiness in her footwear – the most elegant silver shoes which lent a roccoco flair. Of course, the superb camera work allowed one to enjoy such details: to get up close and personal with the performer as the camera lighted on her  hands and face, revealing myriad expressions, often unconscious, and which perhaps offered a glimpse to the personality beyond the notes.

Petworth Festival continues until 1 November – more information

Photo credits

Decca/Justin Pumfrey

Petworth Festival

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Part 1 – Letting go of the music

Writers, artists and musicians all understand this dilemma – when do we “let go” of that article or book manuscript, painting or piece of music? Given half the chance, most of us would happily continue tinkering and refining ad infinitum, but there has to come a time when we must let go.

Amateur pianists are lucky, in many ways, because they can, if they so desire, continue to tinker with a piece or pieces of music for as long as they like. Professionals, on the other hand, know that there must come a point when the music is deemed “concert ready” – the time when it is put before an audience, or recording equipment, and held up for public scrutiny.

The processes involved in arriving at this point are not only the learning and upkeep of thousands of notes, but also a mixture of intelligent, highly focussed practicing and many hours of reflection and refinement. Many professionals (and serious amateurs too) use recording and video to self-critique, as well as working away from the piano using a variety of practices to really ‘get inside’ the music, know it intimately, and appreciate its myriad details and nuances.

Professionals and more experienced amateur pianists are able to judge when their music is “ready” – and I prefer to use the word “ready” rather than “finished”, for how can we ever say a piece is truly “finished”?

Art is never finished only abandoned. – Leonardo da Vinci

When we set aside music after a period of intense learning, returning to it at a later date can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, but it is also an opportunity to discover new things and reveal new details, if we approach that return with curiosity. We also bring experience, gained from learning other music – for every piece we learn and play will give us something which can be applied to another piece or pieces – listening, and from our life experiences too.

As a performer, I love the process of a piece always revealing something fresh if I’m open to it. – Eleonor Bindman, pianist

But before we have reached that moment of return, when do we know when to “let go” in the first place?

It would be easy – and facile – to say that you know when to let go when you feel you can play the piece confidently, that it is technically and artistically secure. But for less advanced pianists, recognising this point in their progress may not be so easy. A teacher or mentor can help by offering honest feedback.

Many of us have a goal in mind when we’re practising – be it a concert or other performance (perhaps at piano club), an exam, competition, or an audition. When I was working towards my performance diplomas, and especially the second and third diplomas when I had a much clearer understanding of the processes and timescales involved in bringing the repertoire up to performance-ready standard, I almost worked backwards from the performance date, knowing how long it would take to reach certain stages of refinement and readiness. This meant I could manage my practising efficiently, set and achieve realistic goals along the way, and, hopefully, prevent the music from “going stale” from too much practising, thus keeping something back for the day of the performance.

And this, for many amateur pianists in particular, is the real issue. At what point does your music reach the fine line between readiness and staleness, and how do you know this?

I think the danger points are when silly mistakes start to creep in during practice. Familiarity with the music can make us sloppy and complacent; we may overlook details, because we know the music too well, and we may be less assiduous about correcting errors, saying to ourselves during practice, “Oh it’s ok, I can fix that tomorrow!“. In fact, at this point, it is important to be super-vigilant in our practicing; it may also be a signal to set the music aside, if only for a few days, or perhaps weeks or even months.

Boredom is another sign that it might be time to let go. If each time you go to practice you inwardly sigh at having the same piece of music confront you on the music desk, and practicing it feels like a chore (even if it is music that you enjoy playing), it is time to let it go. Put the music away for awhile and turn your attention to other repertoire.

There is another aspect, which applies particularly to repertoire which is being made ready for performance, and that is the need to hold something back (or indeed let go of it!) for the concert.

I often repeat British pianist Stephen Hough’s assertion that one needs to be “a perfectionist in the practice room” in order to be “a bohemian on stage“. Disciplined, meticulous, deep practice gives us the technical and artistic security, and, importantly, the confidence to let go in performance. And it is in those moments of letting go that the real magic of performance happens – for audience and performer.

Don’t be afraid to let go of your music when you feel you have done all you can up to that point. The fingers and brain do not forget easily, and if you have done the right kind of practicing, returning to the music at a later date will not be too arduous. Remain open-minded and curious about your music and on each return to previously-learnt repertoire, you will discover different details and find pleasure and excitement anew.

In the second part of this essay, I will look at more extrinsic and psychological aspects including the problem with perfectionism, and learning to let go of criticism and self-critque, and how to release expectations, of ourselves as musicians, and of others.

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As clarinettist Michael Collins takes over as Artistic Director in Residence of the London Mozart Players for the 2021-23 seasons, he talks about his influences and inspirations, challenges and hopes for the future of classical music.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was inspired by my primary school to enjoy classical music. The headmistress took a group of us the the Royal Festival Hall once a month to the Sir Robert Mayer concerts. I heard a piece involving the clarinet and it inspired me to start learning. One of the biggest influences in my musical life has been the great pianist Martha Argerich whom I have had the privilege of working with many times.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I have faced many challenges in life but the biggest one was three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. I was and am extremely proud that during all the treatment I was able to continue working and didn’t cancel one engagement. This was quite a challenge.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

It’s difficult to pin point any performance that I am proud of because I find something in every concert to be proud or critical about. Recordings are different; I have made so many recordings over the years but the one which really stands out is a very recent one of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony and the Finzi Clarinet Concerto with my old Orchestra, the Philharmonia

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I feel very “in tune” with the Classical period and Mozart in particular. I feel that I have something to say about this composer; his life and musical growth really intrigues me.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I enjoy fine wine and nice cars. These keep me busy in otherwise a very hectic world. As far as getting inspiration on stage, the excitement of each and every concert is inspiration enough, I feel.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Unlike other solo instruments such as piano and violin, I don’t have the luxury of a vast repertoire. Therefore I don’t usually choose repertoire season to season. I simply accept whichever work comes my way as and when, which means I can have several works and programmes on the go during any one season.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love the Wigmore Hall. It is intimate, with a great acoustic, and it always feels very special when one walks onto the platform. In fact, most of my memorable concerts are from the Wigmore Hall.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Classic FM is doing a sterling job in encouraging a wider audience. I do think it is now up to the musicians to take a very active role in encouraging the younger audience to really enjoy classical music. This can be done by breaking down barriers which I feel have been a big stumbling block in encouraging the young audience into accepting and enjoying classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of my most memorable concert experiences was as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms. Walking out to such a huge crowd all waving flags, shouting and cheering and then total silence once I started to play will stay with me forever

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success is to be happy and content with the present. Not to worry about the future but to always look and search to find a way of keeping ones performance fresh, alive and never routine.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it is very important to take both the good things from one’s performance, the not so good things and learn from them. Take and accept good reviews and don’t take to heart not so good ones; the most important thing is to be yourself on the platform and never try to copy others. It will shine through if young musicians can be true to themselves and individual. In the long term, this will prove to be a very important part of music-making.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be a better musician, introducing new works to the public and bringing the old ones with a fresh approach. This is something which really excites me for the future.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting quietly with a lovely glass of wine listening to a Schubert String Quartet.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think, without reservation, my two children!

What is your present state of mind?

After coming out the other side of cancer, I am in a very positive and upbeat state of mind, even if we are experiencing a terrible moment in all our lives. Music really does help our state of mind; it’s calming, uplifting and can fill us with hope and optimism.

Michael Collins will be London Mozart Players’ Artistic Director in Residence for the 2021–2023 seasons.

His concert as part of LMP’s new online ‘Classical Club’ concert series playing Mozart and Weber clarinet quintets, filmed at the Tower Room in the St Pancras’s iconic gothic revival Clock Tower is available to watch here.

Michael Collins’ dazzling virtuosity and sensitive musicianship have earned him recognition as one of today’s most distinguished artists and a leading exponent of his instrument. At 16 he won the woodwind prize in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, going on to make his US debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall at the age of 22. He has since performed as soloist with many of the world’s most significant orchestras and formed strong links with leading conductors. Collins also has the distinction of being the most frequently invited wind soloist to the BBC Proms, including several appearances at the renowned Last Night of the Proms.

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