All posts by The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, piano teacher, music and arts reviewer, and blogger

The Three C’s

Confidence Commitment Concentration

Sometimes, and more frequently that you might imagine, my husband’s world (mountain-biking) and mine (music) intersect, with interesting results. At first sight, our respective passions could not be more different: he likes to hurl himself and his bike down the side of mountains, riding rough-shod (literally) over rocks and gnarly tree roots while I get my share of excitement out of playing the piano or hearing others play it in concert. How could there possibly be any connection between those two activities?

But a chance conversation between my husband, myself and two pianist/piano teaching friends over dinner recently revealed some noteworthy parallels between the world of the downhill mountain-biker and the performing pianist. In fact, there are many parallels between sportspeople and musicians, from the way we prepare for a race or a performance to the importance of listening to and taking care of our bodies (see The Musician as Sportsperson).

“Confidence Commitment Concentration” is a mantra my husband regularly repeats in relation to his cycling. In his world – and that of other sportspeople – Confidence is a key factor in propelling one down that vertiginous mountain track or round the running circuit. While negotiating a rocky descent there’s no time for self-doubt because a moment’s hesitation can lead to one to misjudge the line and ride into a tree, or worse. Confidence, and the ability to handle one’s bicycle or instrument adroitly, comes from practising and honing one’s technical skills. Assured technique then provides the firm foundation on which to build creativity and artistry. It also gives us the freedom and confidence to make snap decisions during performance and to prevent small slips or errors from distracting us or pulling us off course.


Commitment – so you’re barrelling down that alpine track and there’s a jump ahead. You can’t apply the brakes because you need the right speed to propel you over the jump. Now is the time to commit – don’t hold back and don’t be tentative. In a musical performance, we commit from the moment we start playing. At that point there is no going back – the first notes have sounded and we must play with commitment to offer our audience a convincing performance. Commitment also means playing fluently and not allowing errors or slips to distract us. And just as a moment’s hesitation on the mountain track could lead to an accident, tentative playing may hint at lack of confidence which might make our audience uneasy for the rest of the performance. Of course piano playing is not nearly as hazardous as downhill mountainbiking (I know this because my husband is a fairly frequent visitor to the A&E department at our local hospital), but a metaphoric accident during a performance can do serious damage to our confidence and self-esteem which may harm future performances.


Concentration – sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you need to concentrate, but our concentration can easily be disturbed which can then disrupt or sabotage a performance. My husband cites things like “your mates standing at the side of the track taking photos or yelling at you“. In a musical performance, external factors such as a member of the audience coughing or rustling their programme can interrupt our concentration, in addition to internal issues such as the negative voice of the inner critic. Concentration can be trained to such a degree that we can accept external interruptions without affecting our performance – see my earlier post Mind Games for more on concentration.

Taken all together, The Three C’s can lead to a performance – musical or sporting – that is fluent, convincing and successful.

If you get one of The Three Cs wrong you can probably still pull it off, but if you get two of them wrong you’ll probably crash. 

Meet the Artist……Frederic Chiu, pianist

rt2020130925_fr_s15_0003Who or what inspired you to take up the piano nd pursue a career in music? 

I don’t recall myself the beginnings of my musical studies, but it was my parents who made the decision. They loved Classical Piano, and specifically my father, who was exposed to the rigors of Classical Piano training through his sister. She had studied seriously in NY, and turned to teaching because of a hand injury.

Playing piano was part of the process of growing up and getting education – which also included school, sports, cub scouts, etc.

The idea of pursuing a career in piano evolved steadily and slowly, but unconsciously, on my part and on the part of my parents. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20’s that I consciously made that decision. By then, of course, I had already attended two of the greatest music schools in the world (Indiana University and Juilliard), played around the world, made recordings and had management! I realized that I could pursue a number of different careers, but that, given my training, playing the piano was the most interesting and rewarding path. From that point, I doubled down on my commitments and focus. And it hasn’t stopped since!

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

Having Classical music playing 24/7 in my parents’ house since before I was born made a huge difference. I still play some of those recordings virtually in my head. My brother (a 1st violinist in the Chicago Symphony) and I lived within music, not realizing how unusual it was to have that kind of upbringing. 

Each of my teachers brought me an essential element at the right time. I think about their teaching regularly as I continue down my path.

In terms of icons, I was most influenced by 3 pianists: Horowitz, who taught me what the piano can do, through his amazing recordings. Richter, who taught me how to position yourself relative to the music when performing. And Glenn Gould, who taught me why one should explore music and performance.

Later, when I was in Paris, I discovered Alfred Cortot, who embodies all of that. His words about music (and I feel grateful to have learned French, if only to be able to understand Cortot in his mother tongue) are able to describe music in a way that I have not found anywhere else.

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

Balancing career building with other aspects of life – family, health, friends, other interests. I often leave piano playing to the end, which is both a plus and a minus. A Minus because sometimes I don’t spend the time I truly should, when I truly should, focusing on career development, piano development, etc. It’s a Plus because, coming at the end of a long to do list, my playing really becomes a receptacle for all of the thoughts and ideas that the other activities inspired. It’s where I’ve always processed all of my thoughts and feelings, and I think it has become richer for that.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

That’s like – “Which of your children are you most proud of.”!! I can say something about every album that has come out!

Transcriptions: part of the leading edge of the acceptance of Transcriptions in the repertoire.

Complete Prokofiev Sonatas: Wow, I actually recorded this!

Mendelssohn Sonatas: So happy this is one of my best-selling albums – the music is amazing, confident, historically significant AND people recognized this.

Rossini Sins of Old Age: I learned how to produce an album (under dire circumstances!) through this fun, virtuosic recording.

Chopin Etudes Opus 10 and Rondeaux: A complete change in my approach to Chopin, plus doing the 2-piano recording, playing with technology!

Liszt Annees de Pelerinage: My first big concert in Paris was playing this cycle. So moving to get to put it down for posterity.

Schubert/Liszt Schwanengesang: Intermingling one of the greatest achievements of Liszt with some of the most important personal relationships in my life.

Reflections – Ravel, Decaux, Schoenberg: I consider this my greatest contribution to the part of programming – discovering Decaux and using those pieces to bridge the chasm between impressionism and expressionism.

Chopin Complete Mazurkas: Chopin possibly used every iteration of ¾ time available somewhere in this genre. I wanted to create a CD that could be compelling but also play in the background, and I think I succeeded.

Chopin Etudes Opus 25 and late works: Making a link between works of Chopin that have not been associated before. And being able to record the great late Chopin works.

Brahms Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): Brahms Sonatas, what more need I say?

Grieg Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): beautiful, unrecognized pieces. Pierre and I both entered into a world of discovery with this recording and bonded in a wonderful way.

Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet: My favorite recording of my own to listen to. The rhythms and melodies are endlessly fascinating and compelling, no matter how many times I listen.

Prokofiev Volume 5, early works: Fugitive Visions and Sarcasms – love the contrast between these two early works.

Prokofiev Volume 6: middle works: Obscure sets that are never played, but which illuminate an important time of Prokofiev’s life. It’s impossible to understand his music without knowing these works.

Prokofiev Volume 7: children theme: I have always loved music for/about children, and Prokofiev has a special connection to this theme as well.

Prokofiev Volume 8: a kind of wrap-up of the complete set, but includes the Choses en soi, which exemplify the turmoil within Prokofiev that eventually led him to return to the Soviet Union.

Prokofiev Volume 9: transcriptions: Includes my complete Lt Kije Suite, as well as the Divertissement – never played and beautifully complex.

Prokofiev Volume 10: Violin Sonatas: an important annex to the three “war sonatas” that tell an important part of the Prokofiev life journey in music.

Beethoven Symphony V – My first independently produced album, working with the great Judy Sherman. I felt great putting this together from A to Z.

Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals – so wonderfully fun working with David Gonzalez, story-teller.

Distant Voices – truly a revolutionary recording, using Disklavier technology to be able to produce a great audio CD AND an incredible video DVD and DisklavierTV show. This is the future!

Hymns & Dervishes: A successful Kickstarter project, this recording has been maturing in my mind for over 15 years, and will finally be out in 2016. The fundraising and recording processes have brought incredible depth and richness to the project, and to me in general.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I love Prokofiev, and feel I’ve aptly demonstrated how diverse and richly nuanced his music actually is, compared to the cliches that surround him and his work. In particular, perhaps the Toccata, Fugitive Visions, Sixth Sonata and Seventh Sonatas have most benefited from that. I would love to present the 4th Concerto more often. It’s not just a work for left-handed or Russian pianists!

I love Mendelssohn’s Opus 6 Sonata, and no one plays it, for some reason.

I love transcriptions, and hope I bring a special attention and passion for them in concert. I’m especially proud of my Lt Kije transcriptions.

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

I have some recurring themes and ideas – Prokofiev, Classical Smackdown, French impressionists, Transcriptions, unusual collaborations. I have the luxury of following my sense of where I am and where the world is. From the time I decided to forgo the competition circuit, the freedom of exploring and presenting repertoire has been wonderfully inspiring. That inspiration has continued to this day (almost 30 years). My choices almost always come from taking the perspective of the open but untrained listener, willing to take a chance with a new musical experience. This has a huge influence on my choice of repertoire and the structure of the programs that I put together.

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

My nostalgic favorite is the Salle Cortot, in the Ecole Normale of Paris 17th. I played there the first time in Paris, and have since played there over 20 times. It is a beautiful wooden hall that seats 440, designed by the same architect who went on to build the Theatre des Champs Elysées.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love to listen to jazz and Middle Eastern music. Things with a strong rhythmic element and an improvisational aspect. I relate to rhythm deeply, and I am terrible at improvising, so that is kind of aspirational to me! It puts together my best and my worst qualities in playing!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

My favorite musicians today? I think that I’m not that inspired by musicians in general. I feel much more like a conduit of other kinds of perspectives and thinking, and channeling them into my own music-making as a communication tool. I’m not a big concert-goer, but when I do go, it’s usually for friends, and I’m totally connected with them and the music-making experience.

If I had to name names, I would include Valery Gergiev.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One striking memory is my first exposure to Horowitz at Carnegie Hall. It was the premier screening of “The Last Romantic,” a concert filmed in his NY apartment, and a prelude to (one of) his return to the stage the following year. I remember the visual experience resonating with the sonic experience to make something so compelling, so hallucinating. It was my first time in Carnegie Hall. Everything came together that evening.

Soon after, I bought the soundtrack, and realized that, without the visual element, the performance was actually quite lacking in some ways. It was a ground-breaking discovery on my part

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

Be sure of your vision first, and then be open to others’ ideas. Bring your vision to others, but be ready to interact with their ideas. Not having your own values and vision means you have no convictions, an unclear profile. Not being open others’ ideas means you are just barrelling through life and not relevant.

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

Moving around the world, doing residencies that allow building musical relationships and programs with roots.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being with my wife with a group of friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

None. I could see giving up anything as long as I’m healthy.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Reading and thinking.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious, fascinated.

Frederic Chiu’s intriguing piano-playing and teaching springs from a diverse set of experiences and interests: his Asian/American/European background, his musical training, and an early and ongoing exploration of artificial intelligence and human psychology, especially the body-mind-heart connection.

Find out more here



Q is for……


Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Arvo Pärt

0e9a4e9b60bf60fa96f5a0a69bf97e1dWhy pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music in between.

Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4′ 33″) – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying, single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret it – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self-examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))

Q is also for Quakers, of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring qualities (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

– TS Eliot: Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.

Stephen Ward, Writer in Residence for the Orchestra of the Swan, and blogger at The Bard of Tysoe

Quasi – As if…..

Perhaps the most famous work for piano which utilises the word “Quasi” is Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight”. The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title the work shares with its companion piece, Opus 27, No. 1.

This is extraordinary music, this “Sonata like a fantasy”, with its first movement of delicately veiled sounds, hushed melodic fragments, those peaceful, certain triplets, the slight hesitancy in the dotted figure in the right hand, the suggestion throughout of improvisation, the pedal markings, senza sordini, indicating that the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old. A twilight first movement, shimmering, shifting, hinting at the tension between the forward pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision, and the solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, the use of thematic material and texture beautifully demonstrated in the construction of the initial melody. A prophetic theme built on a single note, G-sharp, this the composer’s core idea. A single note, repeated six times, proceeds to A, then returns. A single note, reharmonized on its return, not by the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with luminous E-major. A single note forms a single theme; there is no second subject in the first movement, only that the triplet accompaniment assumes a more melodic role, only that tension rises as new harmonies are initiated. A single note, a single theme, now heard for the first time in the left hand in the coda. A single note, foreshadowed in the opening measures, recollected at the close. A single note, a simple triplet accompaniment, a crescendo and decrescendo first in the right hand, then in the left. The movement ends as quietly as it began…..

Frances Wilson

If you listen to one thing this week…..

‘The Single Petal of A Rose’ – Duke Ellington

Another troubled, turbulent week – at home and abroad – but on Friday evening, at an informal performance platform/social event for members of Piano Network UK, a 1500+ strong Facebook group of pianists, composers, piano teachers, and piano lovers, I discovered via one of the performers, jazz pianist Rick Simpson, this piece by Duke Ellington. As Rick said when he introduced the piece, it’s Ellington’s hommage to Debussy and Ravel, and there’s more than a hint of Claire de Lune in it with its sensuous harmonies, repeated melodic fragments and softly undulating rhythms.

This rendition is by Marian McPartland from her album ‘The Single Petal of A Rose: The Essence of Duke Ellington’.

The piece comes from ‘The Queen Suite’, written by Ellington in honour of Queen Elizabeth II in 1958 after he met her at a reception in Leeds. The six-movement suite had remained hidden in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, since the composer’s death in 1998 before it was played at the Marlborough International Jazz Festival as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.

Meet the Artist…… Marc Bouchkov, violinist

(photo: Nikolaj Lund)
Who or what inspired you to take up violin and pursue a career in music?

This was an easy choice, everybody in my family was playing the violin. It was almost a “Mother language”. I HAD to talk this language if I wanted to be understood, or understand what was around.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

In my early life, as I said, my parents and my family, but then, later on, the absolute love of the music and the need to create sounds!

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

All the competitions that I have done were a great challenge till today. But I understand now, that the biggest challenge ever happens each time I come to play a concert for an audience who expects to hear something special, something they will remember; this is  very challenging!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I unfortunately don’t remember so well which concerts went well, but I remember very well the bad ones. I always try to recall what actually made an experience not so good, so that I know what to do for the next time. The greatest concert was probably a recital, where I felt the biggest connection with my partner. That was incredible.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Probably the ones that I believe in the most. Meaning, when I study the piece in its context and the main idea, touches me. When the music, or its purpose doesn’t really touch me, I am afraid I can’t be sure of giving my best in it…

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

I of course look into the big repertoire pieces that I haven’t played yet, and then try to combine them with maybe lesser-known pieces that fit well with the mood, character, and again touch me enough to be able to transmit it to the audience.

I always try to keep something that I’ve already played, so that not always everything is new!

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

I’ve discovered a lot of dry, beautiful and great sounding concert venues! Every concert hall for me has a very personal history: I simply try to remember every concert, and all the circumstances of each hall where I performed.

I enjoyed very much the Philharmonie in Cologne, because of the shape of the hall and its unbelievable acoustic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Well, probably the one I love to play the most is J S Bach, no surprises there. Simply because I always find new harmonies to underline, or listen to. The writing is perfect, so evident and clear, one always discovers more and more complexity in his music.

I would say my problem is that I sometimes want to show my “personal discoveries” too much, and then it becomes a personal fight:

What I want to show as personal intention / what needs to be kept natural and be played in a more “hidden” way. For this reason, I also love playing Ysaye’s music, where a lot is happening and there is rather more room for personal interpretation.

Who are your favourite musicians?

From the ones I have been listening to lately: L. Kavakos, C. Eschenbach, M. Goerne, V. Gergiev, M. Pressler, S. Edelman…

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

I believe that today it is becoming more and more difficult to hold on to the principles of “great culture”.  We are the people who have the chance to be part of it, we have a great but very difficult mission – we have to keep it alive. I really think that a great part of our humanity is kept in the Art, as much in the “understanding” of it, as in its “producing”. This is why new and young artists have to hold on to something that maybe doesn’t bring that much success, or money, or fame. They have to bring something much more powerful (and not to themselves) – feelings, happiness, support, unity, and thousands of images.

All those elements are the true benefits of the music that we are sharing.

You’ve just been announced as the new London Music Masters Award Holder, tell us more about this?

It is a very new episode of my life starting, and I am really looking forward to the fresh new contact with Great Britain! Passionate people, passionate musicians!

I will be given the opportunity to introduce my concepts of instrumental playing and music making to the growing new generation of people/audiences in schools, for example. I really hope that my English will be good enough for the people to understand some of my twisted notions!

What are you most looking forward to about working with London Music Masters?

Meeting different people, and learning from them!

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

In a place where there would be unlimited space for love, friendship, and where I could be in a good enough shape to make music on a very high level

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be surrounded by truly honest and loving people.

What is your most treasured possession

Hum… Material possession..? Nothing… (Yet?)

What is your present state of mind?

In a very good mood.

Marc Bouchkov was born 1991 into a family of musicians. He received his first lessons at the age of five from his grandfather, Mattis Vaitsner. His first public appearance was just one year later. In 2001, he joined Claire Bernard’s studio at the Lyon Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique; he transferred to the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) in 2007. There, he began studies with Boris Garlitzky, who has been his mentor ever since, and offers him invaluable guidance for honing his craft. The following years saw participation in master classes and invitations to festivals in Moulin d‘Ande, Troyes, and Bordeaux (France), Viterbo (Italy) and New Hampshire (USA).

Marc Bouchkov is the recent recipient of a London Music Masters award

Marc Bouchkov’s website

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 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

Mind games

The other week I gave a concert in a church in a small town in Cheshire. I felt well-prepared and confident, my anxiety was under control and I was looking forward to performing the programme to a friendly audience. The opening sentence of the Sonata passed off without incident: I felt it had the requisite majesty to contrast with the falling arpeggios which followed. I was just silently congratulating myself on having played the arpeggios with just the right amount of wit and playfulness when the left hand flopped onto the keyboard and produced a chord sequence of utter rubbish. And at that point, a voice piped up in my head warning me of the perils of pianistic hubris, that “pride comes before a fall”, and that I should probably focus fully on the task in hand.

The mind can play strange games with us when we are performing and also when practising. At that moment when we should be concentrating hardest, the head has a tendency to wander off on other pathways and cul-de-sacs of thought. Most of us are well aware of the “inner critic”, that poisonous, heckling little voice within that reminds us of our fallibility and our weaknesses, that we haven’t prepared this or that section properly, that we are going to make a mistake, or repeats negative comments from teachers. This voice can seriously get in the way of our concentration and, if allowed, can sabotage a successful performance with its judgemental tone which can rob us of confidence and self-esteem.

A number of adult piano students have talked to me about their difficulties with concentration when practising and particularly when performing to others such as teachers, other pianists or in exams.

Concentration can be learnt, and trained, and I have successfully used some simple strategies to improve my concentration when practising and performing:

  • Do not practise for long periods of time. The idea that one should do hours and hours of practising is a fallacy. Successful practising is about quality rather than quantity: set aside small segments of time (up to 45 minutes in one session) and achievable targets for practising. After 45 minutes take a break, make a cup of tea, do some arm- and shoulder-loosening exercises, take a walk round the garden.
  • Banish your phone and tablet, either to a drawer away from your piano or better still turn it off and put it in another room. The urge to check in with your social media networks, “just to see what’s happening”, can be quite potent. These quick check-ins distract the mind away from the task in hand (practising) and can seriously affect concentration.
  • Practise with extraneous background noise – the radio playing in another room, for example (this is my normal practising state as my husband works from home and listens to Radio 4 all day), someone mowing the lawn outside or vaccuming in the house (the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould would practise while his mother vacuumed). Rather than attempt to completely shut out the noise and grow frustrated because it is distracting, accept that the noise is present and then switch your attention back to the music. I find practising when I cannot always hear every single sound I make encourages me to really focus on other aspects, such as touch, flexibility and fluency in passage work.
  • Get someone to come in and try to distract you. In the preparation for some recent concerts, I asked my husband to randomly stroll through the piano room, go in the garden, crash around a bit, come back in etc. On one occasion he did his Pilates routine right next to the piano. I’m glad to say I was able to carry on playing while accepting that he was there.
  • Accept that the Inner Critic exists – when we do this we take away his/hers/its power and regain control ourselves. Then show him/her/it the door – literally by imagining you are ushering the nasty creature through a doorway and out of your brain.
  • Use techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and mindfulness
  • Often something as simple as taking a deep breath in and exhaling slowly can pull your focus  back to the task in hand.
  • Aim for excellence in your music (which is achievable) rather than perfection (which is impossible)
  • Take confidence from knowing you are well-prepared and use positive affirmation such as “I can do it” and “I know my pieces”.
  • Don’t worry about what other people are doing – just because your friend from piano club practises Hanon exercises every day, it doesn’t mean you should be too. Find a practise regime that works for you.
  • Take confidence from positive comments and endorsements from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors. Carry these positive comments with you into the performance situation.
  • Take time after the performance to reflect on what happened and why, and then find positive ways to avoid such things happening again. Most errors can be identified and put right very easily.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

~William Shakespeare


Further reading:

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Klickstein

Music From the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and piano playing


ABRSM launches a new Diploma

The ABRSM has announced the launch of a new performance-only Diploma, the ARSM (“Associate of the Royal Schools of Music”). This will be an “entry level” Diploma, somewhat lower than the DipABRSM, and intended to “bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM”. Details are sketchy at present, but the ARSM will consist of a 30-minute performance consisting of music selected from the current DipABRSM repertoire list and own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 standard. At present, it is not clear whether candidates will be required to produce programme notes, but there is no sight-reading/quick study element to the ARSM, nor a viva voce.

Currently, the gap between Grade 8 and the Associate level Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, DipLCM etc) is very wide. At Grade 8 candidates play three pieces lasting approx 10-12 minutes in total. They may play a single movement of a sonata by, say, Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart as part of their Grade 8 programme, but at Associate Diploma level, candidates are expected to play a full sonata (for example, Beethoven ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, Mozart Sonata in F K332, Schubert Sonata in A, D664). The candidate’s standard of playing, musical insight, musicianship and general level of attainment is expected to be considerably higher than at Grade 8, and the time taken to study for and complete a diploma can be around 2-3 years. The first, Associate, diploma is an equivalent standard to the first year’s study in conservatoire, while the highest, Fellowship, diploma is equivalent to a Masters module.

There is quite a lot of snobbery surrounding Diplomas, with the ABRSM diplomas being considered “better”, in no small part due to the ABRSM’s longstanding reputation and its royal affiliation. In fact, the repertoire lists for Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas across the main exam boards are almost identical, and all carry the same QCF and EQF points, providing candidates with a recognised professional qualification which can be used as a pathway to further study, for example at conservatoire or university. Ultimately, the choice of diploma and exam board should be based not on snobbery but on the candidate’s personal preference, which Diploma syllabus is most appropriate/ beneficial for the candidate and so forth.

So what will the new ARSM offer to candidates? Already some of my piano teaching colleagues have commented that it will be “Grade 9 without the scales, aural and sightreading” or that is it simply a “money spinner” for the ABRSM. Some anxieties have also been expressed about whether this new diploma will lead to further dumbing down or devaluing of the higher diplomas. However, a number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have expressed interest in the ARSM and regard it as a useful opportunity for those seeking a challenge post-Grade 8 but who do not feel ready to attempt the Associate diploma.

Further details about the ARSM will be available next month and I will share them here. Meanwhile, I would be very interested in people’s views on this new diploma – please feel free to leave comments below, or contact me direct with your views.




Meet the Artist…… Rachel Podger

(Photo: Jonas Sacks)

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin, and pursue a career in music?

Playing or hearing music around me was such a normal occurrence when I was growing up. From an early age I was involved in many concerts a year, whether playing or singing, that I didn’t need to choose whether to do music; the choice was more about which directions within music to take, and also where to study after school in Germany.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Peter Werner, a Eurythmy teacher and conductor at the Steiner school I went to in Kassel, Germany was an important influence on me. He had enormously creative energy which sometimes became feverish. His rehearsal technique was engaging and involved every player in the (big) school orchestra, and he taught me how to listen. I remember hearing Gidon Kremer and Reinhard Goebel in Kassel and being stuck by their different sound worlds and charismata.  And then of course my violin teacher at the Guildhall School of Music, David Takeno, who was much more than a violin teacher, but connoisseur of all musical styles with an uncanny musical intelligence, knowledge and generosity in his teaching.

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

Apart from playing concerts when I’m jetlagged or ill (!), the hardest thing for me was playing Bach solo recitals after I had my first baby, (15 years ago) when I could hear her screaming backstage because the milk had run out, and all my instincts were telling me to run to her – but I was in the middle of the C major Fugue!!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Tricky one, as there are always things you want to play again when you come off the stage… But I quite like the Biber Passacaglia on my disc the ‘Guardian Angel’ and also the Bach A minor Concerto with my group Brecon Baroque on the Bach Violin concerto disc (both Channel Classics).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

That’s another tricky one to answer… I commit myself entirely to whatever it is I’m playing, and I adore most of what’s on the musical menu. But Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi stand out for me…

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

Repertoire choices are often decided by the theme of a festival, or the preferences of a promoter, recording plans and the recording back catalogue, so in the end there actually isn’t that much choice left! Who knows, if I had a completely new season to choose without any strings attached (as it were!) I might come up with Schubert and Brahms!

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

There are a few concert halls I’ve played in that seem to make you play like a dream…one of them is the Symphony Hall in Boston, another the Suntory Hall in Tokyo and then I absolutely adore playing at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I adore listening to styles I don’t get to play like polyphony, music from the Renaissance, symphonic repertoire, Jazz…I get to listen to some pop too since I have teenage daughters…I always wake up to ‘Breakfast’ on  BBC Radio 3 and look forward to their ‘Bach before 7’ slot, but am continually intrigued by all I get to hear.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Creative ones! I’ve been lucky to play/work with many of them…Trevor Pinnock, Gary Cooper, Pamela Thorby, Richard Egarr, Phoebe Carrai, Elizabeth Blumenstock, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Jane Rogers, Alison McGillivray, Marcin Swiatkiewicz, Robert Hollingworth, Julian Podger (yes, my brother!), Alfredo Bernadini and many more…and then there’s the amazing Kris Bezuidenhout!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many amazing moments I’ve been lucky to be part of, and often while performing with a larger group of musicians when there is a sense of unity within the music making.

Once while playing the Biber Mystery Sonatas in concert I was struck by the physicality in the ‘Crucifixion’ Sonata and got so involved in that aspect that I didn’t hear the applause afterwards and just stood there for a while (or so I’m told!) looking like I’d been the one crucified…

Another time playing the ‘Erbarme Dich ‘ aria from the Matthew Passion with Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert when I was pregnant and my unborn baby was utterly still while I stood up alongside the alto and played that heartfelt piece about mercy. Afterwards when I sat down the baby kicked and danced to the rest of the piece!

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

Practise intelligently, i.e. use your time well and efficiently and set yourself goals, even if it’s within a ten minute time frame, or even within one phrase. The relationship between musical intention and execution is essential, and it’s good to ask yourself how you’ll best get from one to the other. Aimless practice might help some mechanical workings, but is less effective. If your musical intention is unclear or confused, read the score in your head, sing it or parts of it, imagine how it might sound, play one part and sing the other, read it like a book on the train! Self-belief is utterly important, but so is an acute self-awareness. Lastly: try to keep the big picture in view!

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

Happy, healthy, loving life and playing music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness is fleeting – I’d like to make sure I never miss one of those uplifting moments that seem to come out of nowhere and are a complete gift.

What is your most treasured possession?

My violin.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Looking at the sunset over the Brecon Beacons sipping a glass of white wine with my partner.

What is your present state of mind?

Looking forward to getting home! (Am writing this on a plane after a concert with EUBO in Regensburg!)

Rachel Podger performs in the Music at Paxton Festival on 21 July 2016. Further information here

Over the last two decades Rachel Podger has established herself as a leading interpreter of the Baroque and Classical periods and has recently been described as “the queen of the baroque violin” (Sunday Times). In October 2015 Rachel was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Royal Academy of Music/Kohn Foundation Bach Prize. She was educated in Germany and in England at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied with David Takeno and Micaela Comberti.

Rachel Podger’s website

At the Piano with Mikael Pettersson

2720374What is your first memory of the piano?

I had a plastic red toy with keys on it that looked like the keys on a piano.  I enjoyed playing on this and so my parents asked me if I would like to learn to play the piano and once I started having lessons and had my own piano I really enjoyed it.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

It was almost by chance. When I studied at Birmingham Conservatoire my landlady was also a pianist and piano teacher.  She had a request from a prospective student and luckily she forwarded it to me and I found that I liked teaching very much.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

They were all memorable and significant.  I am so grateful to them for all they taught me and for all the inspiration they gave.  In my native country Sweden Irmeline and Irma Ericsson helped me develop sight-reading skills by giving me three new pieces to learn every week (compare with three new pieces per year in the exam syllabi!).  Christina Lindwall inspired me to go into music professionally with her great musical ideas.  At the beginning of my professional studies at a music college in Sweden Anders Peterson was a wonderful teacher with very careful musical work who organised numerous concerts and study trips in Sweden and abroad for me and my fellow students, giving me a first taste of performing and inspiring me to do more.  Hans Leygraf demonstrated incomparably methodical practice techniques during a Masterclass in Darmstadt.  Gordon Fergus-Thomson provided advice on very detailed score reading.  Peter Feuchtwanger taught me a natural approach to piano playing, which I instantly admired and which has influenced my thinking of the physical aspects of performing.  He has also inspired me greatly musically and helped me always to remember the cantabile qualities of the piano playing.

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

Experiencing arts in its different forms; visiting museums, art galleries, the ballet (I also work with ballet as one of my employments as a pianist at Elmhurst School for Dance) attending concerts and going to the opera are all examples of pursuits which influence both my teaching and performing, as are travelling and meeting interesting people.  It is a privilege to be able to draw on a vast number of experiences and to pass that on to students and audiences.

What do you expect from your students?

To love music.

What are your views on piano exams, festivals and competitions?

They are good sometimes as goals to work towards.  More beneficial still are masterclasses and concerts which is why I organise these regularly for my students.  Last summer I took my students to Sweden where I gave a masterclass and they then performed in a Grieg concert.

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

This pursuit of beauty that piano studies constitute, which encompasses intensely intellectual, spiritual and emotional aspects.  This applies to both categories of students.

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

It is a wonderful advantage to be able to draw on past and present experiences of performing when teaching performance-related issues such as stage presence, stage conduct, memorising and stage fright.  Also all musical aspects of the piano teaching will be enhanced from having a performance background since every piece of music improves enormously during a public performance.  And it is also worth keeping in mind (my students point this out to me regularly) that every piano lesson is a miniature performance with all that it entails.

Tell us why you decided to develop a series of piano exercises and how do you feel these will benefit pianists?

I wanted to pass on my ideas on the physical approach to piano playing.  Following my studies with Peter Feuchtwanger, I teach my students various exercises where the focus is on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.  So the movements, relaxation of certain muscles and tension of others are all important, while the notes in this case are almost incidental. I therefore  encourage the students not to be overly concerned with accuracy but instead to learn a new movement and degree of relaxation that can then be incorporated into the repertoire.  There is a great advantage to having this one aspect in isolation since when performing a piano work there are so many musical elements to consider.  Technique and teaching of movements at the keyboard is often neglected until the teaching becomes quite involved, by which stage bad habits have often set in and are hard to correct.  The DVD may be used to learn the exercises from scratch in which case it is paramount to try copying the movements demonstrated as closely as possible.  In the case of my own students the DVD is used as a reminder of the exercises and to support the information I give in the lessons.  Closely related to these exercises are fingerings which are chosen to encourage a particular movement when working on repertoire.  The traditional ‘five finger position’ is not present; in fact there is rarely a position but always a movement which gives much more suppleness and freedom at the keyboard.

Mikael Pettersson’s DVD of piano exercises is available to order from his website or as a download

Swedish concert pianist Mikael Pettersson obtained a B Mus (Hons) degree at Birmingham Conservatoire in the year 2000.  He has also attended  Masterclasses with Prof. Hans Leygraf and has studied with Prof. Peter Feuchtwanger.

Mikael Pettersson has taught piano for several years, mainly for the higher grades and at Diploma level and has competition prize-winners amongst his students.  He is also Head of Keyboard Studies for Undergraduate and Postgraduate students completing a Music Degree at the University of Wolverhampton.  He regularly organizes Masterclasses and concerts for pianists.

He received a Diploma in the summer 2007 for his attendance at a Masterclass at Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria where he also performed in concert.  In December 2010 Mikael Pettersson performed in Florida, USA, with mezzo soprano Virginia Alonso, who has appeared in performances together with Placido Domingo.   Recently Mikael Pettersson released his second CD featuring Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.  

In 2012 Mikael Pettersson was a semi-finalist in the International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition which took place near Geneva.