ArtMuseLondon is a sister site of The Cross-Eyed Pianist, focusing on reviews of art exhibitions and music written by people with a keen interest and an intelligent, honest and accessible approach. ArtMuseLondon covers exhibitions, concerts, opera and chamber music, CD and book reviews, and general cultural musings. The quartet of reviewers are selective about what they see and hear and don’t “review everything”. Instead, they choose to write about the exhibitions and music which interest them personally.

Recent highlights include reviews of this season at Opera Holland Park, exhibitions at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Barbican, and the world premiere of a new choral work by composer Richard Blackford in Poole.

Do take a look at the ArtMuseLondon website if you enjoy intelligent, longform writing on art and culture, and follow the site to receive new articles direct to your email inbox.

ArtMuseLondon is also on Twitter at @ArtMuseLondon


Meet the ArtMuseLondon team

DSCN0143

Jacky Colliss Harvey has worked in museum publishing for over 20 years, and speaks and lectures regularly on the arts and their relation to popular culture. She is the author of the best-selling RED: A History of the Redhead, and The Animal’s Companion.


Karine Hetherington

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. When she is not writing about music, she likes to sing in her local choir or tackle piano sonatas, some of which are far too difficult for her.


1085-6365-nm_photo Nick Marlowe studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. Formerly a reviewer for OneStopArts, a spin-off from Bachtrack.com, Nick has also reviewed for US-based art and culture site CultureVulture.net.


FranceFrances Wilson pianist and writers Wilson is a pianist, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A keen concert-goer, she writes music reviews for her blog and is a regular writer for classical music website InterludeHK. She also curates playlists for classical music streaming service IDAGIO, and has written for Pianist Magazine, The Schubertian (journal of the Schubert Institute of the UK), Bachtrack.com and Classical Music Magazine.

I should have known better than to attempt the fast octaves at the beginning of Schubert’s first Klavierstück, D946, with incorrect (or rather non-existent) technique (this was some years after I had returned to the piano seriously after an absence of 20 years and before I started having regular lessons again). My enthusiasm outweighed caution and I launched into the opening section with gusto, enjoying the energy and emotion of the music. The pain started across the knuckle of my right hand – a sharp, shooting pain which travelled down the hand into my wrist and which would be quickly replaced by a chronic ache in the entire hand and wrist, especially when I spread my hand to an octave span, or did anything that involved articulating the hand beyond its natural resting position. I took ibuprofen and made an appointment to see my osteopath.

Technique should serve the music, but it also enables us to play efficiently, comfortably, and, importantly, safely. At the time, without proper instruction on how to play rapid, forte octaves, my hand was as stiff as a garden rake.

I took my swollen, painful hand to my osteopath and after gentle examination she diagonosed tenosynovitis – in my case, a form of repetitive strain injury not helped by existing carpal tunnel syndrome (which had developed during pregnancy). She advised me to rest the hand immediately (i.e. do not play the piano at all), to use Voltarol gel to ease the pain and inflammation, and prescribed a supportive orthopaedic brace which I wore for three months. During the course of recovery, I was allowed to do very light finger exercises, both in and out of the hand brace.

It was frustrating not to be able to play the piano, especially as I wasn’t very keen on doing left-handed practice, and it was difficult when teaching because it was awkward for me to demonstrate to students. When the brace came off, despite seven sessions with my osteopath (and some considerable expense), my hand was stiff, sluggish and unresponsive. The rehabilitation process was slow. I steered clear of music with octave passages, fast or slow, and the slightest extension of the hand – even a sixth – terrified me, in case the pain returned. During this time, I had been considering taking piano lessons again and I contacted a teacher who specialised in hand health and tension-free piano playing. Through her guidance and support, I learnt how to relax, how to warm up properly, how to make the hand “weightless”, to support it with the arm, shoulders and back, how to sense instant control, and, importantly, how to play octaves safely, with the necessary softness and “spring” in hand, wrist and arm. With these techniques learnt and finessed, I was able to tackle far more challenging repertoire, including music by Liszt and Rachmaninov, composers who famously put huge demands on the pianist’s hands, pain free and without tension.

Musicians are, or at least should be, as attuned to their bodies as athletes, yet many of us ignore the signals and play through pain. The pressures of the profession – the need to practice for many hours every day, the unsociable working hours, and the reluctance on the part of many to admit they have an injury, fearing loss of work/reputation – may lead musicians to ignore the danger signs. There are some notable examples of pianists who have had to give up playing or adapt to left-handed playing due to injury, including Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer, both of whom suffered from focal dystonia and who both switched to left-hand repertoire in order to continue playing (Fleischer returned to playing with both hands some years ago).

There are other, less severe physical conditions which can afflict musicians, most of which come from repetitive strain and poor posture, including back, neck and shoulder pain and impingement, and tendonitis. Left untreated these problems can become chronic and debilitating, leading to emotional problems such as loss of self-esteem and depression. But if one is sensible, many conditions can be self-treated with anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and diclofenac (Voltarol), physical therapies (massage, osteopathy and physiotherapy), and with rest (and this need not mean a complete break from the instrument). Making small but meaningful changes to one’s practicing regime can help too – warm up properly, take frequent breaks, do stretches.

When we play, our hands and fingers are under constant pressure, and are prone to overuse, but we can use various techniques to protect the hands. Learning how to relax between notes (especially when playing large spreads, or octaves) is crucial; also ensuring one observes the correct posture at the piano. Take care of yourself, physically (the great teacher Heinrich Neuhaus expected his students to train in the gym at the Moscow Conservatory to keep themselves fit). Perhaps the most important advice is to understand and listen to your body – and never play through pain.

If you would like to contribute to the Advice to Myself series, please feel free to contact The Cross-Eyed Pianist


Resources

BAPAM

Healthy Piano Playing with Penelope Roskell

Stress in Piano Playing

Pianomap – Thomas Carson Mark


If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee

Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

Beethoven is unlikely to have collected too much water in his ear, for his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the loss of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when he was completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.


This article originally appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s Manuscript Notes site.


Nick Hely-Hutchinson worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

image1(1)

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

Music has always been a large part of my life.  My granddad used to play 7 instruments and work in radio, my Nana was a great pianist, my dad plays guitar and my cousin is a songwriter, so I was always surrounded by music. Playing music from a young age, I always wanted to play my own music and make things up rather than do my classical practice. Playing guitar, saxophone and piano gave me a diverse range of music to play and from which to draw influences.

It was only in my late teens that the prospect of pursuing a career in music became a real idea that would never leave me. My dad being a cinematographer meant that I was always going on set from a young age, so that, plus music, is probably where my love for film music came from, and from wanting to know more about the relationship between music and visual elements.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My family have played a vital role in my musical life.  If it wasn’t for their constant support and belief in me, then I might not be doing what I love today. I got my break into the film music world working with and alongside composer, Ilan Eshkeri, working my way up as an assistant then to additional composer where I then met more composers on different projects. Through this I was able to learn a variety of skills required to succeed in this industry.

It’s important to have a mentor to offer advice and guidance. I definitely learnt the art and skill of film music writing from Ilan; also from film music producer Steve Mclaughlin.

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

One of the greatest challenges so far would be taking the step away from working as an additional composer on larger films under composers to focus on my own composing career. It didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual process over a few years. Film music is very much a service industry and as a composer, you need to be willing to adapt and shift your music style to accommodate each particular project. The key thing to remember is that the film is the most important thing, so being able to maintain a form of musical language that is true to one’s self whilst being able to accompany the visuals perfectly can sometimes be difficult, especially under the frequent tight time constraints that occur.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on film and tv scores?

The greatest challenges in working in film is to remember that composing is really only a small part of the job.  You need to understand film and how to help tell the story alongside the images with which you are working . You also need to be accepting to the constant changes that might be asked of you and to be made in the music you are writing.

Working in film is all about collaboration, either with the director, producer or another composer. This can be such a rewarding process and hive of creativity. I am always blown away in how a particular scene from a film can be changed so much by the music. The pleasure comes when you know that you have got it right and the two art forms are working seamlessly together.

Of which works are you most proud?

Alongside my debut album PASSAGE that took about 3 years to write and release, I am most proud of the score I wrote to a documentary called ‘Three Identical Strangers’. I had a tight budget so resources were small but this forced me to think of different ways to achieve an immensely cinematic score. It was also probably one of the hardest films I had worked on. Tim Wardle, the director, knew exactly what he wanted which made the process so much easier and by the end we both had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve in the music.  This is all a composer can ask for.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

I am classically trained but I like to combine a lot of electronics in my writing with more classical instrumentation. I feel that my writing style pulls me between smaller more intimate emotional music to then much larger, epic styles of music. My album PASSAGE touches on a line between the two, interspersing the more euphoric pieces with intimate solo piano works.

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

Most of my initial ideas will start in their simplest forms either in my head or on the piano. Other times an idea can be inspired by a sound or a rhythm, depending on the kind of music I am writing. I love to record a lot of found sounds and turn them into instruments using a sampler such as Kontakt,, making something unique and new.

Sometimes I can be working on a piece of music or cue to a film and be so focussed that 5 hours can slip by in a blink. It’s only when you take a break and listen back that I sometimes think, “how did I do that”?!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Growing up, I listened to a large variety of music but it was listening to the music of Hans Zimmer (most notably his score to ‘The Last Samurai’) that got me interested in film scores, then film composers like Thomas Newman, Brian Tyler, Alan Silvestri, and the choral work of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. I am also very inspired by more minimalist composers such as Michael Nyman, Phillip Glass, Brian Eno, The Cinematic Orchestra and Nils Frahm, to name a few.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success to me is doing that which you love for a living and enjoying every minute of it. Music was my hobby and is now my career.

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

Try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own path so it’s an impossible ideology that one composer’s path could be compared to a path of another composer. Try to enjoy the ever-changing road that lies ahead, there is no need to rush. I am naturally quite an impenitent person, so there have been times where I have had to tell myself to take a step back and reflect on my own achievements.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I am about to start work on Season 8 of SKY ONE’s action drama STRIKE BACK with Scott Shields. In ten years time I hope to have written a few more solo albums as well as working on larger scale films and productions, a goal which I am sure is shared with many other composers.

Paul Saunderson’s debut album Passage is available now. More information


Paul Saunderson is a British film composer with a career spanning over 40 feature films and 8 TV shows. His work includes RAW’S latest award winning documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (Tim Wardle dir.), Jim O’Hanlon’s 100 STREETS (Idris Elba + Gemma Arterton), Bill Clark’s heartbreaking true story STARFISH (Joanne Froggatt + Tom Riley) and most recently Justin Edgar’s gripping noir thriller, THE MARKER (Frederick Schmidt + Ana Ularu). Other works include collaborating on hit SKY One action series STRIKE BACK now in its 8th season, SKY Atlantic’s mystery thriller RIVIERA (Julia Styles) and MTV’s action adventure series THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES. Saunderson also wrote the music to Aram Rappaport’s debut feature RomCom SYRUP starring Amber Heard & Kellan Lutz and John Shackleton’s psychological gothic horror THE SLEEPING ROOM.

Read more

I first visited Dartington back in the mid-1980s when I was a student at Exeter, reading English with Medieval Studies. The Medieval element of my degree course included a module on Medieval art and my tutor group visited Dartington to see the splendid 14th-century Great Hall. I recall a special atmosphere on the Dartington estate and in the courtyard in which the Great Hall is an imposing feature. The place was imbued with tranquility, undoubtedly enhanced by the beautiful setting, but also a sense of purpose.

For four weeks during the summer, that sense of purpose is chanelled into making music as young professional and amateur musicians, leading artists and tutors come together at the Dartington International Summer School (DISS). The Music Summer School was founded in 1947 at Bryanston School, Dorset, by William Glock, and moved to Dartington in 1953. It has been host to some of the greatest musicians and composers, including Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, Imogen Holst, Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ravi Shankar, amongst many others, and continues to attract leading artists.

The Summer School arrived at a place which was already rich in innovation, experiment and vision. In the 1920s Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst purchased the neglected 14th-century Dartington estate and set about restoring the buildings and regenerating the land. Their pioneering ‘Dartington Experiment’ saw the creation of a wealth of farming, forestry and education projects, and early initiatives included the progressive Dartington School, Dartington Tweed and later Dartington Glass. The place quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, poets, architects and musicians, and was a hub for creativity, innovation and learning. The Elmhirsts believed that people thrive best in an environment which nourishes the whole self and Dartington Hall Trust continues to promote this ethos with a broad learning programme including courses on the arts, ecology, food and crafts with an emphasis on cooperation, collaboration and ‘learning by doing’.

Now in its 71st year, the Dartington International Summer School sits comfortably with the philosophy of the Dartington Experiment: in the idyllic tranquil surroundings of Dartington Hall, musicians hungry to explore new musical landscapes come together to collaborate, create and learn by doing. Since its foundation, thousands of participants have shared in Dartington’s magic, from renowned musicians such as Imogen Holst, William Glock (the first Artistic Director), Peter Maxwell Davis, Nadia Boulanger, Richard Rodney Bennett, Anne-Sophie von Otter, Alfred Brendel, Natalie Klein, and Tamara Stefanovich (to name but a few) to keen amateur musicians who go to learn, be inspired to play at the highest possible level, mingle with other musicians and like-minded people, and thoroughly immerse themselves in its compelling and diverse community of performers, composers and thinkers. For many it is a wonderful musical “retreat”, and they return year after year. The summer school is unique in that it brings together amateur and professional musicians, particularly young professionals, who are taught by world-class artists (including, this year, Joanna Macgregor (outgoing Artistic Director), Tom Randle, Adrian Brendel, Skampa Quartet, Florian Mitrea and Sarah Gabriel). In addition to over 30 taught courses each week, there are more than 90 concerts and music-related events, with most taking place in the wonderful Medieval Great Hall. Each of the four weeks of DISS has a specific theme, including early music and piano (week 3, which I attended for a few days).

Everyone I spoke to during my all-too-brief stay at Dartington mentioned the “special atmosphere” and it is very palpable – yet also quite hard to explain! The setting undoubtedly helps, but there is something else, a sense of common purpose and intent, a desire for self-improvement, to learn, and forge friendships, the unifying thread of course being music.

Music is also a great leveller and at Dartington there is little sense of demarcation between amateur and professional players, no “them and us”, for we are all equal in the face of the music. Nor did I encounter any of the hero worshipping I have observed at other piano courses. Instead, there is a mutual appreciation and respect between students and teachers, and I observed some of the most inspiring and generous teaching in the workshops and masterclasses I attended. Florian Mitrea, a young Romanian concert pianist and a regular at Dartington, teaches in such a way as to give each student some useful nuggets to enable further independent practising/self-teaching, but also encourages the student to think in terms of personal artistry, intepretation and performance rather than simply focusing on technique. This approach is too often lacking in the realm of the amateur pianist and I felt Florian’s approach gave each student, regardless of ability, the confidence to explore their own personal approach to their music. Joanna Macgregor is an equally generous teacher, whose infectious energy and commitment resulted in some incredibly transformative playing on the part of the young professionals she was coaching.

The opportunity to explore other music is also a hugely important part of the DISS experience. One is not confined only to one’s chosen course and all the classes are open so that one can drop in on conducting, chamber music, percussion and singing. Learning from other instrumentalists is so important and gives a broader, more informed approach to one’s own music making.

dartington20summer20school1
A concert in the Great Hall

By 5pm a small queue has formed outside the Great Hall for the first concert of the evening (usually about an hour long). The concerts are open to the general public and it was very encouraging to see the Great Hall full for both of the concerts I attended (a fascinating Liszt lecture-recital by Florian Mitrea and Rev. Iain Lane, and Haydn and Beethoven trios by Trio Opal). There is a deliberate effort on the part of DISS organisers to ensure the local community is made to feel welcome too, and at next year’s summer school, in addition to public concerts, there will be a greater emphasis on participatory projects to bring people together, including listening clubs, family-friendly workshops and open choirs, initiatives by the incoming Artistic Director, Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who stressed the need to ensure those outside of the wonderful enclave of Dartington feel included.

sara-mohr-pietsch-dartington-2018-image-kate-mount-copy-crop
Sara Mohr-Pietsch

Talking to Sara in The Green Table, a friendly café close to the gardens, she expressed a strong desire to build on what Joanna Macgregor has put in place during her five-year tenure as AD, to remain faithful to the original concept of DISS, while also bringing fresh initiatives, including public masterclasses in the Great Hall, opportunities for conversations about music, including concert presentation and programming, and the listening experience, and the creation of daily ‘open space’ session within the course programme to give participants time to step back and reflect on what they have been doing, to generate new work, create taster sessions and curate their own time. With Sara’s own keen advocacy for new music, there will be a new course on composition, with Nico Muhly as composer in residence. Sara feels this will also reflect DISS as a “laboratory” where attendees can experiment, explore and collaborate in a safe space. With artists such as Iestyn Davies, Stile Antico, Dunedin Consort, Rachel Podger, Joseph Middleton, Tom Poster and Aidan O’Rourke on next year’s roster of artists, DISS 2020 promises to be busy, vibrant and inspiring.

Practicalities:

Course participants can opt to stay on site on a full-board basis, with meals taken in the White Hart next to the Great Hall. There is a choice of accommodation, which is allocated on a first come, first served basis. The meals at the White Hart are very good and there are other places to eat on site, including The Green Table.

Dartington is easily accessible by car off the A38 Exeter-Plymouth road. There is ample parking on site and participants are entitled to free carparking. Totnes is the nearest railway station (direct service from London Paddington).

Further information:

Dartington International Summer School and Festival website


Thank you to DISS staff for making me so welcome, to Damson PR for organising my trip, and to my piano friends Neil and Julian who have been urging me to visit Dartington for the past two years. I look forward to returning next year as full participant.

Better get practising……!

Piano playing shouldn’t be an olympic activity, yet players are regularly pitted against one another in international music competitions. Alongside this, is an ongoing argument about what are the hardest pieces in the pianist’s repertoire.

In his book ‘Play It Again’, Alan Rusbridger claimed that Chopin’s First Ballade was “one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire”; it’s not, and taken alongside the Second or the Fourth Ballade, or indeed some of Chopin’s Etudes, it seems quite benign in comparison. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Balakirev’s Islamey are also up there in the top 10 of “most difficult pieces”, along with Schumann’s Toccata, Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus, Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, Ives’ ‘Concord’ Sonata. Ligeti’s Etudes, and Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata. There are many more pieces from the core canon which would slot neatly in to the “hardest piece” category, not to mention contemporary works which can be impenetrable except to the most skilled and intellectually-acute pianist.

In a way, all this is relative, because each pianist has his or her own strengths when it comes to repertoire. There are of course some performers who seem to be able to tackle anything – the late Sviatoslav Richter is one example. He had an incredibly large and varied repertoire, running to some “eighty different programmes, not counting chamber works”, from Handel to Hindemith and he worked indefatigably to learn new pieces. The Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin is another example. In addition to the standard works, he has a penchant for the more esoteric or lesser-known corners of the repertoire and seems to positive relish the most finger-twisting works.

Young performers entering the profession seem to think they should be able to play everything and anything. Perhaps this is what concert promoters and audiences demand, and it is interesting to find many young performers coping comfortably with the complexities and athleticism of Islamey, Gaspard, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes and more.

Many people think the faster the piece the harder it must be, and audiences are often more impressed by flashy vertiginous virtuosity and piano pyrotechnics above beautiful sound or the ability to create a remarkable sense of communication and connection between performer, music and audience. I remember once showing one of my students a piece of piano music which consisted of just a handful of carefully-placed notes on a single stave. He was intrigued to learn that I was performing the piece in a concert the next day and declared that it couldn’t possibly be a concert piece because “it doesn’t look difficult enough”.

Too often we associate “difficult music” with concert repertoire, and while many pieces which are heard in concert are difficult, many are also well within the reach of the competent amateur pianist. (Indeed, no music should be “off limits” to anyone, though many amateurs are reluctant to tackle pieces they’ve heard in concert, believing, mistakenly, that this repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the pros.)

Very well known repertoire can be the hardest to perform because the music comes with a long heritage of previous “great” performances and recordings which can be stifling for the performer seeking to say something new, different or personal in the music.

maxresdefault
Just Before Dawn by Paul Burnell

“Easy” music presents its own problems too. Pieces such as the one I showed my student (‘Just Before Dawn’ by British composer Paul Burnell) may be comprised of only 24 notes, yet it must be voiced with care and thought to convey the composer’s message. Music like this offers the performer nowhere to hide, unlike the dark thickets of notes one finds in an Etude by Liszt for example. Music whose dynamic range is very muted is also challenging, but it can have a remarkable effect of encouraging very concentrated, careful listening by the audience, drawing them into the inner circle of the performer’s own special soundworld.

Repertoire can be very personal. Most of us choose to play music we like rather than music we feel we should be playing – though of course professionals may “play to order” to satisfy a promoter’s request. I have noticed a certain competiveness about repertoire within piano meetup groups (amateurs can be quite olympian when choosing repertoire!) which can be perceived as “showing off” and may intimidate less advanced players. There’s a lesson here – that one shouldn’t constantly compare onself to others and that one will enjoy one’s music and play better if one focusses on one’s own strengths. I have been guilty of this myself and it made me very unhappy for awhile. Why couldn’t I play Ravel’s Jeu d’Eau or Sonatine (both works which I really like) when others could? I realised that some people are just better suited, physically and mentally, to this kind of repertoire, and that maybe my own strengths lie elsewhere.

Your “hardest piece” may not be my hardest piece, and vice versa, and being accepting of our own capabilities and strengths is an important part of our musical and artistic maturity.


If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee