I admit I was prepared to hate this series on Channel 4 (and, full disclosure, I was interviewed for the programme by someone from the production company last summer). It was made by the same production company which brought us The Great British Bake Off, another series which I have come to loathe, and was billed as “Bake Off for amateur pianists”. Oh dear.
The basic premise of the series was to showcase the pianistic talents of ordinary people through their performances on street pianos at railway stations in London, Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham. Unbeknownst to these amateur pianists, their performances were being watched by “the world’s greatest pianist” Lang Lang and one-hit wonder singer-songwriter Mika. The series is presented by Claudia Winkelman.
The programme makers wanted us to believe that these performances were completely spontaneous, but in fact the participants had to go through an audition process and were then selected for the programmes. Also, the instrument on which they played was not the usual rather beat up, out of tune street piano of the type which this article rather rudely describes, but a rather nice Boston upright from Steinway’s ‘diffusion range’.
However, none of this matters in the least because it quickly became evident that the real joy and power of this programme lay in the people, their back stories, and of course their music. Just as in Bake Off, the participants were a mixed bunch, from the young to the very old. There were some really heart-warming moments, such as a 92 year old man who played the piano to communicate with his wife who had dementia, or the young man who had found comfort in music, following the suicide of his father.
During each episode, a young professional pianist friend of mine would message me to rail at the lack of “proper classical music”, and while I too had hoped for more Chopin or a drop of Mozart, it was evident that this series was about people and their connection with the music they played, and why the piano was so meaningful or special for them.
A number of the participants had taken up the piano during the covid lockdowns as a way to fill the excruciating sameness of those long, dull days. Others had been playing all their life. Some were self-taught. But all found joy, fulfilment and personal achievement in playing, regardless of the genre of music or their ability.
In episode two we met Lucy, a blind girl with severe learning disabilities but with a remarkable natural aptitude for the piano. Her performance of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne was beautifully fluent, subtly phrased and elegantly shaped. Actually, it was simply astonishing. It held the audience at Leeds station utterly spellbound, and it was quite evident that Lang Lang was genuinely moved by her performance, along with the many others who watched her playing. She was supported by her teacher Daniel, who works with a charity called The Amber Trust, which provides musical opportunities for blind and partially-sighted children, and children with more complex needs.
The final episode of the series was a special concert in which the “winners” (although this wasn’t really a competition – and certainly nothing like any talent show presented by the likes of Simon Cowell) performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Once again, Lucy’s extraordinary talent shone through, this time in a mesmerising performance of one of Debussy’s Arabesques. But all the performers played with commitment and emotion, which really transmitted to the audience. At the end of the concert, Lucy was awarded star player (in a lovely, low-key way) and then Lang Lang and Mika made a special announcement: each player was to be gifted an acoustic piano.
Reactions on social media are a testament to the appeal and power of music, as people were genuinely moved, amazed and intrigued by all the performers in this series. The more relaxed, spontaneous way of presenting music, on a street piano, will, I’m sure, remind people that music is for everyone and one need not enter a formal concert venue to experience the wonder. And if this series inspires people to take up or return to the piano, or for young (and old) piano students to find renewed enthusiasm in their practising, then it has served an important purpose. Finally, this show must surely raise the profile of the piano, and music in general, at a time when classical music in particular is under attack – and that has to be A Good Thing.
As the various performers demonstrated, through an incredibly eclectic range of music and ability, it’s not about winning; it’s about doing something that you love and finding fulfilment, comfort, self-improvement, and above all pleasure in what you do.
The Piano on Channel 4 is inspiring, joyous, uplifting, poignant, moving and life-affirming. Do seek it out on All4.
Fellow blogger, Thoroughly Good, has posted a helpful article full of useful information, contact details and draft texts for you to express your concern about the proposed demise of BBC Singers, and cuts to funding of other BBC classical musicians/orchestras.
If you care about classical music in the UK, please consider writing to your MP and/or the BBC.
Divine Fire – the story of Fryderyk Chopin & George Sand in Music & Words
Viv McLean piano Susan Porrett narrator
7 Star Arts presents their acclaimed words and music production Divine Fire in the intimate surroundings of Café Yukari as part of their new ICONOCLASSICS series – iconic classical music in a relaxed, intimate setting.
Featuring some of Chopin’s loveliest piano works, Divine Fire traces the passionate relationship between Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand, from their ﬁrst meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1849.
The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC, National Theatre and TV actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with ﬁery Scherzos, heartrending Ballades, intimate lyrical Nocturnes and stirring Polonaises, performed by acclaimed concert pianist Viv McLean.
Café Yukari is an intimate, friendly venue close to Kew Gardens tube station. Concert-goers enjoy high-quality classical music in a convivial setting and a chance to mingle with other music lovers and meet the artists. Plus authentic Japanese food and a beautiful Fazioli grand piano!
Concert-goers can enjoy authentic Japanese food before the concert – please book via the venue 020 8487 1338.
Before I discuss some of the points made in that article, I would like to clarify the following:
● The intention of my response is not to point fingers as to who or what is right or wrong. All of us are entitled to our own opinion and the purpose of this article is to provide an alternate viewpoint.
● All of us are unique individuals, what works for one person (musically and otherwise) might not necessarily resonate with another. In an ideal world, we will learn to respect someone else’s opinion without the need to resort to some form of online slur of abuse. However, the world we live in is far from ideal.
● Everything in the article is based on my own experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.
I must applaud the author of the article for being so articulate and standing up for what she believes in. The music industry and the world of piano teaching will always be indebted to teachers with Lorraine’s passion.
I agree that some form of panel or administrative board (notice I stopped short of calling them ‘third-party’ interlopers) might be useful not only to regulate the quality of piano teachers, but also to provide general information and guideline to aspiring piano teachers as to what good teaching might be. Ultimately, this does not guarantee that everyone who is examined and passed by the board will end up as good teachers (as Lorraine rightly pointed out later in her article). It is all very well being able to convince a panel of examiners or judges that you have the credentials to be a good teacher, but applying what you have studied in real life is an artform in itself, and one which takes a lifetime to perfect. I also see the benefit of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) for piano teachers, but I must admit that the best teachers that I know have often been musically curious (in a healthy way) and always considered themselves as students of the arts. In general, it is my opinion that being a good teacher has less to do with the qualification and more to do with being a relatable human being, as teaching is the transference of knowledge from one individual to another (and very often from one generation to another). Ultimately, teaching is a spiritual exercise which requires patience, empathy, integrity, dedication, and sometimes even humour – in short, all the qualities that make one a honourable human being. Though it may sound obvious, we often take it for granted that some form of qualification is the minimum requirement for all professions. Bad teaching is often attributed to teachers having little, or at times no qualifications or formal training, whereas an excellent student is often the product of certain highly qualified individuals.
While Lorraine asserts that, in her experience, the majority of poor students have been taught by unqualified teachers, I would like to suggest that there are many other reasons why a piano student might not have as solid of a musical foundation as one would like, some of which I will try and address below.
Firstly, no teacher is ever entire responsible for how a student develops, as I strongly believe that there also has to be a sense of accountability on the student’s part. As much as I enjoy the 1984 film Karate Kid, I have come to find Mr Miyagi’s famous line ‘No such thing [as a] bad student, only [a] bad teacher’ a little simplistic. This is because I pay all of my students the compliment of being responsible for their own decisions (musical or otherwise). Take a common musical occurrence: if (for whatever reason) you left your sheet music at home instead of bringing it to your lesson, then it is no fault of your parents. And if we are preparing for an external exam or performance, there will be musical consequences should you choose not to practise your scales and technical work properly. A teacher can do their best to help, facilitate, teach, even go as far as practicing with a student, but at the end of the day we cannot play for them. I recall meeting an excellent Singaporean piano teacher during my travels who told me that she was ‘embarrassed beyond words’ because one of her students had taken a rather spontaneous opportunity to play for a very famous piano teacher when she was on holiday in China. I might have read the situation incorrectly, but in this instance the teacher clearly felt that all her students are a reflection of her teaching and personal credentials. When I reassured this teacher that she is not ultimately responsible for everything her student plays, and given the circumstances it was very understandable, she looked at me as though I was speaking Wookie! As excellent as some piano teachers are, I sometimes wonder if their dedication and commitment (particularly in Asia) have more to do with the preservation of their own self-image and reputation. This makes sense from a business point of view, especially when you are making a living in a results-driven culture.
Secondly, I believe that the gaps in all our musical development often have more to do with the lack of interest (or even laziness) on the student’s part rather than lack of effort by the teacher. A sweeping statement perhaps, but I count my lucky piano stars that I was fortunate to have studied with some of the most sought-after piano teachers in the business. As different as all my teachers were, they were unanimous in believing that unless I studied more Bach and work on my sight-reading, I would never reach the musical heights of my fantasies. I sometimes wonder if things would have turned out differently if I had at that stage come across Maria Tipo’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Grigory Sokolov’s performances of Rameau and Couperin … Unfortunately, I was young, hot-headed, and lacked any sort of emotional or musical patience. Why play contrapuntal music when I aspire to perform works with eight-note chords on every single beat of the bar? What I failed to notice was that contrapuntal musical lines exist within almost all chordal textures. And who needed sight-reading when I was able to learn new repertoire just as quickly through obsessive practising? I was wrong of course, and it was only years later when I become a teacher that I started addressing these musical gaps. To this day, I have never felt that the talented but wildly undisciplined Michael Low of twenty years ago was a reflection of any of my teachers.
Ultimately, it is up to the student what they want to get out of their piano lessons. As a teacher, would you turn down the lucrative proposition if a potential client offers to double or even triple your fees, only to let you know that they have absolutely no interest in learning how to read music notation? The same client’s ultimate aim is to play a few soundtracks from iconic Hollywood movies or well-known pop songs when hosting elaborate dinner parties. As a teacher, do you take on such a student in the hope that, while this is far from a ‘proper’ or ‘ideal’ way of teaching the piano, maybe the student will change their mind somewhere down the line and recognise the importance of reading music notation? Such an occurrence might be rare, but it is not entirely impossible, and I have experienced it. Or do you simply refuse to entertain such profanity? The situation becomes even more complicated when there is a new teacher trying to build their reputation. Does the new teacher turn down this very profitable musical venture and run the risk of losing out on future clients of the same social status? I cannot speak for everyone else, but when I started teaching I took on anyone who wanted to learn how to play the piano, partly for financial reasons, but most of all because I believe that I have to work hard in forging my musical reputation. I did everything (within reason) to assist my students when it comes to note-learning, even to the extent of spoon-feeding them. Looking back, I probably should have considered a less strenuous methodology when it comes to reading musical notation, but that was an important part of my journey as a music educator, and I certainly do not think any less of myself for the musical decisions that I have taken.
The Piano Teacher’s Musical Blanket
Imagine going to bed with a blanket long enough only to cover three quarters of your body. If your pull the blanket over your chest, then your feet will be exposed; and when you cover the lower part of your body, your chest will be cold. Any student and piano teacher worth their musical salt will tell you that managing time is one of the most challenging factors during weekly lessons. In other words, one can never have enough of it. If you spend all your lesson working on technical studies and repertoire, you run the risk of neglecting other aspects of the student’s musical development such as sight-reading and aural. By spending a substantial time on the latter, you will find it hard to delve into the details and the emotional subtleties of musical interpretation. And because of this, I would argue that there will inevitably be gaps in any student’s musical and pianistic developments. It is very difficult for any teacher to address all the musical weaknesses in a student. Sometimes the teacher just isn’t experienced enough, but most of the time this is a logistical issue. By the same token, most teachers are not so bad that they cannot address any of the more glaring issues in a student’s playing.
I have never been keen to give my new students a ‘check list’ of things we need to do to improve their playing as I find that in doing so only creates tension and bad feelings especially when the student (for whatever reasons) feels attached and loyal to their previous teacher – I am speaking from experience as I have been on the receiving end of such a treatment during my student days. Rather find out what was done and what hasn’t been done so well and build on this. Just like any musical performance, if you look hard enough, you will always be able to find interpretive discrepancies. It is up to the individual how they move forward from here.
Again, this may be another unpopular opinion, but studying with highly qualified or sought-after teachers doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have all your musical and pianistic questions answered. This might sound like a simplistic statement, but highly qualified (and famous) teachers often have the musical gravitas to attract more advanced students. This of course makes complete sense – you are not going to study with one of the professors who teaches in a music conservatoire if you are just interested in playing Grade 3 level (nothing wrong with that of course, as all musical and pianistic goals are personal), and, conversely, you don’t seek help from a primary school piano teacher if you are studying the entire Liszt Transcendental Etudes (again, this is a generalisation – and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek – because I have come across excellent piano teachers who have yet to have the opportunity to showcase their teaching credential at a tertiary institute). The dilemma lies at the highest level of teaching, where prestigious music schools are more interested in having famous performers than actual teachers on their teaching roster. I knew of a brilliant young pianist who won a scholarship to study with one of the twentieth century’s most prolific pianists in London, only to have a handful of lessons due to his teacher’s own personal commitments. And I am sure all of us are familiar with the story of Martha Argerich, who recalled only having four lessons (in eighteen months) when studying with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli asserted that he taught Argerich ‘in silence, and away from the piano.’
I would like to leave you with the following scene from John Avildsen’s 1984 film The Karate Kid. I am sure many of you are just as familiar with the movie’s plotline as I am: the teenage Daniel LaRusso and his mother Lucille move to Los Angeles and live in the same apartment block as the Japanese immigrant Mr Miyagi, who accepts Daniel as a karate student when he becomes the victim of bullying. What follows is a mentor/student relationship that encompasses not only, karate but life itself, as in the following exchange:
Miyagi (to Daniel): You remember lesson about balance?
Daniel (nods somewhat hesitantly): Yeah.
Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better. Understand?
As piano teachers, it is our duty to teach our students the mechanics of how to play the instrument along with the basic of music such as rhythm, note-reading, musical notation, as well as interpretation and music appreciation. However, as much as we want all our students to succeed and become international prize-winners, it is worth remembering that, ultimately, every student is different and some are more interested than others. At the end of the day, it is not the teacher who does the playing or performing in practical exams. Just as it is left to Daniel LaRusso to find the balance in his life that ultimately propels him to become the karate champion, our students will ultimately have to walk through the musical door that we open for them, and that will be enough.
Michael Low, March 2023
Listen to Michael Low’s podcast with The Cross-Eyed Pianist
Neil Franks, Chairman of Petworth Festival and a passionate supporter of music and musicians, has written this response to Ben Lawrence’s article which appeared in The Telegraph on 8 March.
Ben Lawrence’s article about the very unfortunate cuts the BBC have announced highlights the very unhealthy attitude towards classical music that has developed from the very institutions that are supposed to champion the cause and give it a boost, not pour cold water on it.
Classical music continues to be the sacrificial lamb that bureaucrats and politicians seem to take pleasure in slaughtering and then displaying what they think are their heroic and triumphant achievements in saving money
Culture, and especially music has already been viciously cut from the school curriculum – again for the same reason: an easy target
The more our population, especially the young, see these cuts happening, the more music disappears from the radar screen and the more their pre-conceived impression that the subject is old-fashioned and boring is somehow validated, so the damage is dramatically magnified and perpetuated for future generations which also means dramatically increasing the cost of the inevitable need to revive it in the future. In other words, this is a false economy let alone fundamentally damaging to the essential component of our lives – culture!
What next – are our cultural administrators going to pack up all the grand masters in our art galleries, wrap them all up in boxes and put them in the basement so they can use the galleries as gaming zones and burger cafes?
Come on everyone – let’s shout from the rooftops about classical music and make it MORE accessible in an inspired way – it’s not rocket science.
The enormous efforts made by talented, dedicated musicians to become what they are is already a huge sacrifice on their part. They know that their future earnings after years of commitment involved in learning and perfecting their craft, is often pretty limited and too many are discouraged and end up competing for other jobs. This latest news will just add to that discouragement
The fashionable term “levelling up” can be put to very constructive use with musicians. Encourage them to succeed and send them all around the country to festivals, regional venues, schools etc etc to expose everyone to their great talents. The very thought of closing down one of the worlds most important cultural institutions, ENO, and thinking that the solution is packing them off somewhere else is not practical. Of course the whole country deserves their product, but that’s not a practical way of making it happen. Capitalise on its value where it is
Please please please could we re-think this very damaging action and encourage human passion, culture and talent instead of destroying it!
Cellist Clare O’Connell introduces her new kickstarter campaign
The creation of three new luminous contemporary works for cello by three outstanding female composers to be recorded on my next album.
This Kickstarter campaign is to raise money to pay for the commissions of three brand new works by outstanding female composers: Emily Hall, Emilie Levienaise Farrouch and Natalie Klouda, all to be recorded with the record label NMC on an album celebrating 21st century music for solo cello, and cello and electronics. On top of that, Natalie’s piece will receive its world premiere in the Wigmore Hall on International Women’s day, March 8th 2024.
It launches on 7 March and runs until 6 April 2023.
This will be the first solo cello album that NMC has supported, and we want it to be as uplifting and as experimental as possible, focussing on sharing the feeling of lightness, and lifting up with audiences, something very close to my heart and deeply relevant given the challenges of the past few years.
I am passionate about creating and sharing beautiful and moving musical experiences with people, both live and recorded, and I’m committed to raising up and collaborating with new artistic voices. So I’m thrilled to be collaborating with Emily, Natalie and Emilie, whose work will be represented alongside works by leading composers Edmund Finnis, Alex Mills and Nick Martin.
I also believe in paying performers and creators fairly for their work and the creativity that goes into it – it ensures greater equality, diversity, and freedom in art and thought.
This is where you come in! If you want to see experimental contemporary music created, if you want to see composers and musicians paid fairly for their work, if you want to hear new music for solo cello, if you want to support composers and performers exploring creative freedom and risk-taking, if you think music is one of the essential ways we connect with each other as fellow humans… then I would love to welcome you as a supporter.
Every donation made is crucial in bringing this new music to life and I’m incredibly grateful for your support.
I am offering some really beautiful rewards for donations in this campaign, all linked with the music to be created.
They include printed scores of the new compositions, dedications crediting donors in the printed scores, exclusive downloads of music by the composers played by Clare, one to one cello lessons and even a live house concert!
I’m hugely grateful to my friends and colleagues David Le Page, Clara Sanabras, Susi Evans and Jack McNeill & Liam Byrne for offering to donate copies of their own CDs towards the campaign.
Also to wonderful artist Luke Hannam for his generosity in allowing me to make a limited edition print of a sketch he made of me as I was developing ideas behind this body of music, and to photographer Yvonne Catterson for her artistry and whose stunning imagery will be used in the final album artwork.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site