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Between 20th – 23rd November this year, the brand new building at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will be alive with the sound of chamber music, all involving the piano. An array of leading international artists will share the platform with talented young musicians in a brand new event, directed by Daniel Tong (pianist and Head of Piano Chamber Music at the Conservatoire). Musical friends will be joining Daniel from across Europe for concerts, masterclasses and also a competition for young ensembles, more about which below. Given the wealth of such events for piano or string quartet, for instance, a celebration of chamber music with piano is overdue, especially given the keyboard’s place at the heart of so many great composers’ musical personality. Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many more were all musicians with consummate mastery of the piano, speaking freely through their wonderful instrument.

The festival line-up is headlined by pianists Katya Apekisheva and John Thwaites, cellists Christoph Richter and Alice Neary, violinist Esther Hoppe and violist Robin Ireland, who are lined up to take part in concerts alongside the Gould Trio and London Bridge Trio. Together they will explore the chamber music of Brahms, Schumann, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and present new works by Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Concerts take place in two magnificent new performance spaces at the Conservatoire, opened this year: the larger Concert Hall for evening events and the more intimate Recital Hall for daytime performances. The same artists will work with students from Birmingham and beyond, as well as providing the jury for the competition.

Daniel Tong says: “Chamber music is a multi-layered medium, in the wealth and depth of its repertoire as well as the skills and characteristics required to realise it. It is music for sharing, both with one’s performing colleagues and the audience, and is therefore somewhat confessional. It is open to wide-ranging interpretation, despite often being put together by composers with great intellectual rigour. A competition in this discipline may therefore seem like a paradox, which is why our festival is as collegiate and inclusive as possible. We will make music together. Each competing ensemble will give a recital and take part in masterclasses. All jury members will also perform as part of the festival programme. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has put chamber music at its heart with inspiring results.

The competition is set up to offer maximum benefit to the young competitors. After preliminary audition (all applicants will be heard, either live or by video if entering from outside the UK), eight ensembles will be invited to join the festival in November. Each will present their recital as part of the festival programme, take part in masterclasses, and three groups will progress to the final concert. The winning ensemble will be offered mentorship and a commercial recording with Resonus Classics, as well as engagements including London’s Wigmore Hall.

For more details about this unique and inspiring event, visit the festival website

Or email keyboard@bcu.ac.uk

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Recital Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

It’s one of the great romantic images, isn’t it? The solo performer, alone on an empty stage, faced with that huge black beast of a full-size concert grand piano, armed with nothing but his or her memory and willing, well-trained fingers.

There’s a lot of snobbery surrounding memorisation, and yet it’s one of the most absurd things pianists put themselves through. We have Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt to thank (or blame!) for the tradition of the pianist playing from memory, and both were significant in turning the piano recital into the formal spectacle it is today. Before the mid-nineteenth century, pianists were not expected to play from memory and playing without the score was often considered a sign of casualness, or even arrogance: Beethoven disapproved of the practice, feeling it would make the performer lazy about the detailed markings on the score; and Chopin is reported to have been angry when he learnt that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory.

Few pianists today would dispute the legacy of Liszt and Clara Schumann, and now playing from memory is de rigeur, so much so that if you go to a concert where the pianist plays from the score, you may hear mutterings amongst the audience, suggesting the performer isn’t up to the job or has not prepared the music properly. Which is of course rubbish: sometimes, especially in contemporary or very complex repertoire, it is simply not possible to memorise all of it. Interestingly, memorisation has actually limited the range of repertoire performed in concert: many soloists won’t commit themselves to more than a handful of works each season because of the burden memorization places upon them (as pianists, we have to learn more than double the number of notes of any other musician!).

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Martha Argerich

There are sound reasons for playing from memory and it should not be regarded simply as a virtuoso affectation (the ability to memorise demonstrates a very high degree of skill and application). It can allow the performer greater physical freedom and peripheral vision, more varied expression and deeper communication with listeners. But the pressure to memorise (a pressure which is imposed upon pianists from a young age and reinforced in music college or conservatoire) can also lead to increased performance anxiety: I have come across a number of professional pianists who have given up solo work because of the unpleasant pressure to memorise and the attendant anxiety. The late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave up playing without the score when he reached his 60s as he felt he could no longer rely on his memory, and Clifford Curzon and Arthur Rubenstein both struggled with memorisation.

While each individual will have his or her own particular method of memorisation, pianists in fact utilise four types of memory, all of which must be employed when learning music:

Visual Memory: human beings use this part of their memory function to record large amounts of information, such as faces and colours and everyday objects. Music is made up of patterns and shapes, and the pianist uses visual memory to “picture” the score, as well as to recall the physical gestures involved in playing.

Aural/Auditory Memory: this is what enables us to sing in the shower! Music is an assortment of sounds, arranged in a certain order. The pianist uses aural memory to know he/she is playing the correct notes and to anticipate what he/she will play in the next few seconds.

Muscular/Procedural/Kinaesthesic Memory: the ability to recall all the movements, gestures and physical sensations required to play music. Muscular or “procedural” memory is trained by repetitive practice: just as the tennis player practices his over-arm serve in exactly the same way each time to ensure a perfect delivery, so the pianist must employ repetitive practice to ensure the fingers land on the right notes every time.

Analytical/Conceptual Memory: the pianist’s ability to fully comprehend, absorb and retain the score through his/her intimate study and knowledge of it. This involves understanding structure, harmony, dynamics and nuances, phrasing, reference points, modulations, repetitions etc, as well as the context in which the music was composed, whether it is Baroque, Classical or Romantic, for example. This “total immersion” in the score should result in a rich, multi-layered awareness of it.

Many young students rely, often unconsciously, on auditory and visual memory, or on auditory and muscular memory, and many can play very competently from memory. However, to play expertly from memory, and to ensure that one’s ability to download and deliver music very accurately is completely secure, all four aspects of memory must be trained and maintained.

I go to many live piano concerts every year and I have noticed a growing trend: more solo pianists (Alexandre Tharaud is a notable example) are now using the score (accompanists and collaborative pianists tend to use the score, with the assistance of a page-turner, or the more modern alternative of an iPad or tablet with a score-reading app). It is possible to perform from the score and to deliver a quality performance which is rich in expression, gesture, and musicality. Well-managed page-turns, with the assistance of a discreet page-turner, should not detract from the performance, and after all, isn’t a concert fundamentally about communication, between performer, composer and audience? If you get that right, nothing else should matter.

 

Richter playing Schubert G major Sonata, D894, 1st movt, with score

 

Alexandre Tharaud playing Mahler/Adagietto with score

 

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

I come from a family of professional musicians, and it was always clear that I would do music. Moreover, because my older sister already played the violin, I wanted to do the same under any circumstances.

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

My mother practised with me very often. When I left the Soviet Union at the age of 13, I finally discovered contemporary music. To me this meant freedom, and became the central mission of my musical life.

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

It was sometimes difficult to stay the course at the beginning, when many “experts” tell you that you are wrong and should play differently. But I guess nothing is easy in my career. I move forward the only way I know how to.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

The one recording closest to my heart is “Take-Two” (Alpha Classics) where I collected dear friends to record duets from the last millennium. The booklet – which I wrote together with my then 8-year old daughter and my husband – explains music history and my philosophy of interpretation as if to a child. One piece (“Das kleine Irgendwas”), composed by Heinz Holliger, is based on a text by my daughter.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

People perceive me as being at my best in recent and contemporary music, probably because in that repertoire nobody can tell me that I am wrong. But I do not see much difference between old and new music. I can play both well and not so well – and both at the same time.

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

Well, it depends very much on the partners. Recently I took up the voice part of Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” because I had a painful arm condition and could not practice the violin as usual. I love this piece very much and will perform it often, for example with Berlin Philharmonic. And now I’ve taken up Kurt Schwitters “Ursonate”, a Dadaistic nonsense poem, also for voice, which I will perform with my clarinetist friends Reto Bieri and Anthony Romaniuk.

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

I am almost immune to venues… to me the kitchen, the casino, the church, it doesn’t make much difference. What is central to me is the piece, the message.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are too many to name them all. But let’s mention two unknown ones: the young conductor Aziz Shokakimov, an astonishing talent of primordial power, he will go very far. And then my piano partner, Polina Leschenko, not a musician, but a poet of colours and perfumes, technically on a level with Cziffra or a young Pogorelich. She likes to practice and to play, she loves music, but everything is just for herself. She is not at all interested in a career, therefore only insiders know her. I try hard to get her out of her ivory tower.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are many, however last year particularly during the tour with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra where I thought we reached a level of mystery I didn’t think possible.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you can play what you like, in the way you like and with whom you like. When you have attained that, you have to stay curious, reinvent yourself and your repertoire all the time to prevent yourself becoming bored or burned out. Gidon Kremer is a model of how to do this.

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

First, only take it up if you cannot do otherwise. Without talent music is a sad job. Learning an instrument to perfection is already difficult but not nearly sufficient: you have to learn to understand the construction and the meaning of music. For this, studying composition is a very efficient way, even if you are not a great composer. Then you have to read biographies, history, letters. You have to study manuscripts and art history: paintings by Turner can teach you a lot about violin playing. Only then will you be able to keep fellow musicians and the public interested in what you are doing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

If you and your loved ones are safe and in good health, if everybody has a worthwhile occupation and earns enough for a decent living in a functioning state. What do you need or want more?

 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja performs at London’s Wigmore Hall on 16 February. Her new album Deux – Music for Violin & Piano by Bartok; Debussy; Poulenc; Ravel (with Polina Leschenko) is released the same day

 


Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s versatility shows itself in her diverse repertoire, ranging from baroque and classical often played on gut strings, to new commissions and re-interpretations of modern masterworks.

Read more

(Artist photo: Julia Wesely)

7 Star Arts launches a new series of concerts in the iconic Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head

Iconoclassics features leading, critically-acclaimed classical musicians, more at home in the world’s great concert halls than in a jazz club, but all happy to break free from the conventional classical music scene. The small size of the Jazz Room creates a special connection between musicians and audience, and allows the musicians to present music in a more accessible and relaxed way.

In keeping with the main focus of The Jazz Room, programmes in the Iconoclassics series will explore links between classical music and jazz, and will include works by Ravel and Gershwin, two composers whose music crossed genres and pushed the boundaries of what we define as “classical music”.

Iconoclassics launches on 14 February 2018 with Classic Valentine – a special concert for Valentine’s Day featuring David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). This will be followed on 11 March by a solo concert by internationally-acclaimed pianist Anthony Hewitt, who has been praised for his “fine, poetic and communicative musicianship” (BBC Music Magazine).

This promises to be a fascinating and absorbing new series in an intimate venue.

Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression

  • Frances Wilson/The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

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

I was born and educated in the United States in the middle of the last century. My father was an excellent pianist and a college professor of music and humanities. He taught in a number of small colleges and universities when I was growing up so we lived in numerous towns and cities covering a 3000 mile circuit around America: New York, Michigan, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Florida. My mother was a modest amateur pianist who loved playing hymns and sat patiently with me in my early years of practicing the piano.

As children my younger brother, sister and I were encouraged to be creative, play instruments, sports, try new things, experiment, take chances and not be afraid to fail. My father was also a talented arranger and did a number of works for choirs, small ensembles, and marching bands. His enthusiasm for everything else Life had to offer had a profound influence on me not only as a musician but as someone who continues to enjoy an active life, playing sports, travel and adventure.

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

Probably the biggest single factor in becoming a musician and composer was a summer music camp 1957 while my father was studying for his doctorate at Florida State University (Tallahassee). Each summer the School of Music had a 6 week Summer Music Camp which attracted around 300 teenage musicians not only from Florida but the neighbouring states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. At 14 I’d become a decent pianist and was advancing on the French horn. The FSU Music Camp was a combination of hard work during the day and wonderful evenings of concerts, dances, barbecues, and pool parties. The array of excellent large ensembles, choirs, theory and harmony lessons, conducting, and creative exercises were prelude to exciting evenings of hot, humid, hormonal socialising and mandatory cold showers. It was the perfect balance. I was excited and learned a lot.

One memorable occasion was a visit to our beginners’ conducting class by Ernst von Dohnanyi, a professor at FSU. He was a lovely old man who clearly enjoyed being around young people. We were told he was Brahms’s favourite pupil and were mightily impressed. He radiated a kind of old world mystery with his heavy Hungarian accent but also radiated a musty, old man’s whiff at close range during the lessons. His heavy accent made his musical life and friendship with Brahms all the more real and exciting. He showed us how to beat in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 time and told us to keep our shoulders down, our heads up with eyes on the orchestra, not the score. One day, to our amusement, he gave us a treat- how to conduct 5/4- ever so exotic in 1957.

My father later studied conducting with Dohnanyi and I was allowed to sit in on some of his seminars. It’s a pity I didn’t write down some of Dohnanyi’s comments particularly about conducting Brahms. I remember his comments often ran something like: “In zu score it’s written ‘Andante’, but Johannes always liked to take ziss section a little faster, like ziss. Johannes said he’d vished he could change za tempo mark but of course it vus permanently printed… zo No, not possible.” I later studied piano, conducting and composition at Florida State University, then Ohio State University both of which gave me an excellent foundation I only grew to really appreciate later on.

A Fulbright Fellowship to Warsaw, Poland, 1972-74, behind the Iron Curtain, had a profound influence on me. I worked in the Experimental Music Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw which at that time was an amazing state-of-the-art electronic studio. Through that and the annual Warsaw Autumn Festivals I met most of the outstanding composers in that part of the Soviet Bloc at the time: Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Gorecki, Pärt, Schnittke, and many more. The Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1972, ’73, ’74 radically changed my compositional outlook. Each festival was filled with one bone-crunching cluster piece after another and the festival lasted for a solid two weeks! I went to every concert- four a day. I was burnt toast by the end.

What saved me in my final festival (1974) was an English group called Intermodulation. Their performance of Terry Riley’s ‘Dorian Winds’ lifted me out of the clusters up into the clouds. Finally music that spoke to me, and I embraced it full frontal. It was a kind of instant white flag of surrender to the other side. My ‘Paramell’ (1974) for muted trombone and muted piano soon followed- modal and pulse driven. Later, meeting, working, and touring with John Cage completed my eclectic musical education by adding the ultimate tool to my musical toolbox- the idea of chance operations and experimentation. Ironically now is that I’ve moved back to revisit some of the earlier Polish influences in an effort to broaden further my harmonic and textural palette. So, like Henry Cowell, I want to live in the whole world of music, not just one corner.

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

The greatest challenge for any freelance person is surely earning a decent living. I’ve been freelancing in Britain and touring worldwide since 1974. Unfortunately the freelance profession has not gotten easier and, in fact, seems much harder, more competitive, and more difficult than ever. In the 1970s and 80s the BBC, Arts Council, and festivals all had much more money. My earnings from Performing Rights then were always a third to half my annual income. Over the past 40 years, in spite of more performances than ever, those PRS earnings have dwindled to irrelevance.

As a pianist I did lots of studio recordings and broadcasts for the BBC and many European stations. I had non-stop grants and commissions which seemed rather easier to come by then. Commission money now is definitely in shorter supply with far more of us chasing the dwindling sources. The challenge as a freelance composer is to earn a living using the expert skills we have all developed and dearly paid for over the years, and not to flip burgers at MacDonald’s to make ends meet. The arrival of Brexit does not look like a promising solution.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge of a commissioned piece is usually the brief, the time frame and negotiating a proper fee. I like having a decent brief because it makes the first few decisions easy- the size of the ensemble, the duration, the context, the venue, and of course the deadline.

Where it can be a challenge is when the brief is too specific and uninspiring. My recent 40 min. orchestral score for David Bintley’s ‘The King Dances’ for the Birmingham Royal Ballet was an excellent combination of an exciting topic, a good scenario, and almost complete artistic freedom to do what I wished compositionally. The choreographer even wanted to use 10 minutes of music I’d already written for another occasion. The BRB commission was a delight, exciting, wonderfully realised by choreographer, lighting designer (Peter Mumford), and the costumes & staging artist (Katrina Lindsay). We even had generous rehearsal time for the production. The result? An extremely happy and rewarding experience. (See the BBC TV film of the making of the ballet – The King Who Invented Ballet which at c. 58:40 min has the complete performance of BRB performance of ballet, ‘The King Dances’). The downside however was the rather modest commission fee for 6 month’s hard work and not nearly enough money for copying the score and parts which had to come out of my fee.

The opposite end of the spectrum was an extremely well-paid commission for a 3 minute brass quintet. The commissioner in this case dictated a nightmare scenario: the mini piece which they stipulated was to reflect/echo the commissioning institution’s strengths in “medicine, science & technology, climate change, environmental sustainability, astrophysics, culture, human behavior, and philosophical beliefs.” A jaw-dropping brief for a 3-minute processional! The real passion-killer, however, was it had to be no harder than Grade 5 since the musical talents of their university students were modest! Now there was a true challenge (!), but all part of earning a living as a freelance composer. I managed to write the work and it worked. Fortunately no one asked me which notes were “astrophysics”, “medicine” or “climate change”.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I think every composer has people, ensembles and venues they like to work with, and certainly some you never wish to see again. I worked for many years in a duo with the pianist Philip Mead, a first rate musician and educator. We travelled all over Europe and North America touring programmes of new music and electronics. It was great fun and always exciting to perform together.

My work with John Lubbock and his OSJ chamber orchestra was always a complete pleasure and the source of several exciting commissions and recordings. The Smith Quartet is another ensemble that has been wonderful over the years, the results of which are two excellent recordings.

I have always had a good relationship with the BBC Symphony and working with them is always exciting and rewarding. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Paul Murphy was a wonderful experience because of Paul’s enthusiasm, expertise, and their brilliant realisation of ‘The King Dances’.

Venues are also vitally important. My ongoing relationship with Richard Heason, Artistic Director of St Johns, Smith Square, for example, has been absolutely exemplary in his enthusiastic production of large scale events for both my 70th and now 75th birthday concerts amongst the other collaborations.

With all these associations the enjoyment comes from the people who understand what you are trying to do and who work with you enthusiastically to help you realise just that. It is a symbiotic relationship so when we feed each other properly the results can be magical.

How would you describe your compositional language?

My music is tonally based but often makes use of the full panoply of harmonic possibilities from tonal/modal harmony/melody to bone crunching tone clusters and tone rows for dramatic effect. The musical structures are often based on the shapes of earlier centuries but modified to suit and exploit a modern format for each new commission.

How do you work?

Mornings are my best, most creative time. I get up early (05:30) and work 5 – 6 hours taking a short break every hour or so. I work on A3 landscape manuscript paper with a 2B mechanical lead pencil and a large pointed eraser. I hear the music in my head but check it on a keyboard. I have good concentration so can write under almost any conditions. I’ve never missed a deadline. Afternoons and evening are used for business work, copying music, promotion, meetings etc. I love having the evenings off going to the cinema, a concert, theatre, or out to eat.

Which works are you most proud of?

Most composers give birth to many ‘children’. A parent probably should not have favourites but with so many children, we all do! As in real Life, some kids just turn out better than others no matter how much time you put into their house-training, manners, education and grooming.

Of the nearly 200 or so ‘children’ I have, those who have turned out best are my String Quartet No. 1: in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski (with electronics), At the White Edge of Phrygia (chamber orch), Southern Lament (piano- for Stephen Kovacevich), Requiem: The Trumpets Sounded Calling Them to the Other Side (soprano, orchestra, chorus, fog horns), Varshavian Spring (chorus, orch), The King Dances (orchestra score for the ballet), A Dinner Party for John Cage (theatrical event for 12 singers in a chaotic chance determined dinner), Wilful Chants, (BBC Prom commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Brass and O Duo percussion), Snakebite (chamber orch), Dark Sun – August, 1945 (large orch, chorus, radios), Haiku (piano, electronics, tape), Paramell (muted trombone and muted piano), Paramell V (2 pianos), and Christmas Triptych (sop, baritone, chorus, orchestra). I like many of the others but some still need a little more grooming and my detailed attention before I let them out to play too often. And yes, I should really try and visit them more often too.

As a musician, what is your definition of “success”?

For me success is writing a piece of music I’m proud of and having those feelings re-enforced by an enthusiastic audience response. My goal is to reach out to an audience and reel them in to a place they may never have been. Seduction is perhaps the best word. And it flies in the face of an attitude in the 1960s where it was popular to say “who cares if they listen!” as Milton Babbitt and the post Webern movement declared. For them, alas, the audience voted with their feet at the exit. I’d much prefer an audience on their feet at the end.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Pianists: Stephen Kovacevich in full flight playing solo, chamber works, concertos of core repertoire. Rubenstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Marc Andre Hamelin playing anything hard, Philip Mead playing my music, and Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Brubeck doing their thing.

Conductors: Toscanini, Solti, Bernstein, John Lubbock, Gregory Rose, Stephen Jackson, Grant Llewellyn, Paul Murphy, Sian Edwards.

Composers: Gesualdo, JS and CPE Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Bartok, Henry Cowell, Gershwin, Varese, Cage, Nancarrow, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, Tomasz Sikorski, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Bob Dillon, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and Helmut Lachenmann.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing the European premiere of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on the Huddersfield Music Festival and breaking 9 strings with my forearm clusters in the opening movement.

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

The first 10,000 hours I figure gets you through the basics for stepping into this profession. The next 10,000 listening to music, analysis, and engaging with other art forms gives you insight, bench marks, and perspective. The next 10,000 consolidates the first two and takes you to a higher level but not to the top. The very top is determined by an X Factor which is the mysterious Joker card. Nobody can explain why some up there are the winners while similar, or better talents, can be the ‘also-rans’. What is sure, however, is that it always takes longer than you think to get where you want to go and the path is full of wrong turns and traps! The trajectory of your professional career is a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping your eyes on the horizon but working hard on the daily detail is vital. Infernal desire and dogged tenacity as much as talent can be the key that unlocks that X Factor and deals you the Joker when it counts most.

If all you want is just a little fun in music, ignore all this. That works too, and you may lead a happier, more balanced life. Professional musicians have a rather chequered history in the ‘happy relationships’ department which makes interesting reading post-mortem but not at the time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a well paid commission to write something I’ve always wanted to write for instrumentalists, singers, conductor and a large ensemble of my choosing for an exciting venue that is to die for. Perform it, tour it, then record it with the ideal post concert location an exotic hideaway with the one you love overlooking a warm sea in the Caribbean or a rocky perch on the Amalfi coast.

My schedule? Work 5 hours in the morning, lunch al fresco, a couple sets of tennis, afternoon drinks into the sunset, a candle lit dinner for two, something visually and musically stimulating in the evening, and a late-night cocktail on a moonlit sea followed by an erotic poem in bed.

What is your most treasured possession?

My memory.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Try to imagine.

What is your present state of mind?

The ancient Arabic saying: “Live for this day, for tomorrow is only a dream, and yesterday, only a memory.”

Stephen Montague celebrates his 75th birthday with a weekend of special concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London, including several premieres. Further information here


Stephen Montague was born Syracuse, New York, 1943 and studied at Florida State and Ohio State Universities followed by two years in Warsaw, Poland as a Fulbright Scholar (1972-74). Since 1974 he has been based in London where he works as a freelance composer, pianist, and conductor but tours world-wide.
Major commissions include London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms, London’s Southbank and Barbican Centres, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Paris, Singapore, and Hong Kong festivals. Conducting work has included the London Sinfonietta, City of London Sinfonia, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony and many others.

 

 

Amateurs have nothing to lose by being musically true to themselves…… professionals are sometimes too intimidated to display their individuality

– Daniel Martyn Lewis, concert pianist

The world of the adult amateur pianist is rich, vibrant and varied. In researching this article I came across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and the frustrations of practicing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

The cultivation and participation in the activity of playing the piano, and the commitment to it, is very strong amongst amateur pianists, perhaps because the activity is undertaken voluntarily, not for money, and for the intrinsic pleasure of playing and also striving to improve.

The more you learn, the more you realise you still have to learn – so you never run out of stuff to do. You can take as long as you like to learn something difficult, or learn something easy within a short time.

– an adult amateur pianist

Adult pianists enjoy greater autonomy and self-determination than they probably did as children taking lessons, when there was parental and teacherly pressure to practice and progress, the treadmill of exams, and being made to learn repertoire which they disliked (this is very much my own memory of childhood piano studies). Being solely responsibility for selecting your own repertoire and organising practice time is often far more satisfying. A love of the learning process is also very important in fostering a willingness to stick at the task and many adult pianists continue in their piano endeavours because they enjoy being the perpetual student or lifelong learner.

It’s an intellectual challenge, but, crucially, one that I can dip in and out of – shorter bursts of practice seem more beneficial than four-hour stretches, which I wouldn’t have time for. There’s also something very satisfying about reaching the point where your hands seem to know just how to play a piece, and what was previously the subject of great effort becomes almost instinctive. 

Clare

I love the rare practising sessions, when I don’t have to watch my time and can go back to previously played pieces (hours can go by without me even noticing, because I get so lost in it)

– Sylvia

Many amateur pianists attest to the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano (and engaging in music in general), not only for relaxation or escapism after work doing one’s “day job”, but for more significant, life-changing or healing therapy.

At the age of 29 my partner of 5 years took his own life. I was in a desperate state when I walked passed a music shop and saw a special offer on a weighted action keyboard … on impulse I bought it….I played for hours and hours each day. I’m not a pianist: I am someone who finds great comfort and therapy in playing. I’m a great believer that playing literally saved me…..it gave me a purpose

– Gary

I started playing the piano when I was 25 as an aid to recovery when I was going through one of my depressive states. I find music so uplifting that I’m now want to take it further and possibly get to a professional level. Being totally blind doesn’t stop me playing the piano the way I want to

– Lucy

I find playing the piano is an excellent opportunity to focus in a way that’s just not possible at work; it slows down your train of thought and forces you to stay in the moment.

– Clare

Those of us who teach adults are regularly impressed by the persistence and determination to improve which these pianists display. They may not have much time to practice, snatching precious moments at their beloved instrument between the demands of work and family life, but they do so with commitment and (usually) enjoyment. Some grow frustrated with the slow pace of progress and arrive at a level which is “good enough” for them to enjoy playing pieces; others strive for excellence, recognising that deliberate practice, self-regulation and reflection are the keys to success. Many take regular lessons or attend piano courses, at home and abroad, relishing the chance to study with a master teacher and meet like-minded people.

lessons are a great opportunity to think about the piece as a whole, and to actively articulate what is happening in the music in a way that isn’t easy to do on your own at home. External scrutiny is also very helpful in making sure practice happens

– Clare

I treasure the chance to learn from established, respected musicians and to challenge my own ways of thinking.  It’s then up to me to synthesise the various ‘inputs’ I have gained along the path of learning a piece – mostly between my regular teacher and the sometimes differing thoughts of whoever is taking a masterclass

– Douglas

Many adults who return to the piano years after ceasing lesson as children or teenagers reveal the hangover of authoritarian parents or teachers when they recommence lessons. I have taught adults who have had inculcated in them a clear sense of a “right way” to play the piano, or insecurity and self-doubt about their abilities, previously engendered in them by a dogmatic or overly negative teacher who continually highlighted mistakes as “failures”. Such attitudes can take time to change and empathetic and supportive teaching is crucial in these scenarios. Sometimes adults come to lessons with unreal expectations – I used to teach a London black cab driver who wanted to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. “I’ll do it one day!” he declared at his first lesson. But beneath the bravado was an anxious person who lacked confidence and was highly self-critical, and who needed gentle coaching to help him find his way through the first movement of Beethoven Op 10, no. 1 and a Bach Prelude. One of the many roles as a teacher of adult amateurs is to manage their expectations in a non-judgmental way and without ever dampening their spirit or enthusiasm for learning.

It has been the best decision to re-kindle my passion for playing piano. I don’t perform and feel very amateur still, but just enjoy practising, learning and improving.

As an adult, I am dedicating far more time and energy into improving my skills and learning about good practise than I ever did as I child. I absolutely love it, find playing therapeutic and relaxing, and enjoy learning new things every day.

– Ruth

Playing the piano can be a lonely activity, and while many enjoy the solitude and the chance to spend time with the instrument and its rich repertoire which we as pianists are so lucky to have, the opportunity to interact with other pianists can be hugely important. Piano clubs and meetup groups are a popular way to connect with other pianists, perform in a friendly environment, share repertoire and socialise for plenty of “piano chat”. Such groups can also provide invaluable support to those who are nervous about playing in front of others and promote the feeling that we are “all in it together” – because members of piano groups understand and appreciate the difficulties and the pleasures.

The piano meetups are truly inspiring and they help me to realise that I am by no means alone in my difficulties and it helps to discuss them with other adult pianists.

Kim

Performing, though never ever undertaken lightly and often fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, carries fewer consequences for the adult amateur pianist. One’s career prospects are not dependent on a pristine performance and there are no critics in the audience, barbed pen at the ready to flag up errors.

It helps that no matter how badly wrong a performance goes, there are no “real consequences” for me; I can fall flat on my face on stage (either literally or figuratively) and come Monday, nobody at work knows what happened. That really helped my performance anxiety.

Petra

Playing for one another in the informal atmosphere of a piano club (perhaps in someone’s home) or meetup group becomes an important shared activity – sharing music, repertoire and the sheer pleasure of playing the piano. Each performance is greeted with enthusiastic and supportive applause, and often such gatherings are places where new discoveries are made – about oneself as a pianist and performer, and of repertoire.

And for all the adult amateur pianists I spoke to in preparing this article, the notion of the piano as a “friend who has always been there for me” is very strong, providing solace or relaxation after a tough day at work, or simply a place to go and “play”.

I’d encourage anyone to play – it’s truly a beautiful thing regardless of ability

– Anthony


Thank you to all the amazing adult amateur pianists who contributed to this article.