Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, how they are progressing, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I encountered people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt – and limit -my practising. I grew increasingly envious of the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something more positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

City Music Foundation (CMF) welcomes applications from classical, jazz, folk, and world musicians – both soloists and ensembles – to join its innovative two-year Artist Programme.

Starting in September 2019, those selected for the scheme will enjoy:

  • A series of tailored Professional Development Workshopswith topics including tax and financial management, networking, presentation skills, contracts and legal issues, agents, PR, social media, pitching to venues and festivals, programming, and much more
  • Business Mentoringfrom senior business-people through collaborations with City firms
  • Artistic Mentoringfrom established, acclaimed international performers, including opportunities for collaboration in performance
  • Performance Opportunitiesin CMF-produced events, festivals, and residencies
  • Promotional Toolssuch as high-quality photos, a bespoke website, videos, and professional recordings
  • Day-to-day access to the Artist Manager, who works like an agent to secure live concert bookings and media appearances
  • Additional Supportwith individual projects and commissioning

The deadline for applications is Wednesday 3rd April 2019, 12pm.

Apply here: www.citymusicfoundation.org/apply


Current and previous CMF Artists include A4 Brass Quartet, Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo soprano), Tabea Debus  (recorders), Foyle-Štšura  Duo (violin & piano), Andrey Lebedev (guitar), Ligeti Quartet,  Misha Mullov-Abbado (jazz double bass), and Emily Sun (violin).  

CMF’s mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians with the tools, skills, experience, and networks necessary for building and sustaining rewarding and profitable careers.

www.citymusicfoundation.org
Registered Charity Number: 1148641

 

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

When I was 3 years old, I joined an experimental folk theatre called ‘Gostsitsa’ as a singer and performer in my native town of Minsk. In the early 1990s, amidst all the uncertainty and volatility caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus experienced a remarkable cultural renaissance. It was a wonderful time to grow up as a child, although it was definitely not an easy period for adults. My identity and personality were hugely influenced by the Belarusian language, mythology and rich history, all of which are little known to most of the world. I have vivid memories of Gostsitsa’s powerful and, at times, quite avant-garde performances that showcased our cultural heritage. The group also gave me the first taste of travelling as we went on tour to places like Denmark and the Russian town of Salekhard on the Polar Circle. Cargo planes, deer sledges, the northern lights – we experienced true adventures! The musical part of our shows was very elaborate and often included complex polyphonic arrangements of folk songs. In fact, many of the artists in the company were classically educated and at some point, one of the artistic directors suggested to my parents that I should try to enrol into the Republican Music College – a national school for musically gifted children. I passed the entry exams when I was about five and went on to study there for the next 12 years.

I already played a bit of piano by that point. I actually started to play before I can even recall my first memory, so the piano was just always there. My parents had a studio apartment above a music shop, so they were able to purchase an instrument on credit. The school I went to combined both the national and intensive music curriculums. We were there pretty much all the time – often 6 days a week, sometimes for more than 10 hours a day, unless we were travelling for concerts or competitions. It was a wonderful place, almost a self-contained world, quite liberal for the post-Soviet era and bursting with talent and energy. It set me up with a very solid foundation for life.

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

Creative evolution is a never-ending process and influences come from all sorts of sources. Books, films, world cultures, science, history, my childhood in Belarus and formative years in Italy, friends and relationships – they are all intertwined with my personal development and therefore the music I play.

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

I think one of the greatest challenges in any profession is being able to separate the good advice from the bad and decide when to listen and when to ignore.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of both of my albums, which were the result of two deeply personal journeys: one looking outwards into space and the other directed inwards and putting the spotlight on my own experiences.

The first recording ‘Eta Carinae’ combined my passion for astrophysics with music of Scriabin and Busoni and explored one of the most fascinating periods in history: 1912-1920. It was an extraordinary time not only culturally and politically but also in terms of scientific advancements and our understanding of the natural world such as the structure of an atom, the first notions of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. The album has a narrative and if you listen to it as a whole, it tells a story that can be seen as the timeline of the physical transformation of matter, which in turn serves as an allegory for the progression of human reason itself.

In the second album ‘Et la lune descend’ I looked into my own life experiences through the musical lens of Debussy’s five piano suites. I also wanted to move away from the weight of academia which accumulated over the past hundred years since the composer’s death and just approach this music for what it is – with fresh ears, an open heart and the excitement of discovery. Behind the evocative titles and beautiful imagery in Debussy’s music, there are multiple layers of introspection and palpable enthusiasm for a new age of modernity that was meant to propel the world into the future.

Thinking of my live performances, I am and always will be my biggest critic. But there are, of course, plenty of happy moments and great memories. For my favourites, I would single out two solo recitals at Wigmore Hall, my performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at Barbican Hall and Rachmaninov’s No. 3 in Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, when I was still a student there. Those were intensely exhilarating experiences that went in one breath once I was on stage.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

At the moment, I am very fond of French and Russian music of the early and mid 20th century and the two composers to whom I feel a special connection are Debussy and Scriabin.

For many people, Debussy is the composer of the moon and the sea and beautiful escapism. But he is also firmly rooted in the fast-paced urban environment of the turn of 20th century Paris, which was the melting pot of contemporary ideas and the avant-garde. And that is what makes his music relevant to our modern experiences, in my opinion.

If I had to select a composition that would be the last ever piece I would play in my life, it is Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. If I am in the right state of mind when playing it, I feel like I’m in touch with the truest essence of myself while reaching out to the stars.

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

Ever so often I discover a piece that I become obsessed with. These form the core around which the theme and the rest of the programme will develop. As I accumulate a deeper knowledge of the topic over time, it gradually begins to morph into a different theme altogether. Some pieces will remain, some will go and the new repertoire will evolve to reflect the change – it is a very organic process.

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

I love playing late evening concerts in open-air venues in Southern Europe in summer. Why? The starry sky, the gentle breeze, the murmurs of the night merging with the music, the colourful audience and boozy post-concert dinners going on well past midnight.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whenever I have a musical block of any sort, I have a simple method I call ‘Ask Richter’ where I listen to his recordings from various years. Richter’s playing has a unique quality that distils the essence of music and reveals a version of fundamental musical truth, transcending the performer.

I love Sokolov, Ashkenazy and de Larrocha. My favourite young chamber ensemble is the Heath Quartet. I admire their passion, superb musicianship and attention to the smallest musical detail. For them, every note matters.

From time to time, my partner introduces me to various progressive metal bands. It is a great genre to discover incredibly impressive musicians in terms of skill and creativity. My latest introduction is a French metal band called Gojira.

I am a long-term fan of James Braddell (aka Funki Porcini). His music has been the soundtrack to my formative years since the age of 13. I highly respect his integrity as a musician and eagerly await each new release.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable performing experiences was the recent launch of my all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend”. It was a wonderful project where I collaborated with some of London’s brightest talents in jazz, craft beer and illustration. Debussy’s groundbreaking explorations in rhythm, colour and tonality were originally inspired by traditional Indonesian gamelan music that he heard during the World Fair in Paris in 1889. I thought it would be great to include gamelan into a performance and reached out to Byron Wallen, one of the most innovative and versatile trumpeters in the world, who over the years assembled a beautiful gamelan set. I proposed to collaborate on a piano / gamelan / trumpet arrangement of some of the pieces from the album and he agreed to my delight. On the evening, us performers could literally feel how the music was created in that very moment when we touched our instruments, emerging from silence and dissolving into nothing. It was a magical experience.

The event was hosted by one of Shoreditch’s original clubs: Zigfrid’s, which is run by our friends. It had a wonderfully intimate atmosphere without any segregation between the musicians and audience. The energy was bouncing freely between all of us. At the beginning, when the gamelan sound blended into the piano opening of Debussy’s Cloches à travers les feuilles and at the end when Byron and I were improvising on Pour l’égyptienne, I was literally in music nirvana. None of us wanted it to end.

It was also very exciting to collaborate with our good friends at Partizan Brewing and create a limited-edition beer named ‘Doctor Gradus’ (after ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Children’s Corner). Craft beer is an old passion of mine and in our Debussy beer we fused French and Indonesian flavours, reflecting musical influences in the taste. The label and artwork featured the distinctive artwork of award-winning illustrator Alec Doherty with whom we encoded many symbols and themes from the album. It was a true feast for the senses and a labour of love between many friends, each of them supremely talented in their respective field.

My other very moving experience is also connected to jazz. It wasn’t actually a concert per se. Last Christmas Eve I was walking back home after practice and next to a grocery store on Portobello Road I heard an incredible young jazz clarinettist. I thought: ‘Wow, those are some amazing sounds’ and kept on walking. But the music was just too irresistible, so I turned back and hid behind a corner. He was playing his soul out and no one was stopping to listen. He could have been playing at Carnegie Hall or on a deserted island – for him it did not matter. In this moment, nothing existed apart from his clarinet and his music. A few angry residents began to hassle him, one of them politely and another one quite rudely. I started to negotiate with them and defend the musician so I could hear ‘just one more piece’. At that point the clarinettist finally saw me, smiled and played his last tune for his sole listener. There was solitude, hope and empathy in his playing that spoke directly to my heart. It was a beautiful moment of understanding not only because I was on the same wavelength with him as a musician but also because through music he was able to create a human connection between two complete strangers. I cried my eyes out on my way home.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A successful performance unites physical control and emotional abandonment. The magic happens when the sound manages to trigger a deeply personal response in each listener in what is otherwise a communal experience. For me, a successful performance comes with having a lump in the throat.

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

I think the most important factor is to know yourself and to understand your true passions. And when you do, not to compromise. The best music emerges from deep soul-searching. It is a tough and time-consuming process with inevitable disappointments along the way. It might translate into fewer opportunities at the start of one’s career but I believe it is a risk worth taking. The experience will ultimately help an aspiring musician to mature into an artist of true quality and integrity and lay the foundations for a fulfilling and sustainable career.

Olga Stezhko’s CD ‘Et la lune descend’ is available now. Comprising of five suites, the album marks the centenary of Debussy’s death and charts the development of his writing for piano solo from the very first ‘Suite bergamasque’ to the much lesser known last suite ‘Six epigraphes antiques’. Further information


Olga Stezhko is an award-winning concert pianist, recording artist and leading interpreter of early and mid-20th century piano repertoire. Acclaimed by Classical Source in a Wigmore Hall review as ‘a supremely delicate master of her instrument’ who possesses ‘an extraordinary presence’, she has performed worldwide at venues including the Barbican Hall, Salle Cortot and the Carnegie Hall. Recent highlights include performances in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Wigmore Hall, the National Gallery, Palermo Classica Festival, Leeds International Concert Season and the ‘Belarusians of the World’ Arts Festival in Minsk, where Olga was awarded a special recognition by the Ministry of Culture.

Born in Minsk, Olga was educated in Belarus, Italy and the UK where she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees with distinction at the Royal Academy of Music. Her successes on the international competition circuit include the Grand Prix at the ‘Halina Czerny-Stefanska In Memoriam’ International Piano Competition in Poland, First Prize at the Nikolai Rubinstein International Piano Competition in France and Third Prize at the Prix Amadèo de Piano International Piano Competition in Germany.

Olga’s specialism is early and mid-20th century repertoire and she is particularly distinguished in Scriabin and Debussy. Her debut album ‘Eta Carinae’ (Luminum Records) combined her passion for astronomy with music by Scriabin and Busoni and was hailed by the Gramophone Magazine as ‘an outstanding debut’ and ‘not a record for the faint-hearted but rather for those who enjoy dark and menacing regions of the mind’. Olga’s second all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend’ was released on Palermo Classica in 2018 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.

www.olgastezhko.com

The Cross-Eyed Pianist site has been selected for inclusion in the the UK Web Archive at the British Library.

Established in 2010 initially as a place where I could record thoughts about returning to the piano after a long absence, the repertoire I was working on and concerts I attended, the site has evolved over the past 9 years into a varied “magazine” of articles on piano playing and pianism, repertoire, performing, performance psychology, musicians’ health and well-being, teaching, concert and CD reviews, interviews with musicians, composers and conductors, guest posts, and more esoteric musings on being a musician in the 21st century, and classical music in general.

I am hugely grateful to everyone who reads, supports and contributes to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Frances Wilson, author/editor

February 2019


The UK Web Archive was established in 2004 to capture and archive websites from the UK domain and across the web, responding to the challenge of a digital black hole in the nation’s memory. It contains specially selected websites that represent different aspects of UK heritage on the web, as well as important global events.

Mentor – an experienced and trusted adviser

(OED)

A mentor is not necessarily a teacher. The musician’s journey is a complex one, requiring many years of highly rigorous, focused training, and a consistent routine of work (practising) and performing and/teaching, and more…. While many of us have studied with particular teachers during this journey – teachers who have helped carve the path for us and form us into the musicians we are today – we may encounter or seek out others along the way to offer advice, support, encouragement and honest critique.

The most obvious definition of a musician’s mentor is someone you might play to – a master teacher (perhaps recommended by your regular teacher) or well-regarded musician who is able to offer a different perspective and insights on your music making which inform not only the evolution of a specific piece or pieces or music, but also your personal development as a musician. We might visit such a person on a number of occasions during our career – I know of several renowned concert pianists who still refer to a mentor for guidance.

A good mentor is able to offer advice and critique in an honest yet sympathetic way, providing support and inspiration, and instilling in one a sense of empowerment and personal autonomy – qualities which I believe are crucial in our ongoing development as musicians and which enable us to create our own artistic vision and persona. In addition, a mentor is a brain to pick, a sympathetic ear to listen, a nudge in the right direction and a guide in achieving one’s goals. The best mentor-mentee relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, and shared values, and while the mentor may be superior in knowledge and experience, there is a certain equality to a good mentor-mentee relationship.

Of course not all mentors are musical ones. We may seek advice in managing our career and dealing with the business side of being a professional musician, someone who can inform and guide us through the minefield of building a professional profile (including creating a website and online presence), approaching promoters, funding applications, tax planning and so forth.

Trusted friends and colleagues can also act as mentors, offering advice and support over a range of issues, musical or otherwise. I have a very good friend, a medic by profession and an advanced amateur pianist and piano teacher whom I regard as my mentor. His positive pragmatic approach (playing the piano is not a life or death scenario!), sheer pleasure in music making, and an ability to critique my playing honestly and helpfully without making me feel inadequate or insulted, has done more for my confidence as a performer and self-esteem as a musician in general than any teacher. Our friendship is founded on mutual respect and a shared enjoyment in playing the piano, exploring repertoire and attending concerts (and much more besides, as befits a deep friendship).

Another acquaintance, a concert pianist, has been helpful in acting as a kind of “coach”, challenging my interpretive choices and asking me to justify every decision made within the music (technical and artistic, specifically in relation to the late piano sonatas of Franz Schubert) in a way which was non-confrontational, stimulating and respectful. This was not “teaching” between master and pupil, but rather a more equal discussion about the music. One of many interesting outcomes of this particular relationship was when he told me our discussions had taken him back to his scores, to examine the music in new way in the light of our conversations. Thus, mentoring is a two-way exchange.

We may also cultivate “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we make them our role models, tune into their special qualities, and draw these into ourselves so that we can utilise and be inspired or motivated by them.

Having a mentor or mentors is not about dependency or neediness, but about growing, pushing boundaries, learning, exploring and allowing someone to guide you – more than you could do on your own – in a direction that is your own. Mentors can pave new internal ground too, giving one greater self-trust and confidence in one’s path and purpose.

 


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Buy me a coffee

A picturesque drive through west Dorset, the sun setting over the sea, snow still covering some of the higher ground along the route, took us to West Bay yesterday evening for a concert by violinist Philippa Mo at Sladers Yard, a small gallery in a historic Georgian rope storage warehouse.

getlstd-property-photo
Sladers Yard, West Bay

By day the gallery’s café, by night, with seating arranged in the round on three sides, the small space was transformed into an intimate concert venue for a programme of music for solo violin by Teleman, Pisendel, Bach, Smirnov, Tartini and Karg-Elert. This was the fifth concert in Philippa’s series ‘Partita, Fantasia, Caprice’, her personal journey through Bach’s solo violin sonatas, complemented by baroque and contemporary music which reveals connections between music and composers. Philippa introduced each work in the programme, highlighting points of interest which gave the audience a way in to the music.

As someone who frequents piano concerts, usually in larger-scale venues where one can feel at one remove from the performer/s, the experience of hearing and seeing Philippa perform in such a small space was fascinating. The late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter queried why audiences might want to see him playing and opted to play in almost complete darkness, so the audience couldn’t see him “working”, but I think audiences have a great fascination with the way musicians produce the music and if you’re ‘up close and personal’ in a small space such as Sladers Yard, you really appreciate the physicality of music making. You’re right there with the performer in the moment of creation, following the fingers, the body. In addition, in a small space with a good acoustic, I heard wondrous colours, harmonics and resonances from the instrument which I had not thought possible, sounds and timbres which may be lost in a larger space or when the violinist is accompanied by a piano or other instruments.

The whole concert was an intensely absorbing experience. In such a small space, one is compelled to listen attentively, and Philippa’s understated mannerisms and gestures are proof that one can create a profound ‘presence’ by sound alone.

The final concert in Philippa Mo’s series is on 8 June at Sladers Yard, West Bay, Dorset.

Concert-goers can enjoy a glass of wine or local craft beer before and during the concerts and there is also the option to stay for supper at Sladers Yard after the concert. The atmosphere is friendly and convivial.


Meet the Artist interview with Philippa Mo