I’ve set my students what I hope will be an interesting and educational task for the forthcoming half-term break: they are going to write their own programme notes for the Summer Concert in July. I’m not expecting exhaustive analytical notes, nor extended composer biographies, but a few facts about the pieces they have chosen to play isn’t a lot to ask, surely?

Whenever I introduce a new piece to a student, whatever genre it is, we spend some time considering what the piece is about, the “story” it is telling, the pictures it paints. I get students to do very basic musical analysis – look for repeating motifs or patterns, identify articulation, dynamic and tempo markings, translate musical terms – and I try to give them some basic contextual information. For example, if learning a piece by Bach or even Mozart, it’s important to remember that neither composer was writing for anything like a modern piano. Or that Schubert was a composer of song. That Bartok was greatly influenced by the folk music of his native Hungary. I admit I was very surprised when the student who came to me for some extra exam tuition from another teacher had not been given any contextual or background information to the pieces she is learning. By asking my students to think a little more closely about the pieces they have chosen to play in the concert, I hope they may gain some new insights about them.

For me, setting the music in the context in which it was created is crucial to understanding the composer’s intentions and is a key to learning how to interpret all the composer’s markings and directions correctly to produce, eventually, a reading that is both musical and accurate. When I embark on a new piece, I do a great deal of background reading, and make extensive notes, both contextual and analytical.

At a professional concert, the best programme notes are often those which give one some historical background to the works, a brief composer biography and an overview of what is going on in the music (i.e. a list of movements or sections). Not everyone needs to know that a piece which opens in A minor may resolve itself in C, though an explanation of a Picardy Third can be enlightening. Facts about how the music came to be, such as the Quartet for the End of Time, which Messiaen composed while a prisoner of war, are interesting, but surmising on whether Chopin’s fondness for ‘miniatures’ suggests he may have been gay, are not. I think some writers of programme notes forget that many concert-goers are not expert musicologists or specialists, and all they require is a list of what they are going to hear with a brief description. At Charles Rosen’s Chopin recital last Sunday, one of my friends expressed a wish for a glossary of musical terms, a translation of all those curious Italian words. I told him that one of my students had recently interpreted Allegro ma non troppo as “fast but not trotting”, and that I always translate Allegro amabile as “smile as you quickly play”!

A number of musicians who I hear regularly like to introduce the music themselves. This serves several purposes: first, it breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues; secondly, it allows the performer to explain the music as he or she sees it, and to offer some personal insights into what makes the music particularly interesting or special, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play the work. At a lunchtime concert I attended last Friday, there were no programme notes, beyond a list of each work’s movements, and biographies of the performers. Instead, the musicians themselves introduced the music (Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor for Piano & Violin, Op. Posth. 137 and Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E Flat Op. 18). I knew very little about the Schubert Sonatina, and even less about the Strauss: both pieces were introduced engagingly, piquing my interest before a single note had been played. A couple of nuggets, such as the witty nod to Schubert’s Erlkönig and Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata in the Strauss sonata, were flagged up in advance of the performance, though there were no prizes for spotting them (as I did)!

When my students come back after half-term with some facts about their pieces, and a brief biography, I will collate all the information into a main programme for the concert (including my own programme notes, of course!). This may be an amateur event, but I feel it is important to do it “properly” to create a sense of occasion for my students, who have, by and large, worked very hard this year. The concert is, as always, a celebration of that hard work, and a chance to share music with family and friends.

Schubert: Sonata (Sonatina) – For Piano And Violin No. 2 In A Minor, Op. Posth. 137, D. 385: I. Allegro Moderato

Strauss, Richard : Violin Sonata in E flat major Op.18 : I Allegro, ma non troppo

[You need Spotify to listen to these tracks. Free to download and use. Spotify.com]

Drawn from yoga exercises, this sequence of warm up exercises for the pianist was devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell.

Start each exercise from a ‘neutral’ stance – i.e. feet hip-distance apart, shoulders down, spine and pelvis in a neutral position, chest lifted and open, chin parallel to the ground – and keep all movements natural and free.

1. The Swing. Swing the arms forward and back, allowing the arms to fall back through their own momentum/gravity. You can be as energetic or gentle as you like. After a few minutes, your hands should start to feel warmer.

2. Empty Sleeves. Imagine you are wearing a coat but without your arms in the sleeves. With your arms hanging by your sides, twist your body slightly from side to side. Your arms should swing freely, following your torso, as you turn—one wrapping around your body in front, the other back, like coat sleeves flapping in the wind.  Keep your shoulders, elbows and wrists relaxed at all times. Increase the movement to extend the swing and start to engage your feet and knees too.

3. The Monkey. Bend forward slightly and let your arms hang loosely in front of you. Swing your arms across your body at hip, chest and shoulder height. Gradually increase the movement, and notice how the opposite foot starts to engage in the move as well. Again, you can make this move as energetic or as gentle as you like.

4. Shoulder Drop. Inhale deeply (“thoracic breathing” – you should feel your chest expand noticeably as you breathe) and as you do, raise your shoulders towards your ears without tensing the neck. Hold the pose for a moment and then exhale, as if you are trying to push all the air from your lungs, while allowing your shoulders to drop down. Repeat five times.

5. Shoulder Roll. Exactly as described. Roll your shoulders forwards and up, then backwards and down, with your breath.

6. Softening the feet and legs. With your feet planted firmly on the floor, start to shift the weight from heel to toe and back again, one foot at a time. Again, gradually increase the movement and walk around the room, making sure each step is carefully planted.

7. Neck Circles. Allow your chin to rest on your chest and slowly rotate the head gently from side to side, ear to ear, in a half-circle move. Repeat a few times, being very gentle as the head comes back to the starting position.

8. Hand stretch. Hold the back of one hand in the palm of your other hand and bend it forward at the wrist. Then bend the wrist back keeping fingers and arms straight.

Balance

As with any physical exercise, work within your limits and stop immediately if you are in pain. These exercises are also very helpful in alleviating the effects of performance anxiety.

Resources:

Yoga for Musicians – DVD by Penelope Roskell with Catherine Nelson

Musicians’ injury – whose responsibility? ABRSM article

The International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine

 

A post on Gretchens Pianos inspired this one!

My grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. I suppose I was always aware of it and probably messed about on his piano, an Edwardian upright, which was on the left as you went into the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) when we went to visit. The piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church….. My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, while my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the ‘gramophone’ (as it was called).

I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5. It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to concert pitch by the tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument. It saw me through to Grade 8, but when I left home, I stopped playing seriously for some years, and when my parents divorced, my father sold the piano because I did not have room for it in my flat.

My first teacher, Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, seemed ancient. She had a grand piano in the front room of her house and during the lesson, her husband would silently bring her a cup of tea, served in a bone china cup and saucer. She always wore mauve or pink, and smelt faintly of lavender. I took my exams at the Birmingham School of Music, one exam a year, a veritable treadmill. When we moved to Hertfordshire, I took lessons with Suzette Murdoch, who taught me to love the intricacies of Bach and the passion and humour of Beethoven. She had an Old English Sheepdog and a spaniel, who would lie across my feet as I sat at her Steinway. My music teacher at school was also very influential. He was endlessly enthusiastic and inspirational, and I often find myself repeating things he said when I am teaching (“pretend you’re a trumpet!”). Twenty-five years since leaving school, I started having lessons again, an experience which I find endlessly absorbing, interesting and fulfilling. The most satisfying part is seeing how quickly I have progressed from post-Grade 8 repertoire to “proper” advanced repertoire – Chopin Etudes, a Ballade, Schubert’s last sonata…. Three years ago, I didn’t think I would be playing Liszt, but now I no longer look at music and think “there’s no way I can play that!”.

My current piano is a Yamaha, purchased four years ago, and chosen for quality and price. Of course, I dream of owning a grand, when space and budget permit, but in the meantime, I play my teacher’s antique Bluthner regularly, and a friend’s Steinway B, which I find as quirky as driving my old Porsche. Last summer, while on holiday in southern Ireland, I had the good fortune to play a rather special Bluthner which lives at Russborough, a beautiful 18th century stately home in County Wicklow. The piano belonged to Sir Alfred Beit, who, with his wife, was a great society host, and a fine amateur pianist. It was wonderful to see Sir Alf’s music in the rack next to the piano: the same Peters edition of Schubert’s Impromptus I had when I was in my teens, and a book of Czerny studies. Next to the Bluthner is an older Steinway, which was played by Paderewski when he visited Russborough.

Russborough, County Wicklow

I am fascinated by the connection pianists, in particular, seem to have to their instruments, and also the stories which illustrious instruments can tell us, in their own way. In a novel (as yet unpublished!) I wrote some years ago, about a young man poised on the cusp of a fantastic career as a concert pianist, before the Great War cruelly intervenes, the various pianos he plays have great significance for him – his teacher’s Broadwood, his mother’s Pleyel, his patron’s grandiose Steinway, a rickety upright in the officers’ mess – and the music he plays on each has very special and symbolic resonances (Beethoven, Scriabin, Debussy, Schubert, Rachmaninov). We grow very attached to our instruments, and we are often very protective of them. Although I teach, and am happy to do so, I do get upset when children treat my piano badly. Luckily, this does not happen that often – and when it does, I am quick to point out that such treatment will not do the instrument any good!

The loneliness of the pianist also interests me. While other musicians, be they soloists, ensembles or orchestras, sit largely facing the audience, the pianist does not, and this immediately changes the dynamic between performer and audience. Some people have suggested that I chose the piano because I am an only child and that I like being on my own. It’s true that I am content in my own company, and am happy to spend hours alone with my piano, but I don’t buy into the only child theory. Discussing this with fellow students on the piano course in April, we all agreed that one of the chief attractions of being a pianist, aside from the vast and wonderful repertoire, is the solitariness of the role.

I used to play the clarinet as well, an instrument which I love to listen to, which allowed me to join an orchestra and wind ensemble. However, I did not choose to learn it (I wanted to play the flute), and I always felt overshadowed by my father, who was a talented amateur clarinettist. Fortunately, I could accompany him on the piano, as I grew more proficient, and one of our favourite pieces was the Brahms E flat Clarinet Sonata. My father is now learning the piano, though he refuses to take any advice whatsoever from me!

When I was at school, I played the harpsichord, often being called upon to play continuo with the chamber orchestra. It was, by turns, a fascinating and frustrating experience, as it is not an easy instrument to master, and the school harpsichord (a modern instrument made from a kit) was beset with problems and regularly disappeared for maintenance.

My piano tuner keeps urging me to visit the Chappell showroom in central London to “try the Bosendorfers”, but, as I said to him, I know if I try one I will want one! And I’d love to play a Fazioli. And when I had a backstage tour of the Wigmore Hall some years ago, it was hard to resist sitting down at the Steinway on the hallowed stage there, and rattling through a drop of Schubert…..

How did you choose your instrument? What’s your story? Please feel free to reply!

This brilliant video clip of a cat jumping in X-ray aptly and very clearly demonstrates a technique I was discussing and practising with my teacher today: keeping the wrists springy and the forearms soft and free of tension when our fingers make contact with the piano keyboard. Watch how supple and springy the cat’s skeleton is, with that “extra bounce”, which gives it the momentum to launch effortlessly into its next movement. Try translating this movement to the keyboard: practice on the fall first, allowing the arms to drop down without any tension so that the hand naturally “bounces back” as it hits the surface. As you allow the arm to fall, picture the long tendons in the shoulder stretching like rubber bands, allowing resistance-free movement through the whole arm.

What is so interesting about a technique like this is the difference it can make to the sound we produce, as well as enabling us to play in a more fluid, tension-free manner.

This exercise is not easy to explain, so while you are enjoying this video clip, I will be filming myself doing the arm exercises. Further video clips to follow….

How does it feel to play that passage of Liszt or that section of Schubert beautifully? Or the grandest measures of Bach? The tenderest Chopin? The most sensitive, haunting Debussy? To plumb the profoundest, most spiritual depths of Messiaen?

Talking with my piano tuner this morning, before he set to work facing and regulating my piano, we discussed the philosophy of playing, a conversation which began with a reference to the Chinese Tao (or Dao), and the premise that “the right way is not always the right way”, a tenet which, as he pointed out to me, I should know all about, as both a teacher and a practitioner.

Those occasions when you’re playing and you feel yourself standing back from the music, allowing it to speak for itself, as if you are playing remotely, or floating above the piano, watching yourself play, are the most precious, and often signal the moment when a complete synergy of mind and body has taken place. It is at times like this when the most profound insights about the music might be revealed, or when we feel truly in touch with the composer’s intentions. When you feel like that, your concentration levels are at their most intense, you are “in the zone”. And yet, you feel detached, floating, at one remove….. In his excellent book, The Inner Game of Music, author Barry Green describes this as a state of “relaxed concentration”, a state achieved through “trust, will and awareness”.

from 'The Inner Game of Music'

Try to recall what it felt like at that moment. How did your body feel? Your hands? The notes under your fingers? Try to store that feeling away for next time. Put it in your memory box and bring it out the next time you practice that piece. Gradually, the more times you repeat this exercise, the whole piece will evolve into something new, better, finer, and you reach a depth of understanding hitherto not experienced.

Try it.

'Untitled' - Richard Long, 2005 (National Galleries of Scotland)

The Inner Game of Music