A post for John Cage’s birthday (5 September 1912)

A piece in which the performer is directed to remain silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds made American composer John Cage famous – and infamous. His 4’33” is as much a piece of conceptual art and a profound musing on the nature of silence as it is a piece of music: through it, Cage challenged traditional notions of what constitutes music, performance, a concert and above all, silence….

Read more and listen to my Essential Cage playlist

Finding comfortable earphones, or earbuds, which also offer decent sound quality across a range of music genres can be tricky, especially if you like to listen to your music while on the move or when exercising. Padmate’s new PaMu Scroll wireless earbuds (so-called because they come in a chic cylindrical case-cum-charging unit) offer a comfortable, competitively-priced and stylish alternative to more traditional designs.

Drawing on and upgrading the technology used to develop the X13-PaMu Wireless Earbuds (developed following a highly successful Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign), the PaMu Scroll earbuds are super lightweight and fit snugly,  comfortably and discreetly in the ear. The earbuds are touch-sensitive, with Left and Right both enabled to Play or Pause and respond to, or decline, phone calls; while the Left also allows one to fast forward through tracks and the Right to activate Siri (on iPhone). It takes a little bit of getting used to – tap too hard and your music will turn on and off, and then on again…. But the function saves fiddling around with an additional switch or button, and the volume can of course be controlled from your music app/device. The sound is very direct, immediate and balanced over a range of genres, also spoken word/radio broadcast. Since the majority of my listening is to classical music, I tested the earbuds with piano and other instrumental solo works (including violin, voice and flute), chamber music, contemporary classical and orchestral, and very much liked what I heard. The clarity – coupled with comfort in the ear – is impressive, and they have a good noise cancelling function too, which means you don’t have to compromise on your listening experience when travelling on the train, for example.20180827174808jpg-1535363296126

If you thought Apple had the edge on stylish design, think again. The PaMu earbuds come neatly packaged in a sleek white box and the charging/carrying case is a scroll wrapped in embossed leather (four attractive designs/colours to choose from),with a magnetic clasp, which will fit neatly in a pocket or handbag . Inside the earbuds have their own Left and Right compartments, also magnetised to ensure they fit snugly for charging. Although supplied with a USB charging cable, the PaMu Scroll can also be charged using a wireless charging pad.

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With fast Bluetooth auto-pairing, your earbuds will be ready to use almost as soon as you take them out of the case, and the charge is good for four hours. They are also waterproof, making them excellent when working out.

PaMu Scroll go on sale from 12 September, initially for only $39, which strikes me as a bargain, considering the quality and style of the product.

Further information

 

Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.

Something unexplored lurks in the human mind in regard to protecting and maintaining the piano keyboard and its action, and I have been giving this mystery considerable thought. Many people tap their fingers on a tabletop when they are confronted with a dilemma. One might expect a pianist to take double recourse to this outward expression of resolving an inward problem. But in my case – and I have been meditating this puzzle in many places: at my own home piano; while on walks in my native village, during which I study the fossilized trackways of dogs in sidewalk concrete; and, also, at a New York City exhibition opening of paintings by a very noted figure of the piano world – one might note my right foot, at any time during the day, in silent, reflexive action, raising figurative dampers as if onto a still unrealized insight, as if attempting to apply an imagined legato of reconciliation unto considerations too separated to be united by the connective force of equally figurative legato finger action.

We come to pedal all things in our mind; we come to raise the dampers between all events – even the most wildly and seemingly polarized – and endeavor to connect them in the driest halls of our consciousness. Even when the higher part of my mind falls out of this practice, it is not long before a hole forms in the sole of my newest right dress shoe, near the ball of my foot. And even when that hole is just forming, I am made to note it as soon as I walk to a hack accompanist’s job in the rain – and my mind goes back to pedaling at all hours.

I have been pedaling hard to connect the three sites I name above, for I have had personal investments in all three, including the last, though I am no painter. But I, too, like many re-creative artists, have felt a compulsion to disavow performance as my main identity. This happened rather early for me, and I turned to writing (novels and essays) over performance art because I was convinced that the former would leave a permanent mark whilst the latter dissolves at once into air. I have discovered that both, however, under the powerful light of honest appraisal, vanish with nearly equal speed.

I met a musician friend, a percussionist, for lunch recently, so that we could discuss the trade of writing. He told me of playing a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” with a high level ensemble. A videographer had been employed to document the performance. My friend was proud of his role in the concert. But every time the camera was on him, and he was about to play, the camera then panned or cut away. I told my friend that he should view that panning as Providential, that he should not care to leave his mark as the mere executant of another man’s work. Haydn’s “Creation” is Haydn’s creation after all. I told him that if he has the writer’s impulse that following its trade is the way to keep the best intellectual control (true), to say something perhaps utterly new (true), and to leave a lasting mark (false). I say false because when the figurative camera of my mind pans to the spines and folders of my collected written works, it pans then away instinctively before they can speak. We can never watch ourselves.

In the finished basement of my childhood home, stands the piano I principally use still when I practice. Its action is in good working order. In another room of that same basement, for quite some time stood the old Francis Bacon player piano upon which I first learned to play. That piano had very yellowed and ancient authentic ivories, and in many places on its keyboard it had irreparable, stuck, keys. When I would stare at that ruinous action, I often wondered if elephant tusks had been the material of choice because they reminded one that an animal that leaves such mighty footprints has its greatest feature – its tusks – thrashing forever in the unimpressionable air? Was not the suggestive strength of the piano keyboard already in play when mastodons cut the glaciated atmosphere?

But not until recently – though I always knew the tracks were there – did I start to think about how, just below the carpeting underneath both pianos’ locations, there is a lengthy fossilized dog trackway in the concrete of the house foundation. One can see the uncovered section of the tracks to this day in the adjacent garage, where they make their way in and out from the driveway. The tracks vanish where the floor of the garage meets the driveway. No one can trace the dog’s approach to the foundation from his day of liberty in 1972, and no one can trace where he went after he left by nearly the same path by which he entered.

I have been rising of late from the well-regulated instrument that still sits astride the fossilized dog trackways, and I have been taking walks with my own living dog. He and I have been making a survey of all the fossilized dog trackways in our native village of Northport on Long Island. There are two great examples on Woodbine Avenue, one on Main Street, one on Highland Avenue, one on Sandy Hollow Road, and a very fine and complex one on Washington Place. Perhaps I started to note the trackways that are available to me that parallel the ancient prints I have visited often at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. There I have stared down to the trackways and remarked to myself: that if one’s work is of value, someday, someone, will note it. For even the casual actions of unmindful dinosaurs from millions of years ago have not, at last, escaped detection.

But as I had felt in my final admonition to my percussionist friend, there seems something false in the permanence of legacies of any kind. I have been taking walks to Washington Place’s fossil trackway to think this through. I had discovered recently the Washington Place trackway because I had been compelled to take to its east sidewalk because two little white dogs were out in the yard on the west side of the street. A lady came out to gather them and mutter, to grumble reproaches to her tiny dogs for their combativeness, for I walk with a Rottweiler.

On three squares of concrete right before one house along that east sidewalk of Washington Place, are some splendid fossil prints, leading principally north away from the address, a frozen moment from which the instant before it is hidden, and a moment from which the instant after it is hidden, for the fossils are on only those three squares of an otherwise blank and lengthy sidewalk.

Such fossils always imply humor to me – humor from the printmaker. But the running dog had equal joy on the dry slabs of the sidewalk before and beyond the wet concrete. There is something in the glee that dogs find in locating the wet section, the blank slate, that is roped off to them. Vandals and dogs have no hesitation to christen a new, blank, notebook. They do not hesitate; they do not lose heaps of ideas because they fear what is best to record first – or fear what format the blank journal seems to demand.

The dog pedals with the joyful pant of his living tongue. The concrete tracks are a record of keys that stuck for him. But the solid pavement before and after the tracks were as the better regulated keyboard; they let him race and leave no record. What strikes me is how much a poorly regulated or humidity-plagued piano action stands in analogy to wet concrete on the sidewalk: individual paw prints can be immortalized until perhaps all the blank is taken up. A good action is like a dry sidewalk: always repelling any impressions, always keeping itself clear of print.

A book to its author is somewhat like the wet concrete. It captures the running mind of the writer as it passes over it. The figurative concrete hardens and captures the pawprint traces of his thoughts. But there is an equal amount missing in the record – as much is missing from the book of the run of the writer’s mind as is missing from the dog’s run over wet concrete when it occurred. There is something very significant about the blank blocks of concrete surrounding the printed areas – the blocks that were there to set the dog to speed and receive him at the end but could take no prints, for they were already dry and solid. At last, the sidewalk sections that record the prints and the adjacent ones that had been dry (and show nothing) seem equal to me. Both sections suggest to me that a re-creative artist’s and a creative artist’s legacy are ultimately the same. Legacy is, at last, only a well-used present.

The well-regulated keyboard is like that solid, already dry, concrete – and is like the ground leading up to the desk, to the manuscript in progress, to the studio, the easel – as much a trackway itself as it seems but a runway for getting up to speed for the impressionable trackway. In fact, are we not most uncomfortable in the area that takes impressions? Does not the dog shake his paws just after he hits the figurative plaster or manuscript of the concrete? I note that dog fossil trackways rarely double over themselves. And when we part from our own impressionable trackway – the writer’s desk, say – do we not seem to take to a fresher, healthier, more sensitive material, dip our pen in a better well, though of invisible ink – the ink like that of the well-regulated action, which keeps no records?

The writer must value that horizontal dash, what lives above the print sections and the unimpressionable slabs, as much as do the performing artist and the dog. The tracks do not immortalize the runner’s dash. They only immortalize another witness’ review of that dash – or the dasher’s review of his own run, in which case he is reduced to another witness, as alienated from his former self as if he is another man. All means of record keeping, all the stuck keys, omit the horizontal, the play of forward and lateral motion. The sticking keys leave a record only of vertical, separate, attacks. The kind of legato I describe is not captured by finger work, pedal work, or even by a recording device. It is only achieved in the mind in the moment. The best reader of any passing moment pedals in his mind and disavows his desiccated tracks. The dog pedals in his horizontal glee, not via his recorded landings. The latter are only as the punch holes in a player piano roll.

Somehow the wet concrete, that which allows supposed immortalization, is no more impressionable than the surrounding hard blocks that accept no prints. The most well-regulated piano action shows no sign of what happened at its keyboard after the playing is over. The well-regulated action shows no sign that one was there after one is gone. It is a like an Etch-A-Sketch toy that shakes and clears itself.

And recordings are like a file, an archive, of stuck keys. Perhaps that is the real reason they become so odious to their creators – and, ultimately, to others – over time? Recordings, even notated compositions, are but signs of stuck keys. They stand in the way of the future. A well-regulated piano is rather like the ground just before and after a trackway; the keys do not stick. The dog who left the fossil prints leaves a clue in his incomplete trackway: that the choice of the wet concrete was not by design, but partial and by chance – part of a greater sequence. Tree roots push the old trackway slabs up, like scores onto the piano’s music rack, yet no matter how we play and run, the best mediums (the well-regulated actions, the hard sidewalk), reject all efforts to leave new tracks.

The tangible objects of a body of creative work – the books, the canvases, the scores – are like pianos with irreparable, sticking, keys. Imagine having to cast aside and store each piano on which one has performed after only one use! One would be left with the opposite of a piano showroom; one would be left with a piano charnel house. One would be left with slabs of stored trackways, but soon only a collection of a hoarder’s tragedy. The record left on the piano with sticking keys is less important than the record one cannot see in adjacent and perfectly regulated keyboard actions. Who among piano majors has not, late on a weekend night, moved from piano to piano in the vacant practice rooms, as if to rehearse on varying actions? Who has then not thought of such charnel houses but for the work of the piano technician? The piano technician is as a priest in confession – creating the forward moving motion of inalterable blank slates.

These ideas absolve, even vindicate, the concert pianist – or any re-creative or interpretive artists or performer whose medium is time-dependent – from his seeming dependencies on the trackways of predecessors. He lives a sort of hopscotch life in respect to trackways – and would seem to be helpless after the tracks end, and in the area before the start. But whether it is one’s own original work or another’s, only the living, unrecordable utterance is of ultimate value. I have known many Henrys, but not a one seems to share the same name when I hear it.

Only the most transient creation is the most eternal and ineffaceable. There is no impressionable material to record how a solitary consciousness improves a moment. A pianist feels his work is written in haste onto atmospheric sheets that are immediately cast into a fire of succeeding silence. But intuition tells me more and more there are no safe and permanent library shelves or secure archives. One comes to suspect that knowledge and achievement are not cumulative, but that growth of mind is really a succession of abandonments.

Always the well-regulated action protects us. We in turn are careful to keep it from proximity to windows and heaters, and we add climate-control devices. We seem to want them so well-regulated that no cavity can ever form on the figurative elephant’s teeth; sometimes the strings look like floss meant to tackle tusks.

The well-regulated action works then to push back instantly against all sounded notes, so as to erase the marks of utterance, to keep our philosophy high. The well-regulated action works in analogy to the sun and the moon, working to render blank the shorelines by cleansing tides. Does this not suggest, perhaps, why we favor celestially black lacquer on concert grand pianos? The darkness of the cosmological voids suits the mystery of such instruments.

We are right to worship the achievement of the inventor of the piano’s mechanism. One can credit Cristofori for his genius in respect to turning a harpsichord into a piano, but his mechanism’s receptivity to later improvement in respect to speed may be its greatest legacy. I notice the common human trait of impatience at elevators – as if repeated pressing of the call button will somehow accelerate an arrival. But on the best pianos the repetition has an answer for every attack. I do not think any facile pianist will disagree that there is no other button that is always so ready to meet our efforts to push it in faster succession. We even have fingerings for this: 4-3-2-1 (or alternate attacks between the two hands on one note). Again, the greatest representatives of modern actions will reset and give a note for each of our strikes. We cannot dance fast enough to leave a fossil on a well-regulated action.

Now that I have lingered over my home piano and one of the fossil trackways in my own village, I wish to tell of the third consideration I named at the start: my recent time at the art gallery on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. I was early for the 6:00 PM opening, so I spent time alone on one of the benches in the dog park adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History. I watched many dogs run about with glee over a firm, dry, unimpressionable, dust. I entered the gallery after friends arrived, and with all the thoughts I have given above very much in mind, I was struck immediately by the arrangement of the room. On the three interior walls of the small space were the paintings. But of most significance to me was that the gallery was also a performance space. A grand piano stood before the front window; thus it stood principally before a canvas that can hold no images. The canvases that reject permanence – the keyboard and the window – were placed together well.

Again, on the walls perpendicular to the piano were the paintings. If their canvases could have provided the same unremitting challenge as the well-regulated piano and its action before the front window, then those canvases would have been as trampolines to the paint as soon as it had been applied. The paint would have bounced back with each brush stroke; or, like the front window glass, the paint would pass right through and absorb the mark of the artist no more than a footfall on the edge of the tide. But the hanging paintings were as stuck, as sticking keys. The piano stood there as the ultimate, unremitting, blank canvas. The well-regulated action is as an infinitely perfected piece of glass, one that permits no reflections: all of the performer’s inner spiritual photons pass through, consigned to an endless outbound journey. The piano keyboard is as a revolving door that leads somehow ever forward. Scratches, fossils from the nails of virtuosos, may remain in the fallboard, but nothing fossilizes in the keyboard below.

What distinguishes the great halls of the different branches of the arts from each other? A library must be expanded, for its shelves begin to creak – even, to a microscopic degree, if its holdings are electronic. The same holds for museums. Their rate of accession must always threaten their space and future. But a performance space does not augment its holdings with time. It deaccessions a work as soon as it is acquired. In virtually the same instant a work is gained, displayed, and then deaccessioned; for it vanishes by a power beyond our will. A concert hall is a library with the most voracious kind of bookworm.

The piano action is as an artist’s pencil with tip and eraser on the same end. It resets constantly and always offers no more than the present to its user. Not only does it efface even the record of one’s most superior virtuosic predecessors, it erases the record of oneself from even an instant before. I know of nothing that welcomes so much the utterance of only the present moment. Only the player sitting at the bench, sitting perpendicular to the keyboard can hear the performer whose arms move parallel over such a resistant fossil bed.

A well-regulated piano’s action will no more let a key stay down than will the water in a pool permit one to keep a ball under the surface. One can keep the ball submerged if complete focus is rendered on that one ball. But let one’s focus and downward force be set off balance in any way and the ball pops up – as will the key of any chord if one’s proper weight is not maintained upon it, as is often the case with one’s outer (and sometimes inner) fingers in wide or densely voiced chords. The well-regulated action will no more retain a shape than a pool of water. But though the glory of public performance may lure many a narcissist to the trade, the action of the instrument at the same time does not permit Narcissus to see himself reflected in the pond of keys.

Probably the only significant fossil permitted to form in proximity to a well-regulated piano action is on the music stand. Perhaps that is the real reason we respect so much those who play from memory. The audience does not so much crave the impression of improvisation as it desires the reassurance of seeing the instrument admit no fossils – seeing the keyboard insist that the canvas is always unfilled, that all prospects are ahead even when time is up. The encores are but preludes.

The grand piano’s lid is shaped not unlike an artist’s palette. But when the lid is opened, is it not on such an angle that any figurative paint could not but slide away? That surface, too, seems to hint at an unremitting will toward a blank slate, toward an infinite future. Perhaps that is why there is something unnerving to me when I play on pianos in private homes where the lids are closed and covered with family photos and other impedimenta. A pianist craves those things to be removed from the lid. Perhaps many a pianist practices with the lid up because then the symbol of a palette that sloughs away its paint augments the suggestiveness of the well-regulated action that retains no history.

Perhaps the reminder of an unremitting and endlessly demanding future is at times too much for some? Perhaps it is not to keep the dust away that we have fallboards on pianos? When one closes the fallboard of a piano it is like the gesture of closing the eyes of a dead man, for we fear those eyes are still seeing. And, to boot, we often cover a closed piano as if with a shroud. Something lurks within these gestures; they are inspired by more than fear of dust and ghosts.

Under very rare circumstances for a pianist, Nature conspires to augment the perpetual prospective blank of the piano action’s canvas. Once, when I had cause to perform on a piano positioned on an outdoor platform, an intense beam of sunlight passed directly over the keyboard for a time. Then it was as if I was challenged by an even greater unimpressionable canvas. The white keys, despite that intense sunlight, were not heated, it seemed, much more than they would have been under other circumstances. C major was not unpleasant. All white keys seem in accord with each other, even though, after close inspection, one will notice that not a one in the compass of an octave is cut the same! I groped the C major sections under that sun as when one walks barefoot in a beach parking lot in summer and strides, tightrope-style, the lightly painted lines of the parking spaces.

But the black keys! The black keys became hot. They were hot enough to make me anticipate the moments when my fingers could leave them. The farther a key signature was from the twelve-o’clock position on the circle of fifths the more uncomfortable it was to touch that keyboard. The sun had augmented the brevity of the action’s retention. I cannot recall – even from times under the brightest stage lights – another case when a keyboard presented two temperatures to the hand.

Yet under common circumstances a pianist must warm up his own hands. Most other instruments warm up with the player. But the piano – ever-resetting – for the most part remains cold as the Cosmos, giving harsh but vast reassurance amidst the mortal paintings, amidst the canvas fossils on the walls and the books on the shelves, of a ceaseless breadth of time that is yet to be; as the piano in that Columbus Avenue gallery sat in that center of canvases, silent as a Sphinx, yet not quite radiating riddles nor music yet to be written or played, but, instead, a promise of infinitely incipient and prospective time.

When I left the gallery I walked with brisk steps to the subway, and I kept my eye upon the blank slabs of the cheerful and hard sidewalk, and only looked up to dodge the herds of the professional dog walkers – each living animal with a tongue protruding like a damper pedal from the midst of ivory teeth.


Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.

www.jacksonkohl.com   

Guest post by Ruth Phillips

Many people ask me on Breathing Bow retreats if stage presence is something we can practice, if it is possible to find a way to be exactly where we are – in a concert hall with an audience right here and right now, about to share what we love?

I believe that the answer is yes.

Musicians’ preparation a concert day can range from taking beta blockers to eating bananas. However, as soon as we are on stage we feel fear. Fear of losing control or mental focus, and above all fear of judgement. Our muscles contract, our heart rate speeds up, we go blank, our bow shakes, we sweat….the list of symptoms for ‘stage fright’ is endless and for many of us, coping with them simply isn’t enough. Why would we want to play music if concerts were merely to be coped with not rejoiced in?

We fight or try to ‘get over’ the fear. We tell ourselves how foolish we are to feel it (‘There’s nothing to be frightened of!’), or we boost ourselves up with ‘positive’ thoughts – which are in fact just judgements (‘You’re wonderful!’ ‘No-one’s here to judge you’). Or we pretend (‘Imagine the public naked!/ that you are on a beautiful beach/that you are Steven Isserlis!’ ) We practice as much control as possible and cram our minds with thoughts.

But what if we were to stop fighting and actually listen to the fear?

Marshall Rosenberg, in his work on ‘Non-Violent Communication’, says that all humans share the same fundamental needs, and that every emotion is the expression of either a met (‘positive’ emotions) or an unmet (‘negative’ emotions) need. Through the ‘negative’ emotion of fear we could bring our attention to the unmet needs that we have as performers, a list of which would go something like this:

Stability

Ease

Efficacy

Space

Freedom

Peace.

Security

Connection

Spontaneity

Presence

Expression

Contribution

Most of us, surely, would love to feel all these things when we are on stage! So, how can we practice them, so that we are fulfilled not just in the practice room but also on stage?

Personally, it is through yoga and meditation that I have been liberated from the prison of fear and found joy and presence on stage, but there are many other doorways. Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi and Feldenkrais, for example. Whatever discipline we choose, it seems to me that practicing the following things are key:

1. Tensegrity (gravity and core muscles)

2. Non-doing.

3. Getting ourselves out of the way

4. Presence

5. Breath.

Tensegrity

Obviously, we need tension to move, even to sit, but we also need release. Life and music are a constant play between tension and release. The pull of a wave, a dominant chord resolving to the tonic, an in and an out-breath, an up and a down bow all express this perfect relationship, the word for which is Tensegrity.

Tens(ion) plus (int)egrity.

“Tensegrity is a structural principal of geometry where shapes benefit from strength and flexibility due to the push and pull of their parts.” – Will Nagel

By using our entire body as a biomechanical system – abandoning ourselves to gravity and having movement flow from our core through to our limbs – we can learn to play with stability, efficacy and ease.

“When the abandonment to gravity comes into action, resistance ceases, fear vanishes, order is regained, nature starts again to function in its natural rhythm and the body is able to blossom fully, allowing the river of life to flow freely through all parts.”

Awakening the spine…Vanda Scaravelli

A note on working with Gravity

It takes strength to hold a bow-arm from the string, and with added adrenalin this becomes even more challenging. Gripping harder we migrate to the tip of the bow to avoid confronting the weight. Practicing in a way that works with, rather than against gravity, however, we reorganize rather than withhold the weight. In forte, for example, the arm is aligned so that there are as few kinks as possible and the weight flows freely into the string. In pianissimo the elbow is low and the weight, unable to travel up the hill of the forearm just as water does not travel up a U-bend, rests at the elbow.

A note on working with the centre of gravity and our core muscles

Every form of skilled or powerful movement on terra firma illustrates that athletic movement works best when power flows freely through the core. – Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion Swimming

The terms can be vague and we often use them incorrectly. Some speak of muscles, some of bones and others of energy centres, but I think most traditions agree that the area around our centre of gravity is key to all movement. When we walk, for example, we move our centre of gravity forward, throwing ourselves off balance, and the released leg swings forward. The swing of the arm in bowing or shifting is no different, with movement happening through release and not tension.

Another example of movement coming from our centre is the twist of the torso. The cello teacher, Steve Doane, talks about finding the horizontal axis of movement by sweeping one’s gaze from left to right as one crosses from the A to the C string or shifts up the fingerboard. This works because we do not shift our gaze just with our eyes or even just our head. There is corresponding shift – an imperceptible twist from left to right – at our centre. Doane says:

“This swing supports the shifting motion by communicating energy from the feet through the hips to the back and arms. It is an essential part of your dynamic cellistic balance.” -‘The Owl’ exercise – Cello Ergonomics

Initiating movement from our core does not mean hurling ourselves about. In fact, by making sure the big cogs power the little cogs, movement becomes more efficient. Just try the string crossing exercise with the opposite core movement – turning from right to left as you cross from A-C strings on the cello – and you will see how restricted your natural power and flow is.

Non-doing

“To relax is not to collapse….It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings.”- (Vanda Scaravelli – Awakening the Spine.)

The tennis player observes the ball as it leaves his racket and completes the trajectory he has sent it on. He is no longer ‘in control’ of the ball but rather relaxed, alert and watchful. Primed for the return. Once we have learned to initiate movement from our core, we must also practice this attitude on non-doing, in which we find space, peace and freedom.

A note on practicing non-doing

Working with the breath is a wonderful way to practice release and non-doing. Rather than controlling every millimeter of the stroke, the out-breath is used to lead the release of the bow, and the in-breath to lead the preparation. At the end of the out-breath there is a still point, just as there is in the arc of the bow, the arc of a phrase.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. – TS Eliot

Getting ourselves out of the way

“When we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.” – Tara Brach, meditation teacher

We fear that unless we inject every phrase with our ‘personality’, our ‘interpretation’ will be boring. However, when a musical line falls like an autumn leaf, or rises like an eagle soaring on a thermal, is this our personality? Or our interpretation? When we are able to get ourselves out of the way, there is no ‘I’ to judge or be judged. Because there is no judgement there is no duality, no perfection, no imperfection, no right, no wrong, no them (the audience) and us (the performer). Instead, there is security and connection.

Presence

“In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking…”

“Non-thinking is an art and, like any art, it requires patience and practice.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise)

Thought is necessary. We need to think during our practice – about the composer’s life, the harmony, the metre, the structure – but thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting takes us out of the present moment, which inhibits our ability to listen. Observation, however, which we develop through meditation practice, focuses our attention on the present and brings spontaneity.

The Breath

“The bow must be a living thing at all times, and all living things need to breathe” – Steven Isserlis, cellist.

For me, the breath is the thing that binds all of this together. No-wonder it is at the root of so many spiritual practices! It is inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is not ‘ours’ though it passes through us, and it connects us with ourselves, our bodies and the audience. With all living things. The ocean breathes, trees breathe….It is everything we are and everything music is. When we are aligned and in harmony, we feel as if we are being breathed, just as we can, in performance, feel like the music is playing us. Only then we can find true expression and make a contribution.

 


Ruth Phillips is cellist, teacher and creator of Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshops for cellists and other musicians

Next retreat in Provence: 16 – 20 October 2018

What is Stage Presence and how do we practice it?

Autumn retreat in Provence with Ruth Phillips and Jane Fenton – October 16-20th   Exploring tension, release and space through yoga, breath and mindfulness. Held in a magnificent Provencal farmhouse, and catered by whole-food chef, Tara Lee Byrne. Open to all musicians – amateurs, students and professionals

Further information and booking thebreathingbow.com

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

I suppose I was inspired to learn the piano by watching my Father play. He studied at the RNCM and so music was a part of our home life. I was then lucky to study with a great teacher, Heather Slade-Lipkin, initially privately and then at Chetham’s School of Music – and the idea of a career in music followed on naturally.

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

My two teachers, Heather and Joan Havill, have been huge influences.

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

Currently it is finding time to practice with a 20 month old child! More seriously, I think that maintaining your desire to improve, the desire to work every day, and maintaining the love that made you start learning the instrument in the first place takes a deal of mental fortitude and effort.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My recording of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH stands out, in the quality of the finished product and in the sense of achievement in recording one of the longest and most difficult works for solo piano ever written. My performance of the Passacaglia lasts for 85 minutes. The work places colossal demands on technique, stamina, and the ability to pace a performance.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know! I think I’ll say Debussy as I am in the middle of performing all his solo piano music this year!

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

I tend to look for potential projects and themes. So this year, being the 100th anniversary of the death of Debussy, I have devoted myself to the task of learning and performing all of his solo works. I am in the middle of a complete cycle of performances in Glasgow, and am curating a Debussy Festival in Edinburgh, at St Cecilia’s Hall, in December. The festival will feature the solo piano music, a selection of the songs and the late chamber sonatas.

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

The Bridgewater Hall is fantastic. I love the feeling of space, and having to fill that space with sound and character.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I think I am very changeable! If Beethoven, then Brendel. Bach would be Perahia. Schumann would be Radu Lupu or Richard Goode. So I am a bit of a butterfly…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing a Mozart concerto in Calcutta Cathedral. High up the windows of the Cathedral did not have glass panes. It was an evening concert, and during the performance local birdlife came home to roost. That Mozart A major concerto was accompanied by singing from up high, a fitting complement to such a fabulous composer.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally I let other people decide as to my own success. I believe that if you are making a living from performing music, if you are trying to be the best musician that you can be, and if you are inspiring others – then that seems to be pretty successful.

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

To my students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I have always stressed the need to be flexible and to be adaptable. Skills as a musician are essential, but on their own they are rarely enough. For most pianists a career playing Bach and Beethoven is difficult to obtain; one’s love of the great classical composers must be complemented by a practical interest in contemporary music, teaching, chamber music, taking music to young people, researching music that has been forgotten or overlooked. All of this is part of a musical career.

I recently attended Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (or “Chets” as it is affectionately known) for the first time as an observer and concert reviewer (read my articles here). It was a fascinating and exhausting (in a good way!) glimpse inside Europe’s largest piano summer school, and it was easy to see why people get hooked on the Chets experience – the special atmosphere, the teaching, the wealth of music to enjoy, and much more – and return year after year.

There are many piano courses on offer, from one-day events to long weekends in a quiet corner of Somerset (Jackdaws), longer courses like Chets and the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, or upmarket piano holidays in France where expert tuition by a leading concert pianist is combined with gourmet food and luxury accommodation. Of course, most people’s motivation for attending a piano course is, primarily, to improve their playing and have it critiqued by a skilled teacher. Additionally, courses offer opportunities to build confidence in performing, observe others being taught, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation, and while many of us actively enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists. Everyone I spoke to at Chets talked about the benefit of being amongst so many other pianists, all of whom understand and appreciate what makes us “tick”. At a piano course, no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade (or indeed the First, Second and Third Ballades!), and this sense of a “piano community” and shared passion is incredibly important.

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets
Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

I have been on enough piano courses myself to know why I attend them and what I want to get out of them, and I thought it would be helpful for those considering a piano course, especially one of the scale of Chets, to have some additional tips from people who are regular attendees on how to get the best out of a piano course.

Before you go on the course…..

  • If you are attending a big, busy course like Chets or the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, both of which last nearly a week and offer a full programme of activities alongside the teaching, get plenty of sleep in advance. This may sound strange, but these courses can be very tiring, as they require large amounts of physical and mental energy, emotional labour, drive, motivation and social/partying skills.
  • It can be daunting playing for other people and a different teacher, and obviously you will have to play in order to have your playing critiqued. If you are nervous about playing in a masterclass or workshop situation, consider inviting a few friends round for music and drinks and play some of your pieces to them. Paradoxically, the more distracting and self-conscious you feel when performing to your friends, the more you will learn, the less stressful and more enjoyable it will be on the course, and the more secure your performance will be in lessons or other performance situations.
  • Repertoire: Plan and prepare in advance the music you want to play at the course and bring enough music at different stages of preparation, but not music you have only just started learning (unless you want some specific advice on technique, for example, from a teacher). Bringing repertoire which is comparatively familiar avoids over-attention to basic musical understanding. Settled pieces, which are reasonably well known, allow you to work with a teacher on the more enriching aspects of the experience such as expression, gesture, personal interpretation, and performance, and make the best use of everyone’s time and money – including yours.

When you are on the course…..

  • Pace yourself. You will want to go to everything, but this can sap energy, so be selective. Choose activities outside of the teaching and workshops which you feel will be most beneficial/interesting to you. Try new things too – if you’ve never played duets or accompanied another instrumentalist, why not have a go?
  • Be open-minded and accepting of the advice given by the teachers. If you take lessons with a regular teacher, feedback and critique from a different teacher can be very helpful, offering new insights into the music, context, technical issues, performance etc. When I played the Schubert Sonata on which I had been working for over three years to a different teacher on a course at Jackdaws last autumn, he helped me find a new energy and focus in the music. Critique from other teachers – and comments from fellow students – can reframe your attitude to playing pieces you think you already know well.
  • That said, do whatever works best for you: there is no one ‘right way’ to get the most out of a piano course – take from the tuition and workshops what you feel will really benefit you in developing your playing.
  • Take advantage of all the opportunities of learning from the tutors and your fellow participants. Courses like Chets operate an “open-door” policy so that every lesson and workshop is open to all – go and observe others being taught, and attend workshops: there is much to be gained from hearing others play and watching a skilled teacher in action.
  • Watch other students and observe as many teaching styles as possible. Don’t talk during these sessions unless invited. When you are listening you are learning; when talking you are merely repeating what you already know, and it’s disrespectful to other students and teachers.
  • Don’t assume you can have unlimited time to practise once you arrive on the course. Competition is often high for practise facilities, and these are often limited. Most courses are for learning and observation rather than practising.  By all means, practise to some extent, but don’t miss out on concerts, lectures, lesson observation etc just because you have locked yourself in a practise room.  
  • Be generous with other musicians – both professional and amateur, with praise when appropriate and encouragement when they feel vulnerable. Remember other people feel nervous too and be supportive towards your fellow students.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. If it’s an all-ability course there are bound to be people playing advanced pieces. Remember they are not “better” than you, just “more advanced”. Be prepared to be surprised by the level and variety of pieces that other people bring. Draw inspiration from others’ performances and enjoy hearing a wide range of repertoire. Courses are often one of the best ways to discover new repertoire (and at Chets, Forsyths music shop can order in new music for you while you are there!).
  • Don’t worry about being judged: teachers on piano courses are generally very encouraging and their feedback is given in a positive way. Remember that these things are not competitive.
  • Do take every opportunity to play for/with other people, whether pieces you’re working on or reading through duets.
  • Don’t fret if something (be it a recital, workshop or lesson) doesn’t live up to expectations or hasn’t gone as well as you hoped. Piano courses are often so jam-packed that there is always something else around the corner to enjoy.
  • Be prepared to play something silly or light-hearted – it breaks down both social and language barriers and reminds us that music is not just a profound expression of humanity!
  • Don’t be shy about approaching other people. Remember everyone is there for the same reason – a shared love of the piano. Participants, faculty and staff always have interesting stories, backgrounds and thoughts on music, and socialising is a chance to enjoy stimulating conversations and forge new friendships and connections.
  • Don’t drink too much, or stay up too late. It can be fun to remain chatting in the bar after the final concert of the evening, but teaching sessions often start at 9 or 10 am in the morning and tiredness really does impact on your playing.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Thanks to my piano friends Marie, Claire and Douglas (all enthusiastic Chets regulars) for contributing their advice to this article – and for their company during my weekend at Chets.

 

Courses for Pianists

 

(picture: Philip Fowke teaching at Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists)