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

My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, is peforming in two concerts at the delightful and intimate small venue Sutton House this month and next.

Sunday 15th May, 7pm

‘An English Summer Evening’ – Fitzwilliam String Quartet with Penelope Roskell

Artists in residence, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and Artistic Director of SHMS, Penelope Roskell, present a programme celebrating the work of those two quintessentially English composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. Both the works being performed were written during war-time and are profound and intense music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – String Quartet No. 2 (‘for Jean on her birthday’)

Sir Edward Elgar – Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84

To reflect the English nature of the concert, there will be Pimms and Punch on sale from 6.30pm and during the interval. The bar will also be open after the concert to allow audience members to enjoy a drink with the performers.

Sunday 19th June, 7pm

‘Reason and Romance’

A solo concert by Penelope Roskell, juxtaposing the reason and intellect of J S Bach with the mercurial romance of Robert Schumann.

J S Bach – Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue

Robert Schumann – ‘Papillons’

J S Bach – French Suite No. 2 in C minor

J S Bach – Partita No. 5 in G

Robert Schumann – Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor

Sparkling wine will be on sale with complimentary strawberries and cream in the courtyard during the interval.

Sutton House, a National Trust House in Hackney, is a really lovely venue. I was very impressed the first time I visited, two year’s ago, both by the quality of the performances, and the commitment and support of the audience.

For more information and online booking go to www.shms.org.uk

A conversation with one of my adults students this week prompted this post. Sarah is a very confident woman in her mid-40s, who runs her own business, and who started having lessons with me, as a complete beginner, three years ago. She took Grade 1 last Spring and passed with a Merit. Spurred on by her success, she decided to study for Grade 2 and will take the exam in July. She’s worked really hard, and is playing far, far better than she was a year ago. Focussed and articulate about what she wants from her lessons, it surprised me when, at her lesson yesterday, she admitted she was having serious problems with the Bach/Petzold Minuet in G minor (ABRSM Grade 2/List A). She played it perfectly well, a little hesitant in places, but she made a good attempt at the mordents and other ornamentation, and was clearly thinking about how to shape the music.

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked when she had finished. “I thought that sounded really good.”

“It’s because it’s Bach!” she replied. “I can’t believe I’m actually learning music by Bach!”

So, somewhat in awe of the music, she was finding it hard to focus on her practising. I knew exactly what she meant: I had a similar experience when I started learning Chopin’s First Ballade last summer. Now, would all professional pianists, and those amateurs who have mastered such big, virtuoso works, please stand aside for a moment, and allow me to explain. When I first started taking lessons again as an adult, nearly three years ago, my confidence and self-esteem were pretty low. A brief, but unsettling experience with a less than savoury piano teacher in 2007 had not helped, plus I was getting no support from anyone, least of all my family, about my music. I was working entirely alone, with no one to critique my playing or reassure me I was “doing it right”. My current teacher is the most patient, skilled and supportive teacher I have ever had, and with her encouragement, I have overcome both my shyness about playing for others, and my inability to trust my musical self and tackle advanced repertoire. When she suggested I learn one of the Ballades or Scherzi, I knew she had not suggested it just to please me: she knew I could cope with it. I started learning the G minor Ballade that same afternoon…..

Playing it for my teacher at my next lesson (I’d learnt about a third of it by then), I was doing fine until I reached the beautiful, lyrical section before the restatement of the opening theme. I was really enjoying playing my teacher’s beautiful antique Bluthner, but then I remembered I was playing a Chopin Ballade, one of the big warhorses of the concert repertoire, and I found myself completely in awe of the music, and its composer. Tense and unable to focus, it all went to pieces…. Amazed at the sheer beauty and inventiveness of Chopin’s writing, I couldn’t quite believe I was actually playing the piece, to my teacher, on a Wednesday morning in north London: in my mind, I was playing to a full house at the Wigmore Hall, with the ghost of the composer at my elbow, nodding benignly as if to say “Yes! That is what I meant.” Such wide-eyed fantasising does no harm, now and then, but it can prevent one from getting to the heart of the music so that one can begin a serious study of it.

This, I think, was my student’s difficulty as well. In the early grades, the pieces are simple and often aimed at children, and many are written especially for the syllabus, I suspect. While some of the pieces are really imaginative (John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’ from the previous syllabus, for example), it is always refreshing to come across “real piano music”, and I think an early student can feel daunted, perhaps by the responsibility that is placed on one to interpret and play it well.

I pointed out to Sarah that the Minuet in G minor comes from the ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena’, a collection of pieces, in two volumes, which Bach presented to his second wife. It is quite possible that these were pieces Mrs Bach, and other members of the family, played at home. This was domestic music, to be enjoyed by the family. These were not concert pieces, nor music for the church, though there are suites and partitas, and chorale settings amongst the works. With this in mind, I urged Sarah to stop being so much in awe of the piece and to simply enjoy playing it (while practising it carefully too, of course!). It is rather plaintive and elegant, and benefits from careful articulation and shaping. The ornaments are not too demanding, and offer a good introduction to Bach’s ornamentation in general.

Crass as this might sound, it’s important not to get too overwhelmed by the music. Allow yourself to stand back from it, give yourself some perspective. Marvel at the genius of the composer, but don’t be afraid of it! Study it, play it, and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Minuet in G minor – attr. Petzold

This afternoon a new experience for me: “assessing” the student of another teacher (whom I do not know) to give my opinion as to whether the child is ready to take her Grade 2 this summer. The mother of the child (who is 11) contacted me last week, and I was interested to learn that the other teacher has declared that the child can only take the exam if she can be guaranteed to pass with at least a Merit, or, better still, a Distinction. This revelation interested me, and set me thinking: is this whole exam rigmarole about encouraging our students, or bigging up Teacher’s ego?

I’m fairly new to the exam game: I’ve been teaching for less than five years, and since nearly all of my students came to me as complete beginners, exam taking is a relatively recent endeavour. Interestingly, most children are keen to take a piano exam. In these days of “dumbing down” in our schools, particularly in state schools, where Sports Day is no longer about winning the egg-and-spoon race, and where “everyone’s a winner”, it is cheering to find that children have not lost their competitive spirit, and many of them actively rise to the challenge of taking a music exam. There is no obligation to take exams in my studio: it is entirely up to the student, but I think the children like having some concrete indication of their progress and achievement, and a smart ABRSM certificate, complete with its royal crest, is worth 100 Well Done stickers in the practice notebook.

In my (limited) experience, it takes about two-and-a-half terms’ study (approx. 30 weeks of lessons) of the exam syllabus for a student to be ready to take an exam (early grades). Some children, the quick learners, and the really talented ones, can happily whizz through the repertoire and technical work and can be ready in less time. When I was learning piano as a child, I took an exam once a year, and as soon as I’d completed one exam, instead of spending time working on “step up” repertoire, I would move straight on to the next grade’s syllabus. Thus, exams became a chore and I felt tethered to a deathly dull treadmill.

And here’s the real nub of it, to me: boredom is a great enemy to successful learning – and it was this point that made me agree to hear the child this afternoon. If she does not take her Grade 2 exam this summer, she will have to wait for the winter exam season (November-December), a further six months, and plenty of time for her to grow bored with the pieces. Boredom can encourage sloppy, mistake-laden playing. When you’re bored with a piece, you stop caring about it, and when you play it, you simply go through the motions, typing the notes, instead of playing musically. Mistakes which creep in at this stage can be then incredibly hard to unpick. Equally, any sense of the music can be lost, as one churns through the same bars over and over again.

Of course students want to do well in their exams, and of course I want them to do well. And I admit I was pretty damn chuffed when, last year, one of my adult students, who was extremely nervous on The Day, passed her Grade 1 with a very creditable Merit. However, exam successes are not for the glory of the teacher – that is only a tiny part of it. To me, it is more about encouraging talent and giving students the motivation, and interest, to continue with their study.

A pass, whether a straight pass, a Merit, or a Distinction, is a huge achievement. It is not easy to take a music exam. It is you and the instrument, playing in a strange place, to someone you have never met before. That is nerve-wracking in itself, nevermind remembering to complete all the required technical work correctly, play the pieces accurately and musically, cope with the sight-reading exercise (the bugbear of many a young musician!) and complete the aural tests. So, please, let’s celebrate our students’ achievements, both large and small, and ensure that at the basis of our teaching is encouraging a love of the instrument, and its wonderful and varied literature.

My wonderful students (and their teacher)