This breath-taking, beautifully crafted book by Janice Galloway presents a fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann from childhood to the committal to a mental asylum of her husband, Robert, her growing friendship with the young Johannes Brahms, and Robert’s death.

Clara Schumann is all too often eclipsed by her more famous husband, yet this book reminds us that from a very early age, she was a formidably talented pianist in her own right, and a fine composer.  It is Clara who, along with Liszt, made the piano recital what it is today, in particular, the habit of playing without the score. She exerted her influence over a 61-year career, hardly interrupted by marriage and pregnancy, changing the tastes of the listening public and the format of the traditional piano recital.

From the outset, we sense the extreme pressures of the life as a child prodigy and young virtuosa, with an overbearing, highly ambitious and extremely controlling father, and a muddled, disjointed family life (her parents divorced when she was four, and her father remarried). A life of self-denial and duty was drummed into her from a very young age. Endless practising, studying, being fitted for concert dresses, and touring, where she was presented to the crowned heads of Europe – all in the company of her father, Friedrich Wieck. Written in a slightly breathless, immediate style, the author creates a sense of Clara looking in on her own life, observing herself at arm’s length. Yet, this book does not lack passion: as her love affair with Robert, who was nine years her senior, develops, we sense the frustration of two young people, deeply connected – physically and spiritually – but bound by the conventions of the time.

After their marriage, Clara continued her concert career, though Robert loathed touring with her, managed the their home and finances, and produced eight children (one died in infancy). In the book, the author offers a unique view into the Schumann household: two creative people living and working side by side – dedicated artists in one home can prove a test with their selfish habits and fickle moods – and the tensions of trying to maintain a ‘normal’ family life while continually feeding the artistic talent. Clara comes across as immensely talented, pragmatic, patient, loving: supporting her husband and his increasingly fragile mental state (it has been suggested that Robert suffered from bipolar disorder). She was his wife, mother to his children, his helpmeet and, perhaps above all, his muse.

The narrative introduces some of the key musical and cultural personalities of the day – Mendelssohn was a friend of the Schumanns, Liszt a regular visitor; Moscheles, Thalberg, Sterndale Bennett, Chopin, Paganini, Goethe; later, the young violinist Joachim, and fledgling composer Johannes Brahms – and takes the reader to many of the cultural centres of nineteenth-century Europe as we tour with Clara and her family. There are musical soirees at home and grand concerts in the great venues of Europe: the Gewandhaus, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw. It is a restless, urgent journey, and with Robert’s increasingly unstable mental state, we empathise with Clara’s predicament: the constant tug of the artistic life against her commitment to her family.

This book is thoroughly researched, full of information about the Schumanns, and sympathetic to Clara’s enormous personal burdens and self-sacrifice. The author is adept at bringing Clara to life, but we never really see Robert as a “normal” person, and the reader remains distanced from him, observing, rather than feeling, what is happening to him. Readers who are not familiar with the cultural landscape of the day, and the life of the Schumanns may find the narrative a little hard to follow in places, but it never ever lacks atmosphere.

‘Clara’ perfectly captures the internal life of a musician, muse, wife and mother, and in many ways it is a modern story, for Clara was a working woman who supported her family. Clara’s love is beautifully rendered – like a madness all of her own, at the same time both thrilling and terrifying.

A couple of years ago, I read another novel about Robert and Clara Schumann, based on their letters, Longing by J D Landis. Another rollercoaster of a narrative, it offers a poignant context to their intense and oft-thwarted love by presenting the totally encompassing musical, literary, philosophical, and political climate of the day. A good ‘companion read’ to Clara, and equally well-researched.

“It sounds wrong, but it’s right” is something I say to my students quite regularly. And sometimes I say it to myself as well, when a ‘crunchy’ or unexpected harmony catches me out, and I have to go back and check that what I played was in fact correct.

Fairly early on in their lessons with me, my students learn about intervals, “the distance between one note and another” as it says helpfully in the tutor book I use. We play them and listen to them and describe them: a major second, a “pinched” sound, usually elicits a shriek of distaste at its dissonance; a third is pleasant, warm; a fourth, when played in different places on the keyboard, “sounds Chinese” (it sounds “medieval” to me); a fifth is a bare, open sound – it needs the middle note to form a satisfying chord; a sixth is easy on the ear; a seventh “hurts” almost as much as a second, though when converted into a dominant seventh chord, it is enjoyable, especially the sense of relief when the harmony goes “home”.

An unfamiliar, or especially crunchy harmony – and in the simple pieces (pre-grade, and Grades 1 to 2) my students are learning these are often very bare chords, formed of only two notes and are therefore far more noticeable – can bring a student up short, cause them to stop playing, go back and play that section again, thinking they have made a mistake. “It sounds wrong but it’s right” I say patiently, urging them to keep playing. Afterwards, we play “spot the interval”, and it becomes apparent that the problem was not an incorrect note, merely that the ear did not like the sound!

Saskia, who is working on ‘Tarantella’ from the Grade 1 repertoire, a rather charming, plaintive little A minor dance by Pauline Hall (she of the excellent Piano Time series), does not like the chords in the first section, which alternate between a straight A-minor tonic chord and a chord composed of A, D and E. “I can’t play it!” she grumbled at her lesson this afternoon, and then proceeded to play it perfectly, albeit somewhat tentatively. We have been trying to achieve the effect of a strummed guitar in the left hand, with soft chord changes, while the right hand melody dances moodily over the top. Going back to the score, I showed her why she did not like that A-D-E chord, and explained that it was a deliberate device on the part of the composer to create moments of tension, and delayed gratification, before the resolution comes on the next beat. “Music would be very boring if we didn’t have these crunchy harmonies and surprising moments,” I said.

It is this sense of delayed gratification that makes the Chopin Ballade I am working on (and indeed all his other music I play, or listen to), so fascinating, so suspenseful, and so utterly addictive. He forces player and listener to work hard, taking the ear on amazing harmonic journeys, to distant highways and byways, and so when it comes, the resolution, the “reward”, is all the more wonderful and satisfying. Sometimes it may sound ‘wrong’, but in Chopin’s extraordinary hands it is most definitely right.

I first heard this work live a few years ago, at a concert given by the American pianist and noted Mozart specialist Robert Levin, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Played on a fortepiano, whose relatively modest voice spoke so elegantly to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the opening measures I was completely hooked. The next day, I purchased the music and started to learn it, but for some reason, I never learnt it properly, and it was only when I had been having lessons with my current teacher for about six months, that I recalled that moody little Rondo, and decided to revisit it. I worked on the piece seriously for about six months, and after playing it for my teacher as a performance, she suggested I put it to bed for awhile and learn something else. I then revived the work for my LTCL: it was wonderful to be able to work on it in detail again, and I discovered all sorts of new things about it when I revisited it for a third time. It’s a piece that keeps surprising both listener and performer.

Composed in the spring of 1787, after Mozart returned from Prague, it has been suggested that its composition was in response to the news that one of the composer’s closest friends, Count August von Hatzfeld, had died, and may therefore be a rare example of a personal event in Mozart’s life prompting a composition. The piece is introspective and private, consistently freighted with melancholy and sadness, while exuding a thoughtful, measured elegance throughout. It is touching and beautiful, simple and perfect; but its deceptive transparency offers no place to hide. It requires great clarity and preciseness in order to express its overriding melancholy, and its poignant charm.

The Rondo theme is a pensive melody which looks forward to Chopin – and has been mistaken for Chopin by an unwary listener when I’ve played it. A rising theme, yet it hardly seems to move forward, and with each weary semitone step, there is a dying fall, almost sigh or a painful intake of breath, emphasised by the quaver rests. The dissonance, created by the first ornament (which reappears regularly throughout the piece) further enhances the sense of tragedy. I play this on the beat, so that it sounds with the first A in the left hand, and, momentarily, it hurts, as it is clearly meant to. Each reappearance of the theme is treated slightly differently, further emphasising its pathos and poignancy. The word “zal“, more often associated with the music of Chopin, seems entirely appropriate here, with its bittersweet melancholy, poetic shadings, plaintiveness and longing. The C major phrase is somewhat less painful, but it is hardly hopeful.

The first subsidiary theme (‘B’), beginning at bar 31, harks back to the Grand-daddy of them all, J S Bach, in its use of counterpoint and chromaticism, while the texture is suggestive of string quartets with its different melodic voices. The new theme pours forth, the mood more hopeful and consoling, with a lovely LH cello-line which is very different to the haunted bass of the opening melody. There’s an almost operatic grandeur through these measures, immediately dispelled when the music lurches unexpectedly into D-flat major at bar 46. The music creeps chromatically, recalling the opening theme, and, after an episode marked by plaintive descending and ascending chromatic figures, the earlier ‘B’ material returns, building to a climax in bar 59, marked by the octave figures in the LH. A greater, more full-toned climax at bar 63 is carried through to bar 69 with a grand, energetic arpeggiated figure in the RH. From bars 69-75, the long chromatic notes hark back, once again, to the chromaticism at the beginning of the piece, while from bars 74-80, the music seems hang in suspense in the dominant, in anticipation of the rondo theme, which returns at bar 81.

The second statement of the theme is stripped of its C major sentence, and is even more haunting, with its sobbing, breathless syncopations in bars 86-87, a kind of written rubato, which needs no additional increase or decrease in tempo in the bass line (prefiguring Chopin). The quaver rest in bar 88 can be lengthened in readiness for the A major section (“C”).

Now, we are in more familiar, comfortable territory, for here is Mozart at his most charming and elegant, before a brief shift into B minor, with dissonance created by the ornaments. A more hopeful D major passage (I read somewhere once that Mozart declared D major “the happiest key”) begins at bar 101, reprising some of the material from the A major interlude. At bar 116, the chromaticism in the bass again recalls the opening motif, leading into further chromatic surges and grinding diminished seventh harmonies. The thematic material of the opening is never really forgotten, thus further reminding us of the prevailing sense of sorrow.

At bar 129 the rondo theme returns in its original form, but with more elaborate ornamentation this time, tortured rather than decorative. There’s a real sense of desolation at bar 155, while the repeated A’s and chromaticism in bars 155-157, evoke almost a wailing, grief-laden lamentation.

The Coda, beginning at bar 163, heartbreakingly recapitulates all the elements that have gone before and all the motifs return in a grim, Bachian setting. It is highly emotional, mixing tragedy and frustration, with a final, whispered statement of the opening theme in the closing measures.

It is no accident that this piece is included in the diploma repertoire list, for it is both technically and musically challenging, and repertoire such as this reminds one that a musical performance diploma is a long way on from Grade 8: one is being assessed on one’s technical ability, musicality, maturity, conceptual understanding, stylistic awareness and stagecraft. From one’s programme choices to one’s dress, this is, in all sense, a ‘proper’ recital, leading to a recognised professional qualification.

More a Fantasia than a strict Rondo in the assemblage of its thematic material, the K511 offers many technical challenges, and, as stated earlier, requires absolute clarity in its delivery. Overly fussy playing will only obscure the deeply emotional nature of this work – and this, to me, is the real heart of it. Conveying that sense of melancholy, sadness and grief is the hardest part, while always maintaining honesty and fidelity to the score. For those of us whose early pianistic encounters were with the ‘boyhood’ works of Mozart, the pieces with the earliest ‘K’ numbers, jaunty little numbers, all smiling childish innocence and playfulness, the Rondo K511 represents a work of great maturity and life-experience.

The weekend after I heard Robert Levin perform the Rondo K511, I went to an OAE study day, at which Professor Levin spoke most eloquently and lengthily (he likes the sound of his own voice, but everything he said had value) about Mozart’s piano music. He demonstrated, through the use of excerpts, and, in the afternoon, a masterclass on the Piano Sonata K332, all the subtleties of Mozart’s music: its chiaroscuro, its many moods, some fleeting, passing in the space of a single bar, its storms and its sunshine. Too often, Mozart’s music is given a simplistic reading, but it is not for nothing that pianist Artur Schnabel pronounced the piano sonatas of Mozart “too easy for children, and too difficult for artists”, while Leonard Bernstein said, “Mozart combines serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation”, a quotation which, to me, beautifully sums up the enduring fascination and appeal of the K511.

An afterthought:

I read a very useful and informative book while learning the Rondo last year – Mozart and the Pianist by Michael Davidson (London: Kahn & Averill, 1998), which provides helpful overviews and analysis of Mozart’s major solo piano works. I found it particularly useful in relation to the ornamentation in the K511: according to my Wiener Urtext Edition of the work, these were “written out” ornaments, as opposed to decorations left to the performer’s discretion.

My favourite recording of this work is by Mitsuko Uchida. I also like Ashkenazy’s reading: he places the turns before the beat, as I do (or had been doing!), something which generated an interesting and heated discussion with a pianist colleague, who feels such ornaments should be placed on the beat. This is, in the end, a matter of taste: there is no hard evidence that I could find in my research of this work of how Mozart intended the ornaments to be played.

This came to me via the weekly newsletter of the IPTG (International Piano Teachers Group), and is from the blog of Elissa Milne, an Australian piano teacher and composer of piano music for students. Her pieces regularly appear in the syllabus of the ABRSM and other exam boards, though I have not taught any yet….

1. Piano lessons are for learning to do cool stuff on the piano

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your emotions and your intellect all at the same time.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are

8. Piano lessons are for joy.

At the risk of sounding a little trite at times, this is a rather good ‘manifesto’ of the purpose of piano lessons, for  students and teachers. Sometimes I think students (and teachers) lose sight of the reasons why they are taking piano lessons. Some children are made to take music lessons (I was!) because their parents think it will be good for them, or because the parents didn’t keep up their lessons as children, and now have a need to live their lives vicariously through their children (dangerous). Where I live, in the leafy, affluent, aspirational suburbs of SW London, there is a strong trend amongst parents for signing their children up for extra-curricular activities which are both healthy (sport) and mind-stretching (music lessons, Kumon maths, learning Mandarin Chinese etc). I am all for children having full and active lives, but I also think children should have the right to choose what they do with their free time. Fortunately, all of my piano students come to me willingly, i.e. they have chosen to have piano lessons, for whatever reason, and gradually, they will come to appreciate the value of their lessons, beyond the activity of “typing” notes on the keyboard to create a pleasant sound.

For my part, my lessons are for self-improvement, first and foremost. At 40, I decided it was ridiculous to have more than a modicum of talent that was under-used and under-stimulated. My lessons give me a proper focus and the practising lends structure to my day. I enjoy the discipline of it, and draw satisfaction from hearing myself improve. On another level, the piano is a form of therapy: it’s my “me time”, the place where I go to play (forgive the pun), to escape. It’s a displacement activity that actually brings tangible results (unlike my other great displacement activity, shopping for clothes, which simply ruptures my bank balance!). It’s intellectually and physically tiring, yet I can come away from a successful practice session of a couple of hours buzzing with endorphins. It has made me more self-reliant and self-critical because it has forced me to confront my own imperfections and to strive for excellence every time I sit down to play. It has taught me confidence and self-belief. It is also a huge privilege to engage with some of the greatest music of the repertoire, wonderful works to be explored and understood, full of things which continually surprise and fascinate, and remind one of the full rush of human life.

Read the full text of Elissa Milne’s manifesto at http://elissamilne.wordpress.com/.

Performance anxiety is a familiar condition, and it’s rare to find someone who does not experience it, at least once in their life. And I am not just talking about musical performance: sitting an exam, giving a paper, addressing a conference, taking part in competitive sport, going to an interview. All experiences designed to crank the pulse up and set the adrenaline flowing through the body. The racing heart, sweaty palms, nausea and a whole host of other symptoms, are the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to such stressful situations. I am sceptical of people who claim to feel no fear prior to a performance, because we need that “fear” to propel us out on to the concert platform, the stage or the running track. Of course, there are some people who simply cannot cope with the anxiety of performance: the great and eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould famously gave up performing, preferring to concentrate on recording.

I am continually amazed, and concerned, at how nervous my adult students are when they play for me. One or two are good friends of mine, confident and centred people who seem in control of their lives, but put them at the piano and ask them to ‘perform’, and they can go to pieces. One student tenses up so badly, her hands become rock hard and, as a result, her playing is lumpy and laboured. Another woman giggles hysterically, especially when she is playing well. Another simply berates herself for her poor performance, while I sit beside her, calmly assuring her that she has played well. All of them tell me they played “better” when practising at home. The children who I teach seem to suffer no such qualms. Many of them know me very well, are familiar with the set up in my house, and swan into my piano room for their weekly lessons with a brief “Hello-Fran-can-I-feed-the-rabbit-later?!” before launching into their music. I like to hope they treat their exams with the same chilled, relaxed manner.

When I took my final music exams (Grade 6 to 8), in my early teens, I can still clearly recall being very nervous on the day. The exams were held in the studio of a local professional pianist in Rickmansworth, a large room tacked onto the back of his house, reached by a corridor, in which the prospective candidates had to wait. The atmosphere was akin to the dentist’s waiting room, not helped by the fact that, like the dentist’s, we could hear what was going on in the studio. Once inside, there was no furniture but for an enormous black minotaur of a Steinway, and the desk at which the examiner sat. My then teacher offered no advice for dealing with anxiety: she assumed that I drew confidence from the fact I could play my pieces and technical work well, and had a good sense of the music. I was never taught the kind of useful focus and concentration techniques which can enable one to blank out the audience, the examiner, and all other extraneous distractions that can surround one in a performance situation.

One of the reasons why I started taking piano lessons again in my 40s, aside from a wish to improve and work towards a Diploma, was to try and understand the ‘psychology’ of the pupil, and of being taught, as an adult. I wanted to try and feel what my adult students felt: the fear of failure, of playing wrong notes, of not being able to play at all…. As adults, we are more fearful, more aware of our failings, less inclined to take a risk. All these factors, contribute to performance anxiety. I took a short Beethoven Rondo (Op 50 No 1) to my first lesson with my new teacher: I’d done quite a lot of careful work on it and I was quite pleased with it, looking forward to having my playing critiqued by someone whose judgement I trusted. I was nervous initially, but I was so enjoying playing on a really lovely piano, in an elegant sitting room in north London, that the nerves soon disappeared. The comments from my teacher were incredibly useful and positive, and thus we embarked on a 6-month programme to unpick all the bad habits I’d picked up in the 25 years when I was not taking lessons. Now, I actively look forward to my lessons (which happen, on average, about once a month), though I do spend the few days just before a lesson wandering round the house wailing “I haven’t done enough work! I haven’t done enough!”. But I never finish a piece I have played for my teacher with the words “I played it much better at home”. She is a sufficiently experienced teacher to know that, even if my playing is rather rough around the edges, I have done the groundwork, and she is very skilled at hearing improvements in my playing, big and small.

I was determined to play in her end of course concert in March, even though I had not performed in public since I was at school (I do not count playing for friends, or for my pupils and their parents as “in public” – since such impromptu concerts usually take place in my home). I firmly believe that performing a work in public endorses all the lonely hours of practise one has put in; it also offers it up for scrutiny and validation by others, and reminds us that music is for sharing. It is for these reasons that I encourage all my students to perform in my end of term concerts. Performing also breeds confidence, not just in musical ability but in many other aspects of life.

All the falseness of ego disappears when one performs, for to face, for example, a Beethoven sonata head-on, it is no longer about me, how fast I can play, how technically accomplished I am. It is about getting beyond myself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas become my own, developing a sense of oneness with the composer. When we consider and play the sonatas, we speak about fundamentals: the meaning of life, shared values. And when sharing the music with others, one is debating, with the listeners, what it means to be alive, to be a sentient, feeling human being, the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us still.

When one considers these aspects of playing the “great works” of the standard repertoire, there really should be no room for anxiety, for one should feel privileged to share these works with others, offering up this huge cultural gift, a gift to oneself and to those people who love to listen to the piano.

To be considered skilled enough to perform a Chopin Etude in public, albeit in  the drawing room of a house in Finsbury Park to a small audience of friends, family, and fellow students, was, to me, a huge honour, and a very levelling experience, not least because 18 months ago, I would never have considered myself capable of playing such a work. As well as helping me improve my technique and alter my practising habits so that I get as much as possible out of each and every practise session, my teacher has given me confidence and helped me to believe in myself and my abilites. I no longer consider myself “a Sunday pianist”, one who dabbles, a drop of Bach here, and smidgeon of Schubert there. Chopin’s Etudes, the Opp 10 and 25, are considered to be the very pinnacles of the piano repertoire, and by learning and performing them, I feel I am traversing the same musical pathways as some of the greatest pianists of all time. The Opus 25 No. 7, in C-sharp minor, was the first Etude I learnt, and by the time I came to perform it, I had been working on it for eight months. This helped ensure a reasonably nerve-free performance, for I knew the work extremely well. Before the concert, my teacher talked of deep-breathing techniques and ways to draw positive things from anxiety. As Barry Green says in his excellent book, ‘The Inner Game of Music’, what is the worst thing that can happen? One is not about to perform delicate brain surgery or disable an unexploded bomb, though performing does represent a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. The audience are not going to “boo” or slow-hand-clap if one produces a few smeared or incorrect notes. The trick is to accept the feelings of anxiety, and try to use them positively. The unpleasant symptoms are, after all, just a release of adrenaline to provide the necessary energy for the huge task ahead. And when it came to the moment to begin the Etude with that plaintive cello-like motif in the left hand, I saw only the music in the front of me, felt only my fingers and hands moving about the keys, heard only the sounds I was producing.

Coaching one of my adult students to perform a reduced version of Chopin’s A-minor Waltz for the summer concert, I encouraged her to learn the work carefully, which she did, reminded her that no one would boo or heckle her performance, and then, at the moment when she sat down to play, to take a deep breath in, and, as she exhaled, to allow her hands to float onto the keys. I remember doing this when I played the Chopin Etude in March, and whenever, during the performance, I felt my concentration slipping, I employed the same technique. It works wonderfully, because it both both calms and focusses.

With the Diploma recital looming reasonably large on my musical horizon now, I need to continually improve my performance technique. I have not taken a music exam for over 28 years, and I suspect that, come The Big Day, I will be nervous. But I also hope to counter that anxiety with the confidence that I have learnt my pieces carefully so that I am intimate with all their quirks and exigencies. Plenty of performance practice, at my own concerts and others, and impromptu recitals at home will all help.

Dinner guests: you have been warned! (Oh, and by the way, I don’t do requests – except Beethoven’s Op 27 No 2 for my always appreciative friend Nick.)