With six weeks to go until my teacher’s advanced piano course, I am beginning to put together the repertoire to take with me. The course takes place over a long weekend, and is three days of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a students’ concert on the Sunday afternoon. Last year, I went with a degree of trepidation as I had never done a piano course before. I came away from it inspired – so much so that I decided I would start working for a performance Diploma, which I hope to take this winter. It was wonderful to wallow in piano music for three whole days, and to “talk piano” with like-minded and very committed people. Because of my teacher’s style and her expert tuition (she is quietly precise, and firm, with a reputation for guiding and encouraging each student to reach their full potential, both musically and technically), everyone feels very supported and encouraged, and there is a very friendly atmosphere on the course.

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme annee, Italie: This beautiful, dreamy, meditative piece is inspired by Petrach’s Sonnet I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (“I beheld on earth angelic grace” – read the full text here). An understanding of the text of the Sonnet is essential to a proper understanding of this music, and I have spent the last few days listening and watching YouTube clips of this work in its song form, as well as singing the melodic lines to myself, both at the piano and away from it. This is very romantic music, in the truest sense of the word, and one must be careful not to make it sound saccharine, self-indulgent and schmaltzy. The notes themselves are not so hard – there are some awkward chord progressions which can be achieved with the right fingering – but conveying the mood and emotional depth of the piece is more tricky. Coming after a month’s work on Bach’s Toccata from the Sixth Partita, this piece provides a wonderful foil to Bach’s Baroque arabesques.

J S Bach – Toccata from Partita, BWV 830 in E minor: I have really enjoyed getting my fingers, and head, around Bach after a long absence from his music (I used to play a lot of Bach when I was at school, both as a soloist and in a chamber group where I played continuo). On one level, I have proved to myself – and my teacher, who has not heard me play Bach before – that I can still do it. I thought it would be a long learning process, so I was surprised that I had learnt the entire piece in just three weeks. The intellectual and technical demands of this kind of music have been immensely satisfying and rewarding, and with the music now well “in the fingers”, I am enjoying the ‘finessing’ work on colour, contrast, shape and mood. This piece is very nearly concert-ready, and I may choose to include it in the end of course concert.

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande: I love the way this music links to the Bach, but I also feel in the first piece, the Prelude, Debussy’s ‘take’ on his Baroque antecedents is more humorous, and my recent work on this piece had been to concentrate on keeping the fingers nimble and playful, and experimenting with various hand and finger techniques and movements to achieve different effects. The piece is very much a “toccata” in that it is a test of the pianist’s touch, but there are also moments of great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, grandeur too (again a nod back to a Baroque model), for example in mm. 42-55. These big chords are potentially dangerous for me with my unstable right hand: I am practising them quietly, no louder than mezzo-forte, while concentrating on keeping my wrists light and bouncy to avoid straining my hands.

The Sarabande provides a complete contrast, and I love the way the cadenza of the Prelude, in particular the big, fortissimo chords in the final six bars, sets up a silence for the sublime opening of the Sarabande. This elegant, stately dance requires an angled, caressing attack and very smooth movements between the chords. My notes at the top of the score include some quotes about Debussy’s own playing of this piece: his hands are described as “floating over the keys”, that they never left the keys, and that it sounded as if his hands were “sinking into velvet”. Trying to achieve all this, while also highlighting the interior “voices” within the melodic lines, is not easy! And again, I need to be careful with the big hand stretches. I have not yet played this for my teacher, and I look forward to working on it with her at my next lesson. This and the Prelude will definitely be going on the course!

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K511: I have really enjoyed revisiting this piece over the past month or so, with a view to putting it into my Diploma programme. I took a long break from it, after learning it initially, and this has definitely helped as I’ve returned to it fresh, with some new thoughts about it. A difficult piece, with all its contrasting strands of melody and texture, it requires great clarity of playing and technique. This also makes it an excellent Diploma piece as it showcases a number of different styles and techniques, with its nods forward to Chopin and back to Bach.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor: I’ve learnt half of this, and have really enjoyed it, but it’s on the back burner now as I must concentrate on my Diploma repertoire. I will go back to it and learn the rest of it, but it’s a long haul and I want to have the time to devote to it. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing that I can play a “great” of the piano repertoire, if only half of it at present!

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge (“Gaze of the Virgin”) from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: I did quite a lot of work on this away from the keyboard when I was on holiday at Christmas, but since then I have done no more. This is a very difficult piece – not so much the notes, but the profoundly emotional content and subject matter. When the Debussy pieces are more advanced, I will return to this.

I am posting three YouTube videos which a colleague and fellow-blogger, Notesfromapianist, flagged up in her Twitter feed yesterday. For anyone studying the three ‘Sonnetti del Petrarca’ from Liszt’s Années, these video clips provide some invaluable food for thought, study and practising: hearing the original song versions has really informed my practising today. The piano pieces included in the second year of the Années de pèlerinage are Liszt’s resettings of his own song transcriptions (composed ca. 1839–1846 and published 1846). I am learning the Sonetto 123 at the moment….

I’m a big fan of the BBC Radio Three ‘Breakfast’ programme, which goes out every morning from 7am, and, except for Saturday when it ends at 9am to make way for CD Review, lasts for a full three hours. I usually manage to listen to most of the programme, in between chivvying my son off to school and organising myself for the day. Sometimes, I “do a Glenn Gould” and leave the radio playing in the kitchen while I am practising; thus, my current peregrinations of Liszt are to the accompaniment of the comforting hum of the radio from the other end of my house.

By around 7.00am, I’ve usually had enough of ‘argumental’ John Humphrys on the Today programme on Radio Four (though I do have a fondness for Evan Davis and Sarah Whatshername), and as soon as Other Half leaves for work, it is with relief that I turn over to Radio Three. The opening piece of the programme is usually something cheery, rousing and Baroque, and each day the running order of the programme is largely the same: “great pieces, great performances – and a few surprises”, as it claims on the programme’s webpage. In recent years, it appears the programme has borrowed some ideas about format from Classic FM to become more popular, and certain pieces do seem to be on a loop, recurring about once every 2-3 weeks. Having said that, there is always a very good selection of music, mostly classical, with some titbits of jazz and world music thrown in for good measure.

My favourite presenter is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, whose voice is just about perfect for radio, and who endeared herself to me not long ago when she said that Bach was the perfect way to begin the day, and that she could happily listen to three hours continuous Bach in the morning – as I could. Rob Cowan can irritate me: his strangely “smiley” voice can sound inappropriate when introducing very serious or sombre music, and he also has “favourites” which come round with alarming regularity, namely, Smetana’s Overture from ‘The Bartered Bride’ (this morning!), anything by Buxtehude (the performance of which is always preceded by an anecdote about how Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck to meet him), Saint-Saens’s ‘Tarantella’, and Coupland’s ‘Rodeo’ Suite. And I’m afraid my heart sinks whenever Rob says “and now here’s something from my rucksack”. I imagine him fossicking around in the bottom of a grubby old khaki knapsack, and pulling out a CD from which he has to remove sticky old toffee wrappers, loose Polo mints, and that strange fluff-grit mix that always seems to live at the bottom of a bag….

I have discovered music through the programme, and have often gone on to look up an artist, group or album after hearing an extract over my cornflakes. I would never have found the wonderful early music group L’Arpeggiata, for example. The programme has also introduced me to new repertoire, and I regularly hear piano music and think “ooh, I’ll learn that”. Recent examples include Delius’s ‘Scherzando’ from the Three Preludes (which I abandoned because of the awkward arpeggios), Alkan’s ‘Barcarolle’, Op. 65, and a Spanish dance by Granados. A few days ago, I heard a fun, jazz take on Bach called ‘Bach Goes to Town’ by Alec Templeton, a piece I learnt in my teens and would love to revisit. Sometimes, I even “join in” with the programme, sending a text with a comment on a piece or a request to hear something. And unlike Classic FM, the flow of the programme is not interrupted with loud and febrile advertising jingles every ten minutes or so.

On Tuesdays, after the 8am news slot, the Specialist Classical Chart is broadcast. There was much wringing of hands and pulling of eyes by Radio Three purists last autumn when it was first announced. I admit I was sceptical, fearing more shades of Classic FM and its “best of” and “your favourites” lists etc, but the Specialist Classical chart is, largely, serious, and interesting. It is also available as a podcast.

In the old days, Radio Three was considered very rarefied and esoteric, the home of hushed, reverential tones, and the station for serious classical music afficionados. Today, its remit is far more popular, and while it has received criticism for this from certain quarters, the award of Station of the Year in 2009, the radio equivalent of the Oscars, is proof of Radio Three’s success. Of course, there are serious programmes, for serious music lovers, but there is a wide range of other material, from drama and literature, to world music and jazz, choral and early music. Another of my favourite programmes is Late Junction (from 11.15pm, weeknights) which offers a truly eclectic mix of music – again, a great place to make new discoveries. All in all, Radio Three is a lively mix of music and culture, and a pleasant foil for Radio Four (of which I am also an avid fan: wild horses could not keep me from my daily fix of The Archers!).

So, tune in, if you haven’t before, and give it a whirl: your eyes and mind are in for a cultural treat!

Radio Three homepage

See and hear l’Arpeggiata in performance

My friend Michael owns a Steinway B, purchased brand new 18 months ago when he retired. Unlike most businessmen who, on retirement, buy a big boy’s toy, like a Porsche or an Aston Martin, Michael eschewed such trinkets and instead chose the piano he had always wanted, trading in his very nice Yamaha grand for an even bigger, shinier 7-foot Steinway.

It fills almost half the sitting room of his spacious home in Camberley, a black beast squatting in the corner. The family photographs and ornaments which adorn its lid do little to soften its vast statue. This is no parlour piano: this is an instrument for a serious musician who values sound quality and subtlety of touch, expert workmanship and high-end design and manufacturing above all else. On the rack is Schumann’s famously difficult ‘Kreisleriana’, and beside the score, a Mont Blanc propelling pencil for annotations, an appropriate accessory for such an upmarket piece of musical furniture.

I first played the ‘Minotaur’, as I call it in my mind, only a few weeks after Michael purchased the piano, when it was still “settling in” to its new home. I drove down the M3 with a sense of excitement and trepidation: the last Steinway I played was my previous teacher’s in Rickmansworth in 1985, an old instrument which had probably received a far amount of abuse from a procession of willing and unwilling piano students. Sadly, I don’t get my hands on a really nice piano that often, except for my regular appointments with my current teacher’s antique Bechstein, and a mini-recital on a 1920s Bluthner at Russborough House in Co. Wicklow last summer….

Arriving at the house, the piano was unveiled for me, the protective felt cover for the keys carefully removed, rather in the manner of a Japanese tea ceremony. “Michael’s left you some music” Ruth, Michael’s wife, said. Apart from the Schumann, there was Rachmaninov, Granados, Debussy, as well as the obligatory Bach and Beethoven collections. Always interesting to see what someone else is working on: Michael’s taste is definitely more Romantically-oriented than mine (though I did spy a collection of Scarlatti sonatas). My initial experience with the Steinway was a depressing one: everything I played felt heavy-handed, too loud in the bass (despite living in a sitting room with soft-furnishings and fitted carpet, it has a massive bass voice), and generally unbalanced. Was it me? Or was it the piano…..? Grumbling about it to Rolf, my piano tuner, a week later, he blamed the piano. “Of course, you are used to a Yamaha!” he said reassuringly, agreeing with me that Steinways could be fickle creatures, and that playing one, even a brand new one, can be akin to driving a sports car. “I knew you wouldn’t like it!”.

The second time I played it, it was better – and I felt it growing on me the longer I played it. Maybe I was less in awe of it? Or perhaps I was just better able to adjust my playing to suit it. In any event, it is a lovely piano and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from my ad hoc recitals on it, while Ruth prepares the lunch. It is also a very useful experience as it is an opportunity to play current repertoire to a different audience.

The Bach Toccata, which is comfortably “in the fingers” after 5 week’s work, so I can now enjoy finessing its colour and shape, sounded grand and stately on the Steinway – as I hoped it would. The Chopin Etude (Op 10/3) had a nice mellowness, though I cocked up the dread 6ths in the climactic middle section – as I knew I would (this section really needs to be practised every day!) – and I collapsed into “Eric Morecambe-style playing”. The Debussy Prelude (‘Voiles’), which I have not touched since my Christmas Concert, was languid and transparent, something I have been struggling to achieve at home. It’s a piece that is very well suited to an instrument with a very singing, limpid treble set over a deep, resonant bass – perfect for those recurring B-flat pedal points.

I was just enjoying a cup of tea prior to setting off back up the M3 to return home, when Michael arrived back from a meeting. I played Mozart’s K511 Rondo for him – giving him an opportunity to enjoy the lovely sound of his piano and a chance for him to appraise whether it really did need tuning again or not (I thought not). As I found when Michael played my piano last summer, it is always helpful to hear one’s instrument being played really well by someone else – because you hear it in a different way if you sit back from it and listen for pleasure, instead of listening to yourself. I wish I had been able to stay longer: Michael was working on a piano reduction of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and the extract he played for me was rather wonderful. But I knew if we got talking – and playing! – I could be there until dinner time, and unfortunately, I had to get home for my appointment with one of Liszt’s Années. But it’s lovely to know that the piano is there when I want to play it and that old friends will welcome me into their home, and listen to me play with pleasure, while also offering useful, constructive criticism. When my Diploma programme is finalised, I shall look forward to playing it for Michael – and others, of course….

This article on the Piano Addict blog interested me, not least because I feel we spend far too much of our lives these days trying to do things at high speed, without allowing ourselves time to stand still and think, or to look up occasionally to admire a beautiful sunset or starlit sky, or to listen – to the birds singing in the garden, or the beauty and intricacy of a Bach Chorale. Or to just sit quietly and do nothing, even for just a few moments

As a foodie as well as a pianist, I have an interest in the Slow Food Movement and concur with many of  its values. And like the author of the Piano Addict article, I think similar values could be applied to the way we play the piano, teach the piano, and study and listen to music.

Many, many teachers, practitioners, mentors and students advocate “slow practice”, playing a piece at half-tempo, or slower, to allow one time to examine all its elements, and to consider and learn them properly. When I’m teaching – and the majority of my students are quite young children – I find that students want to rush headlong into pieces, and to be able to play everything that is put before them very fast and (too often!) very loud. Children (and some adults) often do not have the patience or the understanding to take time to acquaint themselves properly with the way the music is constructed, to look for the composer’s signposts, and to consider, before playing a single note, the kind of sound, mood and character that the music requires.

Lately, I have been trying to apply my own admittedly rather cerebral approach to music to my students, and the first thing we do on encountering a new piece, is to study it. “Have a look through this and tell me if there is anything in there you don’t understand, don’t like the look of, or want to ask me about….” is usually how we start. This very basic analysis will, I hope, set my students on a learning path that will ensure they take time to study the music before actually putting their fingers and hands on the keyboard. It allows important “thinking time” and, for the more advanced musician, is an essential part of the process of learning new work. As an aside, I also do a lot of contextual reading and listening, especially if I am embarking on a piece by a composer whose oeuvre is relatively new or unknown to me (such as Olivier Messiaen).

Slow practice is often the only way to tackle tricky or rapid passage work, awkward chord progressions, or uncomfortable fingering; it is also the best way to become really intimate with a piece of music, to understand the composer’s intentions and to examine all the interior architecture of the work. Listen to Perahia or Gould playing Bach, and you can hear from the way the music is played that these pianists (and they are not alone) have taken the time to understand the interior structures, textures and colours of the music.

During my lesson this week, my teacher suggested practising the trickier parts of the Bach Toccata (BWV 830 from the 6th Partita) I am learning “in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne”. I was amazed at the difference this made, not just to the sound but also to the feel of the music under the fingers: my hands and arms were instantly more relaxed, more languid (but no less alert), as Bach’s Baroque arabesques were transposed to a 19th-century Parisian salon. Bach is always beautiful, but played like this, it was really beautiful (especially played on my teacher’s lovely antique Bechstein). Practising the piece at home yesterday, the effect was the same (despite the noise of a drill outside). In the end, I played the entire piece in this way, and I will continue to practise it like this until all the awkward passages are secure, and I can play them accurately and in a more relaxed manner.

I was struck by the need for Slow Piano techniques in my studio, not just for myself, but also for my students, when a parent asked me recently if it would be possible to “fast-track” her child to Grade 4 by the time applications have to be made to senior school (in eighteen month’s time; apparently, this may secure a music scholarship to a local private school). It reminded me of my own learning, at roughly the same age as the child in question, when I was on an “exam treadmill”. As soon as one grade was passed, I would embark on the syllabus for the next one. What I should have been doing was playing and enjoying repertoire to bridge the gap between grades for a few months, something I have been doing with a number of students who have recently passed Grades 1 and 2.

So, maybe Slow Piano is all about taking time to enjoy and savour the music we are studying, playing for pleasure, and listening to, and encouraging others to do the same. And the only competition is with oneself, to achieve perfection, through slow, meticulous and thoughtful practise. It’s a big ask, but one that is definitely worth pursuing.

With that in mind, I’m off for some slow piano practise of my Bach Toccata……………that is, when I’ve fed the cats, made a cake, and prepared dinner for tonight, had my hair cut and written out some music for lessons later…..

Sviatoslav Richter demonstrating “Slow Piano”  techniques in Schubert’s Sonata D894 – one of the most thoughtful readings of this sonata I know. The opening movement is marked molto moderato….

Rather than write an exhaustive summary of my piano lesson today, I am simply going to note the things I discussed and worked on with my teacher. While the notes are specific to the music I am working on currently (the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830, and the ‘Prelude’ from Debussy’s Pour le Piano), they have a general relevance, and I hope readers will find them useful. This post is also an opportunity for me to review, while writing, my piano lesson and what I need to focus on in the coming weeks.

We began with the Bach (Partita No.6). This piece is intended for my Diploma recital, but learning it has also reminded me of how satisfying it is to play Bach. His music is intricate, textural and cerebral, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece, having not played any Bach seriously since I left school (I am ashamed to admit!).

Overall – well played, in some places “beautifully played”, a nice sense of grandeur in the arpeggiated figures in the opening and closing sections, some good three-part playing where I’ve clearly analysed the structure of the fugue. Piece needs to be neatened up, with more colour and shape. Listen to the Chromatic Fantasia for reference as this piece shares some similar motifs. Needs more “flourish” in places. Be sure to maintain the sense of a steady pulse throughout. Do not use the pedal as a cover for sections which are difficult or less secure.

mm. 1 & 2 (and all similar measures): achieve a greater sense of grandeur and flourish through the arpeggiated figures. Keep dotted figure legato and maintain sense of forward movement into crotchets. Avoid “chunky” hands and “notey” sound through these sections. Try to move smoothly between chords with a horizontal motion.

mm. 3-6 (and all similar measures): try for “swirling” motion between the hands, almost a sense of “one hand playing”. Keep these sections lighter (as a contrast to opening measures). Distinct “toccare” feel. Slight tenuto on first note of each figure, for example, in mm. 15-16 to emphasise the chromaticism.

Take difficult or insecure bars in the Fugue and practice them slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. As I found in my lesson, this technique enables the hands to relax. The more difficult bars should sound unforced: resist pushing into the keys in these sections, especially in more tricky three-part sections.

Semi-quaver passage work: relax the hands, again to achieve unforced sound.

Debussy: ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano – This piece sits rather well with the Bach Toccata as it is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents (specifically Couperin, rather than Bach), and has very distinct “toccata” elements in its constant forward motion and the “divine arabesque of Bach”. It also contains “antagonistic” elements and oppositions of extremes, such as dynamic or colour. Despite these apparently “serious”, Baroque features, there is a delightful playfulness in this piece.

mm. 1-42 – as in the Bach Toccata, think about shared movement and “swirling” between the hands, almost a sense of the hands “playing” with each other.

mm. 42-54 – keep wrists, forearms and elbows bouncy through these big chords. Practise mf, and gradually use back to increase sound. Glissandos – don’t hang around!

mm. 55-56 – Whole tone scale: try and achieve “harp” sound, hands drawn rapidly across strings, with sweeping movement. Practice the runs in groups of 8 notes (4 per hand).

mm. 57-64 – RH “shake”, likewise from m. 69 in LH. Keep fingers “playful” through this section.

Contrary motion scale preceding Cadenza – again, keep hands light, nimble and playful. Practise RH measures slowly

Cadenza – runs should be “kaleidoscopic”, like a “harp”, fingers swept across the keys.

Final 6 bars – keep in Tempo primo. Very grand. These big chords should set up the silence for the sublime opening of the ‘Sarabande’.

Overall, this piece needs to remain playful, both technically and musically.