The mercurial and fiercely independent Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, friend and protégé of the late great Sviatoslav Richter, stamped her mark emphatically upon some of Schubert’s most well-loved works in a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
“Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of losing track of time and of being unaware of fatigue and of everything else but the activity itself.” I read this recently in a book entitled Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure (quotes in this post are from this book). It’s a fascinating research report on how family, school, personality, education and motivation affect teenagers’ ability to become and remain talented in a field of endeavour such as music.
A state of flow is inherently productive for a musician. During a flow experience, musicians achieve their goals without even realising how hard the experience has been. Furthermore, it will have been enjoyable and satisfying and practice time will have flown by! Even more exciting is that the research shows that once a student has experienced a state of flow in their practice, they will want to repeat it, no matter how hard or how much concentration was required. That is, they will become intrinsically motivated to practice. Now wouldn’t that be nice?!
To quote the research, “…a deeply involving flow experience usually happens when there are clear goals and when the person receives immediate and unambiguous feedback on the activity”. Luckily in music, this “immediate and unambiguous feedback” is readily available: when you’re practicing an instrument, you can instantly hear when things don’t sound right and you immediately know when you can do something that you couldn’t do a few minutes earlier. But goal setting, particularly for children, is much harder.
The goal for teachers is helping students find the balance between the fun of finding new challenges in their music and/or technique and the hard work involved in skill building to surmount those challenges. “The pleasures associated with flow are highly desirable, but they are also intensive and energy demanding. You have to risk learning the limits of your present capacity.”
So what can we do to help out students achieve flow in their practice? Here are a few ideas which I hope will be just as relevant for musicians as their teachers:
- Flow comes from complete and utter concentration in one activity. It involves focusing on the present, so that all those irrelevant thoughts and worries can disappear. Flow is therefore a little like meditation. Students must setup their practice time and space so that they can practice without distraction. Teachers may need to give suggestions to parents about this as I’ve found that some just don’t realise how to structure their child’s practice time.
- Students must find what they are doing enjoyable in order for them to persevere long enough to achieve flow. Teachers therefore must, first and foremost, make learning enjoyable! A no-brainer, I hope, for most! This will be a product of a variety of things like repertoire choice, but really comes down to a positive and engaging teaching style. As the research says, “…flow most often happens when a person enjoys what he or she is doing for its own sake”.
- Set really clear and unambiguous goals for your students to achieve each week and break them down as much as required. Be specific! Philip Johnston’s book, The Practice Revolution, will challenge every teacher’s views on music teaching and is highly recommended in this regard. My post about how my teaching has changed as a result of this book is here – please read it for more detail on this vital aspect of flow.
- Set the right level of challenge. In another article I wrote based on this book entitled Too Easy or Too Hard – Finding the Right Challenge, I wrote about how important it is to find the right level of challenge for students to ensure they don’t get bored, but aren’t overwhelmed by insurmountable challenges (as so often happens when they bring in a piece of music they want to play that’s way beyond their skill level). Setting an appropriate level of challenge comes with experience which I believe is strongly supported by a teacher’s own endeavours to learn new, and increasing challenging, repertoire for themselves.
Our job as teachers must therefore be to set the stage for regular flow experiences for our students each week. According to the research, a student’s ability to achieve “flow” regularly in his/her practice time is directly related to how successful they will be in their talent area in the future: “…when students experience flow, the likelihood that they will keep on developing their gift increases significantly”. This week, take notice of any time during your own teaching or practice when you’ve felt a flow experience and time has disappeared. What happened? What did you achieve? How did you feel? What made it happen? And how can you help your students to have the same experience?
Tim Topham is a Melbourne based piano teacher, pianist and accompanist. He writes regularly on his blog about practice, teaching and repertoire and has a particular interest in helping other piano teachers work more successfully with boys. He has over 10 years’ teaching experience in a variety of fields and is currently studying performance with renowned concert pianist, Caroline Almonte and theory with Louise Robertson-Glasgow.
This post comes via my friend Somewhere Boy, who in turn sought inspiration from Gramophone, which poses the question “what does iTunes Shuffle reveal about your [music] collection?”. As Gramophone states, “the concept is simple: you just open up iTunes, press shuffle, and see what the first ten recordings to emerge are”.
I rarely use the “shuffle” function on my iPod or in iTunes (though I notice pianist Paul Lewis opts for the “snuffle” function when he performs), partly because it annoys me when a four-movement Schubert sonata is interrupted by, for example, a Chopin Prelude or a track by Baroque group l’Arpeggiata. What I have used quite frequently is the ‘Genius’ function in iTunes, which will compile a playlist for you based on one track (good for creating mixes for parties, long car journeys or boring gym sessions). Anyway, here goes…..I’m pressing Shuffle now. Let’s see what happens…..
Rachmaninov – Prelude in B, Op 32 No. 11 (John Lill). I learnt this a few years ago and then forgot all about it. Nice to be reminded of a piece I actually enjoyed playing. Maybe I should revive it?
Mozart- Minuet in, D K355 (Mitsuko Uchida). Uchida playing Mozart. What more can I say?
Beethoven – Six Bagatelles, Op 126. I. Andante con moto. Beethoven’s Bagatelles always remind me of childhood piano lessons and exams, which is unfair, since many of them are really wonderful and deserve proper study.
Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 11 in A, K331. 1st movement (Uchida). More beautiful, graceful Mozart….
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in E Flat Op 120 No. 2, 3rd movement. The second movement of this sonata formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam, the memory of which still causes the hair to stand up on the back of my neck…. Enough said! Beautiful music, though….
Enigma – Je T’aime Till My Dying Day. I have never, to my knowledge, listened to this, or indeed any of the other tracks on this album, though I do like Enigma’s first album….. Must’ve downloaded it while asleep/by mistake.
Schubert – Suleikas Zweiter Gesang, D717. I often listen to Schubert’s songs on my way to work: it makes a boring commute more pleasurable. I have two albums streamed together, Ian Bostridge’s fine Schubert collection and another by Lynda Russell (one of those budget Naxos ones). I met Ian Bostridge a few years ago, after he’d sung the part of the Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion. I say “met”…… Tanked up on Sauvignon, I flung my programme in front of him and demanded an autograph, while declaring huskily, “Oh Ian! I just LOVE your Schubert album!!’. Poor man! He’d just sung very demanding and emotional music, only to be confronted, post-concert, by a mad fan. He was seen exiting the Barbican at high speed soon after….
Haydn – Piano Sonata in D Hob. 16/37 (Hamelin), 1st movement. Hamelin’s Haydn albums are wonderful: full of crisp articulation, attentive phrasing and graceful melodic lines.
La Vie en Rose – Indien, from The Best of Claude Challe. Oh, I love Claude Challe and his Buddha Bar collections! This song is wacky and fun: Piaf meets Bollywood.
Orchestra Baobab – Nijaay. I often have this or Youssou N’Dour playing in the cabana in the garden on a hot summer’s evening (i.e. last year!)
Just for the purposes of comparison, here’s the list from iTunes on my Macbook:
ABRSM Piano Grade 1 2010-12 Menuet in F
ABRSM Specimen Aural Test – Grade 1, Test 1A (“Is it in 2-time or 3-time?”)
Carla Bruni – Quelqu’un M’a Dit
Haydn – Piano Sonata No. 47 Hob. XVI:32
Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata – Ciaccona, Pt. 2
Clara Rodriguez (piano) – El Atravesado
Ding Dong Merrily on High – played by Bella (one of my students)
Beethoven – Rondo in C major, Op. 51, No. 1
Gershwin – Prelude No. 3
Not sure what these lists say about me or my music collection, but an amusing diversion for Saturday morning. Might go and look up that Rach Prelude again now…..
Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).
So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).
But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?
This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.
One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?
Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.
Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).
My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, performed at Sutton House, in Hackney on Sunday evening, in a fascinating programme in which she juxtaposed the reason of Bach with the mercurial romance of Schumann. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.
Penelope Roskell is an acclaimed concert pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, and is Artistic Director of Sutton House Music Society.
by Graham Fitch
I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back.
Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov.
One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a good mood. Sensing this, I asked him if he was OK and he pointed to a stack of scores on his desk, bemoaning the fact that he had been roped into learning it for the BBC and for concert engagements. It turned out to be by Frank Bridge, whose music at that time had fallen into neglect. The following week, I asked him how he was getting on with it. His face lit up and he enthused for many minutes on the undiscovered qualities of this music and how wonderful it was. Peter was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Bridge’s music, which rubbed off onto me. He immediately suggested I learn the two pieces “In Autumn” and I had much success with them. Among my prize possessions is Peter’s score of the sonata, littered in his inimitable way with crayon and pencil markings that only he could make sense of, certainly a testament to a practical musician!
I was officially registered for lessons with Peter at the Royal College of Music, but after a while my lessons moved from room 68 at the RCM to Peter’s home in Kensal Rise. Not only did I occasionally get to stay for tea and wonderful conversation with Peter and Anita (and Millie the cat), but my good fortune extended to lessons which went on all afternoon. Three hours was the norm, always without a break, and usually on just one work. He gave of himself unstintingly and generously and as I was walking down his garden path after the lesson, I felt that I had been given the ultimate secrets to the music we had just worked on. This went way beyond a mere piano lesson. There was one time I took a very half-baked Beethoven’s op. 109 sonata along, and yet after my lesson felt that I could almost have deputised for Barenboim that very night, such was the completeness of my understanding of Beethoven’s message. There were many such experiences where I left having had more than a lesson, but a Gestalt of the music – an experience of the essence of the whole picture even though my playing of it might yet be primitive. Pieces that stand out are the Brahms-Handel Variations, Bartok’s Third Concerto, Mendelssohn’s “Variations Sérieuses”, some Debussy and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven…
It is difficult to describe how Peter taught. One thing I can say is he never, ever talked about piano playing as an activity in itself. His comments were always about the music. He would hear what I had brought in and would always give a totally honest appraisal of what he had heard. He was never one to mince his words, thus you could always rely on his reactions and comments as a very accurate barometer of how you’d done. If he didn’t like it, you would certainly know; if he did like it, he could ooze genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. You always knew where you stood with Peter.
Technical difficulties seemed to melt away, since through his lengthy verdicts and fabulous verbal descriptions of what he wanted to hear (he rarely demonstrated) you were literally infected with a mental and aural picture that left no doubt as to how the piece should go. There were so many times when, before he had finished talking, I was itching to play again because I knew exactly what he meant. After he had said what he needed, I would play again. What was difficult before now often wasn’t at all because I had an ultra clear picture of the sound, of the composer’s meaning. If you did ask for technical help – I mean specific pianistic help – he might even get annoyed. He really did not like talking about piano playing per se. Once I asked him what exercises he practised (I knew he had quite a warm-up ritual for himself). Again, he dismissed my question, saying that he did not want to burden me with it, nor did he like to do his dirty laundry in public.
There are SO many individual lessons I remember crystal clearly. During a lesson on op. 109 I missed a sforzando accent in the second movement and received a very painful dig in the ribs which taught me way better than words could have. Now, whenever I get to that place in the sonata, I feel a psychosomatic twinge of pain. There was the tail end of someone else’s lesson who crowed that he had managed to learn a Beethoven sonata in a week. Peter went red in the face and exploded: “How dare you say that! It took Beethoven months of time, sweat and blood to write that sonata, and you claim you can play it in one week!”. Another lesson that stands out for me was on a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After I finished he told me it was excellent and that he could not fault it. But I noticed a trace of disdain in his voice, and sure enough he said to stop it sounding sterile and boring, I had to find my own voice with the piece. When pushed, he made a few vague suggestions but would not be specific and it took a while before I figured out what he meant, that he expected me to take personal ownership of the piece.
Even after I had gone to America on my Fulbright Scholarship, I would return to Peter to play for him. I always received the same warm welcome and uncompromising advice. His influence is still with me to this day. I very often think of him, and I still miss him!
Graham Fitch is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, piano adjudicator, piano examiner, piano lecturer and writer/commentator on piano. www.grahamfitch.com