oldenglish-graffiti-alphabet-zCarlo Zecchi, pianist

zecchiIt wasn’t easy to find a Z to complete A Pianist’s Alphabet, but Carlo Zecchi (1903-84) fits the bill perfectly, being a pianist, music teacher and conductor. He studied with Busoni and Schnabel. His Paris debut was rather overshadowed by one Vladimir Horowitz but he enjoyed success in Russia in the inter-war years and was particularly acclaimed for his performances of piano works by Scarlatti, Mozart, and Debussy, and of Romantic music.

Why?A Pianist’s Alphabet has lain rather fallow for the past few months but it’s back again now to ponder the eternal question of Why? (Do we do it?). When this Alphabet is complete, it is my intention to continue the series, returning to the letter A. If you would like to contribute to A Pianist’s Alphabet, please contact me

So why do we do it? Why do we play the piano. Why do we choose to spend so much time with that big box of wood and wires?

cobs012768552As children, I suspect many of us didn’t really question “Why?”. Perhaps we were simply pushed, gently or otherwise, by parents. As I recall (and I was only about 5), I was encouraged to learn the piano. I liked the instrument – my grandfather played the piano and I used to enjoy sitting next to him as he played, as well as rummaging through the piano stool, which contained old Methodist hymn sheets, music hall songs and albums like ‘Hours With the Masters’ and ‘Step by Step to the Classics’ by Felix Swinstead. As I grew up, I developed a very strong attachment to the piano: as an only child it provided a place where I could escape and create my own fantasies and stories, losing myself in music and my imagination for hours at a time. In addition, I was a dedicated student, who practised regularly and carefully and who progressed through the grade exams with relative ease. Now, as an adult who has returned to the piano after a long absence (some 20 years), it is my life and I would be bereft without it.

So why do I play the piano?

  1. I like the sound of the instrument and the endless opportunities it provides to create myriad of timbres and colours
  2. I like the physical feel of playing the piano, the sensation of finger on key, the engagement of the whole body when playing
  3. I enjoy the solitariness of being a pianist
  4. There is a wonderful and vast, vast repertoire to be explored. Enough keep one occupied for several lifetimes and to satisfy all tastes
  5. I relish the personal challenge and intellectual stimulating of learning and studying music
  6. My piano is not only my work horse but also a beautiful addition to my living room

Of course, all of these points could be applied to many other instruments, but I chose the piano. There are many other Whys?, both prosaic and philosophical. Why not share your Whys? in the comment box below……




Beyond the Notes

…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.

Music in the Western civilization by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin

Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Trifonov, Pollini, Cziffra, Gould, Kissin, Uchida, Hough, Pires, Ogdon, Schiff, Cliburn, Hamelin, Schnabel, Cortot, Horowitz, Hess, von Bulow, Andsnes….. The list is seemingly endless, with every significant or “great” pianist of today and previous eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are 100s of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists……

Martha Argerich

The word “virtuoso” literally means “a person who is extremely skilled at something, especially at playing an instrument or performing“. It describes an individual with exceptional and extraordinary technical and musical abilities, but as the opening quote notes, the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.

Today virtuosity in the sphere of classical music has become almost synonymous with an over-developed technical facility without a comparable level of musical understanding/interpretation or broader musical education. The word has been misappropriated and more often than not is now attached to the performer who simply plays very fast and loud, or one who attracts more attention to themselves than the music (I am sure we can all think of a few examples…..). It troubles me when the word is used to describe young children playing (seemingly) complex piano repertoire, whose irritating videos are posted across the internet. How many of these “piccoli virtuosi” will actually grow up to be true virtuosi, in the purest, most romantic sense of the word? As we gasp in amazement at these pianists’ fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word has come to mean something rather superficial and derogatory.

Virtuosos are constantly tempted to indulge in an undue exhibition of their wonderful technic, and as many have succumbed to the temptation, the term virtuoso has come to be considered by many as slightly depreciatory, and the greatest artists usually object to having it coupled with their names

W.L. Hubbard et al, 1908

For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, virtuosity transcends technique. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the high Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or Islamey, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms. Nor is it about flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant gestures, which may wow the audience but do not serve the music. Indeed, a number of pianists whom I regard as true virtuosi are also some of the most “immobile” in the profession – Marc-André Hamelin, Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough being notable examples.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life”

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic, whose playing and music was affected, grandiose and vulgar. But Liszt was no superficial showman: in addition to playing his own music, he played all the best music of his day and all the best music which had been written for the piano. He was “the very incarnation of the piano”. In addition, he was a pioneering conductor, concert promoter and champion of young composers (notably Wagner, who described him as “the most musical of all musicians”). His musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical – surely attributes to be admired rather than denounced?

With Liszt, one no longer thinks of difficulty overcome; the instrument disappears and music reveals itself

Heinrich Heine

The virtuoso appreciates and understands that each performance is a “critique” in the purest sense of that term; it is a profoundly thoughtful, insightful, penetrative response to the music in which the performer invests his or her own self in a symbiotic process in which he/she becomes not a re-creator but a collaborator with the composer. The virtuoso respects the demands placed upon him/her by the composer by playing the music with passion, poetry and extraordinary technical ability.

In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.

…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity

Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-tasking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.

The virtuoso understands that while there is no “definitive” performance, one can create, in that “existing in the moment” of the live concert experience a performance whose communicative and emotional power renders it “perfect”. Audiences know this too – these are the performances during which we enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard (often the hardest concerts to review, in my experience!) because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being. I would cite concerts by Maurizio Pollini (in Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata), Steven Osborne (in Messiaen’s Vingt Regards), Marc-André Hamelin (in Liszt, Ives and Stockhausen) and Richard Goode (in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas) which transported me into that particular state of wonder.

The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it, and in particular all efforts to appropriate it.

Mark Mitchell, ibid.

And there’s more – because for me true virtuosity goes beyond the notes. It includes the ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of repertoire. By which I do not mean playing a lot of pieces, as some younger performers feel they should be doing, but rather playing a broad range of music. One of the chief exponents of this art is, in my humble opinion, Maurizio Pollini. Not many pianists would programme Chopin’s 24 Preludes, a selection of Debussy’s Preludes Book 1 and Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 in the same concert. Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin are also notable examples in their championing of lesser-known repertoire and their own compositions.

People will always be impressed by fleet fingers and noisy piano acrobatics, but for me the most profound musical experience often comes in the quietest, slowest or most intimate moments in music when a venue as large as the Royal Festival Hall shrinks to the size of Schubert’s salon through the pianist’s power of expression and musical intuition and understanding. That is true virtuosity.




Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) – composer, architect, boffin. Fearsomely experimental, he linked his disciplines by writing and designing co-dependent music and listening spaces. He arguably laid the foundations for modern electronica. And he was one of the first composers to use mathematical theory in creating music.

(photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Why does Xenakis belong in a pianist’s alphabet? Because his first longer-form work for the instrument has been called ‘the most difficult piano piece ever written’. Clearly seeing this as underperformance of some sort, 12 years later he produced a second piece for solo piano that is, strictly speaking, ‘impossible’. What’s not to like?

In both pieces, Xenakis uses certain mathematical techniques or theories to shape and generate the music. When I heard about this kind of composition in my teenage years, I was suspicious in my ignorance. 1: If it was all down to maths, was it really composition at all, or just some kind of automated exercise? And contrarily, 2: Surely all music – including the really tuneful, harmonious stuff – has mathematical perfection at its root… so why does THIS have to sound so deranged?

I recently decided to go back to Xenakis’s piano music, purely as a listener. I wanted to satisfy myself that without considering ANY of the scientific background – deploying my ear over my brain – it still worked for me, had something non-clinical to offer.

Here is the earlier piece, ‘Herma’:


and the later one, ‘Evryali’:


I was genuinely surprised by some of my reactions.

* I found both pieces enjoyable and invigorating – but I wasn’t expecting to hear such a world of difference between the two. I think in ‘Herma’ you hear the maths, and in ‘Evryali’ you hear the music.

* The unpredictable dance to the extremes of the keyboard in ‘Herma’ make it feel like performance art – raindrops one minute, rubble the next. As a result, the piece attains a kind of spiky ambience.

* In ‘Evryali’, however, I think the sweeping curves in the structure are audible, the notes – however dissonant – seem to belong together, journey with each other. The images it conjures up in my head are geometric, symmetrical – spirals, waves.

There’s a twist in the tale, however. ‘Evryali’ is ‘impossible’ partly because in places it’s written using more than two staves (as you can see on the YouTube video). The pianist must create their own version based on which notes they want to cover and which they can live with leaving out.

Of all things, this reminds me of jazz. Jazz has very little to do with mayhem; rather it is (as the critic Whitney Balliett put it) ‘the sound of surprise’ – the unexpected choices players make within the established parameters. With ‘Evryali’, we seem to have a truly original hybrid: a composed framework through which the pianist can follow their own unique path. I love the idea that from mathematical principles, Xenakis has created a piece dependent, like so much other music, on flexibility, spontaneity and feel.

Adrian Ainsworth

Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at



(letter picture Dan Tobin Smith)

beyond-the-page-letter-wThe Well-Rounded Pianist

In a recent article, violinist Nigel Kennedy bemoans the “narrow” approach of the conservatoire system and its focus on technique over individuality. He also cites Yehudi Menuhin (who paid Kennedy’s fees at the Purcell School) as a major influence in encouraging him to explore other genres of music, including jazz.

I do not believe music should be studied in a vacuum, separate from other arts or life-experience, but in our desire to seek perfection in what we do, to practise so that we never play a wrong note, I think there is a danger of losing sight of where the music we play comes from. It is not just thickets of notes on a page, but the expression of emotions, hopes and desires, of another sentient human being – the composer.

And so in order to transmit the composer’s intentions to our audience, I believe we should take a well-rounded approach to our music making. Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. Having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love: all this feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish, inspire and inform our music-making.

Of course, being a well-rounded pianist or musician is much more than this. It is about technique, for sure, but it is also about getting to the heart of the music to understand the context of its creation, why it is special. In order to do this, we need to study social and historical context, “listen around” the music to better appreciate that composer’s unique soundworld, compose, analyse and understand the philosophy of music. We should explore literature, art, poetry, go to concerts, play in ensembles, listen to music from other genres, and always – always – remain open-minded and curious. We also need to accept that there is no “right way”, to trust our musical instincts, have the courage of our convictions and not constantly compare ourselves to nor compete with others. When all these things combine, I believe we can truly be well-rounded musicians.






Guest post by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

I am a volunteer pianist. For the past 12 years, I’ve brought music to residents of assisted living homes, memory-care centers, and retirement communities.

Before becoming a volunteer pianist at age 50, I had played classical music almost exclusively, along with Christmas carols and the occasional Broadway tune or popular movie theme. I love classical music; many of my elderly listeners do, too. They enjoy having piano performance students come from the local university to present practice recitals. Those students play classical music better than I ever could. I’m an amateur pianist, albeit a serious one.

So for my volunteer gigs I focus instead on standards from the 1920s through the 1940s. These songs—especially the ones popular during World War II—have deep emotional meaning for my audiences. When I play “As Time Goes By” or “Sentimental Journey,” my listeners feel a sense of ownership. “You play our music,” they tell me.

For my elderly audiences, this music stirs memories. I recognize the look of nostalgia in their eyes as they remember dancing with the spouse they’ve now lost, or longing for home while away serving in the military.

One hunchbacked octogenarian shuffled to the piano to tell me that his mother played when he was a little boy. Then he burst into tears and sobbed, “I miss her so much.” Sometimes a particular song will inspire a listener to tell me a story. Some are surprisingly personal. Upon hearing “Tenderly,” a rheumy-eyed man whispered in my ear, “That song was the cause of my five children.”

The power of music is never more evident to me than when I volunteer in a dementia unit. Patients arrive slumped mutely in wheelchairs, seeming unaware of their surroundings. But when I play a song like Irving Berlin’s “Always,” they raise their heads and begin singing. Unlocked by the music, the lyrics flow from their long-term memory.

Volunteering offers no monetary compensation. I am paid in kisses blown to me from across the room, in pats on the arm, in glasses of juice offered by shaky hands.

My work as a volunteer pianist is not all hearts and flowers. The pianos I play are often neglected and out of tune. Cell phones ring during my performances. I will always remember the man in my audience who answered his phone and told the caller, “No, I’m not busy, I can talk. I’m just listening to someone play the piano.”

I compete with the roar of vacuum cleaners, with the clattering of lunch dishes being cleared away in nearby dining rooms. On one memorable occasion, a

housekeeper dusted the piano while I was playing it. And then there was the time I got hit by a ball when an audience member decided to multi-task, listening to the piano music while he played a game of fetch with his dog.

I’ve run into a few curmudgeons over the years. One told me I was “no Liberace.” Another approached the piano, leaned in close, and snarled, “Why don’t you go play somewhere else?”

Still, I cannot imagine a more gratifying way to contribute to my community than by being a volunteer pianist. Not long ago, an elderly women slowly steered her walker to the piano as I packed up after a performance. “You have no idea how much sunshine you brought into this room with your music,” she told me. “We were all dancing in our hearts.”

That is my reward. Priceless.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey, pianist and writer, blogs at https://volunteerpianist.wordpress.com/