Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

Regardless of where you stand (or perhaps more appropriately, sit, as that is our general default position when it comes to using electronic devices such as tablets, chrome books and laptops) on the subject of social media, there is no doubt that websites and applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter play a huge part in our everyday lives. Apart from the countless hilarious sports memes, adorable pet videos, spiritual (and lifestyle) citations, cooking tips, political news bulletins, relationship status updates and narcissistic selfies, they also provides the ideal podium for a talented artist or an upcoming entrepreneur to showcase their ability. Furthermore, even if these aspiring individuals don’t have the ability to ‘make the cut’, there is a certain sense of satisfaction when one’s social media post generates hundreds and thousands of views and ‘likes’. Perhaps it says something about the world that we live in that being noticed counts just as much as having the ability to do something unique.

However, social media can also be a very unforgiving and ugly platform where humanity’s flaws and imperfections are ridiculed and unfairly judged. Someone recently likened social media to that of the cyber age colosseum, its members the mob, often out for blood and entertainment. A similar parallel can be drawn from the words of Derek Jacobi’s Gracchus in Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott:

The beating heart of Rome, is not the marvel of the senate, but the sound of the colosseum. He [Ceasar] will bring them death, and they will love him for it.

There is something very distasteful and perverse about that part of human nature where we want to see those directly in competition with us crash and burn. Perhaps this is one the (many) reasons behind the success of prime-time television shows such as Idols, Dragon’s Den and The Weakest Link, where members of the jury (or in Anne Robinson’s case, juror) are known for their ability to outrightly dismiss the contestant with cutting remarks.

Just as an aside, the Hong Kong version of The Weakest Link sets out to replicate the British series in all its full glory. However, the Chinese viewers did not understand or appreciate Carol Cheng’s imitation of Anne Robinson (let’s face it, who can?) and soon vent their anger at broadcast company, resulting in Cheng’s much changed and likeable demeanour. Which I thought completely missed the point: the reason why audiences tune into The Weakest Link is for Anne Robinson sarcasm and her trademark parting shot: ‘You are the weakest link – goodbye! Furthermore, it is also known that (as well as the prize money) some contestants go on the show because they are keen to experience what it is like to be dismissed by Robinson on television. The shift in Hong Kong’s presentation perhaps owes more to what the East perceived as acceptable behaviour on television as the Orientals are not known for their sarcasm and dry sense of humour.

As a golf enthusiast, it saddens me to say that the 1999 Open Championship in Carnoustie will always be remembered for Jean van de Velde’s implosion on the final hole, rather than Paul Lawrie’s performance during the playoff. (Van de Velde’s entourage will point to the fact that he got what is arguably one of the most bizarre ricochets in sports when his second shot bounced off the railing of the grandstand, onto the top of the stonewall before nesting itself in the deep rough. At the same time, critics will argue that it was Frenchman’s combination of flair and dire decision-making that resulted in his precarious second shot). Tennis fans will recall Jana Novotna’s unfortunate collapse (and her tears on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder) rather than Steffi Graf’s heroic comeback during the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies Final. The 2013-14 English Premier League football season will forever be synonymous with the image of Steven Gerard’s slip which handed the initiative back to Manchester City, who became the eventual champions. Finally, we all knew what happened in the most recent US Open Ladies final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

One of the subjects that generates the most interest on social media is that of the musical prodigy: an infant with the technical ability and (at times) musical maturity equal to an adult musician. However, before I proceed with the rest of this article I just want to clarify the following points:

  • The article is a based upon my own experience as a human being, an educator and a musician.
  • This is Not (notice the capital N) Dr Michael Low’s How Not to be An @rs3hole Piano Teacher or D1ckhead Parent 101.
  • I am not a parent.

There is a general (and much overstated) adage that behind every successful child prodigy stands (at least) one Tiger Parent – an overbearing individual who set the highest standard of achievement for their children by authoritarian means. The term Tiger Mother or Tiger Mom (老虎妈妈) is synonymous with Amy Chua’s controversial 2011 Memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where the author detailed her stringent and at times ferocious parenting regime. Though it is not explicit, the book also argues in favour of such parental methodology as well as the superiority of Chinese as opposed to Western culture.

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Amy Chua watches her daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld practise the piano in her home in New Haven, Connecticut

I know a number of parents who have read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and hated every single paragraph, as it goes against what they believe to be good parenting. On the other hand, I interpreted the book as an outright parody of the Chinese culture (much like Jon Chu’s movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians) and found the author’s writing immensely entertaining (I read the entire book – given to me as a Christmas present by the parent of a student – en route to London and it actually made me love my mum [herself also a Tiger Mom during her heyday] even more when I saw her). Regardless of what you think of Amy Chua, there is one thing that is clear: no matter how badly a parent wants a child to succeed, the final application has to come from the child him/herself. Chua openly confesses that despite her intense style of parenting (which bore fruit with her eldest daughter, Sophia), she has to admit defeat and eat a considerable portion of humble pie when her youngest daughter, Lulu, refuses to emulate Sophia’s musical achievement. Of all the very talented children I have had the privilege to have worked with, and there are just about (at least) two or three in every corner of Asia, none of them gave me the impression that they are playing the piano for their parents (the counter-argument here is that the less musically interested child would not have to seek out another teacher’s opinion in the first place). The feeling I get from working with these talented youngsters is that they would not achieved such a level of technical attainment if they do not firstly, believe in themselves (needless to say, this is supported unwaveringly by their parents and teacher) and secondly, enjoy what they do. Critics of Tiger parenting often point out that one run the risk of forsaking one’s soul if you ‘demand a child to practise an instrument until they hate it’ – presumably seeing practising as the outdated, dry, and monotonous act which is often associate with strict parenting. Being an avid practiser myself, I can tell you that I won’t even last five minutes, let alone four hours, doing this sort of practising! However, if a child can be taught how to practise intelligently, creatively and at the same time being able to enjoy the process of slowly working through a new piece of music before eventually having the satisfaction of playing the composition up to speed, why shouldn’t they practise for hours on end? Some may argue that musical intensity at this young age will come at the expense of the infant’s childhood, leaving the individual susceptible to various psychological and emotional scars later on in life. But then again, just how many of us are actually ‘normal’ in every sense of the word? We seek an expression in art (and especially music) because part of us (for whatever reason) is looking for an alternate form of human expression. And in today’s world, the only way for one to have any chance of success in music, be in performance or otherwise, is to really love what we do. The eminent piano pedagogue Maria Curcio recalled that her teacher, Artur Schnabel, once told her that in art, there is no such thing as a compromise. This is a statement that resonates with me on most levels (notice I say most, not all), because I have always maintained that the best people are those who can maintain a sense of balance and perspective in their life (which is not often easy when you are a child or a teenager, as there is a tendency to be impatient wanting to live for the moment).

It is the lack of social distraction, coupled with the ever-rapid ability to grasp the basic, along with many hours of discipline, that propels a musically talented child into the status of a prodigy. Universally admired by their peers, lauded by parents and immortalised by social media, the prodigy is much like a meteor or a ‘shooting star’, incandescence on their journey and leaving behind a streak of light in their quest for world recognition. Unfortunately, meteors also have the tendency to fall back down to earth: with every advancing year, the musical prodigy relinquishes a certain amount of his/hers prodigious status. I would argue that it is the technical ability – much more than the interpretive vision – that is the contributing factor behind the prodigy’s success (a certain Wow factor such as: ‘Did you see that six-year-old with such tiny hands play the Hammerklavier Sonata?’). And when a musical prodigy reaches the awkward age of the late teens and early twenties, no longer will he/she be judged on their technical prowess (which is now taken for granted) but their artistic vision. I use the term ‘awkward’ because this is the alleged stage when a musician ‘comes of age’ (which is absolutely nonsense in my not so humble opinion because studying music is a lifetime of work, and every artist matures at a different age). This, along with the human propensity to always be looking for the next best thing, meant that the prodigy has a life-span akin to that of a sportsman, although the former probably doesn’t earn as much. Conversely, I would imagine that if a child is used to performing in front of a packed house, as well as to an audience who is easily wowed by the performer’s technical prowess, he or she will probably find it very difficult to settle for anything less later on in life. These are some of the contributing factors towards why many musical prodigies have not catapulted themselves onto a successful musical career despite their remarkable promise.

It is the teacher’s job to see the best in our student, and with that, help them to realise their potential. In our line of work, we often work very closely with the parents of our students, and this has both its advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately for us, we also live in a results-driven culture where marks and validation on a piece of paper counts more than anything else, and this is especially evident in some of the more driven, first-world countries in the East. In such cultures, it is not unusual for the parents to have Tiger-like tendencies: imagine being part of a lifestyle similar to that of a fast-moving train, in a society where every parent will do anything (within reasons and financial means) to hurl their own children on board in the fear that they will either come second or miss out. In these societies, it must be very difficult not to get caught up with what everyone else is doing. Even if there are parents who feel that being part of such a competitive environment is not entirely suitable for their children, are they willing to jeopardise their child’s future by not participating? The question becomes infinitely more complicated when the child exhibits potential or show glimpses of ability to attain – and in some cases exceed – the standard set by his/hers teachers and peers. Realistically, how many parents have the financial means as well as the mind-set to even consider the possibility of emigration and starting life in a different country?

While we are on the subject of achievement, it is my humble opinion that parents have every right to feel proud when their child produces a brilliant musical performance, and the same can be said for us teachers. Let’s not be coy for a second here, there is always a tremendous sense of satisfaction and reward when one of our students perform well in either an exam, festival or competition (and sometimes all three!). As a teenager, I recall attending my sister’s ABRSM High Scorer’s Concert (which took place in the RAM’s Duke’s Hall) and said to myself, ‘It must be such an honour for any teacher and their student to take part in these occasions.’ Such feelings became reality a few years ago when one of my Grade 8 piano student was invited to perform in such a concert here in Cape Town. However, I have also seen the CV of several high-profile piano teachers (this is much more apparent in the East, where piano playing is seen as an achievement rather than an artistic expression), who littered their website with names of prize-winners whom they have taught or worked with (the irony here is that most, if not all of these competitions are relatively unknown, or perhaps I am just not that knowledgeable when it comes to competitions). While the business part of me understands such a marketing ploy, the cynical side of me seems to have other reservations. Afterall, I have always believed that the greatest teachers are those who let their students do the talking, or playing, in this case.

In the perfect world, no piano teacher would have to sit through their student’s mediocre performance, nor should we have to deal with tears and disappointment when exam marks and competition juries don’t see eye to eye with our candidate. One of the hardest thing for any teacher to endure is to allow our student to make their own mistake knowing full well this is the only way they will learn their lesson. I will never forget teaching a very talented student who, despite her tremendous musical temperament and ability, didn’t quite have the patience or mindset to practise slowly (for this student it is the case of ‘playing through’ a piece of music hoping that it will eventually come right). In spite my best efforts in trying to reason, encourage, and motivate her to be more disciplined in her practising, she was adamant that things will continue as they were. Afterall, why should anything change? She has gotten to where she is by doing what comes naturally to her (the superstitious side of me tells me that this is karma at its bitchiest best, the perfect payback for all those times in the past when I did not listen to my piano teachers). Heartless though it may seem, I eventually realised that the only way forward is to let her play the exam on her own terms, and this lead to the following afterwards: ‘Dr Low, I am so sorry… I fu(k3d up so badly…I have let you down…’ followed by loud sobs (for those interested, this student actually ended up passing her exam, despite the assumption that she ‘fu(k3d up’ her own performance). This incident made me realise one thing: if allowing your student to play out her own mistake isn’t heartbreakingly enough, it must be (at least) twenty times worse for a parent to let their child do the same (I can say with a degree of certainty that no parents want to see their children hurt, physically or emotionally). Unfortunately such is life that sometimes the only way for a child to grow is for them to make their own mistake, and this is in spite of their parent’s best intervention – conversely, interventions can sometimes end up pushing the child further away from their parents. It is not often easy to develop a sense of objectivity when we work closely with our student. However, I strongly believe that not every single piano teacher is completely responsible for how their student performs, just as not every parent is entirely liable for the adult their children become.

Parenting is perhaps the hardest job in the world. Children are conceived not only for the purpose of genetic immortality, but also to provide an opportunity for a parent to play the all-important role in shaping an infant’s life. I have often heard the following numerous times: ‘Michael, I don’t want my son to give up the piano because it was a decision that I regret taking when I was his age.’ To which I answer: ‘It is never too late for you to start having lessons again.’ Interesting that this is often followed by: ‘I just want him (the child) to be able to sit down and play!’ As teachers and musicians, all of us recognise that ‘to be able to sit down and play’ is far from straightforward, as it requires not only many hours of practising, but also a considerable amount of performing experience. Imagine just ‘chilling out’ playing the Rachmaninoff D minor Piano Concerto or Bach’s Goldberg Variations! I will never forget almost incurring the wrath of one of my piano teachers when I asked him to perform Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata during one of our lessons! (I did ask nicely just in case any of you guys are wondering!) It is my humble opinion that no parent raises their children with the intention of deliberately messing them up (psychologically or otherwise). Parents will always make the decisions based on what they know best when a situation arises, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), hindsight is such a beautiful thing and will always have the last word. I do not believe that there is a right or a wrong way to bring up a child; parents are human beings after all, and no matter which approach a parent decides to take, whether it is the Tiger Mother/Dragon Father combination, or the converse, Mother Hen/Father Owl mindset, somewhere down the line, mistakes will occur, and the child will be better or worse off because of that. No self-respecting parent raises their children hoping that they will become billionaire owners of football clubs, along with their corrupt Russian Oligarch associates. Nor do any parents wish their kids to turn into some sort of pathological animal lovers who give candy bars to golden retriever pups. I can say (with a degree of confidence) that every parents raises their children in the hope that they will one day become courageous, compassionate, intelligent and respectable human beings; to be able see the beauty in this cold and (at times) objective world that we live in, to love another whole-heartedly, to live a life of integrity and perhaps, just perhaps, also be able to find the extraordinary in our ordinary life. Similarly, a piano teacher should not harbour the unrealistic expectation in hoping that our student will be the next celebrity performer akin to Khatia Buniatishvilli, Lang Lang, Ivo Pogorelich or Wang Yuja. We teach piano and because we want to convey the passion and love of music to our students, and in learning a musical instrument, a student will hopefully be able to grasp a set of important life skills and ethics such as discipline, integrity, honesty, hard work and communication. At the end of the day, if any of my students can apply to their life what they have learnt from their piano lessons, then I will be quite content.


As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa’s greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

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Guest post by Michael Johnson

The Stakhanovite work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of fading as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls tend to fill with admiring fans. Some of us (including me) don’t quite know what to make of it.

It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging each year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids play with their smart phones and iPads.

Two contrasting Chinese women have caught my eye (no, not like that …) recently and promise to leave indelible marks. They both have worked hard to get noticed and – contrary to myth — they are capable of absorbing and mastering the Western canon.

Ran Jia, the Shanghai-born daughter of an established composer, has become a recognised Schubert interpreter. And Zhu Xiao-Mei has adopted the Goldberg Variations as virtually her own. Music without borders is no longer a cliché.

Elegant, poised and deeply musical, Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to Schubert, a phenomenal achievement considering how often the piano sonatas have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years. The music press in Germany, where she played all eleven works in a four-day marathon last year, christened her “the challenger”.

And Xiao Mei, a battered survivor of five years in the labour camps of Mao’s China, recovered her piano training and managed to escape, first to Hong Kong, then Los Angeles, then Boston, and finally Paris. It’s difficult to read her book “The Secret Piano” without welling up.

In one passage, she describes the beginning of her career at Beijing Conservatory.

We worked at the piano like galley slaves, in little closed rooms whose doors were fitted with a small, round window (for monitors to check up on students)… The school’s leaders encouraged rivalry between students. The best pupils not only had the right to more classes but also to better food.

Living conditions were Spartan. “At night, forty of us slept in the same dormitory hall. Bunk beds were placed next to each other so closely there was just enough space to move about the room. The atmosphere was suffocating.”

And her first serious teacher, Pan Yiming, was “unrelenting”, she recalls. He ran her through the Hanon virtuoso book plus the main volumes of Czerny, Cramer, Moszkowski and Brahms, plus Bach’s “Inventions” and the Well-Tempered Clavier”. He told her, “I want you to play all this by heart. From now on, for each lesson, you must play a piece by Bach and two etudes from memory with no mistakes.”

By a circuitous route she ended up at the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying under Gabriel Chodos who had trained under a student of Arthur Schnabel. “Professor Chodos was forbidding. With him, it was a life-or-death struggle. After every class, I wanted to quit the piano.

When he assigned the Schumann “Davidsbüldlertänze”, he warned her it would be the “ultimate test … Once again, he was right.”

She saves her greatest enthusiasm for the Goldbergs, which she says “took over my existence – it contained all one needed to live.” The variations, she says, “are all about flow … this is what makes Bach’s music so soothing for its listeners.”

Her mastery is evident in this sample of her Goldbergs:

Ms. Jia rejects talk of competitive striving among the Chinese. “My dream is simple,” she told me in an interview, “to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience …” To her, Schubert’s music “dances between our world and heaven”.

Her modest persona comes as a welcome change in the face of the flamboyance of other young Asian players seeking to distinguish themselves through hair-styles or performance antics. She may well be the next Chinese superstar, a versatile player who thoroughly understands her music and performs it for us without excesses.

One American critic noted that onstage she simply and calmly “looked as though she were thoroughly enjoying herself, frequently smiling at Schubert’s more engaging nuances”.

I asked her about the growing criticism of young pianists who place technique above musicality. Not wishing to join the polemic, she agreed however that “music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it”. She brings all these crucial elements to her playing.

I have spent the past few days listening attentively to her latest CD (Ran Jia Schubert, Sony Music) a pairing of Sonata No. 19 in C Minor and Sonata No. 16 in A Minor. As a bonus, she includes “Three Preludes for Solo Piano” by her well-known composer-father (also an accomplished painter), Jia Daqun.

In this video she discusses her love of Schubert and demonstrates her exquisite playing.

Ms. Jia has already built the foundations of a long-lasting career, with debuts at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. As she explains in our interview (below) she became a multicultural musician by growing up in a musical household. Her father is Senior Professor of Composition and Theory at Shanghai Conservatory. He is regarded as China’s leading composer and has worked in various musical styles, including traditional Chinese music.

A bonus on the new CD is the world premiere recording of his Preludes. Most captivating is his variation swirling around Schubert’s A Minor sonata and placing it very much in the 21st century. After absorbing his daughter’s pure Schubert, this contrast is chillingly beautiful.

INTERVIEW WITH RAN JIA

Q. Your four-recital cycle of Schubert the eleven piano sonatas in Germany last year left critics in awe. They called you an “astonishing” artist, a “piano poet”. How has that success changed you?

A. I would say it changed me as a pianist. After this almost impossible mission, I suddenly found peace and freedom in myself as a musician.

Q. You are in very good company, devoting so much of your musical talent to Schubert. The competition could not be stronger – Brendel, Schiff, Perahia, Kempf, Lupu, Richter, Barenboim, among others. What drew you into this stratosphere?

A. Schubert has been my favorite composer since I was a teenager. Ever since I played his music the first time, I have felt a unique connection. All his music has become my mission in my musical life. I don’t feel there should be any competition between the interpreters as you mentioned in the question. For me, my dream is simple, to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience, and to diligently dig into Schubert’s music as much I can.

Q. Will you really spend the rest of your life discovering Schubert’s “spiritual delicacy and profoundness”, as you have written? Is your ambition to become the definitive interpreter of Schubert?

A. Of course I will spend the rest of my life discovering Schubert’s music. For more than a decade I have continuously studied his pieces. I feel his music is still underrated compare to his genius — he is so much more than just a songwriter (even though the songs are amazing!) The boldness of his harmony is absolutely stunning and he uses music to express his philosophy of life.

Q. You have said that you moved from your native China to Europe to better understand the Germanic culture of Schubert. In what way did this help your interpretations?

A. The language, the culture, the atmosphere, those are the foundations for better understanding his background.

Q. What is Schubert’s secret in drawing the tragic and painful strains from major rather than minor keys?

A. True, major brings a brighter feeling than minor, but Schubert’s use of the key changes make me feel that major is more sad than minor because of the way he uses the major sounds seem like a beautiful dream that will never come true.

Q. What are you preparing now in repertoire? Do you plan more ensemble work?

A. I am at the moment preparing a lot of repertoire. I have some interesting projects, for example all the Beethoven concertos, and a Schubert cycle in China in the second half of the year and some trio concerts (mainly transcriptions) with piano, saxophone and violin.

Q. Your father, the distinguished Professor Jia Daqun, is perhaps the ultimate cross-over East-West composer, combining some Chinese traditions with vigorous Western-style contemporary music, as he does in “Melodies from Sichuan Opera” on your new CD. Has his musical culture always combined a balance of the two?

A. Yes, he wrote a lot of interesting chamber works with the combination of Chinese folk melody and Western modern composition technique. He has recently been commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma for a string quartet for the Silk Road Project.

Q. In your own musical life, did you have to move from the Asian pentatonic to the Western heptatonic scales? If so, did you make this adjustment gradually?

A. I never had to move because music of all kinds was always just naturally there with me. I started studying piano when I was three and half years old. Because of my father, I heard a lot of music in different periods, of course including Chinese folk music. I didn’t need to change anything.

Q. Are you still interested in Chinese music or have you definitively crossed over?

A. I don’t think you can speak of crossing over in this context. It is not a question of interest in Chinese music, because this music is a part of me. I am Chinese :).

Q. How should we understand the current explosion of popularity of Western music in China? Some observers think it has become a status symbol to love Western music, like the “Gucci shoes of the music world”, as one pianist has called it. How true is this?

A. First of all, there are a lot of Chinese, so it might seem like it’s an explosion of popularity of western music. Second, the competition in the schools in China is enormous, the teenagers usually have to have several interests besides their normal subjects of study. And music became very popular because it can cultivate one’s feelings.

Q. What drives Asian children to over-practice, sometimes 12 hours a day ? Don’t their results sometimes favor technique at the expense of musical understanding? Are Asian piano students more driven to succeed or are Western children going soft?

A. Asian children work very hard and they want to be good in any area they study, whether in music or other subjects. It’s important that at a certain age they build up a good technique through a lot of practice, but in my opinion, it has become very critical because music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it. I think we should not see a music career as ‘succeeding’ but rather as ‘devoting’ and ‘growing’, or we lose the essence of being a musician.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

Illustrations by Michael Johnson

Musicians need to practise and rehearse. Finding a place to rehearse can be a problem, especially if you don’t have a separate space in your home (flatmates are not always amenable to 100s of repetitions of Liszt!) or if you are travelling. Tutti Space offers a simple yet ideal solution. The brainchild of Grabriel Isserlis, here he explains what motivated him to create this new platform and community for musicians:

My family have been in music for generations. I like to say that before I learned English, I learned the language of music. I have always been surrounded by music: at home, on family holidays, my family even performed chamber music as part of our Christmas celebrations. However, as much joy as music brings, I was always very aware of the less wonderful side of it: the challenges it produces for people who dive in full time. After a brief decade, trying to escape the music in my blood, I gave in and returned, albeit from a different angle. During that time, I had trained in visual arts, audio engineering, and programming, and decided to combine my knowledge and passions into one.

I spent over a year analysing the different issues that plague musicians, listening to my friends and family talk about all the frustrations they experience. Throughout that time, a number of key issues were most apparent but only one of them sparked a twinkle in every eye when I shared my potential solution: “AirBnB for Rehearsal Spaces.” That simple idea has grown into Tutti and has so much potential ahead of it – we’re just getting started.

Tutti Space operates on a similar premise to AirBnB: those with space to rent advertise it on the platform. Those seeking rehearsal space can search No money changes hands – everything is organised within the platform – and users rate one another using a feedback system. So like AirBnB, the success of the platform is predicated on goodwill, good behaviour and positive feedback. Those seeking rehearsal space search the listings and make contact with the host via the site. And those with space where musicians can rehearse, from a little-used piano in a living room to a fully soundproofed music studio, can make money from hiring out their space. Just as AirBnB, no one can book your space without your approval: if someone books your space, you will be notified immediately and have 3 days to accept or reject the request.

If you list your space before 2019, Tutti Space will provide a photographer to take quality photos of your venue/space, free of charge.

One can pay upwards of £20/hour for a music practice room in London. Tutti Space offers competitive pricing together with the opportunity to build communities and create connections.

The site is clearly designed and very easy to use. Tutti Space is an inspired yet simple solution to the musician’s perennial problem.

Visit the Tutti Space website

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504 – an independent, affordable venue that provides space to rehearse, run workshops, teach classes, host meetings or auditions. Rent this space via Tutti Space

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I fell in love with music and the piano at about 4 years old when I first heard it played by a teacher at my kindergarten. I still remember that magical moment.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

When I was about 12, I had a brief period of study with a concert pianist in Hong Kong who inspired me to see music as a vocation. I have been very fortunate to have studied with some wonderful teachers and mentors, including Joan Havill and Robert Silverman. The writings of Schumann, and letters of Brahms have also been a huge influence on me. Launching MusicArt  in 2015 was a crucial step in my career which opened up many new opportunities to collaborate with, and commission works from, contemporary visual artists, choreographers, and poets, who shape my current work in music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

It was a great challenge to combine performing with pursuing my doctoral research on the musical aesthetics of Schumann and Brahms at the Guildhall School/City University of London. Another challenge was launching MusicArt to collaborate for the first time with a painter, composer, and an art gallery. I learned from these two experiences to never give up and that challenges often lead to good things!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

It was unforgettable to do a live broadcast for Classic FM from my own living room to commemorate Mozart’s 225th anniversary in 2016. It was very intimate yet reached out to so many people at the same time.

With my ensemble Minerva Piano Trio, I am proud of our year-long residency at St John’s Smith Square 2016/17. We joined forces to commission a new arrangement and dance choreography of scenes from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe for piano trio and dance. Our revival of the rarely performed Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8 (original version) was also one of the highlights for me during this residency.

Minerva Trio © Anthony Dawton

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I tend to choose pieces that speak to me on a personal level. Dinu Lipatti once said that it’s not enough to like the piece you play, but the piece must also like you! I play a wide range of repertoire but have a soft spot for Schumann, Brahms, and Ravel.  As long as I can make a connection with the sound world of a particular piece, then I feel inspired to share it.

It is thrilling to premiere a new work as there is a sense of freedom in communicating a piece for the first time. I love the collaborative aspect of working together with a composer, which is very creative and exciting.  That connection I mentioned before then extends to a kind of real affinity with the composer.  At the moment I am working with Hong Kong-born British composer Raymond Yiu.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I build on my core repertoire every season. In the past, I would tend to be more composer-focused. If I started to play one piece by Schumann, I would then aim to cover his entire output in order to gain a better understanding of the composer’s language. These days I am interested in finding ways to create dialogues between different works in a programme.

While I love my core repertoire for concert programmes (for example, I will be playing Beethoven, Schumann, and Ravel at St Martin-in-the Fields in December), I am also constantly looking for new stimulants for something adventurous.  For my next MusicArt concert I will present a world premiere concert-installation ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, inspired by the collaboration between Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage and performed within an exhibition of their works at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.  It will involve the music of John Cage, an installation of sound and spoken dialogue, and a new musical work created in collaboration with composer Raymond Yiu and poet Kayo Chingonyi.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I had a fantastic experience playing Arvo Pärt’s Fratres at an open space outside Central St Martins for a fashion show in London with a few hundred people in the audience. Since then I am happy to play anywhere as long as it is aesthetically pleasing or stimulating to the senses in some way, not just acoustically.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have huge admiration for Leonard Bernstein, especially since I discovered his Eliot Norton lecture series, The Unanswered Question. He said, ‘The best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.’ Like other great musicians, he reminds one that music and humanity are inseparable.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For me, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at LSO St. Luke’s in London was as special and memorable as playing John Cage’s 4’33” while silently reading a poem at an art gallery. I don’t think I can choose between the conventional and creative approach to playing concerts, as I love both.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is constantly achieving what I set out to do. It’s important to me to generate creative ideas on a regular basis, work with people whom I admire, and create unique experiences for the audience. When I can do these things continuously at a high level, then I am happy.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Treat music as an art form that demands the utmost dedication and discipline. Career is by no means guaranteed. After you finish training and studying at the conservatoire or college, your colleagues and collaborators become, in a way, your teachers. Learn to listen through playing with others.

What is your most treasured possession?

The Yamaha C3 grand piano that I have had since I was 12. It has travelled with me from Hong Kong to Vancouver to London. I had wanted a grand piano from the very beginning, and my mother promised if I reached Grade 8 she would buy me one. It turned out she started saving for it from the day she promised, so she could afford it, just in case! That was a great motivation and I made sure to get it as quickly as possible.

Video links:

Debussy  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epJymUc2rDY

Brahms: Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OImMONM78TI

Music by Arvo Pärt – Für Alina

Poem by Zaffar Kunial – Sunlight

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG-g7bfLpec

ERDEM
London Fashion Week SS14

Annie Yim, pianist
Richard Birchall, cellist

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rTeQ8Iaqnc

John Cage the Lover and Poet (audio)

https://vimeo.com/193910760

OR

John Cage Dream (1947)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEknsWJLp-o

Scenes from Daphnis and Chloe (2017)
Minerva Piano Trio
Thomasin Gülgeç, dancer
Estela Merlos, dancer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdsMBr1JfBw

Michael Parekowhai’s ‘Maori’ Steinway

Recently I had the opportunity to play a rather special Steinway grand piano as part of the fascinating ‘Oceania’ exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river was created by New Zealand sculptor Michael Parekowhai (b.1968) as part of a larger artwork for the 2011 Venice Biennale exhibition. The title of the sculpture refers to a 1920s New Zealand novel which in turn was the inspiration for Jane Campion’s film ‘The Piano’ (1993). The artist is insistent that the piano should be played and wherever the instrument is on display – whether in London, its home at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, or on tour in other exhibitions – the piano is kept in tune so that members of the public may play it. For the artist, the art work comes to life when played and performance is crucial to it:

There is no object I could make … that could fill a room like sound can…….. the actual piano just kind of melted away.

Michael Parekowhai

I knew it was an old instrument when I sat down to play it; its keys are ivory with a creamy patina of age, and it has a light action, suggesting a lot of use in its former life. After I’d played it, I decided to do some digging to find out more about the instrument and discovered its rather unusual provenance.

The original instrument was a 1920s Steinway Model D, sold in London and shipped to New Zealand half a century later. Inside the body of the piano was a pencilled dedication: “Dear friends, may this beautiful instrument bring you happiness and inspiration. All my love, Lili Kraus, London, Christmas 1959.” Lili Kraus was a Hungarian concert pianist, noted in particular for her interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin and Bartok. After time spent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, she moved to New Zealand, where she became a British citizen and spent many contented years performing and teaching. She finally settled in the US, where she died in 1986. For me the encounter with the piano felt curiously serendipitous, for only last week I had been reading about Lili Kraus’s premiere of Schubert’s ‘Grazer’ Fantasy (about which more in a later article), and listening to her recordings of this little-known work….

The sculptor Michael Parekowhai regards pianos as a statement of high Western art and has used them in other artworks (for example, ‘The Horn of Africa. A seal balancing a piano on its nose’). He acquired this Steinway in 2002 and asked Auckland-based piano restorer David Jenkin to see if he could do anything with it. There is a tradition of “art case” pianos, with painted or other decoration, inlays and marquetry, or the use of particularly striking wood such as walnut or bird’s eye maple. Michael Parekowhai’s carved piano certainly references this tradition, but takes it to an extreme, such is the richness of the carving and its symbolic narrative. Unlike other art case pianos, the lid is pierced by the carving and thus the sound emerging from the instrument is diffused. The piano was restored, including a new soundboard, to ensure it was playable and a new oak and mahogany rim was created to take the carving. It is Parekowhai’s sixth piano sculpture and took more than 10 years to make. At the 2011 Venice Biennale it was exhibited as part of a larger display exploring New Zealand’s cultural history entitled On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The installation included two other grand pianos but these were not in playable condition, merely used as sculptures. The title of the work is taken from a poem by John Keats and by utilising ‘Toi whakairo’, traditional Māori carving on an item deeply emblematic of European culture and craftsmanship, it references ideas of discovery and exploration, the supposedly “civilising” mission of Europeans to New Zealand and its surrounds, cultural exchanges between the old and new worlds, and New Zealand’s post-colonial situation.

he-korero_17-te-papa-install
‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’

In his sumptuously carved grand piano – an instrument originally built in Germany – Parekowhai shifts the cultural focus: the carvings fully take ownership of the piano, literally and metaphorically, transforming a European instrument, which held pride of place in the nineteenth century drawing rooms of New Zealand and Europe alike, into a work of ornate Maori symbolism and colourful story-telling, while also making a thought-provoking and witty commentary on notions of European colonialism and cultural appropriation.

When I played the Maori piano, I had just come from a weekend of house concerts given very much in the tradition of the nineteenth-century European salon, with an attentive audience formally seated in the music room of an English country house. I had never played a piano in a busy gallery space before, where people were wandering around looking at the exhibition. My performance felt secondary to the exploration of the artworks on display, and I wanted my mini programme of pieces by Pärt, Sibelius, Schumann, Bach and Corea to feel like a background to the exhibition, rather than expecting people to stand still and listen. In fact, the experience was very mixed: despite a lot of noise of people walking through the exhibition, there were moments when a sense of attentive listening was palpable. At other times people walked around the piano to examine the carving in more detail and take photos. Some stood behind me, looking at the music, or peered into the belly of the instrument to see the hammers in action or to marvel at the wonderful light effects and shadows created by the pierced carving. The sound of the piano being played drew people into the space in which it was exhibited, and the gallery setting allowed people who may not necessarily go to classical concerts to experience music in an informal yet meaningful way. I felt very secondary to the instrument, yet also part of a bigger, collective artistic and musical experience. The piano was on show, not the music, and certainly not me, and I like to think this is the effect the artist wants to achieve with his work.

 


Oceania continues at the Royal Academy of Arts until 10 December.

Read a review of the exhibition


Image: He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011 by Michael Parekowhai. Piano, wood, ivory, brass, lacquer, steel, ebony, paua shell, mother-of-pearl, upholstery. Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, NZ.

Conceptual Concert in Three Acts with Annie Yim, piano

Annie Yim, piano; Raymond Yiu, composer; Kayo Chingonyi, poet

Thursday 13th December 2018, 6.30pm at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ

Pianist Annie Yim is the creator of MusicArt London, a conceptual concert series which combines music with poetry and visual arts, creating interesting and unexpected dialogues and connections between the works in the programmes and across creative disciplines. Programmes include works by 21st century composers, often juxtaposed with historical masterpieces, spoken word, sound and video installations, dance and art. Her innovative artist-led concerts, often presented in collaboration with others, multiply artistic roles and dissolve boundaries across media.

Yim’s forthcoming MusicArt event, ‘Conceptual Concert In Three Acts’ on 13 December in London, features a world premiere concert-installation with composer Raymond Yiu and poet Kayo Chingonyi as well as piano music and spoken words by maverick composer John Cage. The performance takes place in the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac London, which is showing a new exhibition of American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Spreads’ and ‘Ryoanji’, an installation by John Cage, Rauschenberg’s close friend and long-time creative mentor and collaborator. The Conceptual Concert takes its inspiration from the art and life of Rauschenberg and Cage, and pays homage to their work and joint creative impulses through music and words.

The specially composed concert-installation inspired by the work of Rauschenberg and Cage focuses on dialogues – musical and spoken, historical and contemporary, space and time, visual and aural interactions. Intended to be cumulative and cyclical, this new composition comprises unexpected combinations of influences and traditions, uncovering themes in Rauschenberg’s Spreads that have been incorporated into our process.

– Annie Yim

In Rauschenberg’s work content is often ambiguous. His ‘Spreads’ series comprise wooden panels to which he variously applied acrylic paint, paper and fabric collage, solvent-transferred images, coloured or mirrored plastics and everyday objects such as fans, pillows, buckets and lights, and thus blurred the distinctions between different media such as photography, painting, printing and sculpture by combining them all in one work. Taking inspiration from Rauschenberg’s artistic process and collaborative spirit, together with his exploration of layering, fragments, memory, resonances and integration, Yim and her co-collaborators interweave music and words, blurring the boundaries between traditional roles of musician, composer and poet. Like Rauschenberg’s work, these “sound events” suggest several narrative outcomes or associations to the listener or viewer.

Cage too blurred and pushed boundaries. An iconoclast like Rauschenberg, he challenged preconceived notions of how music should be presented in performance and questioned what actually constitutes “music” and “sound”. His Winter Music, dedicated to Robert Rauschenberg and included in Annie’s concert, utilises musical collage, chance and indeterminacy, leaving decisions about the presentation of the music to the performer. His infamous 4’33”, which concludes Annie’s programme, was directly inspired by Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, whose seemingly “blank” canvasses change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung. 4’33 is, in effect, an “aural blank canvas”, reflecting the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, and onto which performers and audience may place their own interpretation and responses, complementing Rauschenberg’s contention that an artwork is incomplete without the presence of the viewer (or audience). The audience will be invited to participate during Annie’s performance of 4’33”, further confirming Rauschenberg’s assertion.

Conceptual Concert in Three Acts

Presented in collaboration with MusicArt, Thursday 13th December 2018, 6.30pm at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ. Admission free.

MusicArt London http://musicart.london/

Annie Yim http://annieyim.com/

Video

Dream by John Cage from an earlier MusicArt performance

https://youtu.be/PEknsWJLp-o


Header image: Palladian Xmas (Spread) by Robert Rauschenberg 1980. Solvent transfer, acrylic and collage on wooden panel with mirror and electric light (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac London)