Category Archives: General

Live lessons

Last weekend I performed at St John’s Smith Square, one of London’s premier music venues. This was part of their Music Marathon, 12 hours of continuous music making to coincide with the Open House London weekend. There was a great range of music and performers, a good-sized audience and a friendly atmosphere. I chose to perform, perhaps rather over-ambitiously, Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, preceded by Britten’s Night Piece – a demanding programme of music lasting 45 minutes. I performed the Schubert Sonata 7 times last year (including the FTCL Diploma recital) but as any performer will tell you, each live performance reveals new or unexpected things about the music and you as a performer. I believe it is important to perform the music we study and play – not least because this wonderful music was written to be shared. Performing can take many forms – from informal playing at home with friends to a concert at a world-renowned concert hall – and each performance presents its own dificulties, stresses, pleasures and revelations.

I came late to performing, having had a long break from the piano after university, and completed two performance diplomas in my late 40s. In order to do this, and because I had not had a formal musical training in conservatoire, I had to “learn” how to be a performer (mostly by teaching myself and talking to and observing professional musicians at work). The most significant thing I have learned is that one must be extremely well-prepared – and prepared for anything and everything that can happen, both within the music itself and all the things one cannot control. Even the best laid plans in practise can come awry in performance, for a variety of reasons. For this reason most professional performers (and serious amateurs too) will do a number of practise performances in less important venues before the most important concert in their diary (at the Wigmore Hall for example, reputedly one of the hardest places to perform in because of its famously knowledgeable and discerning audience). Each performance is part of the learning process and whatever happens in a performance should be seen as a point of reference for future practising and preparation (and a timely reminder that we can never truly say that a piece of music is “finished”).  For example, during my SJSS performance certain passages which had seemed pretty secure in practise came unstuck (noticeably to me, but probably not to the audience as I managed to improvise). It can be quite a jolt to discover that one’s careful practising may not have been quite as scrupulous as one thought. For this reason, I try not to spend too much time negatively reflecting on a performance which may not have gone as well as I’d hoped, preferring to note the areas which require improvement and incorporate these into my practising regime. Thus, through these marginal gains one can take the music to another or different level each time it is performed.

Performing is physically and mentally demanding. and an unusual level of mental concentration is required combined with physical stamina for the duration of the performance (and playing for 45 minutes continuously is hard work!). Interruptions to one’s focus, such as noises in the hall, an error or memory lapse, or negative self-talk, can throw a performance off track and one sometimes has to muster huge forces to bring one back to the task in hand. This is why we must practise so meticulously, to make the music as secure as possible, so that we don’t break down or stop in performance (something I have only witnessed once in a professional performance, though I have encountered numerous but tiny errors or memory slips).

In addition, the stress and anxiety of performing does not pass the moment one leaves the stage. It can take some hours for the body’s stress hormones to return to their normal levels, which can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless – despite one feeling physically and mentally drained. I have found isotonic drinks such as Gatorade help alleviate the physical and emotional effects of performing (these products have been proven to offer enhanced recovery to patients undergoing complex surgery).

Finally, one should try not to negatively post-mortem a performance too much. It has happened, in the moment, and now it is over and one should look forward to the next opportunity to present one’s music in concert. Compliments and generous feedback from audience members, colleagues and friends can make a huge difference to one’s attitude to a performance and help maintain a positive mindset.

So what did I learn from performing at St John’s Smith Square? First, that meticulous preparation is crucial and constantly reminding oneself of this truth is so important. Secondly, that one should never become complacent in the face of this great music; remain humble and do not allow one’s ego to get in the way of the music. Thirdly, accept compliments and comments with courtesy and humility – these are almost always genuine and given generously. Lastly, I have huge respect for professional musicians who perform regularly – because it ain’t easy!

Many of the aspects outlined in this article will come up in the course of my studies at the Royal College of Music as I embark on a two-year MSc in Performance Science. It’s a fascinating subject and I look forward to sharing my discoveries and further thoughts here.

Hiro Takenouchi: Sterndale Bennett & Schumann

bennett-schumann-coverLondon-based Japanese pianist Hiro Takenouchi has a fascination for lesser-known and even unknown repertoire, and this is very much reflected in his latest disc, pairing of piano music by William Sterndale Bennett with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes.

The two composers met and became friends soon after Sterndale Bennett arrived in Leipzig, a friendship which lasted until Schumann’s death in 1856. Schumann championed Sterndale Bennett’s music and the young Englishman repaid this generosity by dedicating his Fantasia Op 16 to Robert Schumann.

The uninitiated could be forgiven for mistaking Sterndale Bennett for Schumann. His Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 13 is romantically expansive, virtuosic, lyrical and emotionally intense, with a narrative thread which Takenouchi carries confidently through the entire work with only occasional moments of repose. It recalls Schumann’s Piano Concerto in its thematic unity and symphonic scope, and Takenouchi handles this with bravura ease and a warm, refined sound.

The Symphonic Etudes (1834), which Schumann dedicated to Sterndale Bennett, are similarly muscular, the opening theme stated with clear intent and authority. The movements which follow are dramatically paced, richly coloured and constantly alert to Schumann’s quirks and emotional volte-faces, from the extrovert to the intimate, and Takenouchi succeeds in managing the piano sound perfectly to achieve this (the recording was made at St John the Evangelist in Oxford which I understand has a superb Steinway D).

The two works and their composers complement one another wonderfully,

Recommended

 

Meet the Artist……Hiro Takenouchi

A new direction – and a call for guest posts

Autumn 2017 brings a significant change of direction for me as I embark on a two-year MSc at the Royal College of Music, studying Performance Science.

The science and psychology of performance has become a growing area of interest for me, developing from when I learnt how to be a performer myself in my late 40s. Numerous conversations and interviews with professional musicians – and specifically concert pianists – and much time spent observing musicians at work in concerts and masterclasses – has fueled my interest in this relatively new area of musical study and I am excited at the opportunity to explore it in more depth. I hope to be able to share my discoveries via this blog, but my academic commitments may also mean that I might not have as much time to devote to the blog…..

So, this is a call for guest posts to help keep the content of this site vibrant and interesting and regularly updated. Suggested topics for guest posts include:

  • Concert, CD reviews
  • Opera reviews
  • Book and DVD reviews (musically-related)
  • Articles on piano technique, repertoire, performing and teaching
  • Musicians’ health and well-being
  • General musings on musical subjects

If you are a blogger yourself, contributing to other blogs is a great way of bringing your writing to a wider audience (and this blog has an average readership of c25,000 per month). I can’t offer any payment, but I can promise your writing will be shared across my social media networks – over 7500 followers in total.

If you would like to contribute a guest post, please use the Contact Page to get in touch initially

I look forward to hearing from you

Notes for guest writers

Suggested word limit – 1000-2000 words

I’m happy to include pictures, video and audio clips and links to other sites.

When you submit your article please include a brief biography and a link to your own website/blog, if relevant

Please note that articles which obviously advertise products or contain embedded marketing links will not be considered 

Meet the Artist……Jason Rebello, pianist

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

Seeing Herbie Hancock perform in 1983

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

Herbie Hancock, Julian Joseph, John Coltrane.

You are performing in the London Piano Festival this October – tell us more about this? 

I’ll be performing material from my latest solo piano album ‘Held’. Also I’ll be playing my versions of music by Paul Mcartney, Sting and Errol Garner

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

Playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Hallé Orchestra and arranging for them too.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

‘Enter the Fire’ – Tim Garland, ‘Make it real’ – me, and ‘Anything but look’ -me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Hard to say, I enjoy many styles of jazz.

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

I go with what feels right to me.

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

Anywhere with a nice piano and a nice sounding room is fine with me.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I like Ivo Neame, Julian Joseph, Gwlym Simcock and Wayne Shorter at the moment…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing at the Albert Hall with Sting.

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

To never forget that music is for enjoyment and communication.

 

For the closing concert of the London Piano Festival, Jason will perform material from Held as well as music from Sting to Errol Garner and beyond. Full details here

 

The pianist’s presence

The “concert pianist” is a relatively recent creation. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a time when the technology of piano manufacture allowed piano makers to build bigger, stronger instruments, the “concert pianist” as we understand the role today, was born. The chief exponents of this were Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, virtuoso pianists who commanded adoring audiences and who played all the best music being written at the time and which had been written before, music which remains a major cornerstone of the classical piano repertoire, still performed today and hugely popular with audiences.  Those who transmit this music to us remain the subject of fascination and great curiosity.

Pianists are special. The position of the piano on stage, stretched out across the width of the stage, parallel to the audience so that the soloist sits side on, instantly marks out the pianist as different. Other instrumentalists and singers face the audience, either as soloists or in ensemble, and thus their connection to the audience is more immediate, through gesture, eye contact and sound. Then there is the sheer size of the instrument – a modern concert grand is around three metres long and weighs several tons. An immoveable black beast, the pianist can feel trapped and limited, while a violinist, for example, can move easily around the stage, leaning out towards the audience as they play. So the pianist must create a sense of being, of connection with the audience – “presence” – in other ways.

In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But presence goes beyond sound, and the pianist’s physical gestures and body language are important too. From the moment the performer enters the stage, we engage with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance.

A performer with “presence” has something to say and is communicating effectively, with focus, commanding the audience’s full attention

Mark Swartzentruber, concert pianist

 

“Presence”, a concept derived from the theatre concerning timing, body language and communication, enables the performer to create an illusion of filling the space on the stage and communicating a very specific aesthetic to the audience. Every piece has its own distinct “atmosphere” or world which the performer must inhabit and invite the audience to discover. Then the performer must navigate that world and sustain the suspension of disbelief to the very end so that the performance becomes an experience lived entirely through the music and the performer’s interpretation of it. Thus, something very special and unique can happen in the sacred space of the concert hall when the performer completely commands the listener’s absolute silence and concentrated involvement. We’ve all been to concerts where something indescribable or intangible takes place: 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 because the experience of the performance has created a special connection (often very personal) between performer and listener, and awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.

…the most inspired performances are always those that are inexplicable from a logical point of view

– Ruth Laredo

All performers should strive for presence in performance. Very few have natural presence; it is an attribute which has to be trained, just as the music itself must be practised and finessed. To communicate effectively and to create presence, performers should be fully present, performing “in the moment”. Such a state of being comes from assiduous practising, musical knowledge, bodily awareness, breathing, managing anxiety, mental focus, ritual and routine. For the audience, this creates an immediacy, and a palpable sense of the music being created spontaneously (in fact, such spontaneity and freedom in performance comes from much intense and meticulous preparation). The audience’s perception of “presence” begins from the moment the pianist crosses the stage, and a performer who is fully present from the outset, one who takes the audience in and makes contact with them, is likely to be able to hold the audience’s attention throughout the performance (audiences can quickly sense if a performer is not fully engaged, bored, anxious, or would rather be anywhere but performing). Presence can also be determined by the audience itself through factors such as reputation and/or age of performer, venue and perceived difficulty of repertoire. Very famous and highly revered pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich or Andras Schiff create a remarkable presence long before they enter the stage and play, such is their exalted status. Others create an artificial or superficial presence through ostentatious or inappropriate repertoire, flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant physical gestures…..

 

A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved

– C P E Bach

This idea remains common amongst students and performers today, but feeling emotion does not necessarily translate into one’s sound, and the performer must be able to convey expression convincingly, regardless of how he or she is feeling at the time. The listener does not have direct access to or knowledge of the performer’s emotions, only what they perceive from the sound; nor can the performer access the composer’s emotions at the time of writing the music, and thus the sound alone has to convey the emotional content of the music. Again, meticulous preparation comes into play here, for deep knowledge of the music allows one to create an emotional narrative which eventually becomes internalised and intuitive. Body language has a role here too, but very few audiences want to see a performer who contrives to “act out” the emotional content of the music through facial grimaces, head/body swaying or other exaggerated gestures.

Concert programmes tend to contain a variety of pieces of differing tempi, character and mood, and the performer must move seamlessly between them, alert to their individual attributes and qualities. Retaining a sense of presence between pieces is crucial: it enables the performer to remain in the moment of the music and hold the audience’s attention and engagement with the music. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue quickly from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.

Occasionally one attends a concert where the performer’s presence seems so modest and yet so powerful, commanding awed silence from the audience. I felt this at Igor Levit’s final Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore Hall. He is not an especially gestural pianist, but his sense of quiet focus and intense concentration is more than tangible, causing audiences to lean in and listen very carefully. I cannot explain how he achieves this, only that I felt it, and at one point during his concert, the hall was as quiet as I have ever heard it. That is a supreme achievement on the part of a performer, to hold the audience in the thrall of the music so convincingly, so deeply. This attribute may be independent of an involvement with the greatness of the music, and may focus entirely on the individual performing, or is a combination of performer and music. Fundamentally, I think such an ability comes from a deep love and respect for the music and a willingness to set aside one’s ego in the service of the music. Loss of ego brings powerful presence and creates an empathic relationship with the audience.