The 2020/21 concert season has been difficult for all of us, from the largest venues and orchestras to small, local festivals, music clubs and concert series like the Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Series (WLCC), which I co-organise with pianist Duncan Honeybourne.

Because of the coronavirus restrictions, we managed only three concerts in 2020 – one in February, before the first lockdown, and just two further concerts in October and December. Our autumn concerts were presented in accordance with government Covid guidance, which meant we could only admit a limited number of audience members (it goes without saying that the financial implications of reduced audience numbers are stark). But, like so many other musicians, promoters, venues and cultural organisations, WLCC adapted to the “new normal”: we have initiated an online and telephone booking system, and present two shorter recitals to allow as many people as possible within the current restrictions to attend. Our audience have adapted too, returning to our live concerts with enthusiasm, albeit in smaller numbers.

After five months of silence in 2021, our series resumed in June with a lovely performance by Duncan Honeybourne of piano sonatas by Schubert and Beethoven. It was a double celebration – the resumption of live classical music in Weymouth and also WLCC’s 200th concert (watch the livestream here).

On 7th July, pianist James Lisney closed our 2020/21 season with a generous, poetic performance of Schubert’s D935 Impromptus and selected Liszt transcriptions of Schubert’s Schwanengesang.

***

Schubert composed two sets of Impromptus, written late in 1827, the year before he died, and he numbered the D935 set 5, 6, 7 and 8, suggesting he intended them as a continuation of the D899 set.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial suite of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the f minor Impromptu, the first of D935, whose tone moves between quasi Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section to a contrasting, almost dream-like fragmented duet in the central sections. It is these sections which really tear at the heartstrings, yet James Lisney was careful to avoid too much introspection or sentimentality through sparing use of the sustain pedal, lively rhythms and tasteful rubato.

By contrast, the second Impromptu is serene and good-natured, its opening section reminiscent of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12, which is also scored in A-flat major. A middle section of burbling triplets moves from warmth to regret with the introduction of the minor key and thence to resignation before the opening theme returns. A more lively tempo and bass highlights emphasised the waltz rhythms of this Impromptu.

The third, in B-flat, is the most famous of the set. A set of variations, its theme resembling the incidental music Schubert wrote for the ballet Rosamunde, this Impromptu is graceful and mercurial, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and James brought an appealing sense of warmth and wit to the music, especially in the later variations where the textures grow increasingly florid, though never dense.

The final Impromptu of the set is a wild, stomping Hungarian dance, with brilliant passagework, rapid scales and arpeggios, trills, off-beat accents, and cross modulations which take the music to unexpected places, thus creating vibrant shifts in mood and tone. The piece ends with a rapid plunge down the piano, in a scale “which tells you when to clap” (James Lisney). It was lively and boisterous, with supple tempi and improvisatory flourishes.

James Lisney has a long-standing affinity with the music of Franz Schubert, and it shows in his naturally flexible tempi, lyrical treatment of melody and songlines, an appreciation of the essential drama and introspection in Schubert’s music, and an acknowledgement that the interpretation of this music is not settled, that it is in a state of flux. He brings clarity to this music through a thorough appreciation of Schubert’s phrasing and architecture, but also finds the essential “soul” of this music through an eloquent sensitivity to the tiniest details of the score, often revealing inner voices or unexpectedly piquant harmonies.

Liszt’s great skill as an arranger, and his sensitivity to the originals, is very evident in his beautiful transcriptions of Schubert’s songs, but this is also very much his own work in the way he changes the piano texture to provide a personal commentary on the original song text and the music. Liszt sometimes takes Schubert very literally, at other times he adds flourishes and embellishments, but he always retains the essential melodic structure of the song. These three love songs were contrasting, tender and intimate – appropriately, given the small size of the audience – and we might have been in Liszt’s salon, such was the intensity of feeling, closeness and poetry portrayed in these miniatures.

This was an extremely special close to the WLCC 2020/21 season, and a fitting prelude to the new season, which will celebrate the piano – as both a solo and a chamber instrument. The season launches on 15th September with a recital by Penelope Roskell, which will include Schubert’s final piano sonata. All being well, there will be no restrictions on audience numbers and we will revert to our usual practice of a single recital of 60 minutes at 1pm.

Watch the livestream of James Lisney’s recital here


Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts were founded in 2002 by pianist Duncan Honeybourne. Concerts take place once a month on a Wednesday at St Mary’s Church, Weymouth. Visit the WLCC website for full details and to join the mailing list.

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Musicians, especially young musicians, are bombarded with advice over the course of their career, especially in those early, fledgling years. Most advice will come from teachers, but also from peers, colleagues, friends, promoters, agents and critics. Knowing how to take and react to advice is an important part of the musician’s skillset, and the ability to sift through advice and take it on board or reject it is an art in itself. The way such advice is given also has an impact on how one values it.

Young and amateur musicians in particular may find it hard to strike a balance between taking advice which will be useful to them and rejecting that which is not. In part, this is due to confidence: if your teacher suggests playing a passage in a certain way, or taking a particular interpretative stance on a piece of music, you may feel obliged to bow to what you perceive to be their greater wisdom, and blindly accept what they are telling you. I encounter this attitude quite frequently amongst amateur pianists in particular. Some years ago at a piano course which attracts highly regarded professional pianists and teachers from around the world, not just the UK, I chatted to a student who had participated in masterclasses with a number of internationally-renowned pianist-teachers. “I’ve got five different ways to play the end of this Schubert sonata”, he said to me over tea, “and now I don’t know which version is the right one!”. Such confusion suggests, to me at least, a student who is either not very confident about their own interpretative choices or who believes that because such-and-such Famous Pianist told him to play the passage in a particular way, it must be the ‘right way’.

As we grow more confident as musicians – whether amateur, student or professional – we learn how to filter and question advice to suit our needs, and also to appreciate the importance of reflecting on that advice, because its usefulness may not be immediately apparent. It is not necessary to blindly accept everything that a teacher, or teachers, tell us. Instead, we need to be selective about the advice we are given and ensure that it is the right advice for us. A good teacher or mentor will understand this too and make suggestions, rather than didactically “telling” the student how to play the music. One of the most useful aspects of attending masterclasses and courses, where one will meet and play for other teachers, is that one is exposed to a broader range of expertise and viewpoints, which can fuel one’s ideas on how to approach the music, from a technical and artistic point of view.

The way advice is given also has an impact on how it is received. I have been lucky in my experiences with both my regular teachers and those I have encountered on courses and in masterclasses that their advice has always been given in a positive and supportive way. This makes one far more receptive to the advice, and suggests a degree of respect between teacher and student.

Sadly, now and then one will be given advice which may be well-meaning but is delivered in such a way that one feels discouraged or demoralised, or the advice is just given at the wrong time; many musicians are at their most sensitive in the moments immediately after a performance. Some years ago, I played a late work by Mozart at a concert at the end of a piano course, and during the post-concert reception, another of my teacher’s adult students told me in no uncertain terms that the ornaments were “all wrong”. This statement was made without any context nor suggestion as to how I might have played the ornaments “correctly”. I was so astonished, and hurt, that I couldn’t reply and despite receiving praise from my teacher, and very positive comments from other students on the course and audience members, this comment stung for some time afterwards and affected my attitude to the music I’d played. It proves that advice should be given discreetly and with care.

One of the rules of the piano club, which I co-founded in 2013, is that comments are kept positive and supportive. The club includes some players who are less advanced than others, and they can be particularly sensitive to negative feedback, which may affect their attitude to their practising and dent their confidence.

The teacher with whom I studied for six years, after returning to the piano seriously after a long absence, was adept at giving feedback and advice which was practical and supportive. Even when highlighting an error or weakness, she could frame her comments in such a way that one did not feel discouraged, and her skill in imparting advice clearly and articulately was a mark of her experience as a teacher and respected pedagogue.

“Best are those times when, as you listen to suggestions, you feel as if you’ve always known them to be true, somehow – but now you’re hearing them from another voice. There will always be degrees, shades; one can accept certain ideas from one musician, reject others. The only rule, perhaps, is that one should constantly remain alert, constantly ask oneself: ‘Is that true for me? For the music as I feel it inside?’”

– Steven Isserlis, cellist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My parents foremost – there was music around the house at all times, and my mother had a beautiful voice and sang often with my father accompanying. Then my first teacher, from age 5, Barbara Boissard. Then Kathleen Long, a natural pianist and musician with a beautiful sound. I stayed with her until I was 12 when I went to study at the Paris Conservatoire for 6 years. By then my mind was firmly made up – but these people were good early influences who would have helped my resolve to be a musician grow. 

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

In my younger years, there was an injury or two which involved some important last minute cancellations, which I hated being obliged to do. You have to keep faith that you will heal completely, which of course I did. However emerging from the pandemic is really challenging – planning impossible and great flexibility needed, as well as zen-like qualities. 

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud? 

It depends on which period of my life. The Philips recordings of Lieder with Wolfgang Holzmair were very special for me. As were the Schubert Live recordings from South Bank Centre a little over a decade ago. They were tough days, the rehearsal was recorded, as was the concert, with a patch session until late into the night. Each was a real marathon. 

But my set of recordings for Chandos have been, still are, a wonderful journey – all done at the amazing Snape Maltings with an excellent team. I have a particular fondness for the Liszt/Wagner recording, as well as for the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and “Iberia y Francia” , a lovely mix of French and Spanish masterpieces, large and small. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best? 

It’s not really for me to say. I don’t take up any work if I am not 150% convinced by it, and feel that I have something really personal to express through a piece. I guess that Schubert and Schumann are particularly close to me. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage? 

Get away from music! Read, be in the great outdoors, preferably walking..

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

Dominated either by practicalities (recordings, requests from promoters, festival themes) or, simply by a movement of the heart that impels me to such and such a composer..

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

There are so many. The Wigmore Hall is particularly dear to me as to so many of us – but also Spivey Hall near Atlanta GA in the US, Severance Hall in Cleveland, the Recital Hall in Melbourne, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam…I hate to leave any out, but am obliged to!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I would like to think that the amount of filming of concerts on the web during the pandemic, and their easy availability, might entice new audience members when venues open up more. If only newly interested viewers could realise what an even richer experience it is sitting in a hall sharing an amazing musical experience with others – the synergy between platform and audience…There is honestly nothing like it.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One was certainly the first time I played the last three Schubert Sonatas together in one concert, a marathon if ever there was one. It was in the hall at Westminster School, on a freezing cold night – a packed audience sat huddled up in their coats and listening so attentively. It was a two hours-and-ten concert, and I was like a rag doll at the end, but proud to have stayed the course..

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

When I see that the music for which I have been a vessel has really reached the depths of people’s hearts and souls and that they are the better, or the wiser, for it. It is like speaking a message that has been clearly heard. If music-making is not about that, then for me it is not about anything. This has nothing to do with commercial success which is another story. 

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

Be humble about your ambition, whilst keeping your vision and goals clear. Be patient. And work work work – it is never enough. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years? 

Alive!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Walking in the Italian countryside in spring, with the prospect of a simple meal with friends at the end of the day. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My house and garden.

What is your present state of mind? 

Sane, mostly. 

Imogen Cooper performs at this year’s Petworth Festival on 24 July, playing music by Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. More information/tickets


Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism. Recent and future concerto performances include the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Sydney Symphony with Simone Young and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ryan Wigglesworth.

Read more

(Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke/Askonas Holt)

Pianist Haley Myles introduces her new album of the complete Nocturnes of Fryderyk Chopin


Chopin – and more specifically his Nocturnes – is the reason why I decided to become a classical pianist professionally.

I was fifteen when I first heard Yundi Li playing Op. 9 No. 1 (in B-flat minor). Upon listening, I had the feeling ‘this is what it means to fall in love’. Even though I couldn’t play a scale, I was determined to pursue classical piano, and here I am today.

As all of my concerts in 2020 were postponed, I decided to focus on expanding my repertoire. I delved deeply into concerti and explored musical languages that I wasn’t as familiar with, including works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Ligeti, and others.

Perhaps after widening my musical language, I felt a pull to return to the reason why I began playing the piano. When I first began the Chopin Nocturne Project in February, I was determined to post a full-length video of a nocturne each Friday. After about eight weeks, I was inspired to record these nocturnes professionally and include them on an album. With the help of generous donations from my followers and supporters, I was able to record and produce this album. On the 5th of May, I was at the piano for ten hours while I recorded the complete set. With the exception of a trill and a chord, I recorded everything in one day, and after two days of editing, this album is the result. This is the first album that I recorded at home on my Steinway M and produced myself.

Op. 48 No. 1 (from Chopin Nocturne Project):

On my album, I decided to include the two posthumous nocturnes which aren’t often heard in other sets of Chopin Nocturnes. These posthumous works have a charm of their own and I strongly feel that they deserve to be heard.

Music has a special ability to connect and heal. Chopin’s music, even in its most despondent moments, always maintains elements of hope and pride. I think this is a message that we all need to feel, especially after such a difficult time as this pandemic. It is my motivation and hope that, through my interpretations, I can give my listeners a moment of peace.



Selected reviews:

All I could do was sit in wonder at her musical insights and truthfulness, as though a veil had been lifted between player and listener. Haley goes between and behind the notes to discover the essence of their original interpretation, with countless subtle musical intakes of breath, as if she was discovering the music’s special qualities for the first time. – Julian Haylock (former editor of International Piano)

I really admire the intensity and full-bodiedness of Haley’s playing and her sense of timing. – Jed Distler (pianist, writer, composer, and WWFM host):


About the album:

Inspired by the intimate salon aesthetic prevalent in Chopin’s time, Haley recorded and produced the album on her Steinway and Sons M at her home in Lyon, France.

‘The Complete Nocturnes’ is a natural extension of her Chopin Nocturne Project, where Haley undertook the challenge of recording and releasing a new nocturne each Friday from February until June 2021 until completing the set. As a result of delving deeply into these works, Haley recorded the album in three days.

Interpreting each nocturne as a story, Haley invites her listeners on an inward journey. Her natural sense of rubato, attention to nuances, and extended phrasing create heartfelt interpretations from beginning to end.

The Complete Nocturnes is released on 2nd July 2021


Haley Myles’ website

Haley Myles on Spotify

Meet the Artist interview with Haley Myles


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Ensemble La Notte announce the release of their second recording, La Folia, a selection of baroque repertoire on the themes of chaos, madness and the bizarre.

Released to coincide with the anniversary of Telemann’s death, and at a time when the world is still grappling with the chaos of a global pandemic, La Folia is particularly appropriate for our curious times.


From the liner notes:

Nowadays, we often associate the characteristics of Baroque music with order, but before the 17th century, the word “baroque” was used to describe art, architecture and music that was irregular, extravagant and ornate. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne associated the term ‘baroco’ with that which was ‘bizarre, and uselessly complicated’ – and this is how baroque music must have sounded to those used to the Renaissance style.

Many of the descriptive titles in this programme suggest these ideas of madness and chaos, and were often used to show a deliberate contrast to music that was more orderly. This CD is a celebration of this baroque idea of the bizarre, the chaotic and the mad, explored over a vast range of styles, nationalities and musical forms.


Launch video:

Track list:

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 – 1747) arr. M.Wilson – ‘Le Chaos’, from Les Élémens & ‘Les Caractères de la Danse’

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Trio Sonata Op.2 no.5 in g minor, HWV 390a

Nicola Matteis (c.1670 – c.1720) – ‘Diverse bizzarie Sopra la Vecchia Sarabanda ò pur Ciaccona’

Nicholas L’Estrange (1603 – 1655) – Collected antimasque music: ‘The Furies’ and ‘The Apes Dance at the Temple’

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767) – Trio Sonata in d minor, TWV 42:d10

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) – ‘Dance for the Green Men’ Act 3 from ‘The Fairy Queen’, Z 629

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764) – ‘Les Sauvages’ from Les Indes Galantes

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) – Trio Sonata in d minor Op 1 no. 12 ‘La Folia’, RV 63

 

Performers:

Kate Allsop – Recorders

Maxim Del Mar – Violin

Mark Wilson – Bassoon

Mary Walton – Cello

Jonatan Bougt – Theorbo

Callum Anderson – Harpsichord

Recorded at St Francis of Assisi Church, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK, 5 – 10 April 2021


For further press information, review copies and interviews, please contact Frances Wilson 

Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will the author learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert….?

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

***

To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.