Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending and performing in a student concert organised by pianist and piano teacher Helen Burford. It’s always interesting to hear the students of another teacher perform, and is a great way of exploring new repertoire and celebrating the pleasures of playing the piano.
Held in the Quaker Friends Meeting House, a simple eighteenth-century building nestled in the heart of Brighton’s famous Lanes, with a medium-sized Yamaha grand piano and a good acoustic, the concert was informal while showcasing some very talented pianists, both children and adults. I was particularly impressed by one young man, Sam, who played one of his own compositions, a minimalist-inspired piece which contained echoes of John Adams’ ‘China Gates’, and the subtly shifting harmonies of Philip Glass. Later, Sam played a piece by Turina (‘Conchita Reve’ – ABRSM Grade 7), which was atmospheric and sensuous. I also enjoyed performances by some of the younger players, including JoJo, who played ‘Island in the Sea’, the waves lapping at the shoreline suggested by glissandi. Saskia’s ‘Gnossienne No. 1’ by Satie was measured and elegant, while Charlotte gave a very committed and convincing performance of Grieg’s Nocturne, Op 54, No. 4.
It is always a pleasure to hear my friend and colleague Helen play, not least because her choice of repertoire is often unusual and unexpected, and always beautifully played. She closed the concert with the contrasting ‘Three Improvisations’ by Chick Corea.
I was honoured to be billed as “special guest performer”, and it was very good to have the opportunity to put some of my Diploma repertoire before a friendly audience. Afterwards, we retired to a wine bar called 10 Green Bottles, which seemed a perfect way to end a really lovely afternoon of piano music.
Helen is performing in the Brighton Festival Fringe on Sunday 5th May in a programme featuring works by Bach, Messiaen, Ginastera and Corea. Further information here
It is a very strong memory of visiting my grandparents and being drawn to this huge thing against the wall, with its ivory teeth, ornate carvings and candlesticks! We didn’t have a piano at home, so every time I visited I sat for ages completely fascinated and oblivious not only to the passage of time but also to the irritation my infantile experimentation must presumably have caused my captive audience. I was completely passionate about the piano from that time onwards!
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
I started formal lessons very late, so I learned everything the hard way – through sheer hard work and determination. I was lucky to have had extremely good teaching every step of the way but because of my age, it all went in consciously. I wish I had been through that unconscious stage that young children experience, when playing the piano is as natural as breathing and you don’t have to think about anything. Because of my enquiring mind, I always asked my teachers a lot of questions. I needed to understand how it all worked. I think I was destined to be a teacher from the start, I really do see it as a vocation rather than a choice.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
I don’t believe there is any such person as the one ideal teacher for everyone. Each teacher I studied with gave me different pieces of the puzzle. My first teacher, Val Dickson, set extremely high standards and instilled in me a sense of musicianship and discipline. Philip Fowke, a consummate pianist, similarly inspired me not only with his playing but by showing me exactly how to practise. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Stephen Savage, my first professor at the RCM back in the mid 70s was an extremely thorough and skilful teacher of piano, and a great inspiration as a musician. He brought vibrancy and energy to each and every lesson. It is hard to overestimate what I gained from my second teacher at the RCM, Peter Wallfisch. He switched on so many lights in my mind, with lessons sprawling over three hours a week. I have written about those amazing years on my blog, so rather than repeat myself I would direct readers to the post: http://practisingthepiano.com/?p=329. Before taking up my Fulbright scholarship in 1982, I took part in Andras Schiff’s classes at Dartington, quite the most magical summer of my life! We think of him as a player of the classics and yet he was teaching Prokoviev sonatas without the need to refer to the score. After the week of classes, Andras invited me to play for him privately from time to time, which was a privilege and a great inspiration. In my first year in the USA, I studied with Ann Schein at the Peabody Institute who gave impeccable and impromptu demonstrations of anything and everything I took to her. As one of Rubinstein’s only students, I inherited some of the maestro’s fingerings for Chopin, and there was much magic in those lessons! During that year, I participated in Leon Fleisher’s weekly classes which had a huge influence on my thinking. I draw on this incredible musician’s wisdom and rich legacy every day. My final teacher, Nina Svetlanova, passed on her amazing tradition, the very best of the modern Russian school – she had studied for many years with Heinrich Neuhaus – and lessons were pure gold. During those years, I also had some marvellous lessons with Julian Martin (a teacher I would recommend to anyone) who now teaches at Juilliard, but the last influence was Peter Feuchtwanger here in London, who presented the diametric opposite of what I consider athletic piano playing. His extraordinary approach put my playing in neutral, and from that place I managed to really take off in different directions.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
I think all of my teachers were important, also the masterclasses I participated in, concerts I attended as well as life experiences that had nothing to do with music.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
It’s hard to single anything out here. It may seem that some teaching experiences are better than others, but I think that’s ultimately an ego thing. I taught talented young pianists at The Purcell School in the early 90s, then tertiary level piano students at the University of Cape Town and then at the RWCMD while giving masterclasses at such institutions as the RAM, last year at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. But a professional piano teacher should be available for anyone who is serious about playing, professional and amateur alike, and should give each student equal attention and respect.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? (if relevant)
The main challenge of teaching adults is respecting their agenda without imposing mine. I once had a student who was a highly influential and successful person in finance, in charge of people as well as vast pension funds. His passion and solace was to retreat from this heady world into middle and late period Beethoven sonatas, his tackling and understanding of which were remarkable. After some time struggling to give him what I considered a detailed lesson and ending up frustrated because he wouldn’t let me, I learned that he simply wanted to play for someone who knew these works intimately, whose ears and opinion he trusted. That, and a few general comments, was enough for him to play better than he would by himself. Even though I knew I could have helped him improve more, this was not what he wanted. I have an elderly student at the moment who has lessons because he wants to keep his brain active. Who is to say this is any less valid a reason to come to me than my university music students? I guess the single biggest difference with an adult is the fear of letting go, of making mistakes, and the fear of being judged. Sitting in a lesson involves trust in the teacher, and I always tell them if they feel judged, it’s their own judgment, not mine!
What do you expect from your students?
That’s a very good question, as it varies from person to person. If I have a youngster doing an exam or a college student doing a degree in music, there has to be an element of discipline and pressure coming from me, so that weekly progress is evident and ongoing. It’s different with an adult with a busy life away from the piano who comes for lessons because they love playing, it’s almost none of my business why they come. In all my teaching, I think my role is to instruct, inspire and motivate rather than assume the role of ogre-taskmaster.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
There’s no denying that grade exams provide a very useful structure for learning as long as they don’t become the be-all-and-end-all. As part of an overall musical education exams are fine, but it pains me to think of kids stuck on the same three pieces and a bunch of scales for a whole year, that this is their experience of music. I love adjudicating festivals, hearing everyone present themselves in front of peers and public. Festivals were extremely positive and constructive elements of my own upbringing, and gave me invaluable performing opportunities. As for competitions, I always say to my own students just because you won something today, it doesn’t mean you’re the best thing since sliced bread, nor does it mean you’ll win something tomorrow. Conversely, if you didn’t win it just means you didn’t play your best on the day, or that particular jury preferred someone else. It shouldn’t knock you back, but unfortunately a negative experience often can.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
The number one priority must surely be the love of music and the appreciation that by playing the repertoire we do we are dealing with some of the most profound or most beautiful artistic products of the human mind. Some obvious things would be teaching them about music, how their pieces are constructed – I like to approach a piece with a composer’s-eye view. Teaching them how to listen, equipping them with a solid, reliable piano technique, how to practise, craftsmanship, a sense of freedom in self expression. .
What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
My teaching is enhanced and enriched by my performing career, there’s no doubt about that. Actually getting up there and doing it means I teach with a different set of skills and priorities, and there’s no substitute for that. There’s a world of difference between being able to play a piece for yourself and presenting it in front of an audience. Performance skills and performance preparation are areas that only a performing musician can really teach.
Graham Fitch maintains an international reputation as a pianist, teacher, adjudicator and writer. Recent activities include a concert tour of Singapore and Australia with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Griffith University in Brisbane, and Melbourne’s Team of Pianists. Graham is a regular writer for Pianist Magazine, and has video tutorials on the magazine’s YouTube channel. He has recently published an ebook based on his popular blog, www.practisingthepiano.com. Graham teaches privately in London, and counts among his students Daniel Grimwood and James Baillieu, with many others active in the profession. In addition to teaching talented youngsters and tertiary level piano students, he is very interested in working with amateur pianists. He is on the staff at this year’s Piano Summer School at Walsall.
This week I attended my very first ‘happening’ at the somewhat unlikely venue of London’s St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the 70th birthday of American-British composer Stephen Montague. A ‘happening’ is generally defined as a spontaneous event where musicians and performers come together, and usually involves audience participation. The friend who joined me at the St John’s event has been to many happenings (at music festivals such as Supernormal) and was able to confirm after the event that it was indeed a “proper” happening. We retired to a greasy spoon caff off Horseferry Road, where, over mugs of steaming, brick-red tea and egg and chips, we discussed the event, which moved into a wider discussion about what makes a concert or performance.
What I loved about the Stephen Montague event was its sense of spontaneity, how it began without fanfare or announcement (no applause for conductor, leader of the orchestra, etc, for there were none), and seemed to evolve over the space of around 50 minutes (in fact, a very clearly defined time-frame). It was as interesting watching the audience’s reaction as it was observing the performers (singers, string players, three pianists and an organist). There was the sense of several things going on at once, working on several layers and in different time frames, and yet at times, the seemingly disparate groups of musicians and performers came together to form a cohesive whole. The seating was arranged randomly; the audience was integral to the performance, and we were invited to wander around the space and actively participate.
Was it a concert? I thought so, because there was most definitely an audience and performers, and music, and these elements must co-exist to create that perfect circle (music-performer-audience) that is a concert.
The formal concert as we know it today, with all its etiquette and particular modes of behaviour – sitting in silence, knowing when to applaud, dressing up etc – did not really come into existence until the nineteenth century. Before that time people enjoyed music in many different settings, and performances were often a sideline or accompaniment to some other event such as a royal audience, religious ceremony, or banquet. In many ways, the Stephen Montague happening harked back to that earlier time, before we all got so het up about how we should behave at concerts. It was a liberating and instructive experience.
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?
My parents tell me that I started to learn music when I was 3 years old, so I had no choice but to become a musician! Apparently, when my parents and I were on holiday in France, one late afternoon we heard one of the “Orchestra in the Park” concerts. I stayed hypnotised for more than an hour and then announced that I wanted to play the violin. Soon after that I began to learn music and started to compose a few years later. I still have a clear memory of wanting to be like Beethoven when I was eight years old!
Who or what were the most important influences on your composing?
I have been inspired by many great composers from the past (including Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and many others) but can say that my greatest influence has been my father, who is an artist. We often discussed all aspects of creation and tried to find parallels between painting and music. Our discussions were immensely pleasing and challenging and I find that these abstract exchanges have helped me being the composer I am now.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The white empty page always has and always will be the greatest challenge of all. Maybe composing would not be such a great passion if it weren’t for the white page!
Which compositions are you most proud of?
I feel proud of having written pieces for many genres including orchestral, vocal, chamber music and solo instruments. But the first time I heard my orchestral piece The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe premiered at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford I felt really proud to have written what I felt was my first symphony. I am very attached, in particular, to the second movement, Peace, which has a natural flow and evokes so many deep human feelings and longings.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
As long as I love the music and the musicians, it can be anywhere!
Favourite pieces to listen to?
It varies. At the moment I am very interested in writing concertos, so I have been listening to the Beethoven Piano Concertos a lot.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are many great musicians I admire and am lucky to work with. During my formative years I spent a considerable amount of my time listening to some special recordings, which included the Menuhin/Furtwangler’s Beethoven Violin Concerto, the Oistrakh/Rostropovich Brahms’ Double Concerto, Rubinstein’s Chopin Ballades and Richter performing Schumann’s Fantasie opus 17. Having heard them so many times I can replay them in my head whenever I want to!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I would have to say that this must be the concert, which made me want to become a musician when I was three years old. It must be lodged somewhere in my subconscious….!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Two ideas that complement each other: work on making yourself more than you are every day of your creative life (in other words, the artistic life is passionate Sisyphean work), and secondly trust your judgement and do not believe anyone else!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently writing a violin concerto for Dmitry Sitkovetsky to be premiered in February 2014.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Blue sky, beautiful music and my wife and daughters with me!
The picturesque town of Hebden Bridge, nestled in the Calder Valley and flanked by the magnificent South Pennine Hills, is host to a new piano festival over the weekend of 19-21 April this year.
Conceived by pianist and teacher David Nelson, who has a plethora of experience of booking music for Hebden Bridge Arts festival, the three-day piano festival offers a fantastic selection of concerts with international performers, including Martin Roscoe, Anthony Goldstone and Jessica Zhu, and featuring music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Messiaen, and Ades. But the programmes are not confined to classical music: jazz pianist Henry Botham offers programmes exploring New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, and works by Harlem Stride masters of the 1920s, such as Fats Waller. There are concerts for children, student performances, Afternoon Tea recitals, and free events, all presented in the newly-refurbished town hall.
This promises to be a fabulous and inspiring weekend of music-making. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Hebden Bridge Piano Festival website. And if you enjoy hill-walking, why not combine it with some piano music for the weekend?
Domenico Scarlatti – Allegro from Sonata # 21/X
Domenico Scarlatti – Allegro from Sonata # 18/XIII
Cesar Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op.22
Frank Martin – Prelude, no. 7
Nazareno Ferruggio, piano
Two sprightly and typically brief sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti open this new CD from Italian pianist Nazareno Ferruggio. Neatly executed by Ferruggio, they provide a pleasantly energetic introduction to the bigger works which form the substance of this recording – Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin.
In his Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Franck was harking back to his Baroque antecedents, specifically J S Bach. The work is profound, earnest and searching, and – like Bach at his most intense and spiritual – is simple in its intent, eschewing theatrical tricks and pretension to emphasise its universal messages of doubt and faith, darkness and light, and a final ecstatic resolution through the ingenious counterpoint of the fugue and joyous peals of bells at the end.
Ferruggio’s performance is sensitive to the structure, scope and seriousness of this music, and the darkly textured and dramatic Prelude is an essay in restrained emotion. He finds more freedom of expression in the great harped Chorale, whose gently rolled chords (which require the left hand to reach over into the treble to sound the theme), heard at first as if from a distance, grow in richness and depth. The Fugue, while displaying all the traditional features of a fugue, goes beyond the strictly academic to become a grand psychological statement of faith and hope. Ferruggio offers an imposing and powerful culmination, highlighting the polyphony and recalling the earlier motifs from the Prelude and Chorale.
The same intensity is evident in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (the theme being Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op 28, no. 20), a set of 22 variations which is often overshadowed by the more well-known and frequently performed sets of variations on themes by Corelli and Paganini. The variations develop in complexity and length, with a wide variety of moods and pianistic invention. Ferruggio is adept at handling the rapid shifts in mood and technique, and as in the Franck, his sensitivity to the structure and his ability to hold the music just in check lends added dramatic effect. Delicate lyricism is contrasted with filigree textures and rich chordal passages. Like the Franck, this work is played with commitment and insight.
The title of the CD, ‘Themes & Variations’, is carried through to the concluding work, a Prelude by Swiss composer Frank Martin, which, in a controlled and thoughtful performance, recalls the sweeping dramatic statements, dark intensity, and bell-like climaxes of the Franck.
The CD includes brief programme notes and biography of the artist in Italian, with a slightly uncertain English translation.
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