I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.

Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)

From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.

Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.

At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.

Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.

I’ve set my students what I hope will be an interesting and educational task for the forthcoming half-term break: they are going to write their own programme notes for the Summer Concert in July. I’m not expecting exhaustive analytical notes, nor extended composer biographies, but a few facts about the pieces they have chosen to play isn’t a lot to ask, surely?

Whenever I introduce a new piece to a student, whatever genre it is, we spend some time considering what the piece is about, the “story” it is telling, the pictures it paints. I get students to do very basic musical analysis – look for repeating motifs or patterns, identify articulation, dynamic and tempo markings, translate musical terms – and I try to give them some basic contextual information. For example, if learning a piece by Bach or even Mozart, it’s important to remember that neither composer was writing for anything like a modern piano. Or that Schubert was a composer of song. That Bartok was greatly influenced by the folk music of his native Hungary. I admit I was very surprised when the student who came to me for some extra exam tuition from another teacher had not been given any contextual or background information to the pieces she is learning. By asking my students to think a little more closely about the pieces they have chosen to play in the concert, I hope they may gain some new insights about them.

For me, setting the music in the context in which it was created is crucial to understanding the composer’s intentions and is a key to learning how to interpret all the composer’s markings and directions correctly to produce, eventually, a reading that is both musical and accurate. When I embark on a new piece, I do a great deal of background reading, and make extensive notes, both contextual and analytical.

At a professional concert, the best programme notes are often those which give one some historical background to the works, a brief composer biography and an overview of what is going on in the music (i.e. a list of movements or sections). Not everyone needs to know that a piece which opens in A minor may resolve itself in C, though an explanation of a Picardy Third can be enlightening. Facts about how the music came to be, such as the Quartet for the End of Time, which Messiaen composed while a prisoner of war, are interesting, but surmising on whether Chopin’s fondness for ‘miniatures’ suggests he may have been gay, are not. I think some writers of programme notes forget that many concert-goers are not expert musicologists or specialists, and all they require is a list of what they are going to hear with a brief description. At Charles Rosen’s Chopin recital last Sunday, one of my friends expressed a wish for a glossary of musical terms, a translation of all those curious Italian words. I told him that one of my students had recently interpreted Allegro ma non troppo as “fast but not trotting”, and that I always translate Allegro amabile as “smile as you quickly play”!

A number of musicians who I hear regularly like to introduce the music themselves. This serves several purposes: first, it breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues; secondly, it allows the performer to explain the music as he or she sees it, and to offer some personal insights into what makes the music particularly interesting or special, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play the work. At a lunchtime concert I attended last Friday, there were no programme notes, beyond a list of each work’s movements, and biographies of the performers. Instead, the musicians themselves introduced the music (Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor for Piano & Violin, Op. Posth. 137 and Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E Flat Op. 18). I knew very little about the Schubert Sonatina, and even less about the Strauss: both pieces were introduced engagingly, piquing my interest before a single note had been played. A couple of nuggets, such as the witty nod to Schubert’s Erlkönig and Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata in the Strauss sonata, were flagged up in advance of the performance, though there were no prizes for spotting them (as I did)!

When my students come back after half-term with some facts about their pieces, and a brief biography, I will collate all the information into a main programme for the concert (including my own programme notes, of course!). This may be an amateur event, but I feel it is important to do it “properly” to create a sense of occasion for my students, who have, by and large, worked very hard this year. The concert is, as always, a celebration of that hard work, and a chance to share music with family and friends.

Schubert: Sonata (Sonatina) – For Piano And Violin No. 2 In A Minor, Op. Posth. 137, D. 385: I. Allegro Moderato

Strauss, Richard : Violin Sonata in E flat major Op.18 : I Allegro, ma non troppo

[You need Spotify to listen to these tracks. Free to download and use. Spotify.com]

Drawn from yoga exercises, this sequence of warm up exercises for the pianist was devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell.

Start each exercise from a ‘neutral’ stance – i.e. feet hip-distance apart, shoulders down, spine and pelvis in a neutral position, chest lifted and open, chin parallel to the ground – and keep all movements natural and free.

1. The Swing. Swing the arms forward and back, allowing the arms to fall back through their own momentum/gravity. You can be as energetic or gentle as you like. After a few minutes, your hands should start to feel warmer.

2. Empty Sleeves. Imagine you are wearing a coat but without your arms in the sleeves. With your arms hanging by your sides, twist your body slightly from side to side. Your arms should swing freely, following your torso, as you turn—one wrapping around your body in front, the other back, like coat sleeves flapping in the wind.  Keep your shoulders, elbows and wrists relaxed at all times. Increase the movement to extend the swing and start to engage your feet and knees too.

3. The Monkey. Bend forward slightly and let your arms hang loosely in front of you. Swing your arms across your body at hip, chest and shoulder height. Gradually increase the movement, and notice how the opposite foot starts to engage in the move as well. Again, you can make this move as energetic or as gentle as you like.

4. Shoulder Drop. Inhale deeply (“thoracic breathing” – you should feel your chest expand noticeably as you breathe) and as you do, raise your shoulders towards your ears without tensing the neck. Hold the pose for a moment and then exhale, as if you are trying to push all the air from your lungs, while allowing your shoulders to drop down. Repeat five times.

5. Shoulder Roll. Exactly as described. Roll your shoulders forwards and up, then backwards and down, with your breath.

6. Softening the feet and legs. With your feet planted firmly on the floor, start to shift the weight from heel to toe and back again, one foot at a time. Again, gradually increase the movement and walk around the room, making sure each step is carefully planted.

7. Neck Circles. Allow your chin to rest on your chest and slowly rotate the head gently from side to side, ear to ear, in a half-circle move. Repeat a few times, being very gentle as the head comes back to the starting position.

8. Hand stretch. Hold the back of one hand in the palm of your other hand and bend it forward at the wrist. Then bend the wrist back keeping fingers and arms straight.

Balance

As with any physical exercise, work within your limits and stop immediately if you are in pain. These exercises are also very helpful in alleviating the effects of performance anxiety.

Resources:

Yoga for Musicians – DVD by Penelope Roskell with Catherine Nelson

Musicians’ injury – whose responsibility? ABRSM article

The International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine

 

A post on Gretchens Pianos inspired this one!

My grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. I suppose I was always aware of it and probably messed about on his piano, an Edwardian upright, which was on the left as you went into the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) when we went to visit. The piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church….. My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, while my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the ‘gramophone’ (as it was called).

I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5. It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to concert pitch by the tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument. It saw me through to Grade 8, but when I left home, I stopped playing seriously for some years, and when my parents divorced, my father sold the piano because I did not have room for it in my flat.

My first teacher, Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, seemed ancient. She had a grand piano in the front room of her house and during the lesson, her husband would silently bring her a cup of tea, served in a bone china cup and saucer. She always wore mauve or pink, and smelt faintly of lavender. I took my exams at the Birmingham School of Music, one exam a year, a veritable treadmill. When we moved to Hertfordshire, I took lessons with Suzette Murdoch, who taught me to love the intricacies of Bach and the passion and humour of Beethoven. She had an Old English Sheepdog and a spaniel, who would lie across my feet as I sat at her Steinway. My music teacher at school was also very influential. He was endlessly enthusiastic and inspirational, and I often find myself repeating things he said when I am teaching (“pretend you’re a trumpet!”). Twenty-five years since leaving school, I started having lessons again, an experience which I find endlessly absorbing, interesting and fulfilling. The most satisfying part is seeing how quickly I have progressed from post-Grade 8 repertoire to “proper” advanced repertoire – Chopin Etudes, a Ballade, Schubert’s last sonata…. Three years ago, I didn’t think I would be playing Liszt, but now I no longer look at music and think “there’s no way I can play that!”.

My current piano is a Yamaha, purchased four years ago, and chosen for quality and price. Of course, I dream of owning a grand, when space and budget permit, but in the meantime, I play my teacher’s antique Bluthner regularly, and a friend’s Steinway B, which I find as quirky as driving my old Porsche. Last summer, while on holiday in southern Ireland, I had the good fortune to play a rather special Bluthner which lives at Russborough, a beautiful 18th century stately home in County Wicklow. The piano belonged to Sir Alfred Beit, who, with his wife, was a great society host, and a fine amateur pianist. It was wonderful to see Sir Alf’s music in the rack next to the piano: the same Peters edition of Schubert’s Impromptus I had when I was in my teens, and a book of Czerny studies. Next to the Bluthner is an older Steinway, which was played by Paderewski when he visited Russborough.

Russborough, County Wicklow

I am fascinated by the connection pianists, in particular, seem to have to their instruments, and also the stories which illustrious instruments can tell us, in their own way. In a novel (as yet unpublished!) I wrote some years ago, about a young man poised on the cusp of a fantastic career as a concert pianist, before the Great War cruelly intervenes, the various pianos he plays have great significance for him – his teacher’s Broadwood, his mother’s Pleyel, his patron’s grandiose Steinway, a rickety upright in the officers’ mess – and the music he plays on each has very special and symbolic resonances (Beethoven, Scriabin, Debussy, Schubert, Rachmaninov). We grow very attached to our instruments, and we are often very protective of them. Although I teach, and am happy to do so, I do get upset when children treat my piano badly. Luckily, this does not happen that often – and when it does, I am quick to point out that such treatment will not do the instrument any good!

The loneliness of the pianist also interests me. While other musicians, be they soloists, ensembles or orchestras, sit largely facing the audience, the pianist does not, and this immediately changes the dynamic between performer and audience. Some people have suggested that I chose the piano because I am an only child and that I like being on my own. It’s true that I am content in my own company, and am happy to spend hours alone with my piano, but I don’t buy into the only child theory. Discussing this with fellow students on the piano course in April, we all agreed that one of the chief attractions of being a pianist, aside from the vast and wonderful repertoire, is the solitariness of the role.

I used to play the clarinet as well, an instrument which I love to listen to, which allowed me to join an orchestra and wind ensemble. However, I did not choose to learn it (I wanted to play the flute), and I always felt overshadowed by my father, who was a talented amateur clarinettist. Fortunately, I could accompany him on the piano, as I grew more proficient, and one of our favourite pieces was the Brahms E flat Clarinet Sonata. My father is now learning the piano, though he refuses to take any advice whatsoever from me!

When I was at school, I played the harpsichord, often being called upon to play continuo with the chamber orchestra. It was, by turns, a fascinating and frustrating experience, as it is not an easy instrument to master, and the school harpsichord (a modern instrument made from a kit) was beset with problems and regularly disappeared for maintenance.

My piano tuner keeps urging me to visit the Chappell showroom in central London to “try the Bosendorfers”, but, as I said to him, I know if I try one I will want one! And I’d love to play a Fazioli. And when I had a backstage tour of the Wigmore Hall some years ago, it was hard to resist sitting down at the Steinway on the hallowed stage there, and rattling through a drop of Schubert…..

How did you choose your instrument? What’s your story? Please feel free to reply!

My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, is peforming in two concerts at the delightful and intimate small venue Sutton House this month and next.

Sunday 15th May, 7pm

‘An English Summer Evening’ – Fitzwilliam String Quartet with Penelope Roskell

Artists in residence, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and Artistic Director of SHMS, Penelope Roskell, present a programme celebrating the work of those two quintessentially English composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. Both the works being performed were written during war-time and are profound and intense music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – String Quartet No. 2 (‘for Jean on her birthday’)

Sir Edward Elgar – Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84

To reflect the English nature of the concert, there will be Pimms and Punch on sale from 6.30pm and during the interval. The bar will also be open after the concert to allow audience members to enjoy a drink with the performers.

Sunday 19th June, 7pm

‘Reason and Romance’

A solo concert by Penelope Roskell, juxtaposing the reason and intellect of J S Bach with the mercurial romance of Robert Schumann.

J S Bach – Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue

Robert Schumann – ‘Papillons’

J S Bach – French Suite No. 2 in C minor

J S Bach – Partita No. 5 in G

Robert Schumann – Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor

Sparkling wine will be on sale with complimentary strawberries and cream in the courtyard during the interval.

Sutton House, a National Trust House in Hackney, is a really lovely venue. I was very impressed the first time I visited, two year’s ago, both by the quality of the performances, and the commitment and support of the audience.

For more information and online booking go to www.shms.org.uk

Apple tree iPad stand

I’ve recently become the proud, selfish, and somewhat geeky, owner of an iPad. Not, I hasten to add, the iPad 2, which is apparently already hard to come by, just over two weeks since its release by Apple. I decided that the additional cost (c£100) was not worth all the extra bells and whistles: I don’t need a camera and I don’t need all that memory/power, since my primary motivation for purchasing an iPad (apart from the need to add yet another Apple gadget to my toybox) is to use it as a teaching aid.

I have blogged before about the piano teacher’s need to keep abreast of new technology. If we can’t offer it in our studio, we are going to lose students, especially younger students who are turned on by gadgets and gizmos. It is already clear that such gadgetry can be put to good use during teaching: I have a gallery of composer photos in my iPad, a selection of pictures of old pianos, including Beethoven’s and Chopin’s, diagrams of the guts and action of the piano (grand and upright), and a pot-pourri of “oddments”, including an old photograph of Rachmaninov’s huge hands, and a picture of Glenn Gould hunched at the keyboard in his characteristic crouching posture. The iPad, when produced during lessons last week, was met with oohs and aahs of delight: the kids loved it, and I could feel my street-cred rocketing as we scrolled through the pictures together. “Look how small the keyboard is!” Eli exclaimed on seeing a picture of a Clavichord. “Is that really Beethoven’s piano?” Ben asked, with awe.

Add in a powerful iPod capacity, loaded with exam music, ‘Fran’s Easy Guide to Classical Music’, and a selection of other music of interest, plus a score-reading app which plays the music as you read it, or can print it, wirelessly, straight from the iPad, and you’ve got a neat and versatile all-in-one teaching tool.

Today, IMSLP (International Music Score Libary Project/Petrucci Music Library) announced plans to develop an IMSLP app for use on the iPad, selling the idea to users with the catchy, green tag “make music with free public domain scores without chopping down trees”.

A number of score reading apps already exist. I use ForScore, which allows you to upload your own scores in PDF format, or download from IMSLP or Pianostreet.com or other sites which offer PDF downloads. The programme allows editing and annotating so that you can add your own notes and comments to your scores. It also has a link with your iPod so that you can listen to the music as you read it. It’s neat and fairly easy to use, though it can be a little quirky. I am just getting to grips with it. I like the portability of it: I was actually annotating Debussy’s Sarabande while commuting to my ‘other’ job yesterday.

IMSLP’s announcement suggests that traditional scores may eventually become obsolete as musicians opt to load their scores onto their iPads, or similar e-reading devices, and prop them on their music stands, instead of carting around a hefty Henle or Wiener Urtext edition. James Rhodes proved this point during his encore in Cambridge last year, playing a Chopin Prelude from his iPad. I still hold that this is just showboating, crowd-pleasing gimmickry (the fact that he had to pause in his playing to swipe the iPad to turn the page shows that the app is not perfect: if he’d been using a proper score, the music would have filled a two-page spread, thus removing the need for a showy page turn), but it more than demonstrates that it is possible to play from such a device, and I do not think it will be too long before we see string quartets or choral ensembles using iPads during concerts.

(A fermata here while the luddites throw up their hands in horror.)

The huge capacity of the iPad, and its neat, handbag dimensions, means that soon you won’t have to pack your briefcase with heavy Urtext scores. Just load them onto your iPad and off you go. But something’s not quite right: trying to sight-read through Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61 on the score reading app on my iPad the other day made my eyes strain and my head hurt: the smaller-than-A4 format is just not big enough for my cross eyes. It’s fine away from the piano: I can read it comfortably, but I can’t work from it at the keyboard. And I want to be able to scribble notes directly onto the score from the pencil I keep behind my ear. And, if I’m completely honest, I really love that smooth heavy cream paper and dusky blue covers of a Henle edition.

We all got very heated a few years ago when the first e-reader appeared and people lamented the death of the traditional book. But, amid all the hand-wringing and eye-pulling, book sales remain strong and while e-readers are becoming increasingly popular, it is unlikely they will ever replace a book, for various reasons (for example, a book containing many notes, index, bibliography etc is not suited to the e-reader format). I don’t think I will be giving up my Urtext scores just yet – I love all my annotations, my personal markings, hints and reminders, interspersed with notes from my teacher, and I particularly enjoy coming back to a well-marked score after a break from that piece – but I can definitely see the benefits of having scores uploaded to an iPad, and I welcome IMSLP’s initiative to develop an app, thus making their vast and fascinating resource more readily available. How we will react to an entire symphony orchestra all playing from their iPads remains to be seen……

IMSLP’s announcement

ForScore score reading app

iStand for iPad app

iPadPunk – articles on apps for musicians and music production