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

I started playing the violin in the US public school system in the 4th grade but it wasn’t until my studies at the Eastman School of Music that I discovered the viola.  I was first violinist in a student string quartet taking part in the Cleveland Quartet Seminar. The violist of our group said she needed to end the rehearsal early so I asked her if I could try her viola and I would bring it back to the dorms later.  It was a lovely old Hill viola, not too big. The instant I pulled an open string sound on the viola tears immediately started pouring out of my eyes. It was as if I had finally found my voice. It was such a visceral reaction; not only did I fall instantly in love with the colors of the instrument but physically my whole body relaxed. While I continued to finished my degree in violin I also began studying with the great violist of the Cleveland Quartet, Martha Katz and then stayed for a Masters degree in viola and studied with the great modern music expert John Graham

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

I think “important influences” are like tree branches resting along the side of a river. You float down the river following your path and then you hold on to a branch and soak all the experiences in.  For me it is the accumulation of tree branches that have help to guide me. Some have been teachers and mentors. My parents also helped me in non-musical ways. While they were not musicians, they were very supportive of my musical interests.

My seemingly non-linear life journey began with orchestra jobs and then successful auditions for two professional string quartets. Chamber music has been a huge influenceon my development as an artist as the skill you must develop include listening to your colleagues, keeping an open mind, taking risks and really immersing oneself in the process of learning music. But it was my first big solo engagement that really lit the inner fire of artistic purpose that has carried me to this day.  Premiering a fantastic concerto by the great Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin with the New Jersey Symphony was the beginning of my solo career and now, almost 10 years later I have been fortunate to have had over 40 viola concertos written for me and 18 CD recordings.

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

I have always been a very optimistic person so I don’t really think of “challenges” or setbacks. Every goal I have set for myself I have achieved in some form or another. Orchestra, quartet, trios, university teaching positions, soloist, recording artist…. I’m very happy to do what I do.  I tell my students that “the journey IS the destination” and to try not to be too “goal oriented.“ Perhaps that is my biggest challenge: not to be impatient. Time management can be a challenge as well sometimes. As a “self-managed” artist, I design my own website, manage my YouTube channel, social network platforms, reach out to conductors and basically manage every facet of my career. This takes a lot of time. I have learned a lot of skills along the way that you don’t always learn at school and I try to pass these on to my students and in public masterclasses and lectures where I try to encourage other artists to be “artist leaders.”

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’ve now performed with over 70 orchestras worldwide so I couldn’t possibly choose my favourite performance. Certain performances stand out for me such as my debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony where I performed Brandenburg 6, Hindemith’s Trauermusick and Amanda  Harberg’s concerto in one evening. I have a very vivid and fun memory of performing with the State Orchestra of Merida, Venezuela. My dear friend Fran di Polo, President of la Sistema in Caracas, taught me a “joropo” to perform as a “bis” (encore) at the conclusion of my concerto performance. I motioned for the principal bassoonist, who just happened to also play the charango, and we performed an exciting jorpop for the audience and they loved it.  That is one of the things about performing world wide that I love most. The chance to meet people, make new friends, learn about different cultures, their food, the folksongs and dances.  Music really does connect us and learning so many musical styles has been a great gift for me. Every opportunity to perform is a unique experience and chance to communicate with the audience in a very personal way. As an artist I am constantly trying to find the balance between being as perfect as I can with being musically communicative. When a performance takes you to that special place where you are truly at one with the music, the orchestra and the audience then it is hard to beat that special feeling.

As to my favourite recordings, I’m very proud of the last several I have done including a concerto album of three works for viola and orchestra by the American composers Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert for Naxos. Three more CDs are due to be released in the coming season: one with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Heredia of Costa Rica, as well as one with the Philadelphia Camerata  performing the concerto of Stan Grill and also a CD with the Southern Cross Philharmonia in Melbourne.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Because I do so many world premieres I have the reputation for being a “modern specialist.” The funny thing is that ,when you get right down to it, I feel the viola is essentially a “vocal instrument” and so I really feel great warmth from performing the romantic and classical repertoire. The great English concertos of Bowen, Forsyth and Walton are some of my favourites.  Of the new works written for me I really enjoyed performing Andrew Rudin’s concerto. Also Richard Danliepours’ viola concerto is incredible and we had a lot of fun working on it together. I think because I love exciting music with strong rhythm and soaring melodies, many composers today enjoy writing for me and I’m very happy to see other violists performing these pieces now. Because of my violin background and the basic technique and breadth of repertoire the violin provides, I enjoy challenging works for the viola, but ultimately it’s the “human song” that creates the most allure for me.

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

Very often repertoire decisions are made for you. Unlike many violin soloists who will play 3-5 concerti up to  10-20 times each  a season, I will often play 7 or 8 different concerti only once or maybe twice a season.   While this creates a real sense of excitement and freshness it is also very challenging to keep all of the notes in my hands.  For instance the first half of the 2019 season I will perform the Stamitx concerto in Cape Cod, the Hindemith der Schwanendreher in Los Angeles, but also give the second perform of the season of the Forsyth concerto and also give world premieres in Melbourne, Colombia, and New Jersey as well as record two new concerto CDs; one in Australia and one in Philadelphia.

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

For me, the venue is defined by the energy of the audience. A smaller hall creates a more intimate connection to the listener.  Music needs two elements: a person playing the music and someone to listen to it. If the listener is absent, then its called “practicing.”

Last season on a month long tour of China I performed in several acoustically amazing halls but just last weekend I gave a special holiday house concert in my hometown for 20 friends and that was just as thrilling.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Good one. I think because my goal as a violist is to sound like a vocalist, it’s no surprise that a lot of playlists on my iPhone are of choral works.  The saying goes,”Mjusic begins where words end,” so to hear music “with “ words is almost like the first form of multi media performance. Jesse Norman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs, the English a capella group Voces 8 singing Ola Gjeilo’s  “Ubi Caritas”; these works really have meaning for me.  Most of my instrumental heroes are violinists like Oistrakh, Milstein, Heifetz, and Ehnes. But I also love jazz, the American Songbook and any musical style and artist that resonates with me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think it is the totality of my “experience” that I look back on with joy and gratitude. My first time performing in Kiev, performing in the Cathedral in Quito with the National Symphony of Ecuador, my Kimmel Center debut premiering Andrew Rudin’s concerto to name a few.  For me, it’s like choosing my favourite piece of music. I’m too close to it…I just love doing what I do and I look forward to doing much more!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I feel success is not measured by achievement. If you reached your goal, then you set the bar way too low!  For me, the definition of success if doing what you love. I of course am constantly trying to improve my craft and I am constantly working on my career but at the end of the day, if you love what you do then you ARE a success.

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

You are what you think. If you have the courage to say to yourself what you really want to do, then do it!  If I can do it, you definitely can!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be doing what I do now. I also really enjoy teaching. As the viola professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College I get to share ideas with my students. We work on our craft but also discuss music careers, address how to be an effective teacher and motivator.  For me its all about sharing the journey, not only with audiences but with the younger artists searching for their voice.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

When you wake up and you feel so incredibly lucky to be doing what you do, that although you are eager to do whatever it takes to keep reaching higher, you feel content making a positive difference. That’s happiness.

What is your most treasured possession?

My family.

Born in San Francisco in 1968, Brett Deubner began his studies at the Eastman School of Music in New York where he quickly made a name for himself as a violinist and violist performing as soloist with the Eastman Philharmonia as well as leading the orchestra in Heidelberg at the Schloss Speile Festival.  While at Eastman, his principal teachers were Zvi Zeitlin on violin and Martha Katz and John Graham on viola.

Since the world premiere performance and subsequent critical acclaim of Lalo Schifrin’s Triple Concerto with the Grammy award-winning New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, he has gone on to perform world wide as soloist with over 70 orchestras in 11 countries on 5 continents to unanimous approval for “the warmth and sparkling” quality of his playing.  (Doblinger Press, Vienna)

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Brett Deubner, one of this generation’s most accomplished violists, has inspired worldwide critical acclaim for his powerful intensity and sumptuous tone.  The New Jersey Star Ledger commented,”Deubner played with dynamic virtuosity hitting the center of every note no matter how many there were” and the Stradmagazine noted his playing for his “infectious capriciousness.” 

Recent performances include concerto appearances with over 50 orchestras on 4 continents. Deubner has garnered critical acclaim from solo appearances with such American orchestras as the Grand Rapids Symphony, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Knoxville Symphony, Missoula Symphony, Peninsula Symphony and acclaimed solo debuts in South American orchestras from Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina. Recent concerto appearances in Europe include well received performances with Orchestre Bel’Arte of Paris, the Thuringer Symphoniker of Saalfeld, Germany and the Kiev Kamerata of Ukraine. Brett Deubner is featured in Wikipedia for his viola transcription and recordings of the 2 viola concerti of Frank Lewin with the New Symphony Orchestra of Sofia, Bulgaria. 

91pevtndzelGuest post by Mark Tanner

I wonder how often we pause to consider the importance music plays in our everyday lives. What would we miss most about music if it were no longer there? It’s not just non-musicians who run the risk of taking music for granted – exponents of music, and professional players perhaps especially, all run the risk of treating music as a commodity or utility. When beauty surrounds us from every conceivable angle it’s hardly surprising we sometimes feel bombarded and unwittingly skip past the enormous creative resources that went into producing it. Some would say our wonderment of music is slowly being eroded by a casual acceptance, or even a sense of entitlement.

Mindfulness in Music is both informative and thought-provoking – a fascinating read on many levels

Julian Lloyd Webber

The burden of choice we all feel as we reach for our smart devices is the unintended consequence of easy accessibility, for we now can consume (I hate that word) virtually anything we could want to listen to, simply by prodding at our screens and waiting for a reaction. Instead of tripping over new music randomly, as many of us used to delight in doing, we now have music (also movies, books, adverts, TV programmes) funnelled unashamedly across our sight-lines by businesses which have a vested interest in holding our attention. Our media providers claim to know more about what we want to listen to, or indeed watch, read or eat, than we would ever dare to reveal about ourselves, so that our musical intelligence runs the real risk of becoming diluted by artificial intelligence.

Mark Tanner has written a mindfulness manifesto for music

Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’

My feeling is that this rather pessimistic view is not irreversible, nor is it compelled to worsen in time to come. But for music to play an even more valuable role in our lives we could do with a little help in recognising its restorative value, its ability to lift us and mollify us. We could also benefit from a few ideas which connect the joy of self-discovery with the pleasure music itself can give us, and, at the same time, how to question the assumption that music is there to be functional. This is why I wrote Mindfulness in Music – I wanted to encourage us to prise open the shell a little and see what was inside. The secret to gaining pleasure from music is of course subtly different for each of us, no matter what advertising algorithms supposedly reveal to commercial enterprises about our listening habits. We already have all we need to return music to a more sensual, personal place in our hearts, and the book offers the reader 20 access points, or activities, each of which are designed to defeat indifference and awaken the thrill of musical rediscovery.

Peppered with intriguing exercises and motivational quotes

BBC Music Magazine

In each chapter I’m proposing new or subtly different viewpoints on music, and at times provoke questions about musical meaning, what the relationship might be between sound and colour, or how natural sounds intertwine with music in ways we may not have considered, for example biomusic or the sounds a forest makes as it shivers in the morning rain. I raise the question of nostalgia in music, music and movement, how self-compassion can link with a more sincere compassion for our world, whether music resembles a language, and the ways by which musicians of all persuasions attempt to reveal something of themselves in the music they make. The idea that music is potentially a form of practical meditation also intrigues me, in much the same way as people make bread, knit, draw or surf.

An inspirational delight from cover to cover…The must read book of the season

Pianodao, Andrew Eales

My aspiration is that there will be something of interest for musicians and listeners alike. Listening, after all, is about active interpretation and participation, just as it is for the performing musician, composer or conductor. Many of my suggestions have the potential to unleash ideas latent in the accomplished performer too, and later in the book I dare to tackle the thorny issues of musical talent and tone-deafness, as well as offer ideas about investing in our musical communities, re-engaging with a musical instrument, joining a local choir or using one’s energy and passion for music to help others.

Mark Tanner is a concert pianist, composer, B.I.F.F. adjudicator, teacher and writer.

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Guest post by A Music Lover

Music is one of humankind’s greatest creations but there still plenty of ways to be a real bore about it.

The obscure music bore

You enjoy craft gin and absinthe (though not necessarily together) to the sounds of Penderecki. You eat in restaurants which serve foraged food.

The period instruments bore

You can’t get enough of Vivaldi played on “authentic” gut strings, love Baroque tuning, and have a thing for the Theorbo. You believe Bach’s keyboard music should only ever be played on the harpsichord or organ.

The radio station bore

You’ve been listening to BBC Radio 3 since you were in utero (your mother believed in the ‘Mozart Effect’). You lament the decline in quality of this station and long for a return to the days of Patricia Hewitt’s hushed reverential tones. You refuse to associate with anyone who listens to Classic FM, André Rieu and Ludovico Einaudi.

The applause bore

You despise applause between movements, deeming it boorish and ignorant and the behaviour of someone who listens to the “wrong” radio station (see above). You are quick to angrily “shush” anyone who dares make a sound or move during the performance and you have been known to order the person seated behind you to remove their watch because the tick of it was a distraction during the slow movement. You are not averse, however, to loud “bravo-ing” immediately the final note has sounded, provided you are the one shouting “Bravo!” the loudest.

The green room bore

You love meeting artists after the performance and always rush to the green room to be at the head of the queue, ready to monopolise the tired musician’s time while others behind you wait patiently in line. You have been known to inform an internationally-renowned concert pianist that his ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ was the fastest you’ve ever heard it played, by 4 minutes and 33 seconds. You like to say things like “Of course you can’t beat Arrau in Beethoven!“.

The vinyl/HiFi bore

You enjoy the technical details of music more than the actual sounds and get pant-wettingly excited about the “authentic” crackle and hiss of an old 78.

The sexy musicians bore

You love those publicity shots of female musicians suggestively (to you) hugging a cello or showing a nice bit of leg under a pelmet-length skirt at a concert. You have been known to describe a leading female concert pianist as “Melons” and enjoy nicknames such as “Trumpet Crumpet” or “flute cutie”.

The “modern music is terrible” bore

For you all music stopped being good after 1750.


Trio Anima are Rosalind Ventris (viola), Anneke Hodnett (harp) and Matthew Featherstone (flute)

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Rosie: Some of my earliest memories are of my mum, a keen amateur musician, having piano lessons at home and her friends coming round to play chamber music. I was really lucky to grow up in this environment where enjoying music at home with friends just seemed the thing to do and I had really amazingly supportive parents. My father absolutely loved listening to music so both of them were really passionate about classical music, and it was always in the house.

Originally I wanted to play the harp, but I am forever grateful that my parents said they weren’t lugging a harp around after me! Now I get to listen to Anneke playing all the time which is the ideal situation for a one-time wannabe harpist! I started playing the violin when I was seven and was inspired to take up the viola from going to the late John White’s Viola Days in Harlow, Essex, not far from where I grew up. I was a proper little viola nerd! Listening to Lionel Tertis’s recordings had a huge influence on me too – as they still do to-day.

Matthew: One of my dad’s friends was a flautist and after one of his concert I attended when I was 5 years old, I said to my parents that I wanted to play the flute. My parents struggled to find a flute teacher in France who would take me on. I remember going for a lesson with a teacher who insisted I was too young to play the flute and shoud learn the recorder. I was utterly unimpressed and threw a tantrum saying ‘no, I want to play the flute!!’ I was clearly opinionated from a young age, but eventually found a fabulous flute teacher and the rest is history.

Anneke: Growing up in Limerick Ireland, my family would go to the local food market every Saturday. When I was 8, my parents suggested that I take up an instrument. Around that time there was a lady who played folk harp every week in the market. I vividly remember being drawn to the sound week after week, and finally going up to my mum (who was buying potatoes!) to ask whether I could play the harp. She said yes, and almost as soon as I started playing, I knew that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.

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

We all agree that are are most important influences have been our teachers and mentors, who have inspired and moulded us as musicians. Having been a trio for almost fourteen years it is also fair to say that we have also been shaped by each other! (Matthew and Anneke have been working together since they were students at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, with Rosie joining in 2012.) With instruments as diverse as this we come from different perspectives and sound worlds, which always keeps things fresh. We trust and challenge each other in equal measure.

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

As you grow in the profession different challenges arise at different points. Now, one of the biggest challenges has been planning our diaries together well in advance to rehearse. We’ve just solved this in part now that Rosie and Anneke live two roads away from each other in East London! As principal flute of BBCNOW, Matthew is of course based in Cardiff. We each individually what might be called ‘portfolio’ careers: Matthew also teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and is releasing his first EP as a jazz vocalist and composer. Anneke plays for all the main London orchestras and abroad, and teaches at the Junior Guildhall. Rosie has a busy freelance career as a soloist and chamber musician, which she combines with teaching at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and as a British Library Edison Fellow and occasional writer.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

We loved playing at Conway Hall a couple of years ago. It was the culmination of a long project contrasting music from the Belle Époque with that written during the First World War. It was a poignant and moving experience for us to do this a hundred years after the Great War. We were delighted by this review from Robert Hugill.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As a flute, viola and harp trio, we have a natural affinity for French music, which works particularly well for our instrumental combination. Last year, with the centenary of Debussy’s death, we really enjoyed exploring a programme based around his life and influences. We also really relish the challenge of contemporary music and have recently been working on quite a few new modern works. We are very excited to premiere our commission from composer Rory Boyle this year at St John’s Smith Square, London.

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

We love putting together programmes around a particular theme, interest or concept. Usually inspiration starts from one piece of music that has a particular resonance for us or for that particular year or venue. The challenge is sometimes balancing this with specific requests from venues. This instrumental combination offers so many opportunities for innovative and thought-provoking programming. Some of our most popular pieces are actually arrangements of works originally written for other instruments (for instance, adaptations of Baroque trio sonatas can work wonderfully). Having said this, in many of our concerts we will include the Debussy Sonate as it is an undisputed masterpiece and something we love to play.

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

As three very different instruments it’s always interesting turning up in a new hall and finding out how to play in the acoustic. For this intimate chamber group we always love giving concerts at people’s homes and playing in the Hall of Champs Hill was a wonderful combination of performing in lovely hall which is also a homely, intimate space.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Rosie: As a trio we will always be grateful to Dubois who (as far as we know) was the first to write for this combination and of course, Debussy!

Trio Anima performing Dubois Terzettino in 2014

Matthew: I love listening to singers because I think the most expressive instrument is the voice. Cecilia Bartolli is a regular source of inspiration. In another genre, Stevie Wonder is obviously a personal favourite!

Anneke: That’s an impossible question to answer! However, I would say that among the many musicians I admire, I would have to mention Matthew and Rosie! I think that music is very personal, and if you find other musicians you love playing with it can provide so much inspiration and motivation.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Well, in terms of memorable for all the wrong reasons we once arrived at a venue after several hours of driving and begin rehearsing when the electricity went down! Very sadly the concert had to be cancelled. This was unfortunately followed by deadlock on the M1! In total we were in the car for about eleven hours and didn’t get to play together! It was the worst!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Rosie: Connecting to people through music.

Matthew: I think when your enjoyment of music making and the musician lifestyle is balanced with fulfilment in your personal life, and you feel like you’re touching people with what you do.

Anneke: Being able to be in the moment and convey what you want to express through the music.

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

Start by knowing the WHOLE score (not just your own part) and immerse yourself in the style of that era. Sing, dance, make up a story, use you imagination when working or practising. Prepare well in advance! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. For every success you are going to get many many rejections – be strong and have faith in what you’re doing! Meditation and yoga are brilliant!

Working hard. In lots of ways! As you go through music college, the most important thing is to practice as much as you can, and to take inspiration and ideas from everyone who is of-fering them to you. As you go into the profession, you need to take some of your practice time and turn it into “making it happen” time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

We are all big fans of food so probably playing a nice concert of some of our favourite repertoire followed by an amazing meal with our spouses, friends and family.

Trio Anima was formed in 2006 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. For the past decade, they have been delighting audiences with their distinctive combination of flute, viola and harp. The trio won the Elias Fawcett Award for Outstanding Chamber Ensemble at the 2012 Royal Overseas League Competition & First Prize at the Camac Harps Chamber Ensemble Competition in 2007. They have been Live Music Now Artists, and were awarded a Chamber Music Fellowship at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2011. In 2017 they were selected as Kirckman Concert Society Artists.

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I recently heard a performance of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959, a work with which I spent three years in preparation for a fellowship diploma in piano performance which I took back in 2016. The experience of learning such a large work and to a very high level of competency and artistry was an interesting, rewarding and occasionally frustrating experience during which I learnt a great deal about the practice of practising, the art and craft of performance, and how to take ownership of a piece of music and make it mine – an important consideration for any performer. During the preparation for the diploma recital, I grew to love the music and regard it as “my” sonata, even when I heard other people playing it – pianists who had clearly made it their own and whose sense of ownership was clear in their presentation of the music. Despite not having gone near the music for two years, it is still “my” sonata.

I didn’t pass the diploma, and on reflection I didn’t deserve to pass it because a number of things were not right in the lead up to the recital and on the day – things which I should have taken care of, given I had already taken two other diplomas. Facing up to failure is not a particularly pleasant experience but it is important that one reflects on that failure and to try and learn from it. The most uncomfortable issue was accepting that my ego had got in the way. I do not regard myself as a particularly egocentric person, but one does need a degree of ego to commit to a large project like this and also to push one out onto the stage to actually perform the music (at which point the ego needs to be put away). Unfortunately, my ego got in the way throughout the learning process as well as on the day of the recital: having passed two previous performance diplomas with Distinction, I told myself (and others) that the Fellowship diploma was well within my grasp. In addition, I decided I would take the diploma in my 50th year. It seemed significant, and I felt I needed to prove something – that I was “good enough”, and that it was possible to return to the piano after an absence of some 20 years and play/perform at a high level.

The diploma result was bruising – to my ego, and my confidence and self-esteem as a pianist, which I felt had been hard won, having come back to the piano after such a long time away from it. Although I tried to revisit the sonata and even considered retaking the diploma, it was too caught up with all the unpleasant negative feelings associated with my failure. Despite kind and supportive words from family, friends, teacher and mentors, I was hurt and angry by the result, particularly some of the examiners’ comments, and it took me a long time to process the experience and draw positives from it. I consigned the score of the sonata – or rather scores because I had not only a working score but several other copies – to the back of my bookcase and vowed I would never touch it again….

But things can change, and the passage of time has allowed me to put some distance between the diploma result and my emotions. Hearing the Sonata again reminded me of how much I like it, and during the performance I kept thinking how I would approach this or that phrase or passage. There were moments when I thought “I like this, but I prefer my version” (a sign I still “owned” the music), but I also heard the work afresh: new details were revealed – a little inner melody here, the articulation of a particular passage there – and a few days after the concert, I got out my score of the Schubert sonata and put it on the music desk of my piano. The next day I played the entire sonata from start to finish (including the exposition repeat in the first movement). There were rocky places, of course, but it was encouraging to find that much of the music was still “in the fingers”.

How often do we set aside a piece of music and swear we will never return to it? Fairly frequently, I should think, perhaps more so amongst amateur musicians than professionals who may need to keep certain repertoire going. An unpleasant experience – a bad exam result or unhappy performance – can colour our attitude to certain pieces of music. When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager there were pieces which I simply disliked and never wanted to play again (an important note for teachers to ensure their students, whatever their age, are playing music they enjoy to keep them engaged and motivated).

Returning to a previously-learnt piece of music can be like reacquainting oneself with an old friend – and I certainly feel this with the Schubert sonata. Picking up a piece again after a long absence can be extremely satisfying and often offers new insights into that work, revealing details, layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round. One also recalls all the things one liked about the music and why one selected it in the first place.

Another important aspect is acknowledging that a work can never truly be considered “finished”. Young or inexperienced musicians often think that a learnt piece is finished and are keen to move on to the next one. A satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. This process of “continuing” and “returning” means that each performance informs the next, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

And what of the Schubert sonata? I have been playing it regularly, and working on it seriously again. It’s satisfying and revealing, and playing it afresh has largely erased the uncomfortable feelings associated with failing the diploma. That I can get around the music, play it well, and convincingly, is extremely gratifying – a reminder of how much good, careful and deep practise I did when I originally learnt the work, work which has not been wasted, nor was thrown away in the moments when I received the diploma result. An important lesson in learning is knowing that everything we do has value, that it is part of an aggregation of gains which cannot be taken away. Those of us who acknowledge this are on a path to self-determination and fulfillment which allows us to move towards a goal which is imperative for any musician – autonomy. It requires an open-minded, ever-curious, spontaneous and mindful approach to the task in hand and a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way.

Will I retake the Diploma? It’s unlikely, though some have encouraged me to re-attempt it. Having given myself plenty of time to reflect and move on, I realise that I do not need to prove anything to anyone but myself, and that competitiveness needs to be tempered by pleasure in learning and music making rather than constantly seeking the outward trappings of success and progress.


Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.

Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.

Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.

Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.

Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  


(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)