Soon after the first UK lockdown began in March 2020, videos began appearing online of people playing their pianos in their homes. Often these home performances – more playing for oneself than for others – were prefaced by an apology for the poor quality of the piano sound. “I’m sorry, my piano is out of tune and I don’t know when the tuner will be able to come to fix it” was a common thread. But somehow it didn’t matter – because many people had to be content with an out of tune piano during lockdown, when tuners, like the rest of us, were ordered to stay at home.

Some of these at home performances were given by professional pianists; many more were by amateurs who, by complying with the government stay at home orders, found themselves with – oh joy! – extra hours with which to indulge their passion, instead of trying to shoe-horn practice time into the daily routine of work and family life.

There was a remarkable outpouring of music in those strange early days and weeks of lockdown. The piano is the perfect instrument for isolation: pianists tend to be, by nature, solitary, and many relished and actively embraced the weeks of confinement. This was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, revisit previously-learnt music, or simply enjoy quality time with the instrument and its literature. It confirmed what most of us, especially amateurs, know – that we play primarily for ourselves, in private, just us and the instrument.

And people forgave a less-than-perfect piano sound and instead embraced and shared this celebration of the instrument and its music. Many of these performances, recorded in people’s living rooms, dining rooms, music rooms, were the result of hours of careful practice; others were spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment occasions. Some people collaborated, using an app, to play duets, remotely yet together. Shared on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, these mini house concerts reminded us of why we love music, and what we were missing with the concert halls shuttered. Commenting on people’s performances, praising their efforts and marvelling at their abilities, was a way of recalling the special shared experience of live music – as performer and audience – and this created a sense of togetherness, even though we were separated.

“I’m so busy!” my piano technician said when he finally came to tune my piano in early July (some three months later than its scheduled half-year tune). All the out of tune pianos of lockdown were finally being treated to some much-needed TLC, and as soon as the tuner had done his/her work, the piano’s owner played to recall what an in tune piano should sound like, and then there was an even greater pleasure in the act of playing.

The videos will continue to be shared online because people find pleasure in sharing their music with others and for amateur pianists in particular, practicing with the intention of recording one’s playing provides focus. But let us hope in 2021 we can also return to live music in concert halls, large and small.

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Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Oft quoted, frequently mis-attributed, this statement nonetheless brilliantly captures the difficulty of writing about something abstract, what Ferruccio Busoni called ‘sonorous airs’ – the music itself.

There’s an over-abundance of writing about music today – academic, analytical, political, sociological, not to mention a wealth of criticism and reviews of concerts and recordings, programme notes,  ‘think pieces’ and celebrity interviews and profiles. But this article is not about these kinds of writing about music; it is about the difficulty of putting the experience of music into words.

Music resists being described in language because it is very hard to convey the abstract aural experience of sound in words. This is one of the things that I – and countless others – love about the experience of music: it defies description because it is deeper than words.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

Victor Hugo

The problem with writing about classical music is that the artform has existed for too long in a rarefied atmosphere, set apart from other musicks. Tradition and reverence have surrounded classical music with an aura of “specialness”, a distinction which is still continually emphasised by the specialist language and vocabulary used when talking or writing about music. Unfortunately, for many people this kind of specialist technical language is often inaccessible and off-putting; it also contributes to the notion that classical music is “elitist”, for a select, educated few. Until fairly recently, the way music was written about in newspapers, magazines, programme notes and even CD liner notes was either incomprehensible or little use in helping the reader decide whether or not to explore a particular work.

For the general listener, would-be audience member and classical music ingénue, the only way to write about music in a way which brings it to life is to write from the heart. This may sound rather fey or simplistic, but music is about the full gamut of human emotions and experience. We don’t engage with it because it is scholarly, rarefied or elusive; we engage with its because it elicits an emotional response in each of us. It seems incredible to me how politely we often present this extraordinary, heart-stopping artform to its potential audience.

To write convincingly about music, one must engage in lateral thinking to create startling images and metaphors to describe the indescribable in a way which somehow conveys the emotional impact the music has on the writer and brings the experience of hearing it to life for the reader. (Perhaps the greatest compliments I have been paid for my concert reviews is “you made me feel as if I was at the concert with you”.)

But there’s more, for in addition to the emotional experience, one must also try and capture the aural one. What does the music sound like? Musicians have a common language of terms such as legato, staccato, portamento, pizzicato to direct them to the sound effect the composer desires, but to the non-specialist listener/reader translating staccato simply as “detached” (its literal translation) is not sufficient. Staccato can be light, delicate, punchy, percussive, crisp, snappy, spiky…. Similarly legato (literally smoothly or connected) is not confined to one simple description. Then there are the instruments themselves, each with their own distinctive voice: strings which tremble and shimmer, bright metallic brass, the lustrous and mellow clarinet, the rich growl of the lower bass of the piano….

Many of the words used to describe music are drawn from other walks of life – art or nature, for example – to create metaphors for the experience of hearing and playing music. The language of architecture in particular can be useful in describing music’s structures and motifs: arabesques, curlicues, filigree, arching, soaring. Or more physical terms: bouncing, jogging, stamping, limping, dancing, throbbing, breathing, sobbing. Or adjectives drawn from weather: showering, thunderous, misty, dripping, rumbling, splashing.

We often talk about ‘colour’ in music, often in relation to dynamics, from the most delicately nuanced pianissimo to bold fortissimos – and all the subtle shadings in between. Then there is light and dark – ‘chiaroscuro’ – bright, hazy, shimmering, veiled harmonies, plangent tenebrous chords….

Thus the writer must find metaphors and adjectives which amply describe the structure and sounds of the music, the experience of hearing it and the emotions it aroused in a way which captivates the imagination of the reader and avoids clichés. Herein lies the difficulty: an overly liberal sprinkling of adjectives and metaphor can obscure the meaning of the words – and also the music – resulting in florid, purple prose, such as this:

[his] diminuendi could attenuate a note as gently as a thinning fountain that slowly makes slender its spurts

For those of us who write about music, we face the challenge of whether words can really convey music, or if music can be revealed through the medium of language. The secret of any good music writing – whether it’s a puff piece in a concert programme, an in-depth piece of analysis, a programme note or a review of a concert – is that it should make you want to hear the music (or make you glad you didn’t have to hear it!). Either way, the writing should invite and inspire and pique your aural curiosity, not baffle or alienate.


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A big thank you to every one who reads, comments upon and contributes to this site (which celebrated its 10th birthday in July).

Some further thoughts on this strange year and how music and musicians have coped on my sister site ArtMuseLondon

Most read post of 2020:

On Being A Pianist

Most visited page of 2020:

Courses for Pianists

Most popular guest post of 2020:

“He was not like other men” – Chopin as seen by his contemporaries (by Walter Witt)

Most read post on repertoire

Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca 104

Most read post on piano technique

Mysteries of the sustain pedal

Best wishes for 2021.

Frances

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Dame Fanny Waterman, 22 March 1920 – 20 December 2020
 

It is with great sadness that The Leeds International Piano Competition announces the death of its founder and President Emeritus Dame Fanny Waterman at the age of 100

Dame Fanny died peacefully this morning in her residential care home in Ilkley, Yorkshire. She is survived by her two sons, Robert and Paul, and six granddaughters.

Adam Gatehouse, Artistic Director of The Leeds, said:

“Dame Fanny was a force of nature, a one-off, a unique figure in our cultural firmament who infused everyone with whom she came into contact with a passion and enthusiasm and sheer love of music, particularly piano music, that was totally impossible to resist. From nothing she created the world’s most prestigious piano competition and chose to do so not in London but in Leeds, at the time a dark, industrial but incredibly lively and vibrant town in the North of England. From small beginnings it swiftly grew as word spread that here was a competition where music and the musicians came first. The lives she has touched, both through the Competition, but also through her teaching and piano books, are too numerous to mention. She was quite simply irreplaceable, and to have had the chance to work with her and eventually succeed her as Artistic Director of The Leeds has been one of the greatest privileges and joys of my life.”

Dame Fanny Waterman founded The Leeds International Piano Competition in 1961 with her late husband Dr Geoffrey de Keyser and Marion Thorpe CBE, then the Countess of Harewood. The first event followed in 1963 and she remained its Chairman & Artistic Director until her retirement in 2015 at the age of 95. As President Emeritus she attended live concerts and events until the beginning of 2020, although ambitious plans to celebrate her 100th Birthday in March 2020 had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to Dame Fanny Waterman’s artistic integrity, passion, charisma and hard work, ‘The Leeds’ became the most coveted prize in the piano world and internationally acclaimed for introducing some of the greatest pianists of our time. Artists including Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Sunwook Kim and most recently Federico Colli and Eric Lu launched their careers by taking first prize; Sir András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Lars Vogt and Denis Kozhukhin meanwhile, are among the Competition’s illustrious finalists. 

Born in Leeds (22 March, 1920), she studied with Tobias Matthay, and later as a Scholar at the Royal College of Music, London, with Cyril Smith. After a notable performing career, including a performance at the 1942 Proms with Sir Henry Wood, she felt that her real vocation would be as a teacher. Over the years she gave masterclasses on six continents, appeared on television and radio, and compiled a series of publications entitled Piano Lessons with Fanny Waterman/Marion Harewood, which now runs to thirty volumes and has achieved sales of over three million copies.

Among her greatest achievements as a teacher was in the 1950s when she trained four pianists under the age of 11 from Leeds to such a standard that they received invitations to perform piano concertos at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The four pianists were Alan Schiller, Wendy Waterman (her niece), Kathleen Jones and future winner of the first Leeds International Piano Competition, Michael Roll.

In recognition of her services to music, Fanny Waterman was awarded an OBE in 1971, the CBE in 1999 and in 2005 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2004 Dame Fanny Waterman received the Freedom of the City of Leeds, the highest honour the City can bestow and, in 2009, was invited to become President of the esteemed Harrogate International Festivals. She was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2010.

A full biography of her life and archive images of Dame Fanny are available at https://www.leedspiano.com/dame-fanny-waterman/

@leedspiano


Source: press release

This article on the LitHub website caught my eye We Need To Treat Artists as Workers, not Decorations. In summary, the author challenges the entrenched notion that because artists (and by extension musicians) do what they do for “love”, they are not workers, in the sense of being gainfully employed and receiving a salary or payment, and that discussing art and money in the same breath somehow compromises or trivialises the art. 

We really must get over the romantic idea of the starving artist – or musician – living a bohemian existence in a shabby-chic garret in Hoxton. 2020, the year of the global coronavirus pandemic, has revealed some hard truths about the day to day lives of artists, musicians, and indeed other freelancers, as well as some unpleasant, prejudiced attitudes, particularly from politicians who have inferred that such people, because they love what they do they do, are “not viable” (i.e. they do not contribute sufficiently to society and the economy), should look for employment elsewhere, and do not need proper financial support.

Musicians need to eat. They have bills to pay and families to support. Let’s stop being coy about talking about money in relation to music. This seems to apply particularly in the classical music world (when we talk about “the music business” we are nearly always referring to the world of popular music), where discussions about entrepreneurialism, marketing and business plans are regarded as unbecoming, almost taboo, in a profession which is devoted to sharing some of the highest, most wondrous and sublime creative achievements of mankind with others.

The trouble starts early on. Having observed from the outside, and, briefly, the inside of the conservatoire system in the UK, and having talked to many musicians – students and professionals – and others in the industry, it is quite evident to me that trainee professional musicians are not being equipped to cope with the realities of the working life of a musician. The focus is largely on performance, in a rarefied atmosphere which discourages talk of “career” or “job prospects”, and instead encourages student musicians to believe that they can sustain a life as a performer when they leave college. Few music colleges offer courses on the business side of being a freelance musician; thus, musicians are often naïve about money because they’ve been told it cheapens their “art” to talk about it. It’s a high ideal, and one which is quickly shattered when students enter the real world. 

Add to this a prevailing attitude that because you do something you love you don’t need to be paid for it – nor should you ask for money. For goodness sake, let’s stop telling musicians that unpaid work is “an opportunity” and that they should be grateful for “the exposure”. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills!

When artists assert that they ought to get paid, and paid fairly, it’s because they want to make a living, not a killing. They want enough to keep doing it. Artists are like other professionals who work from a sense of commitment—teachers, social workers—and who opt for satisfaction over wealth. They still have bills to pay. You don’t have to be doing something for the money to want to get money for doing it. You just have to be alive.

William Deresiewicz (author of The Death of the Artist)


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Composer Thomas Hewitt Jones releases his latest Christmas work, ‘The Shepherd’s Tale’ and offers the chance to join an online singalong with the Choir of King’s College London on Saturday 12 December, encouraging choirs who are unable to sing together during COVID-19 to be able to take part in choral singing at home while spreading some good-humoured seasonal cheer.

Thomas is making the music available as a singalong video complete with an ANIMATED BOUNCING SHEEP which newcomers to his music can follow along with the soundtrack. 

Originally commissioned by Battersea Choral Society for their 20th Anniversary celebrations in December 2018, ‘The Shepherds’ Tale’, the latest collaboration between composer Thomas Hewitt Jones and poet Matt Harvey, is a warm-hearted retelling of the Christmas story from the perspective of the shepherds and is among Thomas’ most directly appealing choral works to date. Straightforward to learn and a joy to sing, the music moves from dismay to celebration in its kaleidoscopic fifteen minutes’ duration, broadly laid out in five sections that follow the emotional pilgrimage of the shepherds in all its doubts, longings, and final affirmations. ‘The Shepherds’ Tale’ places centre stage the wonder of these lowly observers of the earth-shattering events, more often recounted artistically through the eyes and ears of the Magi and the Holy Family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively affected choirs around the UK and choral singing is currently only permitted in distanced form until vaccines are fully available to the general population, yet the Christmas season is normally the focal point of the year for many choirs.

Thomas Hewitt Jones says “2020 has been a difficult year for many of us, so to
spread some joy at the end of the year I wanted to make something that has ‘feel-good’ factor while respecting and celebrating the best of seasonal tradition. In normal times, choral singing is one of the most inclusive areas of our culture and I wanted to bring a smile to the face of singers everywhere this Christmas, even if they can only sing at home. My hope is that this online singalong will spread some Christmas joy for people of all denominations, celebrating the universal message of hope & rebirth while encouraging musicians everywhere to practice their sight-singing!

Lyricist Matt Harvey says “It was a pleasure to work with THJ on A Shepherd’s Tale. It’s always worthwhile to revisit and reimagine the old stories. And to interrogate them from a contemporary perspective.“

Publisher Antony Kearns, MD of Stainer & Bell Music Publishers, says “This wonderfully warm, good-humoured new work for choir and small orchestra is the latest from the Hewitt Jones/Harvey writing stable. Lasting 15 minutes, this through-composed retelling of the Christmas story from the shepherds’ perspective offers an unashamedly tuneful yet emotionally complex journey, which is sure to delight performers and audiences alike.

Get into the festive spirit! Follow the bouncing sheep and sing along with King’s College Choir, London.

Listen to The Shepherds’ Tale

The sheet music is published by Stainer & Bell