Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or contour within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!

– Artur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the listener wants to be surprised or satisfied, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, intervals, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction

Rubato is not always written into the score as a specific direction and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.

In Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5, the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply give extra emphasis or force on these notes, but a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying arrival at the note. It is the “placing” of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

In addition, hairpin crescendo markings can be interpreated as an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes.

Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. It is the very subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano. Often rubato within a piece develops over time, as one grows more and more familiar with the contours and shifting moods of the music. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced.

Mendelssohn – Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5

https://open.spotify.com/track/58fBJ0A96evPyloVHWjXJc 

Frank Bridge – In Autumn: II, Through the Eaves

 

Most of us tend to focus on the things that didn’t go so well in a performance – the misplaced notes, the smudged runs, the memory slips. Analysing why these things happened and exploring solutions to problems or finding ways to “future proof” our music for the next performance are important aspects of the “practice of practising”.

When a performance goes well, we might simply shrug and say “that went well” and briefly bask in the inner glow of success, the satisfaction of a job well done before moving on to the next task and preparing for another performance.

Reflection and critical self-feedback are important aspects of the process of learning and practising, and being able to pinpoint why a performance went well is as useful in the process as identifying and rectifying problem areas.

In early December 2017, I took part in a really delightful concert at the home of Neil Franks, chairman of the Petworth Festival. I had been invited to join him and two other pianists to play music for 2 pianos/8 hands, 6 hands and some solo works. Potentially, this was a nerve-wracking situation for me: I had given only a couple of public performances during the year and felt slightly out of practise as a performer. Added to that, I had to learn the ensemble pieces in a matter of a week, I would be working with people whom I had not met before, on pianos I had never played before. Ok, this was not the Wigmore Hall, but my naturally perfectionist nature wanted to ensure I was well-prepared for the concert so that I did not let down the others and played to the very best of my ability.

As it turned out, the concert proved to be the best thing I have done, musically, since I returned to playing the piano seriously about 10 years ago, and the entire evening was hugely enjoyable and rewarding for all sorts of reasons (read more about the event here). I was on such a high after the concert, I couldn’t sleep that night and spent the entire train journey back to London from Sussex the next day alternately grinning and admiring the lovely flowers I was given at the end of the evening. The following Monday, I had coffee with a pianist friend, and she asked me about the concert – had I been nervous and if so, how did I handle my nerves? What did I play? And – and this is important – exactly why I felt my performance had gone so well. “I really couldn’t say,” I replied. “It was just that it was all perfect!”.

I’ve subsequently allowed myself some time for proper reflection on the performance and drew some useful conclusions:

Choice of repertoire – I selected solo miniatures (works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Benjamin Britten and William Grant Still) which I knew well (apart from the Corea, of which more in a subsequent post), and had performed several times before. I spent quite a lot of time at home deciding in which order to play the pieces to create the right sense of flow, connection and atmosphere in my solo performance, for the audience and myself. Above all, these are all pieces which I absolutely adore and always enjoy playing.

The other pianists – highly capable, enthusiastic, intelligent, kind and supportive during our rehearsals, and positive in their feedback. The sense of a shared experience and mutual cooperation was so important in creating a really fine concert.

Ambiance – playing a beautifully set up Steinway B in Neil’s lovely country home, with views across the downs and friendly labradors wandering in to see what we were doing, undoubtedly helped take the edge off any performance anxiety

The audience – warm, friendly, enthusiastic, and very generous in their comments, both during the interval and after the concert.

Of course it is not always possible to have such a perfect combination of circumstances to enable a performance to go well, but we can try to go some way to recreating them each time we perform. This is something the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski says he does to allay his own performance anxiety: try to recall the positive feelings of a previous performance that went well and use this to build confidence and positivity about the next performance. To this I would also add playing repertoire in one which feels totally comfortable (not only have you prepared it carefully but you also like it). Above all, try to enjoy the experience – because sharing music with others is a truly wonderful thing to do.

On 8 July I gave a joint concert with my pianist friend José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán for my local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington. It was Jose’s idea to present a joint concert and the result was a varied programme which reflected our personal and quite wide-ranging musical tastes. We closed the recital with the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite.

The complete programme:

Mozart – Fantasia in C minor K475 (Frances)
Shostakovich – Prelude & Fugue in C, Op 87 (José)
Part – Für Alina (Frances)
Haydn – Andante with variations in F minor, Hob XVII/6 (Frances)
Villa-Lobos – Cirandinhas W.210 nos. 6, 8, 12 & 11 (José)
Ginastera – Danza de la moza donosa (José)
Fauré – Berceuse from ‘Dolly Suite’ (duet)

Programme notes 8 July

Listen to the entire programme here

I don’t perform that frequently – maybe four or five times a year (excluding informal performances and “house concerts” at home) – but I understand the “process” of performing and the necessary and special preparation which goes into a public performance, not only the learning and refining of all those notes, but also understanding how to manage performance anxiety and hone stagecraft.

Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. For a long time performance anxiety or stage fright has been the “dirty secret” of performers, but recently a number of articles and books on the subject have revealed that it is common amongst even top international artists, which has, I think, made it easier for performers to speak openly about anxiety and nerves, and to offer coping strategies. The physical symptoms of anxiety are the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Fighting the symptoms of anxiety can simply make it worse, and I have found it easier to manage my nerves by simply accepting them as part of the performance experience (something which pianist Steven Osborne discusses in this article).

The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless,  irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the classic musical example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.

The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of a performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. Now you’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. The day after the concert everyday life can seem exceedingly inferior to the excitement of the performance. In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough

Performance Anxiety Anonymous  – strategies for coping with performance anxiety

This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club
The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.

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Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.

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The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety

The HASTINGS INTERNATIONAL PIANO CONCERTO COMPETITION is a prestigious piano contest which takes place annually, and is the “jewel in the crown” of the Hastings Musical Festival, founded in 1908.

Open to pianists of ages 16-30 years, including professionals, this contest, now in its ninth year, showcases some of the most talented young pianists in the world. Chosen semi-finalists will be offered a masterclass (Friday 15th March) with members of the Jury.

FIRST STAGE – Preliminary Round 11th – 13th March

SECOND STAGE – SEMI-FINALS. Thursday 14th March
Six pianists will play their Recitals.

Three semi-finalists will play in a Masterclass at Fairlight Hall – Friday 15th March – 7pm-9pm with members of the Jury

Tickets for the Masterclass are very limited, £12 per person (with wine and snacks). To book a place call Brenda on 01424 430923 or 01424 437357

THIRD STAGE – FINAL
Three finalists will play their chosen concerti (Saturday 16th March) with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

Further information and tickets here. Children under 16 can attend for FREE when accompanied by a paying adult.

Hastings Musical Festival