My keen adult student, Andy, came for his lesson today, the first in nearly a month (he’s been away filming at various music festivals), and we worked on Petit Mystère, a charming, Debussy-esque piece by French composer (and contemporary of Claude Debussy) Simone Plé. This is one of those deceptively simple pieces which requires great control and balance, and a strong affinity for impressionistic music, to create the right mood. It forms part of the current syllabus for the Trinity Guildhall Grade 2 exam.

I’ve recently switched to Trinity Guildhall, after three years teaching the ABRSM syllabus. My main motivation for trying a new exam board is that I have had a couple of run-ins with ABRSM this year, and have found the syllabus requirements very rigorous and unbending. Many early/young students find the scale and sight-reading requirements onerous and uninteresting – and in a couple of instances, downright scary. In the Trinity Guildhall syllabus, students are required to learn only a handful of very pertinent scales and arpeggios, and instead present three short studies to demonstrate technique such as tone, balance, voicing, touch. And instead of sight-reading, at least up to Grade 5, students may opt instead for the Musical Knowledge test. To me, this is a really useful and relevant component of a music exam, and my recent experiences with a new student, and a couple of non-piano students who came to me for aural training who seemed completely unaware of the different genres and styles of music, nor the context in which it was created, have made me even more fervent about ensuring that all my students (and indeed those of others!) have a good, basic grounding of the history of classical music, musical terms and signs, lives of the great composers etc.

These days, with easy-to-access music programmes such as Spotify and LastFM there really is no excuse for broadening one’s musical tastes and interests. Equally, there is a great variety of music available on the radio: tune in to Breakfast on Radio 3 from 7 to 10 am, and you can hear all sorts of interesting music – and not just pure classical either! I quite often make playlists on Spotify to share with my students to give them some “further listening” to help them with their pieces.

For Andy’s study of Petit Mystère, I’ve suggested Debussy’s Prélude à l’après Midi d’un faune, The Little Shepherd and Hommage à Rameau, plus the first Mazurka from the Opus 50 by Karol Syzmanowski (a piece I am learning myself at the moment). Hopefully, this will give Andy a greater “feel” for the music he is learning, and will also set it in context for him.

Meanwhile, for him and the rest of my students, I’ve prepared a brief overview of basic musical analysis, something I do with all my students whenever we start work on a new piece. This is a crucial exercise, which should be incorporated into a regular practice regime, before you have played a single note. I do it, usually away from the keyboard, with a pencil behind my ear for annotations.  You can view my helpsheet ANATOMY OF A PIECE. Next term, I will be asking all of my students to prepare a similar basic analysis of one of their pieces. I will publish the best/most imaginative/amusing ones here.

Never underestimate the value of performing for others. The ability to get up and do it represents an important life skill, something from which my students will benefit when they enter adulthood (even if they are no longer playing the piano). It breeds confidence and self-reliance.

As pianists, we spend an inordinate, almost unhealthy amount of time alone with our instrument, with only dead composers for companions, while other musicians belong to ensembles and orchestras, and have the opportunity to strike ideas off one another and have a laugh together. The life of the pianist has always been rather rarefied: even the way we perform is different. While other instrumentalists face the audience, the pianist does not, thus adding to the mystique. Pianists are also the only ones who are expected to memorise the music, and the amount of notes one is required to process is far, far greater than, say, a ‘cellist, or a clarinet player. The pressure is on, before we have even  sat down and played a single note!

We should never forget that music is for sharing, and between audience and performer and composer a wonderful continuous circle exists. Performing endorses what we do alone, the hours and hours, and days and days of solitary practise. It puts the music “out there”, validates it and singles it out for scrutiny, and as a performer, one has a sense of  the awesome responsibility of the occasion, and the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Unexpected things can happen during a performance – and this is one of the aspects of live music that make it exciting. The most wonderful frisson can occur when one feels one’s performance has actually melded with the composer’s original idea, and that the audience have sensed this too. Performing is also a “cultural gift”, to oneself, and to those who love to listen to the piano.

Performing is an adventure, and a heroic act, not least because of the amount of preparation that is required. It is the natural extension of our love of the instrument and its literature, and it is a huge privilege to share this with others. Nervousness is the price one pays for this privilege, and enduring it and turning it around into a positive experience, is an act of self-mastery, another fundamental life skill, which encourages self-dependence, and a total reliance on our inner resources.

Performing also adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being bothered by them, instead of stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

In the hours after a performance, a special kind of depression can set in, compounded by a profound tiredness. A vast amount of energy has been expended in the experience of the performance, and the exhilaration of the concert floods every moment in the hours leading up to it. Suddenly, it is all over. It is at this low point that we must let the music take charge: the inexhaustible repertoire can only revive the spirit. As Seymour Bernstein says, in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “for true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent”. The only cure is to keep working, and to look forward to the next performance.

This incredibly useful article comes from Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano blog, which is full of sound advice and guidance for productive practising. This article chimed particularly with me, as this week I have been getting students, and myself, ready for our concert next weekend, and careful, attentive practice has been the watch word of my lessons recently.

We all have ‘black spots’ in music we are learning: sometimes these are not the most difficult passages, but such places need special attention to stop them becoming major problems, which can affect the overall continuity and flow of the music.

Read Graham’s excellent advice here

Moderato (It.)

‘Moderate’, ‘restrained’, e.g. allegro moderato (‘a little slower than allegro ’).

adv. & adj. Music (Abbr. mod.)
In moderate tempo……. Used chiefly as a direction.

‘Moderato’ is one of those rather nebulous musical terms, like andante (“at a walking pace”). If I ask one of my students what it means, they say “moderately”. But what does it really mean? At the most basic level, it is a tempo marking, slower than allegretto, but faster than andante. The modern metronome gives a marking of 96 to 100, a very narrow range – and I would always guard against assigning a specific metronome mark to a piece marked moderato, or allegro moderato, or molto moderato. Like so much else in music, moderato is not just a tempo marking; it also suggests mood and character. It is personal feeling and sense of  music, and one person’s moderato might be rather different from another’s, both in terms of tempo and character.

The opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata is marked molto moderato, literally “very moderately”. And taken literally, that could result in a very slow tempo, virtually alla breve (two beats in a bar), which can make the music appear to drag. Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a considered allegro. But the word “allegro” suggests a certain character as well as a certain speed, and so the moderato marking is more appropriate, Schubert suggesting in it a graceful strolling tempo. There are many, many different interpretations of Schubert’s marking, resulting in some wildly varying lengths of the first movement. Richter’s is an almost self-indulgent 25 minutes – listening to it, you get the feeling he is thinking about every single note and where to place it; while Maria Joao Pires brings it in at 20 minutes, which feels both fluid and eloquent, and Imogen Cooper at 16 minutes, which is thoughtful and serene. In another recording I have, one which I listen to most often, and used as a benchmark when I was learning the piece,  the movement lasts just over 21 minutes, yet at no point is there a sense of the music stagnating, even in the most poignant sections; it moves forward with grace.

Of course, at the end of the day, all these timings are rather meaningless: one would not notice the time passing at a good performance unless one was pedantic enough to sit there with a stopwatch – and if one was doing that, one would not be concentrating on the music! Creating a sense of the music and conveying mood, colour and shading is more important. One pianist, who shall remain nameless, did take it far too fast for my liking at a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore, and the music just felt rushed, as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. (He also omitted the repeat of the exposition, which is inexcusable, in my view. Without the repeat and the absolutely transcendental bridging figure, one does not achieve a full appreciation of the composer’s intentions in the development section.)

When I was learning the sonata a couple of years ago, I had a tendency to play the opening movement “molto molto moderato”! This was partly to enable me to cope with some of the more tricky measures in the development section, but whenever I played it, I had a terrible sense of the music plodding. When I listen to the piece, I always feel the opening movement suggests a great river broadening into its final course before reaching the sea: unhurried but with continual forward motion. There are moments of “other-wordliness” in this movement as well, which demand sensitive rubato playing and some very fine pianissimos.  There are storms too, but these are short-lived, and do not disturb the overall, almost hymn-like, serenity of the movement. But no matter how often I practised the wretched movement, it always sounded chunky, and “notey”, as if the river was made of treacle through which one was wading painful step after painful step!

Discussing my difficulty with my friend Michael was more a discussion of the meaning of moderato in a literal sense rather than in relation to Schubert. In the end, Michael suggested I tried playing the movement quicker: the difference was instant. Never mind that some passages were still very rough in my hands, the overall sense of the music was of a relaxed serenity and spaciousness. There was still time to hear every note and to enjoy each one, but there was also a much greater forward propulsion, especially in the climactic passages of the development section, which highlight Schubert’s long lines of melody and the overall evolution of the movement. Armed with Michael’s helpful advice and my renewed interest in the work, it was one of the first pieces I presented to my teacher when I started having lessons again, nearly two year’s ago.

In Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piece of fluctuating tempos and ever-changing moods and textures, the first theme is also marked moderato. Here, I would read this marking as a much slower tempo than in the Schubert sonata. The mood is very different too: the key is darker, and the off-beat quaver figures and the rather uncertain harmonies, with the prominent use of diminished and dominant seventh chords to add moments of tension which are not always resolved immediately, create a sense of hesitancy in the music, as if it is not quite sure where it is going. After the fioritura, the opening theme returns, slightly elaborated with a sighing quaver figure, but rather than increase the sense of forward motion, I feel the music becomes more suspended; thus when one reaches the direction agitato, there is a far greater sense of climax. This continues right through to the arpeggiated figures and onwards, in a section marked sempre piu mosso. After the great, memorable second theme is heard, the first theme returns, this time in A minor, and the music returns to the moderato tempo and mood of the opening. Here once again, uncertain harmonies are used to contrive a feeling of suspense, while the insistent repeated low E’s in the bass tether the music even more firmly in one place. This is a useful device for introducing another climax, which seems to suddenly free itself from the restraints of the moderato marking; the restatement of the second theme on a far grander scale than its first appearance. So, one could argue here that the use of moderato at the opening of the piece, and its reappearance later on, is a very deliberate device which serves to create moments of great tension, suspense and climax.

An interesting discussion of tempo came up during the piano course I attended in the spring. One of the students played some Bach, one of the French suites, I believe, the opening movement of which he took at such a lick, we could hardly hear the notes. When asked to put the brakes on, the result was charming: measured and elegant. This led to a discussion about “comfortable tempos”: just as one person’s moderato may be different from another’s, it is also true for presto or allegro. Nimbleness of brain and fingers can result in very lively, speedy, clean playing: if you feel comfortable playing at that speed, good for you. But speed at the expense of accuracy or musicality can wreck a piece.

The opening movement of Poulenc’s Suite in C, which I am currently learning, is marked Presto, and on my recording Pascal Rogé takes it at an alarming presto, far quicker than my 44 year old brain and fingers can manage – at the moment. Thus, I am practising it at a “comfortable” tempo; eventually, I hope that comfortable tempo will be quicker – the music needs to sound light yet sophisticated (its C Major key gives it an innocence which should shine through all the time)  – but for the time being I am concentrating on accuracy, with a beautiful sound. It ain’t easy: sometimes just learning the notes is hard enough, without all the other attendant directions and markings one has to take note of and execute!