In the tapas bar before the concert, there was much discussion amongst fellow diners as to what time She would be on. “I thought She was on at eight”, said my companion. “Oh no, She’s definitely on at nine – ’til eleven” said someone at the next table. This was confirmed by another couple. So we ordered more drinks and tapas, knowing that arriving at the venue too early would mean jostling for a place at the overcrowded bar or listening to a mediocre support band.

Inside the venue, the foyer was heaving with concert-goers, and upstairs in the circle bar, it was positively throbbing. We drank our drinks out of plastic cups and enjoyed half an hour of people-watching. More used to refined surroundings of the front bar at the Wigmore, and its largely superannuated clientele, I was fascinated by the demographic. Yet, there were similarities with the classical music crowd: we were all there to enjoy the music, and the shared experience of music-making.

She emerged, through smoke, from an Anish Kapoor-style soft sculpture, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the female anatomy, and pranced to the front of the stage, all sequins and spangles and feathers: in her shiny cape, tight leggings and platform shoes She looked like a rare, exotic bird. As the raw opening beats of the first song began, the crowd cheered and whooped in recognition of the song. Of her. The heavily amplified music vibrated in my chest and the pit of my stomach; my ears hurt. I was loving it.

Formed in 1999, a duo between singer Alison Goldfrapp and composer Will Gregory, Goldfrapp specialises in electronic music, but they are more than that because with the release of each new album (and there are five – I have them all), they have always cunningly reinvented themselves, while retaining their distinctive style and sound. Seventh Tree, the-last-but-one album (2007-8), is folksy, down-tempo and ambient, with a greater use of acoustic guitars than on previous albums. The latest release, Head First, is a nod back to the synthpop of the 1980s, while Black Cherry, their second album, shows the influence of glam rock.

Throughout the concert, I was struck by the many musical influences Alison Goldfrapp draws on, and, like the music of Schubert or Messiaen, her music ranges from a whisper to a scream. It’s redolent of early Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Portishead and the Cocteau Twins. Wider influences include Polish disco, and the cabaret music of Weimar Germany, and indeed Alison Goldfrapp’s on-stage presence owes much to burlesque and cabaret. Her music is dreamy, erotic (especially in the use of the Theremin), surreal, raunchy, hypnotic, quirky, while her lyrics are inspired by films, her childhood, her sexual fantasies. Most impressive is her voice, which croons one moment, growls the next, then switches to a high-pitched aria of almost heart-stopping beauty.  Around her, the band look like throwbacks to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, in their shiny catsuits and platform boots, and, as they play, she stomps and struts, prances and pirouettes, like Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger, her amazing costumes creating weird and wonderful shadows on the walls.

This article, an interview with pianist James Rhodes, which appeared in The Independent today, was flagged up on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme this morning: the lovely Sarah Mohr-Pietsch invited listeners to comment on whether or not they felt concert soloists were “stuffy” people. I texted the following: “It’s not so much the stuffiness of the soloists as the stuffiness of the venue and audience. Classical music presented in more informal settings (such as the Red Hedgehog in Highgate) makes for a far more relaxed, shared experience for everyone.” It chimes with an ongoing discussion thread which has been exercising myself and fellow Musbook users: “Is classical music elitist?”.

Many people, who are not “in the know” – and even some who are! – regard classical music as elitist and its practitioners as either stuffy fuddy-duddies, or pretentious so-and-so’s who have set themselves up as demi-gods, garnering praise and adulation wherever they go, and never stooping to acknowledge their adoring public who queue patiently at the green rooms of the concert halls of the world to meet them. Classical music has, until recently, not helped its cause: many of the “traditional” venues are frequented by mostly elderly, mostly uber-middle class people, who exude pomposity, who sit through the performance in hushed reverential silence, and who tut and purse their lips if anyone dares to applaud in the wrong place (harumph! Such ignorance!). Being surrounded by such people can be very off-putting for the classical music ingenue. Then there is the venue itself: the Wigmore is all Edwardian gilded curlicues and red-velvet plushness, with its Constance Spry flower displays and that gold rail along the edge of the stage which serves to set the performers apart from the audience and further promotes the “us and them” attitude.

In reality, most professional musicians are fairly ordinary people who, admittedly, can do extraordinary things with a mechanical contraption of wood and wires, scrape beautifully on a stringed wooden box, or blow down a metal pipe with valves, and create magical and wonderful sounds. We tend to forget that these people are just doing their job: the difference is they do not spend hours at a desk in an office. Instead, they spend hours and hours and hours, often entirely alone, with only dead composers for companions, honing their art (and I have blogged previously about the life of the musician: the low pay, the unsociable working hours, the travelling). I have been fortunate to meet a few professional musicians in my time: the pianist Peter Donohoe was a neighbour of the mother of a friend of mine (who famously and amusingly said once, “he can’t be that good if he has to practice so much!). My friend, not musical, a quantum physicist by training, often used to go down the pub with Peter, and reported that he was a perfectly ordinary bloke – who played the piano, extremely well. He did not live in an ivory tower, nor some silent cloister, but in a normal house on an estate outside Birmingham. Many professional musicians have families, just like the rest of us, they live in ordinary homes, in ordinary streets. Some may have a special room set aside for their activity, but many do not. (My teacher, who is a busy concert pianist, has her piano in the family sitting room, surrounded by books and prints, mementos from family holidays, magazines and DVDs.)

Meet the soloist in the green room after the performance, and you generally find someone who is pleased to share your experience of the concert, and who would prefer the adoring public to be a little less awestruck. Many people, going backstage to meet the performer, often say silly, nervous, or irrelevant things; or their anxiety about meeting the performer makes them tongue-tied (not so, when I met Ian Bostridge – two glasses of Sauvignon had loosened my tongue considerably!). Sometimes people ask, with a weird, admiring light in their eyes, what it is like, being a concert soloist. Most performers will reply truthfully, downplaying the pleasures of a musical career, while emphasising the less glamorous aspects of the job. But more often than not, people coming to the green room are fresh, honest and spontaneous, and, for the performer, it must be gratifying to have one’s efforts measured against people’s responses.

Many performers are making conscious efforts to break down the barriers, real or imagined, that exist between performer and audience. The traditional concert attire of white tie and tails for the men is seen less often now (though the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses) as many, understandably, prefer comfort over formality. Quite a few performers like to introduce the music they are playing in advance of the performance, explaining its provenance and its meaning, or its special or personal connection to them. This can be very engaging, arousing the audience’s interest before a single note is heard, and reminding us that this is to be a shared experience. At smaller venues I have attended, the performers often come to mingle with the audience afterwards, sharing a glass of wine and conversation.

While I am not wholly convinced by James Rhodes’ entirely casual approach (though his attitude to his music is by no means “casual”: he is committed and diligent), I do think he is doing good things to further reduce the stuffiness that surrounds classical music. If dressing like a student, in jeans and Converse trainers, gets students, more used to “moshing” at a rock concert, into the classical concert hall, then I am all for it. However, playing with an iPad propped up on the music rack strikes me as pure, crowd-pleasing gimmickry, and has no place at the piano, as far as I am concerned. I am posting a video clip of James Rhodes performing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival to allow readers to form their own opinions on this:

B flat is a hauntingly melancholic key, and this collaborative music/spoken word project demonstrates this point exquisitely. A collection of video clips of people playing different instruments and sound-producing devices, it doesn’t matter when you start a clip, or in what order, you end up with beautiful ensemble piece which is different every time.

Go on – try it!

PS for fellow synaesthetes, for me the key of B flat is sea-green.

This breath-taking, beautifully crafted book by Janice Galloway presents a fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann from childhood to the committal to a mental asylum of her husband, Robert, her growing friendship with the young Johannes Brahms, and Robert’s death.

Clara Schumann is all too often eclipsed by her more famous husband, yet this book reminds us that from a very early age, she was a formidably talented pianist in her own right, and a fine composer.  It is Clara who, along with Liszt, made the piano recital what it is today, in particular, the habit of playing without the score. She exerted her influence over a 61-year career, hardly interrupted by marriage and pregnancy, changing the tastes of the listening public and the format of the traditional piano recital.

From the outset, we sense the extreme pressures of the life as a child prodigy and young virtuosa, with an overbearing, highly ambitious and extremely controlling father, and a muddled, disjointed family life (her parents divorced when she was four, and her father remarried). A life of self-denial and duty was drummed into her from a very young age. Endless practising, studying, being fitted for concert dresses, and touring, where she was presented to the crowned heads of Europe – all in the company of her father, Friedrich Wieck. Written in a slightly breathless, immediate style, the author creates a sense of Clara looking in on her own life, observing herself at arm’s length. Yet, this book does not lack passion: as her love affair with Robert, who was nine years her senior, develops, we sense the frustration of two young people, deeply connected – physically and spiritually – but bound by the conventions of the time.

After their marriage, Clara continued her concert career, though Robert loathed touring with her, managed the their home and finances, and produced eight children (one died in infancy). In the book, the author offers a unique view into the Schumann household: two creative people living and working side by side – dedicated artists in one home can prove a test with their selfish habits and fickle moods – and the tensions of trying to maintain a ‘normal’ family life while continually feeding the artistic talent. Clara comes across as immensely talented, pragmatic, patient, loving: supporting her husband and his increasingly fragile mental state (it has been suggested that Robert suffered from bipolar disorder). She was his wife, mother to his children, his helpmeet and, perhaps above all, his muse.

The narrative introduces some of the key musical and cultural personalities of the day – Mendelssohn was a friend of the Schumanns, Liszt a regular visitor; Moscheles, Thalberg, Sterndale Bennett, Chopin, Paganini, Goethe; later, the young violinist Joachim, and fledgling composer Johannes Brahms – and takes the reader to many of the cultural centres of nineteenth-century Europe as we tour with Clara and her family. There are musical soirees at home and grand concerts in the great venues of Europe: the Gewandhaus, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw. It is a restless, urgent journey, and with Robert’s increasingly unstable mental state, we empathise with Clara’s predicament: the constant tug of the artistic life against her commitment to her family.

This book is thoroughly researched, full of information about the Schumanns, and sympathetic to Clara’s enormous personal burdens and self-sacrifice. The author is adept at bringing Clara to life, but we never really see Robert as a “normal” person, and the reader remains distanced from him, observing, rather than feeling, what is happening to him. Readers who are not familiar with the cultural landscape of the day, and the life of the Schumanns may find the narrative a little hard to follow in places, but it never ever lacks atmosphere.

‘Clara’ perfectly captures the internal life of a musician, muse, wife and mother, and in many ways it is a modern story, for Clara was a working woman who supported her family. Clara’s love is beautifully rendered – like a madness all of her own, at the same time both thrilling and terrifying.

A couple of years ago, I read another novel about Robert and Clara Schumann, based on their letters, Longing by J D Landis. Another rollercoaster of a narrative, it offers a poignant context to their intense and oft-thwarted love by presenting the totally encompassing musical, literary, philosophical, and political climate of the day. A good ‘companion read’ to Clara, and equally well-researched.

This came to me via the weekly newsletter of the IPTG (International Piano Teachers Group), and is from the blog of Elissa Milne, an Australian piano teacher and composer of piano music for students. Her pieces regularly appear in the syllabus of the ABRSM and other exam boards, though I have not taught any yet….

1. Piano lessons are for learning to do cool stuff on the piano

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your emotions and your intellect all at the same time.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are

8. Piano lessons are for joy.

At the risk of sounding a little trite at times, this is a rather good ‘manifesto’ of the purpose of piano lessons, for  students and teachers. Sometimes I think students (and teachers) lose sight of the reasons why they are taking piano lessons. Some children are made to take music lessons (I was!) because their parents think it will be good for them, or because the parents didn’t keep up their lessons as children, and now have a need to live their lives vicariously through their children (dangerous). Where I live, in the leafy, affluent, aspirational suburbs of SW London, there is a strong trend amongst parents for signing their children up for extra-curricular activities which are both healthy (sport) and mind-stretching (music lessons, Kumon maths, learning Mandarin Chinese etc). I am all for children having full and active lives, but I also think children should have the right to choose what they do with their free time. Fortunately, all of my piano students come to me willingly, i.e. they have chosen to have piano lessons, for whatever reason, and gradually, they will come to appreciate the value of their lessons, beyond the activity of “typing” notes on the keyboard to create a pleasant sound.

For my part, my lessons are for self-improvement, first and foremost. At 40, I decided it was ridiculous to have more than a modicum of talent that was under-used and under-stimulated. My lessons give me a proper focus and the practising lends structure to my day. I enjoy the discipline of it, and draw satisfaction from hearing myself improve. On another level, the piano is a form of therapy: it’s my “me time”, the place where I go to play (forgive the pun), to escape. It’s a displacement activity that actually brings tangible results (unlike my other great displacement activity, shopping for clothes, which simply ruptures my bank balance!). It’s intellectually and physically tiring, yet I can come away from a successful practice session of a couple of hours buzzing with endorphins. It has made me more self-reliant and self-critical because it has forced me to confront my own imperfections and to strive for excellence every time I sit down to play. It has taught me confidence and self-belief. It is also a huge privilege to engage with some of the greatest music of the repertoire, wonderful works to be explored and understood, full of things which continually surprise and fascinate, and remind one of the full rush of human life.

Read the full text of Elissa Milne’s manifesto at