Today was one of the highlights of my life as a pianist and piano teacher: the bi-annual visit by Rolf, my piano tuner from Chappell of Bond Street (where I originally purchased my piano). He has been looking after my piano for nearly three years, and lavishes care and attention on it every six months when he comes here.

As part of the after-sales service when you purchase a piano from Chappell, or indeed, Steinway, you have a complimentary follow-up tuning, 6 weeks after the instrument has “moved in” with you. This is important, not least to check that the instrument has settled into your home. Pianos are fickle creatures (growing more fickle with age, like old ladies), and do not like change. They prefer an even level of humidity and temperature and react badly to being placed near radiators and such like. Sunlight is also an enemy: unfortunately, my piano has to reside in the conservatory, not the ideal home, but the only place for it until I move house or rebuild the conservatory and turn it into a proper studio. It suffered a bit during the hot summer, but my conservatory never gets humid, which is the real enemy of the piano.

When I was growing up, my piano was an old Challen upright (circa 1930s), rescued from a friend’s greenhouse in Shropshire, where it had lived, neglected and unloved, for two years. It was not in great condition when my parents acquired it, but thanks to the perseverance of the tuner, and a considerable amount of money, it was reconditioned, refelted, and gradually tuned up to concert pitch. It was on this piano that I learnt to play, endured the treadmill of exams, and grew to love Bach, Beethoven, Schubert et al, after graduating from Swinstead, Dunhill, Czerny, Clementi and co. My tuner in those days was a rather scary man with several stumps instead of fingers – one did not dare ask how he lost his fingers – yet he was a very skilled tuner, and would play the most amazing cascades of Liszt and Chopin when he had completed his work. Sadly, my father sold my piano when I moved into my first flat in London, because he didn’t want it any more, and I didn’t have room for it.

When I bought my current piano, I went up to the new, bigger, and much grander Chappell showroom on Wardour Street, in the Grade 1 listed ‘Novello’ building. Before the move from the Bond Street premises, the piano department was consigned to a cramped basement and had to share the space with all the sheet music. Now, the piano showroom is a large, elegant, wood-panelled room, stuffed with pianos of all sizes and specifications, including a Liberace-style white grand. I took a friend there last year (she was looking for a digital piano) and she was completely gob-smacked, especially that one could just sit down and tinkle the faux-ivories of a full-size concert grand. Arriving at the showroom in January 2007, I was greeted by the salesman who I’d been dealing with over the ‘phone. He introduced me to my piano (he actually said “this is your piano”) and invited me to play. No sooner had I played the opening measures of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A Op 120, than, over in the far corner of the room, a young man started on a very heroic and virtuosic Chopin Scherzo. “Oh no!” said the sales assistant. “He’s here again! He comes in every day to practise. He shouldn’t really be here”, and promptly went over to chase the young man off the piano and out of the showroom. Chappells like you to try their pianos, but they don’t want you taking up residence in the showroom on a regular basis. Meanwhile, from another corner of the showroom came a medley of songs from the shows and some very vamped-up Scott Joplin. I gave up trying to hear myself playing, concluded that the piano would suit me very well, and went to organise payment and delivery. Still reeling from the effect of putting such a huge sum through my Visa account, I went downstairs (the sheet music is still in the basement) and purchased some new music: Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, pieces which I had been listening to endlessly, and playing from flimsy sheets, downloaded from the internet, and the Grazer Fantasy (which I still haven’t learnt) .

The piano arrived the following week, amid much ceremony and obligatory huffing and puffing by the piano movers. Fortunately, it was easy to deliver, as my house is a normal size and shape (unlike a friend’s, whose grand had to be manouevred, by crane, through an upstairs window of his 18th century vicarage). I was so thrilled with my new instrument, I spent the entire day learning the first movement of Schubert’s last sonata. I would say, on reflection, it took me about six months to properly make friends with my piano and get used to it. Last year, in a bid to tone down its very bright sound, I had it regulated (by Rolf) and ‘voiced’, and he did some work on the hammer felts, which, much to my surprise, altered the sound quite significantly. It is richer now, more mellow, less “shiny”.  I do really like the bright treble, though. The hard surfaces in the conservatory (windows, limestone floor) do not help, but with Rolf’s help, I put a picnic blanket under the piano, and it has various fleecey bedspreads and rugs behind it. I will put some curtains up for the winter, ostensibly to help soften the hard sound further, but also to make the space a little more cosy. And to ensure I do not have to stare at my neighbour’s wall the entire time when I am practising.

A maintenance tuning takes about an hour. After the obligatory “is-it-really-six-months-since-I-was-last-here” chat, I usually leave Rolf to it until he summons me back to play after he has finished. When he was here in March, I played the opening bars of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. It came from nowhere, and sent Rolf, who is German, off into huge exclamations of dewy-eyed delight about Beethoven. Rolf never seems to be in a hurry to go to his next appointment, so today we enjoyed a chat about obscure religions of India – prompted by the Buddha which I have in my piano room – the pleasure and discipline of writing, and the fate of Kemble pianos. Eventually, Rolf strolled off to his next appointment in Clapham, and I spent a happy hour or three working on Debussy, on an in-tune piano once again.

I think most pianists would agree that one has a special relationship with one’s tuner. Other instrumentalists tend to their instruments themselves (when I played the clarinet, I got very good at taking it apart, mending the pads, and keeping all the chrome and cork in good nick), but a pianist must turn to another specialist to maintain his instrument, and a specialist whom one trusts to do a good job. Tuners spend years learning all the nuances to become skilled at bringing out the full tonal beauty of the instrument, and a piano is a complex piece of machinery, comprising some 5000 parts. Being a piano tuner is a highly skilled occupation, requiring  a good ear, practice and, above all perhaps, patience.

‘The Tingle Factor’ used to be a programme on Radio 4, a kind of second cousin to ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which reasonably well-known people (I hesitate to use the word “celebrities”), usually musical, artistic or literary personalities, discussed which pieces of music made them “tingle” or made the hair stand up on the back of their neck, and why. I expect most people have their own personal ‘Desert Island Discs’, and lists of significant songs and pieces. Remember the character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity who made endless musical lists?  As a student, me and my friends were always making “mixes”, cassette tapes of our favourites, for parties, for driving, for working to, for chilling on a Sunday afternoon in bed…. Sometimes when I hear a song from that time (mid-1980s), I am instantly transported back to the attic room in my hall of residence, or to a pub, or a party, or a club somewhere in Exeter. I only have to hear ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads or ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds, and I am back in a crowded student club near the River Exe, on the dance floor, my doorkeys tucked into my shoe….

We gather music along the way and it forms a soundtrack to our lives, evoking memories, good and bad, and a few bars of a significant song or piece of music can create an instant reaction, a ‘tingle’. Music can arouse very powerful emotions. Psychologists suggest that there is something about the way music unfolds over time, as do emotions, and when we hear music we re-live the emotional sequence that happened the first time we heard it. This makes music so much more powerful than a smell or a painting: it draws us into a very special sequence of relived experiences. Music also raises our expectations, simply by granting or delaying a bar or beat in a piece, or by leaving a harmonic progression unresolved, or by using a device such as a Picardy Third. We would not be moved by music that fulfils our expectations; our emotions are at their highest when we are un-expected.

Then there is the music that seems to have seeped into the collective consciousness: Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ is synonymous with space travel, specifically the Apollo moon landings, after it was used in Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, even for those people who are too young to remember the film or the moon landings. Or the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, often simply called ‘Elvira Madigan’ after the 1967 Swedish film of the same title in which the music memorably featured. Or the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (‘Death in Venice’). Or Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Hear just a few bars and one instantly thinks of poppies, the First War and the annual, sombre ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. And – dare I mention it? – ‘Nessun Dorma’, now forever associated with football. We are constantly bombarded with soundtracks and jingles, musical tags and cover versions, which induce an unexpected “tingle” in us.

The other week, I was listening to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, as I often do when I’m surfacing for the day with my first of many cups of tea, and I heard a piece which immediately took me back to my family home in Rickmansworth, where we lived when I was at secondary school in the early 1980s. The piece, for solo oboe and orchestra, was ‘The Watermill’, by Ronald Binge, composer of “light music”, and was used as the theme tune for the 1970s children’s tv series ‘The Secret Garden’. I loved the series, and the book it was based on: as an only child, I had (and still have) a vivid and romantic imagination, and was used to keeping myself entertained, making up stories and plays on my own in the garden or at the piano. But I wasn’t remembering the tv series when I heard ‘The Watermill’: I was recalling my father playing it on the clarinet, with me accompanying him on the piano.

Another piece which always reminds me of my father and sends a distinct tingle down my spine, is Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. My father was an accomplished amateur clarinettist who, sadly, had to give up the instrument some years ago because it was affecting his teeth. We often used to play the Finzi Bagatelles together, our favourite movements being the Prelude and the Forlana (which formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam). Thanks to a neat little gadget on my computer, I have created a personal ringtone for my father, based on Finzi’s Prelude!

There are many other pieces which induce a tingle in me, and some of these are distinct from my Desert Island Discs, which are pieces I simply cannot live without. Many of these pieces can transport me instantly to a point sometime in my recent past, others evoke a vague memory of a person or a place. Some are just heart-achingly beautiful: music that stops one in one’s tracks, or makes one cry. One or two are so painful I can hardly bear to listen them. Here is just a small selection of my ‘tingle’ factor music:

Beethoven – Opp 23 and 96 Sonatas for violin and piano

Beethoven – Op 110, slow movement and fugue

Schubert – D899 no. 4

Schubert – D960 1st movement

Schubert – D940 Fantasie

Schubert – Op Post 148 Notturno

Janacek – On An Overgrown Path (all of it)

Part – Speigel im Speigel

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor K511

Handel – Harp Concerto, first movement

Chopin – Impromptu in G flat, Op 51

Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now’

Ian Bostridge singing Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’

Franck – Sonata in A, last movement

It says something about the music of Schubert that I have highlighted four pieces by him. There are, of course, many, many more!

Being a professional musician is regarded by many as a highly self-indulgent activity: doing something you love and enjoy, and being lucky enough to get paid for it. The long training, which often begins early in childhood (I started taking piano lessons aged five or six), and can go on for many years post-college, conservatoire or university, is reduced to the preparation for a hobby, for clearly music is not “real” work.

Talk to any professional musicians, or music teachers, or indeed anyone involved in classical music, and you will find highly professional and committed people who believe making music is an important cultural gift to be shared with others. But many of us also wish our art and craft was properly valued by the community which we aim to serve. Music teachers are famously underpaid (a recent survey revealed that the average rate for an hour-long private music lesson is around £25), and only the very top flight musicians can secure top flight fees for their performances. A handful are lucky enough to gain handsome recording deals.

I am often told I am “very lucky” to have turned my “hobby” into a business. Never mind the hours of work I put in every week, for which I am not paid, to ensure my studio runs efficiently and my lessons are successful, meeting the needs of each individual student (and they are all different!) every week. Apparently, I am also very “lucky” to be so “talented”. Many people forget that talent has to be nurtured: there are only a very few people out there who are so naturally talented that they do not need to put the hours in. The rest of us work hard, for hours and hours, days and months and years to feed the talent. A serious, committed professional pianist practises for five or six, or more, hours a day to ensure, in performance, that one never plays a wrong note, mindful always that one is only as good as one’s last performance or review. Aside from that, there is all the painstaking work to be done away from the keyboard: reading, analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes which, once learnt, remain embedded in the memory and the fingers forever. Note-bashing is simply no substitute for the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with a piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time. There is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going, a vast repertoire “in the fingers” which can be made “concert-ready” for some kind of performance within a matter of days, depending on one’s schedule.

Then there is the travelling: the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent in faceless hotels, sometimes a different hotel every night, fine, historic cities viewed through the fatigue of travel, for a pianist, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic. Having to produce a faultless performance on the concert platform every time. Never having permission to be less than perfect; always feeding the artistic temperament. To begin every practice session with the question “What can I do that’s different to the others?”, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain.

And one is not paid, retrospectively, for all the practise and preparation time. Concert fees are not huge, and sheet music and clothing and travel have to be paid for. And the instrument upon which one works, day in day out, must be maintained with regular visits by the piano tuner. Superstar soloists, like Chinese poster-boy-pianist Lang Lang, have an entourage of staff to support and cosset, but most international performers take responsibility for themselves, turning up on the appropriate day, with very little time beforehand to get to know the instrument. In the old days, one selected one’s instrument at Steinway Hall or the Yamaha showroom, it was prepared to one’s particular specification (there is a lovely scene in Bruno Monsangeion’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing him choosing a Yamaha in the showroom in Japan), and it travelled with one to engagements. These days, the soloist arrives at the venue and hopes for the best, knowing that most concert Steinways or Yamahas are largely the same.

During term time, when I work eight to ten hours a week teaching, I am “on duty” much of the time, my head full of information about my students, where they are in their learning, what needs to be done with them at forthcoming lessons and beyond, assessing which students will be ready for exams and when, and then remembering to do the online entries. At the most basic level, when I’m teaching back-to-back for three afternoons a week, there is rarely even time to dash to the loo or make a drink. I need a butler to answer the door and a maid to keep my teacup replenished! Sometimes, my mother comes up to stay and helps me by greeting students, chatting up parents, and making me tea. But I often don’t even have time to drink it, and at the end of the afternoon, the table in my piano room is littered with half-drunk cups of cold Lapsang Souchong. After three or four hours of explaining and demonstrating, listening and critiquing, I am so tired I literally cannot speak and often want to simply lie on the sofa in complete silence for an hour or more, preferably with a chilled glass of something in my hand. But I also have a family to look after: there’s homework to be supervised, and taxi-ing to Scouts or other after school clubs, and dinner to be cooked.

That is not to say that I don’t enjoy my work as a piano teacher, because I do. I enjoy it immensely: it is rewarding (seeing students improve and achieve), entertaining, challenging, emotional – but don’t let anyone kid you it’s easy!

Aside from the teaching, I also need to do my own practising. I am fortunate, as an amateur, albeit a very serious amateur, that I am not enthralled to the fickleness of audiences and reviewers; instead, I am my own fiercest critic and I set myself extremely high standards. Putting the hours in at the keyboard every day, if possible, is crucial to my continuing improvement and my ongoing ability to tackle the bigger and more complex works of the standard repertoire. Many people seem to think I just sit at the keyboard and the music flows magically out of my fingers. If only! For example, I have worked, virtually every day for several hours a day, for six weeks on Chopin’s First Ballade, and I am now up to page 9 (where the iconic second theme makes its grandiose reappearance), and the real pyrotechnic passages still await me. Alongside the Chopin, I have three other reasonably complex works, which may or may not form part of my diploma programme, to be learnt, finessed and kept going. I enjoy the work hugely: it is stimulating, both mentally and physically, but it is also very tiring.

When I go to a concert, I am more than aware of the hours of work and study the soloist will have put in to produce a performance lasting just under two hours. Learning some of the workhorses of the piano repertoire has given me a much greater appreciation of the amount of work that is required to be concert-ready: I worked for over eight months to learn one – just one! – of Chopin’s Etudes, and even after I’d performed it, at which point one might be able to consider the work “put to bed”, I still found things I wanted to do to it – and will go on doing so. I doubt the Chopin Ballade will be anything near to concert-ready before Christmas. Thus, when I go to a performance and witness a memory lapse or errors, I can only sympathise with the performer. Considering the amount of material one is required to hold in one’s head and fingers at any given time, is it any wonder that sometimes the mechanism stalls?

So the next time you’re at a concert, or listening to a performance on the radio, spare a thought for the hours of effort and commitment the performers have put in, for relatively little recompense, to produce that sublime sound, and be thankful that we are able to share in that effort and that unique cultural gift.

On the pages of, a sort of “Facebook for musicians/musical people” to which I subscribe, there has been some interesting and rather heated recent discussion about the rightness, or otherwise, of the Royal Albert Hall continuing as a venue for the Proms. Two journalists, Matthew Tucker and Jessica Duchen, have argued eloquently and thoughtfully for a change of venue (see and for their articles), and I have to say I agree with them. I have avoided the Proms in recent years because I find the RAH so uncomfortable: it is airless and hot, with insufficient loos and not enough places to have a drink/snack beforehand, or during the interval. I find those corridors that run around the auditorium rather like a dog track, full of shuffling, befuddled people trying to find their seats, and the numbered and lettered entrances are incredibly confusing. The auditorium itself, more like a giant ‘corrida’ than a music venue, is stuffy and on several occasions, I have nodded off during a performance, only to be woken by the applause at the end of a piece. Rather galling to have missed much of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart when I spent £25 on a ticket!

The real problem though is the acoustic. Despite various attempts to improve it, such as the “mushrooms” suspended from the ceiling, the RAH still ‘boasts’ an appalling acoustic. In a recent interview in International Piano magazine, pianist Paul Lewis talked about performing the Beethoven piano concertos at the RAH at this year’s Prom season: “you need a big piano and you just have to play it loud”. At first I read this remark as simply facetious, but on reflection, I think it is an example of just how up against it performers are with the RAH acoustic. It’s a great venue for music on a vast scale, such as Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (which I have performed at the RAH with massed school choirs), or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand which opened the Proms this year, but it lacks the appropriate intimacy for smaller scale chamber works or solo recitals.

I am not sure why we sentimentally cling to the RAH as the natural home of the Proms. The concert series originated at the Queen’s Hall (which was bombed in 1941 and subsequently demolished), under the direction of not Henry Wood, but a Mr Robert Newman. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the new BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”.

After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

So, the Proms have existed at the RAH for less than 70 years, so pressing the case for “historical precedent” seems a little weak to me. I’m all for a complete rethink of the Proms, and have joined in the lively discussions on, arguing for consideration of the South Bank and its excellent venues as a new home for the Proms. Not only does the Royal Festival Hall boast a fine acoustic, but it is also centrally located, being close to Waterloo, is a lively arts and cultural centre, and has many good restaurants and winebars close by, whereas the RAH is out on a limb in South Ken, devoid of eateries and other amenities for pre-concert drinks or suppers.

Supporters of the RAH claim that the “spirit” of the Proms would be lost in a change of venue, but I do not see why this should be the case. The flag-waving can continue, as well as yelling “heave-ho!” as the lid of the piano is raised. Indeed, why not spread the Prom concerts around the fine concert venues of London, places which tend to close down during August, such as the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls (which is currently used for some Proms), or St John’s Smith Square and St James’s? Rather like the London Open House and Art Open Studios events which take place periodically, I would love to see as many music/arts venues as possible across the capital throw open their doors to concert-goers. London is blessed with so many great venues, but which are only known to a select few. One could enjoy a sort of “musical safari”, going from Handel at Cadogan Hall (Chelsea) to Haydn at the Wigmore (West End), Vivaldi at a City church, then up to Highgate for Schubert at The Red Hedgehog, heading south to the Purcell Room for a drop of Bach, east to Shostakovich at Sutton House (a charming National Trust property in Hackney with a very nice, intimate concert space), finishing off with Korngold at King’s Place…..

Another argument for the continuation of the Proms at RAH is its inclusiveness. Anyone can attend a Prom, everyone is welcome, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at any concert venue – and I believe that it’s often the personality or manner of the soloist/orchestra/musical director which sets the tone for the evening rather than what the audience are wearing. Mitsuko Uchida can, for example, make the large space of the Royal Festival Hall feel as intimate as Schubert’s salon. Maria Joao Pires at the Wigmore made us feel we were enjoying music at home with her and her friends, while Stephen Hough turned the hall into a vast, cold and unfriendly place, and Paul Lewis always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the concert platform. When I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Beethoven piano sonatas a couple of years ago, when he presented the entire cycle at RFH, the sense of awed reverence had begun even before we entered the hall, and it felt as if a vast barrier had been put up between him on the stage and us, the audience.

Of course, this whole argument for a change of venue for the Proms is hypothetical, as the process of moving such a great leviathan as the Proms would be far too complex and expensive, and I suspect the vast majority of people – audience, performers, concert promoters – are quite content to remain at the RAH, accepting its shortcomings and embracing its (few, in my view) benefits (capacity being the main one).

But we have a coalition government, which somehow, seems rather daring and new (though not unprecedented). So, why not a coalition of music venues with the single purpose of presenting music for all?

Just a thought……!

Friday morning, and I was enjoying fairly leisurely tea and toast in bed (not having to get up early, for a change, to chivvy my son off to school) when I switched on Radio 3 and caught the charming Scherzo of Beethoven’s Opus 97 Piano Trio, the ‘Archduke’.

This work was one of the set pieces for my music A-Level (circa 1984), and has remained a favourite ever since. Pubished in 1811, it is Beethoven’s last piano trio. It comes from the same period of the composer’s creative life as the Opus 96 Sonata for violin and piano, and shares some of the same qualities of this work in its elegant long-spun melodies and nobility of expression. I was fortunate in my music A-Level group in that the other students were a violinist and cellist respectively – and we were all of a similar standard, having all done our Grade 8 exams at roughly the same time. The A-Level syllabus required us to analyse the complete work, and as well as studying it in the classroom, we spent a great deal of time playing it together, which was both enjoyable and educational, since it reinforced many of the things we had been discussing in class.

The opening movement is in B-flat major, the same key as the first movement of Schubert’s great valedictory D960 sonata. The two works share some characteristics aside from the key, which is both serene and grandiose, poignant and wistful: both begin with a stately and graceful, long-lined opening theme, establishing the nobility which permeates the entire work. The Archduke is full of sweetness and spaciousness, monumentality and intimacy. Its emotional core is the third movement, an ethereal set of variations on a hymn-like theme, and one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving accomplishments. Player and listener are reminded of similar movements in the late piano sonatas (especially Opp.109 and 111), the Ninth Symphony, or the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the Op. 132 string quartet.

Of course, I didn’t know these things when I was studying the work in my teens. We tended to do the analysis, without regard to the historical or compositional context of a work, studying it in isolation, blanking out all the other music that Beethoven was writing at the same time. But the work must have touched me, because whenever I hear it now, I experience a great rush of memory which can transport me right back to the music studio at school in the mid-1980s.

My school was blessed with an extremely fine music department, headed by a very energetic and hands-on music master. I was an active member of the department from the day I joined the school, and belonged to the senior orchestra (playing first desk clarinet), chamber orchestra (playing harpsichord continuo), choir, wind and recorder ensembles, and the madrigal group. I was a rather argumentative, opinionated and competitive A-Level student, always picking a fight with my music teacher (memorably, over my use of the word “bucolic” to describe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and behaving in a (totally unjustified) diva-ish way about my piano playing. I thought I was the brightest student in the A-Level group, and I still cringe at the memory of my pretentious, know-it-all behaviour. I’m not sure what the other students thought of me, but when we were playing the Archduke Trio together, we were all equal before the music – which is how it should be. The violinist used to stand by the piano in her imperious violinist’s stance, tuning her instrument with much huffing and hair-tossing, while the ‘cellist, a clumsy, rather nervy girl who could be guaranteed to knock over all the other music stands when taking her place in the orchestra, struggled to secure the spike of her ‘cello. Then the music would begin, the quietly beautiful opening melody in the piano, and we would forget ourselves for awhile, enjoying the music and that particular give-and-take that comes from ensemble playing. Playing with other musicians can be so satisfying – far more enjoyable that hours of grinding practise alone, with no one to chat and joke with. It’s like belonging to a very special family with its own vicissitudes, petty niggles, tears and triumphs, and, like a proper family member, one has a responsibility towards the others, to be generous and open-hearted, and to keep going, no matter what, transcending oneself. It forces one to be modest, before the music and the other members of the ensemble.

We never performed the Archduke at school, though all three of us worked together on other works, including the marvellous Bach ‘Double’ Concerto (I was on harpsichord) with the chamber orchestra. I still have the manuscript of the Trio somewhere, covered in my analytical notes, a souvenir of some very happy and memorable years of music-making.

I admit it: I’m a frightful purist and unashamed pedant when it comes to learning new music, preferring a careful, methodical approach, working slowly with a pencil behind my ear. I like to work things out for myself, and only very occasionally will be completely stumped by something in a score, which will either have me searching for some hints on the internet, or arriving at a lesson to consult my teacher, who knows that I prefer to work at problem-solving on my own, and is often happy to point me in the right direction and leave me to get on with it.

In an earlier post, I talked about familiarity with the music, not just the physical sensation and the patterns of the notes under the fingers, but also of seeing the score in front of me, day in day out, so that I begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of the printed music. I try to instill similar habits in my students, but I would be naive if I thought any of them practised as meticulously as I do. There are no budding Kissin’s or Lang Lang’s amongst my students, for which I am relieved as teaching a very talented student would fill me with dread, but there are one or two who show a real affinity for the instrument, and are sufficiently interested to practise regularly. One or two hardly practise at all – I know who they are! And one makes it look easy – ggrrrr!! With an age range of five to mid-forties, my student all have plenty of other things going on in their lives – drama, sport, after school activities, work – and piano practise just has to fit in around everything else. My adult students tend to be more committed and focussed, but that is because they are learning piano for slightly different reasons to the kids and are all self-motivated people.

To help with the learning of new music, I ask a student to read through the score and highlight any signs or markings which they don’t understand. Then we look for recurring patterns, breaking the score down into manageable pieces. Sometimes, being confronted with a whole A4 page of music can be very daunting for an early learner; showing them where the music repeats itself (either a straight repeat, or a repeated pattern or motif) can demystify it, making it simpler to understand. I use quite a lot of visual cues too – words or little drawings to describe the mood, tone or “story” in the music. I also ask my students to imagine the pictures and stories in the music. I like to think all these things combine to make the learning process more enjoyable. We also listen to other music to gain insights into context, both compositional and historical, and to highlight that piano music should not be considered in isolation.

I never been particularly keen on things stuck on the keyboard or behind the keys to help with note-learning, partly because I think such things are a distraction, forcing the eye down to the keys, instead of straight ahead at the score. However, one of my adults regularly uses one of these devices, ‘IMP’s Keyboard Indicator’, which shows not only the layout of the keyboard, but also the notes as they are written on the stave. She has found it invaluable in improving her knowledge of the geography of the keyboard and as a consequence, her confidence has also improved a great deal. My only concern is that she may not be able to cope without it if and when it is removed from the keyboard.

I ordered a Keyboard Indicator to keep in my piano room, and yesterday it arrived from Amazon. Setting it up on my piano (to make sure it fitted properly), I found myself checking some chords in both the Debussy and Gershwin preludes I am learning, where the right hand is taken to the very upper registers of the keyboard, a place I do not visit that often. I must say it was jolly useful to be able to make a quick check, annotate the score and then play the music, but fearing “dependence”, I quickly consigned the indicator to the top drawer of my desk, and carried on with the Debussy in my usual fashion. At the end of the day, only repetitive practise will truly fix those high chords in my head and fingers.