Mission impossible?

Learning music is a journey: sometimes – often! – it’s an amazing journey of discovery with new horizons and vistas constantly opening up before you as you travel through the score. As you grow more intimate with it, you find interesting bye-ways and twitchells. Sometimes, you come across a short-cut: a clever way to resolve a tricky passage, a fingering scheme which is perfect for a run of difficult chords. Set a piece aside for a few months and then go back to it, and you find even more, things you might have missed first time round, or elements which you appraise in a new or different way.

But occasionally it’s a journey fraught with pitfalls, cul-de-sacs and u-turns. Doors are closed, alleyways prohibited. Access denied. It’s rare for me to give up on a piece of music. I’m tenacious, persistent and perfectionist, and it irks me horribly if a piece gets the better of me, but now and then I take on something which just does not suit me, and no matter how long I spend with it, I just don’t progress. And so, in the end, I become a hostage to it, confronting the same page of score day after day and not moving forward. Shades of ‘Groundhog Day’! A few examples:

Delius – ‘Scherzando’. A really beautiful, lyrical piece, playful and spritely, which I started learning last year when I was going through my “English Romantics” phase (including Ireland and Bridge). but my hands – and head – simply could not cope with all its weird and awkward arpeggios, which did not sit comfortably under the fingers. It’s harder than it looks!

Delius – Three Preludes

Gershwin – No. 1 of Three Preludes, Allegro ben ritmato e deciso. I learnt the middle piece of this trio and performed it in my students’ concert last summer, a lazy, languid prelude with motifs redolent of the composer’s more famous work ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. The first Prelude is exuberant, opening with a 5-note blues motif on which virtually all the material in the piece is based. This was no problem for me: but the syncopated rhythms, based on a Brazilian baião, completely foxed me. Unfortunately, I mis-learnt the rhythm and then found it virtually impossible to un-learn and re-learn it. After days spent playing the rhythm on the fall of my piano – and nothing else – I had to admit defeat. But it’s a piece I would like to return to when I have the time to learn it properly.

Gershwin  3 Preludes

Shostakovich – Prelude in D Major, Op. 87, No. 5. This piece, from the LTCL repertoire list, was supposed to herald my first serious foray into Shostakovich’s repertoire for the piano. Arpeggiated chords over a simple, tranquil melody, first in the bass, then in the treble. Sounds easy? Looks easy too…. But my left hand refused to play the game of arpeggiated chords, and the right hand got tired too easily. Even with some helpful tips from my teacher to relax the hands, I found this piece painful and awkward. It was with great reluctance that I had to set it aside, and rest my right hand. I intend to return to this piece, but when, and only when, my right hand is 100% fit.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember labouring over the same wretched piece week after week, my teacher insistent that I was jolly well going to learn it. It was demoralising to have to struggle through the same thing each week, and I grew to despise certain pieces. Thus, when I am working with my students, I always play through a new piece to them so they can hear it and tell me whether they like it, and, most importantly, would like to learn it. There’s no point forcing a child (or indeed an adult student) to learn something they don’t like (though I do occasionally impose certain pieces on students for the purposes of improving technique or studying a particularly aspect). Some of my students have very clear ideas about what they would like to learn: one child, Sam, 8, is keen on jazz and has a real affinity for it. Sadly, I do not teach jazz, but I do try to accommodate his wishes. Another, Ben, loves Beethoven, and his treat this week will be to start learning a simplified version of the Moonlight Sonata. (Ben can already play the opening measures by ear, correctly transposed into D minor.)

If a child is really struggling with a piece, despite requesting to learn it, we will abandon it. Much as I dislike admitting failure, sometimes it’s necessary to just move on and select a new piece. It also reminds students that there is a wealth of fantastic repertoire out there just begging to be discovered.

A Spotter’s Guide: teachers, pupils and parents

As a freelance music teacher, you have to be endlessly cheerful, good-natured, adaptable, patient, resourceful and tolerant. You should be able to tailor your teaching style to suit each individual student, and be flexible and imaginative to make lessons fun, stimulating AND educational. You should never:

  • forget students’ names, or where they are in their learning
  • assign music that is too hard, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • assign music that is too easy, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • make a student cry (one of my pupils told me her previous teacher was “horrible” and regularly reduced her to tears)
  • drop the fall (lid) on a student’s hand. A friend of mine had a teacher who did this (in the 1970s). Unsurprisingly, she switched from piano to flute, at which she excelled, with a brilliant teacher.

A teacher who does at least two of these things on a regular basis is probably a teacher to be avoided. Eccentricity is permitted – indeed, actively encouraged in music teachers – but not inefficiency, ineptitude, or cruelty.

Of course, pupils and their parents fall into categories too, and you get to know their quirks and exigencies in the course of your teaching. For example, one of my students, Laurie, just loves scales and other technical work. Rather than play a piece of his choosing to open his lesson, he will always opt for scales, and will rattle through them with fluency, speed and accuracy. He’s recently got to grips with hands together scales (for Grade 2) and loves to show off how brilliant he is. Then there is Harrison (taking Grade 1 in a week’s time), who always has a packet of Polos. It has become a running joke between him and I, and when he arrives for his lesson, I always ask “Have you brought the Polos?”. We will pause mid-lesson so that he can offer me a Polo, a pleasant break for both of us! Or Ben, who has a fantastic ear and who can play almost anything, by ear, from the opening of the Moonlight Sonata, transposed into D minor (with all the correct harmonies) to a riff from ‘I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone’. The range of pupils, their individual personalities, abilities, habits and quirks while at the piano, makes the teacher’s working week varied and full of entertainments (and, less frequently, luckily, frustrations).

Parents are also an integral part of your teaching, and need a degree of kid-glove treatment. They are, after all, the people who pay your bills, and you owe it to them to involve them in what is going on, keeping them informed of their child’s progress, and co-opting them to encourage regular, productive practising between lessons. Parents who feel included in the activities of your studio are more than happy to turn out for end of term concerts (even bringing contributions to the post-concert tea party!). Being pleasant, courteous and friendly with parents costs nothing, and reaps huge rewards.

There appear to be several distinct types of parent:

  • Late to drop off/pick up: possibly the most irritating, especially when one is trying to run an efficient studio to a tight schedule. Parents who are late to pick up interrupt other students’ lessons, and seem to regard teacher as some kind of childminding service. Late to drop off parents often expect the lesson to still last for the full 30 minutes, and are consequently also late to pick up.
  • Late to pay: you get to know which parents are prompt in settling termly bills, and those who are not. Excuses tend to be the usual, clichéd ones such as “I’ve run out of cheques” or “I forgot my chequebook”. I live in a very affluent area of SW London, where the demographic is largely upper middle class, professional people. They have no excuse for not paying on time – especially when my bank details are included on my invoices, for ease of paying by direct bank transfer. I have on occasion been moved to consider a “no payment, no lesson” rule, though have yet to implement it.
  • Pushy parent: again the product of living in an affluent, high-achieving area, where the competition for school places is tough, and parents with an “agenda” abound. Pushy parents are endlessly demanding and persistent: they hang on to your every word (though do not always take in what you have said!), muscle in on lessons, make excuses for little or no practice, overrule teacher’s directions, “re-teach” the child in the week between lessons, pester about exams, and generally double your workload.
  • Disorganised parent: the child arrives without music or practice notebook, or both. Or the wrong music. Children of such parents often arrive late for lessons as well, forget to do homework, or, on occasion, forget to turn up for the lesson!
  • “I wish I’d had the opportunity” parent: these parents are the best. Enthusiastic without being pushy, supportive, encouraging and interested. They ensure the student does the practice/homework, though without standing over the child, and are well-organised. They are endlessly positive, and grateful, making both child and teacher feel valued and rewarded. They must be nurtured.

In an ideal world, teacher, student and parent form a perfect circle: instruction-practice-encouragement-progress. The student feels supported and valued, and goes on (and on) to produce consistently good work, pass exams with flying colours, and. we hope, develop a love and fascination for the instrument and its repertoire. This last point is my ultimate goal, and my main motivation for teaching. I am passionate about the piano and its literature, and by teaching, I have the opportunity, every week, to share my passion with others. If even a tiny bit of my boundless enthusiasm rubs off onto my students, then I can consider my job well done.

Extraordinary Splashes of Colour

Music and Synaesthesia

I have written before about synaesthesia and how it effects me personally, and relates to my experience of music, both playing and listening to it.

Synaesthesia is a physiological ‘condition’ (I hesitate to use this word, as I am in no way disabled by it), which literally means “a fusion of the senses”. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a condition for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Musical synaesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic” (Oliver Sacks). It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it. I have always had it, and until quite recently, I assumed that everyone else had it. It was only at dinner one evening, when I revealed that Monday is always red, Thursday is a brownish-mauve, and the key of B-flat major is sea-green, and my friends looked at me slightly askance and declared “You’re nuts, Fran!”, that I realised I was one of the one in two thousand….

From quite an early age, I suspect I was aware that my brain assigned individual colours to the musical keys – just as it does for letters of the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year, numbers etc. It seemed perfectly normal to me. I have met other synaesthetes, including those who share my particular version of the condition, though our ‘colour schemes’ are never identical. My particular colour scheme is unchanging: A is always red, no matter what background it is set against or in what context; F major is always a dusky mauve

As a musician, this makes for an interesting experience. At concerts, even if I do not know what key the piece is in, the music will conjure up colours in my head. And when I am playing music, the score is most definitely not black and white: chromatic passages, in particular, are extremely vivid and colourful. When I am working, I do not add my synaesthetic colours to the score – this would only add to all the other annotations that are scribbled on my music. But I am always aware of the colour scheme as I am working, and it definitely informs my practising.

A quick browse of the internet threw up some interesting articles, including colour analyses of some of Beethoven’s music, including the Kreutzer Sonata and the Pathetique. However, these are not the work of a synaesthete; rather a means of mapping the music in a more visual, easy-to-follow way.

Some facts about synaesthesia:

  • The most common form of synaesthesia is the experience of colours linked to letters and numbers (‘grapheme-colour’ synaesthesia), which is what I have.
  • Synaesthesia is involuntary and automatic
  • Synaesthetes are often highly intelligent, ambidexturous, creative individuals, with excellent memories.
  • Synaesthesia is believed to be due to cross-activation within areas of the brain, and is probably hereditary
  • The occurrence of synaesthesia is higher in women than in men
  • Synaesthetes are not mad! Nor is true synaesthesia a form of hallucination (though the drug LSD can induce temporary synaesthesia): for each synaesthete, their particular experience is unchanging.

Historical precedents:

Aristotle wrote that the harmony of colours was like the harmony of sounds. This set the stage for a later connecting of specific light and sound frequencies, as Aristotle’s works were translated and incorporated into European scientific study. From the late 15th century, academics, scientists (including Isaac Newton) and musicians were assigning colour schemes to notation, intervals, and the musical scale. Musicians who were genuine synaesthetes include Franz Lizst, American pianist and composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944), who had both perfect pitch and a set of personal colours for musical keys, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien. Scriabin claimed to have synaesthesia, but it is more likely that he was simply responding to the then salon fashion for “colour music”, and the writings of Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Founder of the Futurist movement in art, Marinetti, aspired to have all the senses (he counted five) employed in “interactive synesthetic ecstasy”, and The Futurist Manifesto includes suggestions as to how colours, shapes and sounds combine, which has influenced composers and musicians, as well as artists. English composer Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a Colour Symphony, but this is not the product of a synaesthetic mind. Like Scriabin, he was influenced by the idea of “colour music”, though it was not a mystic association for him but rather a response to the symbolism usually associated with the colours of the English heraldic tradition.

Messiaen’s music, for me, vibrates with colour. The fourth Vingt Regard, which I am studying, is full of chords with rich layers of colours stacked atop one another, flashes of bright gold, orange, royal blue, deep red. Combinations of colours were very important in his compositional process. “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.” He found that raising a note an octave produced a paler shade of the same colour, while lowering the note produced a darker hue. Only if the pitch altered would the colour change (my experience is identical). His colour associations were very consistent (as mine are), and so to help musicians understand his particular colour schemes, he annotated his scores with the precise colours he perceived. The piano part, in the second movement of his extraordinary and moving Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German PoW camp in 1940-41, contains the instruction to aim for “blue-orange” chords, a difficult concept for a non-synaesthete to grasp, perhaps.

I have yet to meet a fellow synaesthete who is also a musician. The subject fascinates me, in a non-scientific way, and I would be delighted to hear from other musicians who also see colours, either when they listen to music, or when they read it off the score. My experience tends to be more intense when I am actually reading music.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s colour scheme follows, one of several I could have included. My colours are in brackets. As a general rule, minor keys are a more muted version of their major counterparts. Enharmonic keys are different, however: while D-flat major is a pale greeny-blue, C-sharp major is deep red; F-sharp major is purple, which G-flat major is a pale yellow-orange.

B major gloomy, dark blue with steel shine (greenish-blue)
Bb major darkish (sea green)
A major clear, pink (deep red)
Ab major greysh-vioket  (pinky-red)
G major brownish-gold, light (whiteish-green)
F# major green, clear [colour of greenery] (purply-blue)
F major green, clear [colour of greenery] (pinky mauve)
E major blue, sapphire, bright (orange)
Eb major dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (muted orange, with pink)
D major daylight, yellowish, royal (deep sky blue)
Db major darkish, warm (softer sky blue)
C major white (red)

Describing music – in words and sound

Note to readers: this post started out as a consideration of the way we write about music, but has morphed into something rather more fanciful and personal. Now read on…..

This week, I signed up to The Musical Adjectives Project, the aim of which is to collect and categorise adjectives to “create a reference to aid pianists and musicians in describing and understanding the emotions and character within repertoire.”  As a writer as well as a musician, this interests me greatly. Describing music can be tricky, trying to convey the meaning of the music, the emotional content or what it feels like, physically, to play a certain piece is not an easy task. Music has its own ‘language’ – an analytical language which can be quite impenetrable to non-musicians. I have “be there and done that”, at school. Then there is the language of the programme or liner note, again sometimes quite difficult for the lay person.  The best programme notes describe the structure of the music without being overly analytical, while also offering the origins and inspiration (if known), the context in which the piece was written, and some biographical/historical background. As part of my Diploma, I will need to write programme notes of the pieces I will be presenting (as yet undecided, though I have made notes on each piece as I start work on it: this aspect of the learning process does not faze me at all. Rather, the note-learning, fine-detailing and finessing is more difficult!).

Thinking about the descriptive words one might apply to a piece in one’s head while considering the music can actually aid the learning process, and can help one conceive of the sound one wishes to produce. When I’m teaching, I often ask students to imagine a particular sound, or to pick a certain instrument whose sound might be appropriate: a cello, a trumpet, a flute, a harp, for example. I’ve also had nightingales, hunting horns, dinosaur footprints, “little shoes”, and gypsy guitars. These are quite simple, but very effective ways of imagining sound and putting it into descriptive words. The music that results from a few moments spent on this exercise is interesting and proves that this activity of “visualising sound” has a purpose. Conveying emotion and mood can sometimes be more tricky, though.

Interviewing a professional pianist some years ago, I asked him what it “felt like” to play Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata (the ‘Funeral March’), a piece I had heard him perform some weeks previously. Nevermind the iconic theme of the third movement, which has, in our time, become associated with the death of Soviet leaders; he replied that it was “horrible”, as if one was “utterly exposed”, “like having one’s entrails picked over in public”. This is partly because in the final movement there is, for the pianist, literally nowhere to hide: it is a whirlwind of unison notes of unvarying and unremitting tempo (speed) and dynamics (sound), an elusive, enigmatic stream of musical consciousness. But I think there is a more existential meaning in his comment: that this music is visceral, and gut-wrenching, and, playing it, you lay yourself bare, humbled by it. The words we might use to describe this music are those more usually applied to the human body, particularly the body in pain: visceral (literally “relating to the viscera”, i.e. the nervous system), gut-wrenching (painful, stomach-turning, extremely unpleasant or upsetting). Of course, we can never know if Chopin had those words in his head as he wrote this music, but this movement is painful: its briefness, the swirling motif that turns back on itself and never seems to fully free itself of its tethers, the unsettling notation. Compare this with the famous Marche Funèbre which can sound grand, stately, resolute, and then, in the trio section, by contrast, elegant, intimate, charming.

If these are the words which spring to mind as one works on this piece, there is a very good chance one is like to convey those feelings and moods to the audience in performance, and, for the audience, this makes for a far more involving concert experience. And, believe me, I have been to concerts where the performer has perhaps not done this kind of exercise. Result: the music sounds flat, merely typed. Sure, the dynamics, the articulation, the fluctuations in tempo are there, but some of the depth, the philosophy, of the music is lost….

At other times, we may describe music in terms of colours or other visual elements: warm, dark, light, bright, chiaroscuro, muted, shiny, glittering, sparkling, twinkling, brilliant. Or textures: velvety, silken, rich, woolly, jagged, prickly, sharp, smooth, soft. These are not necessarily words to describe the pianist’s physical touch or attack on the keys; rather the ‘sensation’ of ‘texture through sound’, which the performer endeavours brings to the music.

Or how about nature and the weather? Forget the obvious – Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. There’s sunshine in the ‘Trout’ quintet with its “holiday” melodies; or Debussy’s “misty” harmonies, his water-drenched Cathedrale Engloutie, his fogs, winds and snowflakes. The sounds of the countryside around Nohant, or the rain in Majorca, in Chopin’s music, or Messiaen’s birdsong? Beethoven’s thunderstorms, the serenity of the “great river” in the opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata….

Inspired by The Musical Adjectives Project, I set myself an exercise, to describe the pieces I am working on currently. Not in pure analytical terms, but in descriptive terms – and in no particular order, i.e. the adjectives do not relate to particular measures or passages. What words and feelings spring to mind as I play the music, and do these inform my learning or help my performance?

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: floating, ethereal, muted, hushed, gentle, singing, rich, grand, climactic, far away, urgent, fluttering, delicate, graceful

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude: Throbbing, urgent, febrile, energetic, giddy, swirling, washed (as in ‘colour wash’), lyrical, sonorous, playful, teasing, witty, light, bright, adventurous, exuberant, riotous, far away, kaleidoscopic, majestic

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Sarabande: Serene, sublime, hand-filling, velvety, stately, courtly, choral, sonorous, sustained, understated, plaintive, lofty, elegant, rich, celestial, tranquil, reminiscent, mysterious, historic

Bach – Toccata from Partita No. 6, BWV 830: Stately, grand, dramatic, ancient, swirling, graceful, sophisticated, undulating, serious, determined, architectural, decorated (not necessarily in terms of Bach’s mordents!), hypnotic, scholarly.

Why not try this exercise on some of the music you are working on? You may be surprised by the results….

Next up – a synaesthete’s response to Chopin’s First Ballade

Playful With a Hint of Brooding

The Musical Adjectives Project

Fingering schemes: help or hindrance?

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato, or vivace – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

One of my latest activities with my students is to get them to work out their own fingering schemes (with me sitting beside them to offer guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through. It is also more sensible to allow a student to suggest his or her own preferred fingerings than for me to add what I think they should be doing. Many editions, especially study books and music for children, come with quite involved, suggested fingering – but it should be remembered that these schemes are just that: suggestions, and if a scheme does not work for a particular student, it can be overruled!

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score. In the Bach Toccata (from the Partita BWV 83), a consistent fingering scheme is essential to maintain the flow of the music, especially in the semi-quaver passages (of which there are plenty!), and in one or two places, it is necessary for the right hand to play notes normally assigned to left hand, which can be awkward if one is not forewarned. There are also a few places where I simply do not like the scheme I have worked out with the help of my teacher (a fifth finger or a thumb on a black note, for example). Here, we have added articulation, usually staccato, as if to highlight the more awkward passages; interestingly, this adds more colour and texture to the music – and I can play it comfortably too!

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register. Almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree in part with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, but I feel that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

One of my teacher’s great skills is in working out a fingering scheme that is both natural and musical, thus avoiding unnecessary strain on the hands (something I am all to aware of with my chronic tenosynovitis in the right hand). She has written widely on this subject (she contributes a regular column on technique to Piano Professional magazine) and has published a book The Art of Piano Fingering, which offers unique and enlightening explanations of how to finger scales and arpeggios, and discussion of how to apply these principles to specific pieces of music. It contains some surprising innovations, and is a must for all advanced pianists.

Pianists Behaving Badly

‘From the outset all manner of unacceptable behaviour, whether manifesting itself emotionally in false rapture or facial grimace, the stamping of feet to mark the rhythm, accompanied by an all-embracing unsightly body movement, the shaking and nodding of the head to and fro, snorting during a trill or difficult passage, all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither can politeness nor indulgence toward the fairer sex be permitted even a mere consideration. Despite music being perceived solely through the ears, there can be no excuse to offend the eyes with such wild antics being carried on in public. Those musicians who enrapture through their performance perceptibly tend to weaken an otherwise good impression when their caricature-like behaviour either induces laughter in us or their apparent convulsions tend to instil fear and horror amongst the listeners’. (Daniel Gottlieb Turk, translated from the German).

Until very recently, junior doctors were not taught “bedside manner” at med school; likewise, are aspiring concert soloists taught concert etiquette while at conservatoire or music college? The thought certainly conjures up an amusing image of a roomful of would-be virtuosi being taught how to bow and curtsey properly…. In the regulations for the Diploma exams, one of the requirements is “a high degree of stagecraft”. I know I can cope with the fashion element: as a friend said when we were discussing what I might wear for my diploma recital, “One thing’s for sure, Fran: you’ll be the best-dressed candidate by a long way!”. But bowing, or, worse, a neatly executed curtsey? Not a quick bob-down, but a proper, graceful, deep curtsey? Hmmmm…..

Just as the first piece of a concert is the soloist’s “calling card”, the way the soloist presents him or herself on the concert platform can also set the mood for the rest of the evening. There are many different ways of doing it: continental, especially southern Mediterranean and Easter European performers, seem to favour a deep bow and hand on heart, perhaps expressing the inexpressible even before the music has begun? Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja strides purposefully onto the stage, her bow is a little impatient, as if she is keen to get on with the evening’s work. Paul Lewis, with his Byronic dark curls and stormy brows, always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but the concert hall; I used to think this was a sign of his general grumpiness, but lately I’ve concluded he may just be shy. Angela Hewitt, on the other hand, has a smile as sparkling as the crystals on her gown and exudes general pleasure at being there.

Some of the greatest artists of our time, indeed, of all time, are or were famously miserable: Sviatoslav Richter shared Paul Lewis’s grumpy face, as did Rachmaninov (there is even a photo of him in the green room at the Wigmore Hall looking as if the last thing he wanted to do was play the piano), while Grigory Sokolov has a reputation for dismissing his audience with a curt nod, as if the audience are an irritation to be borne for the duration of the performance. Why do artists find it so difficult to acknowledge the audience who, after all, are a critical component of the concert experience? For without an audience, it would not be a concert…. If one’s body language on greeting the audience is negative, then no matter how beautifully and movingly, and technically flawlessly one plays, the audience will always feel rather hard done by, perhaps even questioning why they paid good money for such a misery-guts to entertain them. Incidentally, at the end of a concert, Paul Lewis cannot wait to get off the stage. He takes the most peremptory of curtain calls, and scuttles away to the green room as soon as possible. Or maybe he is just anxious to get out of the Wigmore Hall before the pubs close?

Then there is the outfit: these days, many male soloists are eschewing the traditional virtuoso uniform of white tie and tails in favour of lounge suits, nehru jackets, smocks, and even grubby tee-shirts. Given that the physical effort of playing the Rach 3 is equivalent to shovelling coal, I suspect many a concerto soloist would happily play in a vest. Some soloists have developed a very studied and careful on-stage image through their attire: Stephen Hough favours shiny metallic green shoes; Lang Lang has his wide-sleeved Chinese jackets; Mitsuko Uchida’s Issey Miyake pleated creations (which, when she moves her arms, gives the impression of butterfly wings). “Russell Brand of the piano” James Rhodes, with his Joe-90 glasses, 4-day stubble and tattoos, has gone to the other extreme, by choosing to appear in scruffy tee-shirt, frayed jeans and dirty Converse trainers, rather like the traditional music student.

Interestingly, the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses and long gowns. The last time I heard Angela Hewitt, my eyes were dazzled by the rhinestones on her satin dress. All rather lovely – and the music was pretty good too. At one of the ‘Maria Joao Pires and Friends’ concerts at the Wigmore in 2007, my seat was located to one side of the stage, so I could only see the musicians’ feet. MJP wore a rather striking tunic and flowing skirt. And on her feet? Big, clumpy sensible shoes.

It’s not just the outfits that can delight or offend the eyes: it’s the gestures too. I have never favoured extravagantly, virtuoso affectations: they just get in the way of the music. Obviously, certain music demands certain gestures: I did a lot of work last winter with my teacher learning how to float my hands and arms about the keyboard while playing Debussy’s ‘Voiles’. One’s body language can certainly inform the music and help to convey mood and meaning to the audience. But when the gestures are simply for effect, to draw attention to soloist rather than to music, they become irritating. The Turkish pianist Fazil Say is a specialist in extravagant movements, and to say he is “all over the piano” is an understatement: he sways and swoons, tosses his greasy locks around, raises his eyes to heaven, or brings his nose almost to the ivories. None of this makes any sense when he is playing a Bach Toccata or the elegant slow movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata (which, incidentally, he ruined).

Snuffling and grunting, sighing and humming are other virtuoso habits. I wonder how many piansts are actually aware that they are doing it? I accept that some habits are probably the result of nerves; others are just that – habits, which have become ingrained. A friend of mine sighs as he plays; Glenn Gould famously muttered; Paul Lewis grunts, so much so that the first time I heard him play, I thought there was a problem with the piano! It reached a climax of growling as he approached the hauntingly beautiful Arioso of Beethoven’s Opus 110; curiously, he did not snuffle once during the sublime and ethereal second movement of the Opus 111.

So, can I please make an appeal to all soloists? Smile as you walk across the stage and bow in such a way as to dispel remoteness: it will bring the audience closer, draw them in, and remind them that this is to be a shared experience. Oh, and wear a clean shirt, and maybe a nice pair of shoes?

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

There are many series, suites and cycles of pieces which can be considered “up there” in the pianist’s standard repertoire: Bach’s ’48’, Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, Schuman’s Carnaval and Kreisleriana, Chopin’s Etudes and Preludes, Liszt’s Annèes or the Transcendental Studies, but none can quite come close to Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, usually referred to as the ‘New Testament’ of piano music (the WTC is the ‘Old Testament’!). Perhaps the primary appeal of these pieces, aside from the sheer Herculean effort of learning and absorbing them, is that they offer both a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style and a glimpse into the inner workings of his compositional life and personality. Urban legend has it that Beethoven was a rough, irascible, grumpy and unapproachable sod, but this does not tell us much about his music. Living with his music, spending time with it to understand what makes it special, allows a more honest, rounded view of him, and, perhaps of all his music, the piano sonatas offer a really candid autobiography.


As pianists, whether amateur or professional, advanced or intermediate, or even just beginning on the great journey of exploration, we have all come across Beethoven’s piano music, and many of us have played at least one of his sonatas during our years of study. As an early student, a taster of a proper sonata in the form of one of his Sonatinas (something my father is grappling with at the moment – and refusing any helpful advice from me!). Later on, we might encounter one of the “easier” piano sonatas, such as the pair of two-movement sonatas that form the Opus 49 (nos. 19 and 20), which are roughly Grade 5-6 standard (but don’t be fooled by the comparatively “easy” notes!). As part of my Grade 8 repertoire, I learnt the No. 5 (Opus 10, No. 1, in C minor), which prefigures the far more well-known and well-loved Pathétique in the flourish of its opening measures, the “beautiful melody” of its slow movement, and its febrile final movement. A quick glance through the Diploma repertoire lists for any of the exam boards (Trinity, ABRSM, RAM etc) and there is a generous handful of sonatas to choose from, from well-known to less popular, to suit each level of Diploma right up to Fellow.

It is generally accepted pianistic wisdom that Beethoven composed the piano sonatas during three distinct periods of his life, and as such, like the Duo Sonatas for Piano and ‘Cello (read my earlier post here), offer a fascinating overview of his compositional development. Setting aside the three “Electoral” sonatas, which are not usually included in the traditional cycle of 32 (though Beethoven authority, Professor Barry Cooper, who has edited new the ABRSM edition of the sonatas, argues that there is a case for including the three sonatas that Beethoven wrote when he was 12 in a complete edition), the early sonatas are, like the early duo sonatas (for violin and for ‘cello), virtuosic works, reminding us that Beethoven was a fine pianist. While the faster movements may nod back to his teacher, Haydn (though Beethoven would strenuously deny any influence!), it is the slow movements which demonstrate Beethoven’s deep understanding of the capabilities of the piano, and its ability, through textures and colours, moods and contrasts, to transform into any instrument he wishes it to be. Some of the writing could be for string quartet (Op. 2 No. 2). In the early sonatas, Beethoven’s mastery of the form is already clear, and many look forward to the greater, more complex, and more revolutionary sonatas of his ‘middle’ period. His distinctive musical personality is already stamped very firmly on these early works.

The sonatas from the middle period are some of the most famous:

The ‘Tempest’ and ‘La Chasse’ (Op. 31, Nos. 2 and 3). The first with its stormy, passionate opening movement, the second of the opus rollicking and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The ‘Moonlight’ (Op. 27, No. 2): the first of his piano sonatas to open with a slow movement. Too often the subject of clichéd, lugubriously romantic renderings, this twilight first movement shimmers and shifts. An amazing gesture, created by a composer poised on the threshold of change.

The ‘Waldstein’ (Op. 53). Throbbing quavers signal the opening of one of the greatest of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, while the final movement begins with a sweetly consoling melody which quickly transforms into daring octave scales in the left hand and a continuous trill in the right hand. This is Beethoven at his most heroic.

‘Les Adieux’ (Op. 81a). Suggested to be early ‘programme’ music in its telling of a story (Napoleon’s attack on the city of Vienna which forced Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, to leave the city, though this remains the subject of some discussion still). It is true that Beethoven himself named the three movements “Lebewohl,” “Abwesenheit,” and “Wiedersehen”. One of the most challenging sonatas because of its mature emotions and technical difficulties, it bridges the gap between Beethoven’s middle and late periods.

Late period:

The ‘Hammerklavier’ (Op. 106), with its infamous and perilously daring grand leap of an octave and a half at the opening (which, of course, should be played with one hand!); its slow movement of infinite sadness and great suffering; its finale, a finger-twisting fugue, the cumulative effect of which is overwhelming: an expression of huge power and logic.

The Last Sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, 111). I have written about these sonatas previously. They are considered to be some of the most profoundly philosophical music, music which “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis), which speaks of shared values, and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. From the memorable, lyrical opening of the Op. 109 to the final fugue, that most life-affirming and solid of musical devices, of the Op 110, that peaen of praise, to the “ethereal halo” that is contained in some of the writing of the Arietta of the Op 111, the message and intent of this music is clear. And this is Beethoven’s great skill throughout the entire cycle of his piano sonatas.

So, what is the perennial attraction of performing a Beethoven Sonata Cycle? Glance through concert programmes around the world and it is clear that these sonatas continue to fascinate performers and audiences alike, and no sooner has one series ended than another begins, or overlaps with another. Playing the Sonatas in a cycle is the pianistic equivalent of reading Shakespeare, Plato, or Dante, and for the performer, it offers the chance to get right to the heart of the music, peeling back the layers on a continuous journey of discovery, always finding something new behind the familiar. One does not have favourites; just as when one has children, one should never have favourites, though certain sonatas will have a special resonance. The sonatas are like a family, they all belong together – and they are needed, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation. You can play the sonatas for over a quarter of a century, half a century, and yet there are still many things in these wonderful works to be explored and understood, things which still have the power to surprise and fascinate.

Every pianist worth his or her salt knows that presenting a Beethoven sonata cycle represents a pinnacle in one’s artistic career (ditto the five Piano Concertos) and an important stepping stone to other great cycles (Schubert’s sonatas, for example, which are, perhaps, less satisfying to play than Beethoven’s because of problems such as incomplete or different versions of the same work), but once a cycle is complete, one cannot truly say one has conquered the highest Himalayan peak. And that is what is so special about this music: you can never truly say you have “arrived” with it, while its endless scope continues to reward, inspire and fulfil.

I have never heard a complete Beethoven cycle performed by a single performer, but I have heard plenty of concerts which form part of the whole: in the 1980s, it was John Lill, now one of the “elder statesmen” of British pianism; before him, my parents would have heard Brendel and Barenboim. Following in their footsteps, I heard some of Barenboim’s concerts when he played a complete cycle at the Festival Hall three year’s ago. At the same time, Paul Lewis was just finishing his own cycle at the Wigmore Hall (and beyond). I heard him play Nos. 15-18, some of the early sonatas, and the Last Sonatas. Then there was Till Fellner, a young Austrian with a clean, fresh approach, whose cycle began in 2008. On LP, I had Lill’s complete cycle, released the same year as I heard him at RFH. On CD I have Arrau, whose account is hard to match. But I also have recordings of favourites, such as the Opus 10’s, played by Angela Hewitt, or the Opus 110 (my absolute favourite), played by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida (whose Mozart playing I adore).

In concert, the sonatas are presented in halls large and small, famous and lesser known. The size of the hall can affect one’s appreciation and understanding of the works. For example, sometimes the earlier sonatas, which were written for the salon, can be lost in a venue as big as the Royal Festival Hall. One’s connection to the music is also affected, of course, by the performer. Lill, I remember, brought an extraordinary closeness and intimacy, something I have never forgotten, a sense that it was an entirely shared experience; while with Barenboim it felt as if an invisible barrier had been erected between us, the audience, and him the performer (I suspect he neither intended nor engineered this; rather, the over-awed audience brought it upon themselves!).

Further reading

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas – Robert Taub. “Offers the insights of a passionate musician who performs all 32 of Beethoven’s well-loved piano sonatas in concert worldwide. This book presents his intimate understanding of these works with listeners and players alike.” (Amazon)

The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience – Kenneth Drake. “Drake groups the Beethoven piano sonatas according to their musical qualities, rather than their chronology. He explores the interpretive implications of rhythm, dynamics, slurs, harmonic effects, and melodic development and identifies specific measures where Beethoven skillfully employs these compositional devices.” (Amazon)

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion – Charles Rosen. A very readable analysis of all 32 sonatas by respected pianist and writer.

New York Times article about Professor Barry Cooper’s study of all 35 sonatas

Compilation tapes

When I was a student in the mid-80s, we all had “cassette players” (the word “ghetto blaster” was fairly new vernacular at the time), and we all made compilation tapes for each other. One of my friends, who was ‘studying’ (hollow laugh) Sociology, seemed to spend most of his time closetted in his room in a cloud of stale, fetid air, creating compilation tapes for the rest of us. Party mixes, mostly, for those “corridor parties” in “halls”, or, when “living out” (i.e. not in a hall of residence), the all-nighters we enjoyed in our scruffy rented accommodation, where the walls were adorned with blue-tacked posters of trendy Steven Berkoff plays, photographs of Jim Morrison, Pre-Raphaelite prints and the ubiquitous Che Guevara picture purchased from Athena. We drank Exmoor and Wadworth 6X, and stuck candles in old wine bottles, wore black jeans and black roll-necks like French intellectuals from the 1960s, and thought we were oh so cool. We were wild in the old days! We had a lot to learn……

A friend (and lover, as it turned out) of my mother, who fancied himself as a unreconstructed hippie and who used to smoke hand-rolled joints in the back garden of our house in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, gave me a new compilation tape every birthday during the years that he and my mother enjoyed an association. For my 18th birthday, it was a collection of songs from the year of my birth, 1966, which was quite inventive. I used to play it a lot, and it included tracks like ‘Paint it Black’  and ’19th Nervous Breakdown’ (The Rolling Stones), ‘Summer in the City’ (The Lovin’ Spoonful), ‘Shapes of Things’ (The Yardbirds), and ‘Sunshine Superman’ (Donovan). At the time, I was deeply into late 60s bands like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and female protest singers such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. The compilation tape, made for a friend, or, more significantly, a boyfriend, became a vehicle for unexpressed or inexpressible emotions and barely-concealed longing.

On a radio programme I caught the other day, one of the guests was lamenting the demise of the compilation tape, now that we don’t have cassette players any longer. But with the advent of iTunes and similar music programmes, it is possible to create compilations and “mixes” once again – and it’s a whole lot easier these days because you simply “drag and drop” the tracks into the new playlist. Newer versions of iTunes have a neat function called ‘Genius’ which will create compilations for you, based on a highlighted track. It looks clever, as if the artificial intelligence of iTunes is able to match certain tracks with others to create a coherent playlist, but in reality all it is doing is using some kind of techie ju-ju and searching by genre and tempo. It copes less well with classical music, for example, pairing a Bach Cantata with a Chopin Prelude.

I still make my own mixes, mostly for listening in the car. I do not have a CD player in the house any longer: when it finally gave up the ghost last year, I didn’t bother to replace it. Instead, all my music is stored on the main house computer and is streamed to a high-quality sound system in the sitting room via the magical gadget that is Apple TV. I also have a very old, now very collectible first generation iPod, on which almost my entire music library is stored. The iPod is so old (barely 10 years!) that its battery no longer charges, but it works off the mains and can be plugged into the hi-fi. So I make ‘mixes’ for long car journeys, a trio of CDs especially for the campervan (when I had it), or for 8-hour drives down the autoroute to the Alps when you need stuff you can sing along to to keep you awake (‘Hallejulah’ by K D Lang was popular at Christmas!). I also keep a CD of my current repertoire for listening to when I’m driving. Then there’s ‘Chopin Favourites’, ‘Schubert Favourites’, ‘Shorter Beethoven’ and ‘Oddments’, a collection of mostly piano music ranging from Bach to John Adams which just seems to fit together nicely. and is enjoyable and stimulating to listen to.

One of the best features of iTunes is that you can purchase a single track, rather than a whole album. So I bought Sheila Chandra’s ‘Ever So Lonely’, hit the Genius button, and hey presto! there was an hour of mostly ‘ambient’ music which seems to suit the late evening when everyone’s had one too many glasses of wine and wants to chill on the sofa. Brian Eno’s ‘An Ascent’ (from the ‘Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ album) threw up an even more laid back mix via the power of Genius.

So, maybe the compilation is not really dead; its format may have changed with the times, but its purpose and intent remain the same. And still, perhaps, a vehicle for unexpressed emotions……

Apple TV

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture