Concert ready

This week I gave a concert for my local music society, based at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The Musical Society has been in existence since 1951 and is run by NPL staff for existing and former staff, offering a busy and varied programme of concerts throughout the year, with well-known and up and coming artists. This season I have heard excellent performances by Alice Pinto, Helen Burford, Nadav Herztka (premiering a new work by Freya Waley-Cohen) and Joseph Tong. The Society has a very nice 1911 Steinway and the audience is always very supportive and committed.

I have come late to performing. I did very little when I was at school – being a pianist meant I tended to be sidelined and one was encouraged to take up a second instrument in order to join the orchestra and, such is the way at school, be part of a team. Much as I enjoyed ensemble playing, the piano has always been my first love. After a long absence from the piano in my 20s and 30s, coming back to it seriously has been quite hard and I have had to “learn” how to be a performer.

I have learnt a great deal about performing from my own experience, having completed two Performance Diplomas in fairly quick succession, by observing performers at work in concerts, and through my many interviews and encounters with musicians. I think in order to be a successful performer one has to be clear that the performance is always going to be a completely different experience to playing at home. This may sound facile, but too many people think they can practise successfully at home and then simply step up to perform. The pianist Stephen Hough has written an interesting article on the importance of differentiating between the practice of practising and performing, both mentally and physically (read the full article here).

I believe performing is crucial for all musicians, at whatever level, and I actively encourage my students to perform – in concerts which I arrange for them, and at more informal performance platforms in my home. At one level, performing reminds us that music was created to be shared. At another, if we can perform successfully, it shows we have practised properly, thoughtfully and deeply, and learnt how to handle our anxiety. Students need to understand the difference between practising and performing so that they can “perform” in exams, festivals and competitions, as well as in concerts.

Never assume that a piece that goes well in the comfort of your own home or studio will go equally well, or better, in a concert environment. Therefore, it is important to practise performing by playing the pieces/s or complete programme through several times before that important performance. Many performers swear by the “three times” rule, and will often schedule several performances at regional venues and music societies before playing at a big London venue such as the Wigmore Hall or Southbank Centre. Even organising an informal concert at home (as I did ahead of my NPL Concert), or playing for a few piano friends, is useful. Doing these “dry runs” allows one to see how the progamme works and how the pieces fit together, gauge audience reactions, check for any insecurities and make adjustments in practise, Mistakes should not be regarded as disasters and should be used positively to make improvements/changes for the next performance. Complete play-throughs at home, alone, remain useful in advance of concert day.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a pianist friend ahead of my first diploma recital was to allow the brain and body to be rested. Don’t thrash through the practising the day before the concert, but practise quietly and slowly, or play other pieces. On the day of the concert, do not allow silly maxims such as “you’re only as good as your last performance” to cloud your perspective: remain positive and focussed, and look forward to sharing your music with the audience. In fact, the majority of people who attend concerts are there because they simply enjoy music: wrong notes and memory slips are not what stay in the listeners’ minds after the event. We all have something worthwhile to say through our music and that is what matters, ultimately.

After the concert enjoy the feedback from the audience and don’t “post-mortem” your performance too closely: what is done is done, and the best cure for negative thoughts or a post-concert flatness is to get back to the piano, start practising, and look forward to the next performance.

Excerpts from my NPL Concert on 26th November 2013

Meet the Artist…… Frances Wilson, pianist, teacher and writer

(photo: James Eppy_
(photo: James Eppy_

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My grandfather had an upright piano in the front room of his house in Ipswich. This room was kept for special occasions and Sundays. He liked to play Methodist hymns, excerpts from Haydn and Beethoven, and old music hall songs. I loved to sit next to him as he played, or rifle through the music in the piano stool, with its special antique smell and friable, crumbly pages.

There was lots of music at home when I was growing up: on the radio, LPs and from my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist. When I was in bed, I used to hear him practising Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to Music Minus One: for a while I believed he had a whole orchestra in the sitting room with him!

I think I was about 5 or 6 when I started piano lessons with Mrs Scott in Sutton Coldfield. My piano was an early 20th century Challen upright. It had lived in a conservatory for two years before it came to us and it needed quite a lot of restoration, but once overhauled it was a really nice instrument, of which I was very fond.

My parents were keen concert goers and my love of live music developed in childhood. We used to go to many concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall where a young conductor with wild curly hair conducted the CBSO (this was Sir Simon Rattle). Once a year, as a treat, I would be taken to London on the coach to go to the Proms, and we also went to the opera and ballet regularly. I was lucky enough to see/hear some of the “greats”: Ashkenazy, Brendel, Lupu, du Pre, Barenboim, Lill.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents nurtured and encouraged a love of classical music. This was enhanced by my music teacher at secondary school and my then piano teacher Mrs Murdoch. Since I started blogging, encounters with other pianists and musicians all feed into my musical life and inform my teaching and performing. My study with Penelope Roskell (since November 2008), and other master teachers and concert pianists, has had a huge impact on my confidence and skill as a pianist, and knowledge as a teacher

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Convincing people that piano teaching is not “doing my hobby” but a professional job which I take very seriously.

Fitting in practising, teaching and writing with family life, and making sure everything, and everyone, gets the right amount of attention from me.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I played Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge from the ‘Vingt Regards’ at an EPTA event hosted by Murray McLachlan at Steinway Hall in 2011 as part of the preparations for my ATCL recital diploma. It was the first time I had played a Steinway D piano and the first time I’d played the Messiaen in public. The feedback from Murray and the response from the audience was wonderful and an incredible boost to my diploma preparations and confidence.

I always enjoy playing for my local musical society at Teddington’s National Physical Laboratory. The audience is very engaged, supportive and warm. The Society has a very nice 1901 Steinway B.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

In my head I think I can play Debussy, but in reality, I find his piano music very difficult, with its many subtleties of shading, touch, pedal, and more. I’d like to think I have a particular affinity with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Messiaen. In recent years, I have become more and more interested in contemporary piano music.

How do you make your repertoire choices?

I play whatever music interests me, and my tastes change constantly. At the moment I am working on a eclectic mix of John Cage, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, Messiaen, and Schubert.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing Bach – his music can have a very steadying effect on the audience and is always a good concert opener. I also love playing Liszt.

Listening to at the moment – Scriabin Preludes, Morton Feldman, John Cage, late Schubert chamber music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Richter, Gould, Tortelier, De Peyer, Perahia, Lupu, Pires, Hamelin, Anderszewski, Uchida, Alison Goldfrapp, Kate Bush.

Most memorable concert experience?

It has to be Steven Osborne’s performance of the complete Vingt Regards of Olivier Messiaen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier this year. Not only for the feat of stamina required to play the entire work without an interval, but the extreme concentration and intense focus which Osborne maintained throughout the performance. It was beautiful, moving, and incredibly profound.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be true to your musical self and try not to be distracted or downhearted by what others in your profession are doing. Don’t endlessly compare yourself to your peers or to others in your profession. Navigate your own course and true to find your own musical identity and voice.

Live and love life fully: go to concerts, exhibitions, films, read, eat, socialise, enjoy. Everything feeds the artistic temperament!

What are you working on at the moment?

Schubert – Piano Sonata D959, Impromptu in A-flat D935/1, Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 26, Liszt Paysage (from Transcendental Etudes), various shorter works by a variety of composers including John Cage, Scriabin and Messiaen

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Seated at my beloved 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano!

What is your most treasured possession?

I’d like to say my piano, but that would upset my family! So, my family. And good health.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited.

Frances Wilson performs at LASSCO Brunswick House on 22nd January 2015 as part of the South London Concert Series. The programme includes works by Debussy, Schubert and Messiaen, together with the world premiere of Preludes for Piano by Matthew Sear, dedicated to Frances Wilson. Buy tickets

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, teacher and music and art reviewer. In recent years she has made a name for herself in the classical music community in the UK and beyond via her blog ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’ which features articles on classical music and pianism, concert reviews, guest articles and a popular weekly interview series Meet the Artist in which musicians, composers and conductors discuss various aspects of their creative lives. Frances is also a regular contributor to Pianist magazine’s online content, and has written guest articles for a number of classical music and music education websites including Clavier Companion and SoundandMusic.org. A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, Frances is co-host, with Lorraine Liyanage, of the London Piano Meetup Group, which organises performance and social events for adult amateur pianists in and around London.

www.franceswilson.co.uk

 

Frances Wilson’s reviews

Lorraine Liyanage

 

Concert review: Yoon Chung at 1901 Arts Club

The delightful 1901 Arts Club, tucked away down a side street close to Waterloo Station, seems just about ideal for intimate chamber recitals, and the perfect retreat on a cold November evening to enjoy a superior concert of music by Brahms and Schubert played by Korean/British pianist Yoong Chung.

The concert marked the launch of Yoon’s first CD of late piano works by Schubert, the Sonata in C minor D958 and the Drei Klavierstücke D946, which formed the main part of the programme, but the evening commenced with Brahms’ Albumblatt (“album leaf”), a short work which was only discovered in 2011. Sensitively played, a simple singing melody over a rippling bass line, it was an appropriate opening piece for an evening of music written for the salon, to be played amongst friends.

Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (literally “piano pieces” – the title was given by Brahms on the publication of these pieces) are sometimes also termed “impromptus”, and each expresses perfectly the sense of the word: spontaneous and extempore. Composed during 1828, that annus mirabilis of output for Schubert and only a few months before his death, they are rich in contrasts, colours and moods, and Yoon was alert to the shifting characters and improvisatory nature of these pieces. His opening of the second Klavierstück was particularly tender and lyrical, its tempo relaxed and elegant, and a reminder that Schubert was a composer of songs. Throughout, tasteful pedalling, limpid sound, clarity of expression, precise articulation, and convincing use of tempo rubato, all underpinned by solid technique and musical understanding, made for an extremely satisfying performance.

The Sonata in C minor, D958, is the most portentous of Schubert’s last three piano sonatas and also the most overtly “Beethovenian”, not least in its use of Beethoven’s “favourite” key, C minor, and the darkly dramatic opening statements of the first movement. Once again, we were treated a performance of great transparency, profound expression and sensitivity to Schubert’s writing, and while some purists may not approve of Yoon’s use of rubato here, as in the earlier pieces, I found his account wholly convincing and refreshingly imaginative. This was not surface artifice but a performance founded on clear purpose and musicality. It was the best Schubert I have heard all year.

After a rollicking Rachmninov encore, we retired to the elegant upstairs bar and sitting room at the 1901 for prosecco and convivial conversation, much in the manner of Schubert and his friends in the 1820s. It was a pleasure to meet Yoon, and two of his former teachers.

The same expression, clarity and precision is evident on his CD, all tastefully packaged with a minimalist monochrome design and attractive slipcase. For further information about the CD, please visit Yoon’s website

My Meet the Artist interview with Yoon Chung

1901 Arts Club

 

Meet the Artist……Yoon Chung, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My parents were given a piano as a wedding present so it was a natural step for me to try the piano. Fortunately, (or, some might say, unfortunately) I took to it and liked it immediately.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

I owe a great deal to my teachers:  Maria Curcio and Mark Swartzentruber for their guidance in my formative years in London, Benjamin Frith for his passion, Joaquin Achucarro for his discipline, Ferenc Rados for opening my mind.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Finding a happy balance.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Wigmore Hall is pretty special.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I could happily play Brahms and Beethoven all day long.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Richter, Gilels, Haskil, Horowitz, Argerich and Schiff, to name but a few. I have also heard staggeringly beautiful recordings of Lili Kraus and Annie Fischer recently.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing in the cloister of Sant’Andrea Apostolo in Amalfi. It was utterly magical.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Honesty and truth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not to have any worries. Alternatively, a good, leisurely breakfast.

 

Pianist Yoon Chung is a versatile musician and has performed throughout Europe, America and the Far East.  His London appearances include the Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre, Kings Place, St. John’s Smith Square and St. James’ Piccadilly.  He has been broadcast in France, Japan, Korea and America.  Born in Seoul, Korea, Yoon spent his formative years in London under the tutelage of Maria Curcio and Mark Swartzentruber and was an ABRSM postgraduate scholar at the Royal Northern College of Music.  Further studies were undertaken in America and Hungary under Joaquìn Achùcarro and Ferenc Rados.  Yoon is a founder member of Trio Andante and currently resides in London.

Yoon Chung’s full biography

www.yoonchung.co.uk

Meet the Artist……François-Frédéric Guy

(Picture © Guy Vivien)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I heard my father playing Chopin, Grieg and Schumann at home almost every evening on our small upright piano. Then I tried to imitate him! As I was gifted, he decided to do everything necessary to help me in my development: courses with great teachers, day to day work. He believed in my musical career from the very beginning and that was probably the most important.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

Arthur and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel (with whom I really learned my Beethoven), then Leon Fleisher, who was for me a kind of Mentor, and Christian Ivaldi, who opened my brain to the world of Wagner and Strauss, which radically influenced radically repertoire and the texture of my personal sound.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing the 32 Beethoven sonatas in 10 days.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Playing a concerto with orchestra is the utmost gift a pianist can receive! The piano concerto repertoire is just fabulous and I always feel like it’s an achievement in a solo career. The main problem is to build a relationship with a conductor in a very short rehearsal time. You can feel a kind of frustration sometimes. It is why my relationship with Philippe Jordan is very special, as we have recorded and played so many concertos since 2007! The complete Beethovens on CD and in concert as well as Mozart, Brahms and Saint-Saens’ Fifth next December at Zürich Tonhalle. The musical result is amazing because we feel like chamber music partners.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My Brahms 2nd concerto with LPO and Paavo Berglund, the Beethoven Fifth Concerto with O.P. Radio-France and Philippe Jordan, and my last live recording of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata recently released.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

This is a tough question. For recital, I would say Wigmore hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Köln Philharmonie and Metz Arsenal.

With orchestra, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Salle Pleyel in Paris and Royal Festival Hall in London. Next season I will make my debut in two great European hall: Tonhalle in  Zürich and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Among others – Furtwangler, Celibidache, Barenboim, Boulez, Brendel, Pollini and Sokolov. I rediscovered Arrau recently: a genius.

Regarding the conductors I’ve played with I would mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, Daniel Harding, and of course Philippe Jordan. Recently I played with the young conductor Edward Gardner: he was astonishing.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Philippe Jordan conducting Parsifal in Bayreuth last year.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

Beethoven always to play and listen, I listen more than ever Wagner’s Ring..and all the others.. Then Bruckner 4/5/7/8/9, the complete Mahler

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

Do not only work solely at your instrument, although it is crucial to spend hours on practising. The main thing is to have a exhaustive knowledge of orchestral and operatic repertoire in order to make the piano not sound in Black and White!!! But like a real orchestra!

What are you working on at the moment?

The 5 Beethoven Concertos and the 32 Sonatas, as well as some Wagner paraphrases to celebrate this genius!

I also have some modern music as usual, new studies from Georges Benjamin and a Piano Concerto by Tristan Murail.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time

Any place where I could perform Beethoven’s music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My wife’s love forever and music everywhere.

What is your most treasured possession?
Patou, my dear cat!!!!!

What is your present state of mind?
Promethean!

Interview date: November 2013

François-Frédéric Guy is regarded as one of the most fascinating pianists of his generation since his career was launched by his debut with Orchestre de Paris and Wolfgang Sawallisch in 2000.

Guy is an artist of immense interpretative authority and superlative technique. He has spent much of his career performing the works of Beethoven, recently completing recordings of the five concertos with Philippe Jordan, and the 32 Sonatas.  Guy has performed worldwide with orchestras such as the Berlin Symphony, Hallé, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and San Francisco Symphony and conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Neeme Järvi and Michael Tilson Thomas.

www.ffguy.net

Time for a change

This week I took the difficult and reluctant decision to ask some of my students to leave my studio at the end of this term. This decision was not taken lightly, and is not something I have had to do before (a couple of students left of their own volition, for various reasons, and I have never had any trouble replacing them).

In recent months, in particular since completing my Licentiate Diploma, I have wanted to focus more on my own playing and performing, something I came late to, but now really enjoy, be it for my local musical society, at events organised by the London Piano Meetup Group, or simply for friends at home. In addition to this, my other activities – concert reviewing, co-hosting the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG) and managing the South London Concert Series (SLCS) – take up quite a lot of my time each week, and I am also toying with the idea of taking the Fellowship Diploma (FTCL) in the next few years. All of these things take time – learning and preparing repertoire for performance takes the most time. And recently I have decided I want to be “a musician who teaches”, rather than the reverse.

People say to me “I don’t know how you find the time!”, and lately I’ve been wondering this myself, as I rush from one activity to another, constantly watching the clock and frantically trying to fit everything into each day. I began to resent the time spent teaching, not just the actual one-to-one tuition, but all the preparation and admin that is required when running an active and popular teaching studio, and I found I wasn’t enjoying my busy life all that much any more. When I actually fell asleep during a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I decided it was definitely time for a change.

Some musicians who are regular performers who also teach regard teaching as a necessity to pay the bills, and many are able to “switch off” while listening to a student playing a song by Adele or a simple Grade 1 piece. My naturally conscientious nature won’t allow me to do this, and I want to give each student individual and personal attention, no matter what they are playing.

Learning to play the piano is hard. It takes commitment and time, and students (and their parents) need to understand that consistent, regular practise equals noticeable progress. There are, unfortunately, no two ways about it, and even top professional pianists put in many hours of practice, day in day out. One cannot simply to pitch up for lessons week after week having done nothing between lessons and expect to make progress: it just doesn’t work like that! Unfortunately, where I live in an very affluent area of south-west London, there is a strata of parents who feel that music lessons are a crucial part of their son or daughter’s c.v., along with tennis, Tai Chi, and Kumon maths. Thus, many children are pushed into music lessons which they may not enjoy nor benefit from, and it can be depressing for a teacher to sit at the piano with a child who clearly doesn’t really want to be there.

So, I took a deep breath and drafted notice letters. I decided I wanted to focus only on my more advanced students, in particular those who are studying for exams. When I wrote to the parents concerned, I placed the responsibility for my decision entirely upon myself: I cited a need for more time for my other activities, a wish to reduce my teaching hours, my desire to focus on my own repertoire, and family commitments. Fortunately, I had the support of a couple of teaching colleagues who were willing to be mentioned in my letters, and I was thus able to offer the parents alternative teachers, should they wish to seek lessons elsewhere.

There was a time, until quite recently in fact, when I would consider any student, provided I liked the student and parent, and vice versa. On reflection, it seems this attitude was based on a need for a steady income, rather than proper consideration of how my teaching talents are best served and personal job satisfaction. I admit I am in a fortunate position, being married to someone who is in a well-paid job, and I can now afford to be more selfish about my time.

My teaching philosophy has changed considerably in the seven years since I established my practice: I used to think that simply being at the piano was enough, to gain enjoyment from it, but in the last few years my interest has shifted and I am now most interested in encouraging my students to become rounded musicians, who play with fluency, expression and confidence. I want to introduce my students to the fantastic canon of classical music by offering them a broad selection of repertoire: playing pop songs is all very well, but it does not give one a proper grounding in the history of classical music. This may appear a narrow view, but I fully believe that the study of even the most simple pieces by Bach and Mozart, for example, offers students crucial insights into how music is created and important technical training.

I don’t think any teacher should feel guilty or bad about asking students to leave their studio. Sometimes it is necessary – for reasons of behaviour, personality clash, lack of practice etc – and sometimes one just has to accept that not every child can be turned into a budding musician. Above all, I think it is crucial that one gains a strong sense of job satisfaction and enjoyment, otherwise one will begin to resent certain students, an attitude which can colour one’s whole approach to teaching.

Come the new year, I hope I will be better able to balance my own piano study with my teaching, my writing and my other musical activities, without feeling put upon or stressed. And to the students who are leaving my studio, I wish them luck and hope they will continue their piano studies with another supportive and inspiring teacher.

Resources:

  • If you feel you have a problem student, try discussing the issues with the student and/or parent initially. If there is no improvement, it is then time to consider asking the student to leave.
  • Try and offer students whom you have asked to leave details of other teachers, should they wish to seek lessons elsewhere
  • Be honest: explain the reasons why you are asking a student to leave.
  • If you have written contracts with your students, be sure to observe the terms set out therein, if applicable
  • Don’t feel guilty: it is your work and your life and it is important to feel in control. This enables us to do our job better, with greater satisfaction and enjoyment.
  • Organisations such as EPTA and the ISM can offer support

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture