What does it mean to be “a pianist”?

Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music….there has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard….inexplicable and almost fetishistic….

– Charles Rosen

The members of my piano Meetup group, my students, the people who play street pianos – they are all “pianists” to me.

Yet in the research for this article, I discovered that many people believe the title “pianist” assumes a certain level of capability and should only be conferred upon a select few – professional concert pianists or those who have achieved an extremely high level of musical attainment.

“Oh I’m not a proper pianist!” is a common refrain from the amateur pianists I meet regularly, some of whom are very advanced players. But what is a “proper” pianist? Is it someone who can perform complex repertoire from memory, with confidence, poise and flair, who has undergone a rigorous professional training, who has 50-plus concertos “in the fingers”….? Or is it simply a person who self-identifies with playing the piano?

Google isn’t much help either. Type in “Being a pianist” and the search throws up any number of “How to be a better pianist” sites,  “top 10 worst things about being a pianist” or “15 steps to become an amazing piano player” (if only it were that easy!).

hand-of-a-pianist-rodin
Hand of a Pianist by Auguste Rodin

A confession: although I have played the piano for nearly two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until I had secured my first professional qualification (a performance diploma, taken in my late 40s), that I felt I could justifiably describe myself as “a pianist”, rather than someone who “plays the piano”. When I started to give public concerts, sometimes for real money, I stopped feeling like I was playing at being a pianist, a fraudulent concert pianist.

Being a pianist implies an intensity of connection, commitment, passion and focus. For those who play professionally, it can be all-embracing, sometimes overwhelmingly so, for one must live and breathe the instrument and its literature. Work shapes every hour of the day, the cadence by which one sets one’s life, always feeding the artistic temperament, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain, and always the uncomfortable knowledge that one is only as good as one’s last performance. In addition, the competitive nature of the profession coupled with its job insecurity leads many professional pianists to pursue, by necessity, what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” which may include teaching and lecturing, running summer schools, arts administration or even roles outside the music industry. “Being a pianist” can feel distinctly unglamorous, restrictive, sometimes lonely, often badly paid….

“I play the piano” suggests a more casual relationship with the instrument, something one does occasionally, at weekends, on Sundays….Yet many of the amateur pianists I  encounter display a passionate commitment to the instrument which borders on obsession, regardless of the level at which they play. These people are not dreaming of the stage at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall; no, they play and practise for a personal challenge and fulfillment, a sense of one’s own accomplishment, to be better than one was yesterday while working towards tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…..It’s addictive, constant and consistent, sometimes therapeutic, often frustrating, but always, always compelling….It’s founded on love, of the instrument and its literature, and it is this love which drives these people to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, cherishing precious moments in their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano.

It’s a state of madness. Unless you’re any good. Even then, you drive yourself half mad and waste precious time proving yourself to idiots who haven’t a clue – David, professional pianist

There’s a frustration with which many of us who play at an advanced level are familiar – that people don’t really understand or appreciate what we do, or how hard it is (“does it get easier as you get better?” a friend of mine asked me recently. “No“, I replied. “You just get more efficient at working out how to do it!“).  I remember the parent of one of my students commenting admiringly that it was “amazing” how the music just “came out” of my fingers. “How do you do it?” she asked. I felt like asking her whether she had ever considered why her daughter, my student, was required to practise regularly…. Yet for audiences and onlookers the magic, the mystique, of the pianist is very potent, and to reveal too much about our craft and art would dispel that.

Frustration, physical pain and constant setbacks. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be a mantle I can take off though – it’s just what I am

– Dave

It’s my passion, frustrating, challenging and rewarding every day

– Teresa

It is the most important thing in my life, it makes me profoundly happy to play and teach this beautiful instrument and its wonderful repertoire. I never take it for granted. When I play, I am transported somewhere else beyond my music studio…

– Caroline

It means I can be pro-active with the world of music, and not just a bystander

– Terry

It means feeling alive, it’s who I am. My life would be useless without music

– Tricia, professional pianist

Being a pianist puts us in touch with a vast repertoire, a rich seam of creativity, and some of the finest music ever written, and still being written. By engaging with it, we bring these works to life, like a conservator or gardener, every time we play. It puts us in touch with emotions and sentiments which are common to us all; it reminds us of our humanity, yet also transcends the pedestrian, the every day. In this way, for many of us being a pianist is an escape: as a child, I regarded the piano as a playmate, a place where I could go to weave stories and set my imagination free. Why should that be any different when one reaches adulthood?

For all of us who play the piano – amateur or professional – being a pianist offers limitless possibilities in what we can create and experience.

The real question is – what would you be without the piano?


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Guest post by Howard Smith, Adult Amateur Pianist

My first Chetham’s. The International Summer School & Festival for Pianists, that is. Manchester, UK. Two hundred and thirty participants. Forty tutors and staff. Phew!

What is Chetham’s? A holiday? An experience? A dream? Deep learning? A festival? Camaraderie? Joy? All these and more. Mental exhaustion? Yes. Tutorials throughout the day. Recitals each evening. And practice rooms open 6am til 11pm. Seven days (fourteen if you can do it) of end-to-end piano madness. Non-stop. Punctuated by meals and coffee breaks. And for those with stronger metabolisms than I, late nights in the bar or around town. I needed sleep. Lots. Be prepared to pace yourself.

So what is Chetham’s? A privilege. Yes. A shock, also. So much talent. I feel … inadequate. My journey just beginning, despite the last years of obsessive practice. I am … nowhere. Visceral. I feel it keenly as I watch the young people and experienced ‘adult amateurs’. It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, despite the modest progress I have made. So little for the effort expended. Like a heavy weight bearing down on me, I hardly dare to imagine what will happen if, in the end, I find the journey too onerous.

Day 0: Registration. Check in. Unpack. Explore. And in the evening (from 5pm) three recitals! Three!! Nearly four hours of music, including Peter Donohoe CBE (Haydn programme).

Day 1: Tai chi (optional) Breakfast. 1-to-1 and group workshops. Coffee break. Workshops or practice. Lunch. Workshops. I play on stage, on a grand, for six minutes, to over seventy people. I am first to volunteer. Not bravery. Far from it. Desperation. Unless I do this my performance anxiety will kill whatever progress I have made. Dinner. Then three more recitals. Top international talent. 10pm. Bar. Wine (large glass). Sleep.

Repeat for six days. And *everyone* gets a piano.

Day 2: 9am. I am sitting in (observer) on a composition class. A young man, clearly ambitious (and knowledgeable) is explaining to a faculty tutor that he wishes to write a toccata. His  tutor opens a copy of Spectrum, book IV (ABRSM) and invites the young man to accompany him at the keyboard in selected ‘miniatures’. They discuss style and compositional ideas. Exploring. There is a poster on the wall of the tutor’s office: Peter Maxwell Davies. My mind returns to 1975.

What is Chetham’s? Memory jogger and nostalgia generator.

Time for my second 1-to-1. Schubert. I learn how to play big chords, softly. And how Schubert requires far less pedal than I was using. Somehow Tippett enters the conversation. My tutor has a close relative now occupying the house where Tippett lived and composed. He tells me about the garden path he trod while writing Child Of Our Time. And as the lesson ends, my tutor tells me – based on what he heard and the way I took instruction – that I should be playing more advanced music: Grade 8 music. Music to my ears …  but he does not know just how much work I do at Grade 6. LOL.

Still day 2. Lunch. I sit down by myself. A lady a couple of chairs away seems eager to introduce herself. We exchange stories. As a student, she studied Jazz, at Leeds, and now teaches. I start listing some of my musical heroes, starting with Corinne Bailey Rae. Her face lights up. “I was at college with Jason and Steve!” Oh my. My new Chetham’s friend (Leeds accent, there’s the clue) shows me photos of herself and the gang.

Is this musical world smaller than we imagine? Is that because being ‘musical’ is rare? Or weird? Does it require a particularly high IQ, or is it just a niche innate ‘talent’? More evidence emerges … I am in the school shop (Forsyths, who also ship-in additional grand pianos for the summer school) and ask a question about the Spectrum series of ‘contemporary music’ I heard about in the composition class. A man standing nearby asks, “Ah. Do you like contemporary music?”

“Britten and Tippett,” I reply.

“Oh, not contemporary then,” he says. “Britten would be 106 this year.” He smiles.

(He has a point. I have some catch-up to do.)

And then explains he has “worked with Britten”, and “lived for a while at The Red House”. Wow.

“And did I mention that I also worked with Tippett. Nice man.”

And the young woman behind the book counter joins in. “Yes, Tippett came to conduct our school orchestra. I agree, really nice. Fun. Britten was a but stuffy.”

Racing ahead with more connections the man (a Faculty tutor I now see from his badge) adds, “I taught Ed Sheeran you know. Lovely family. Must catch up with him some day.”

So there we are. What is Chetham’s? The centre of things.

How can this still be Day 2? But it is. A (much anticipated) evening recital in the gorgeous Stoller Hall (perfect acoustics). Angela Hewitt. Bach. The monumental Goldberg (30) Variations. Four (four) standing ovations! A once-in-a-lifetime performance. Superhuman. Truly. Everyone agrees.

stoller-hall-1440x720
Stoller Hall

Day 3. The afternoon class introduces a wonderful idea. We are each asked to i) walk to the piano (applause), ii) improvise “anything” (no more than thirty seconds), iii) take a bow and iv) walk offstage. It works like a dream. Those who were reticent to play before are, by the end of the course, playing to the group.

Day 3. Evening. The bar. Chatting. We have just been treated to not one but TWO concertos. Brahms No. 1 and No. 2, with full orchestra (the first performed by Murray McLachlan, founder of the summer school, the second by the french-American pianist Eugen Indjic). A quiet lady joins us. I ask her what she has played to her group. In an accent I don’t recognise she explains she is too nervous. She has travelled to Manchester from Brazil. And not played! (other than to her tutor) Well, that has to end. Gathering up a colleague, and despite it being late (11pm), I suggest that we grab a room with a couple of grand pianos and play to each other for an hour or so. And we do. And my little plan works. She plays a complex piece by Villa Lobos. Slow and hesitant but lovely. And half an hour later she is showing off another piece, rich in Brazillian rhythms. Mission accomplished.

(Later in the week I repeat this trick for an IT Project Manager who had previously only played to his teacher at home … not even to his family and friends. But he played for me, at Chetham’s, and later found the confidence to play in his final group workshop.)

So what is Chetham’s? Mutual support network. Agony aunt for performance anxiety limited international piano tourists.

Day 4. I sit in on an ‘Improvisation” lesson. The pupil is a lady I met on the bus from the station. She has spotted my music bag and introduced herself. Her first Chetham’s, just like me. To the surprise of her tutor, she breaks down, tearful, before the lesson gets underway. The explanation: the first two days had shown her a new world: what it *really* means to be a musician. She explained that her musical education at school, and with various ‘teachers’ thereafter, was little but rote learning. No creativity. No authenticity. I understand her. My childhood experience was limiting. Decades pass and along comes Chetham’s to show us what the journey is really about. Two minutes later she has recovered her composure as she listened to the kind, empathetic, words of reassurance from her sensitive faculty teacher.

Day 4. Just before lunch. A friend from a London-based piano circle I attend (LPMG) emerges from class. We decide to help each other and find an empty practice room. He helps me with my sight reading. We exchange notes on Bach minuet style. We play Satie to each other, wondering how to achieve evenness.

analysis
Adult student receiving tuition at Chethams Summer School for Pianists

Day 4. Afternoon tutorial. More input. Listen. Apply. This is good. I am learning. I hope it sticks. I’ll try.

Quote of the week:

Pupil: “I always get these bars wrong.”

Tutor: “I see. Have you tried playing them right?”

Evening concert. Sarah Nicolls’ ‘Outside-In-Piano’. Difficult to describe. Sarah builds vertical pianos, exposing the strings. The keyboard is sawn off and put back at a ninety degree angle. (No reaching over to get to the strings and the audience sees everything) Sarah uses this ‘instrument’ and a pile of electronics to compose new music. Tonal music washed in pads of sound coaxed from the unusual piano using her box of toys. What is this music? Part theatre, I could call it acoustic-electro-Dada’esque art. The hour with Sarah bewitches the audience. I meet up with her after the show, and she gives me an old piano-key from one of her construction projects. Apparently it contains a secret download-key to her digital album.

Sarah turns out to be an ex-student here at the school. So what is Chetham’s? Creativity incubator. And talent attractor.

Sarah is building a new InsideOutPiano (grand) using high-tech light weight components. The unique #StandingGrand will be built by FuturePianoLtd. The design will occupy no more space than a traditional upright and be able to be carried by two people. This will allow Sarah to perform more wildly and perhaps open the market for more musicians to own such a beautiful and unique instrument. Please consider supporting this project here on Kickstarter.

Day 5. Late (after an evening of recitals). Cabaret!! Not the musical; rather an end of summer school tradition. We assemble in the hall for the end of week celebration. A few have been roped in to provide the ‘entertainment’. A talented student plays the ubiquitous Bach Prelude in C major from the WTC Book 1. He is sitting on the ground, facing away from the keyboard, hands over his head and swapped left-right. This and a host of other entertainment closes the night. And before you ask … yes, I volunteered. It went down OK (for a first timer). Enough said of that the better.

Day 6. The following morning. Bit-of-a-head after late night wine. But I had signed up to play in the ‘leaving day’ recitals at 10AM. Without music! Memorization. Satie. Gnossiennes No. 1 and No. 2. Six minutes. That should be enough of me for this audience.

So what is Chetham’s? Unique. Essential. If you want to find out what lies ahead, just around the corner, waiting to pop up and poke fun at you. I’m back at school, where I need to be. The stepping stone.

What was the oddest thing I learnt? Clementi lives in Croydon. His name is Chris and he is a bellringer. Yes, Clementi’s great great (etc) grandson lives not too far. I knew there was a reason I found those exercises a little too close for comfort….


 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

When I was very young (2 or 3 years old) I would visit my grandmother and watch her play piano. She was amazing – she could play by ear. The memory that is the clearest for me is listening to her play “Harlem Stride” piano – mostly songs by the great Jelly Roll Morton. She would have this incredible laugh. It was pure joy. I was captivated and I wanted that for myself. It‘s funny – at 3 years old I don’t think I knew what “that” was…

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

How much time do you have? (laughs) I think the single biggest influence on me has been film music. I have been listening to film music since seeing “Fantasia” (Disney 1940). I have always been amazed at how music and visual could work together. Even now, my recordings are so programmatic. I love creating “scenes” and characters in my songs. People ask if my songs are about me… or if I am the central person that the song is based on. The answer is a resounding “no”. Music is an opportunity for me to inhabit the lives and experiences of others – just like in the movies.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My new recording “Cupid Blindfolded” has been one of the most satisfying of my life. I think it started with the writing. I was very, very focused and disciplined and I think all of the preparation made a huge difference. Many of my other piano recordings have been either completely improvised or partially improvised – “Cupid” stands out as a triumph of performance and composition for me. I also think “Cupid” is the best sounding piano recording I have ever made. Engineer Tom Eaton is a genius and he did an amazing job. You can watch a “mini-documentary” about the making of the recording here:

 

Watch the first video here:

The other album that I am very proud of is: “The Shadows of October.” It’s a collection of my ‘classical’ chamber works including my two string quartets. You can listen to my String Quartet No. 1 here:

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It’s hard to say because I only perform live 5 or 6 times a year. Frankly, I hate playing my pieces exactly the way I recorded them. In concert, I use the melody as a “jumping off point” and I take the audience on an adventure musically. It’s been fun to take a very popular melody like “I Have Loved You for a Thousand Lifetimes” and watch it evolve over the last 15 years. In the case of that song, I do NOT mess with the melody. I think there would be a riot at the performance! (laughs)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Last year, I did a concert for about 75 people – lovely space. No chairs. People laid on matts. Some did yoga (quietly). Some napped. Some held hands with their friends and partners and just “vibed” to the music. A woman even laid down UNDER my piano! It was wonderful. The audience loved it. I might do it again with all this new music I have created.

How would you describe your compositional style?

I think my language changes based on the type of music I am creating. I am something of a “chameleon” in this way. I might be creating a “rock” track for a jingle that has a very different musical language than a classical piece versus my solo piano music which is maybe the ONLY place in my musical life where I take shards of all the musics I create and press them into their own palette. On my new album, “Cupid Blindfolded”, you can hear my pop, jazz, soundtrack, classical and even my bent towards chromaticism – even avant-garde. I love the idea of self limiting systems in music. For example, a string quartet is the most rigorous kind of system where you have these four instruments and centuries of repertoire. Writing for solo piano is a similar challenge but you can surf more easily inside of “style” or “genre”. Recently, a reviewer on the radio said: “it’s ridiculous to call Michael Whalen’s music on ‘Cupid Blindfolded’ ’new age’”. (laughs) Honestly, I have to agree. I am pulling together 30 years of experience when I make my music. The only problem is that I trip over my limitations as a “pianist” while trying to execute the music I have created often!

How do you work?

Oh, this is TOP secret! (laughs) Honestly, it changes from project to project. However, for my recordings – – I do two things: first, I create the NAMES of the songs before writing a note of music. Secondly, I like to have some idea on the cover artwork as early in the process as possible. Having these elements helps me focus on the “story” and the “character” of each piece. I love writing programmatically. I guess it is from writing so much music to picture.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Freedom. Artistic, financial and creative freedom. Two out of three ain’t bad! (Laughs)

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

Integrity. I think for musicians coming up to be true to who they are as artists versus trying to create “content” to be popular. I have friends my age who battle with this idea. They think to be relevant they have to be well liked. That is nonsense. To be relevant you need to be saying something that is connecting with people authentically. Fans can smell a fake a million miles away. You can’t fake soul, emotion or pathos.

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

Exactly where I am.

 

Michael Whalen’s new album Cupid Blindfolded, his first solo piano album in 20 years, is available now. Stream or buy “Cupid Blindfolded” here


Michael Whalen is a two-time Emmy® Award winning composer and music supervisor (with 8 nominations) who has worked in advertising, television, film and video games for over 30 years. Some of his best-known work: “Veronika Decides to Die” (2014), “What the Bleep Do You Know?”, “As The World Turns”, themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News’ “Good Morning America”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, dozens of specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK and the History Channel and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Michael is also an internationally known recording artist with 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. Well-known for his beautiful and thematic music, he performs when time allows. He has also produced and executive produced over 100 recordings for other artists. His work as a executive producer resulted in a Grammy Nomination in 2000. 

michaelwhalen.com

 

ArtMuseLondon is a sister site of The Cross-Eyed Pianist, focusing on reviews of art exhibitions and music written by people with a keen interest and an intelligent, honest and accessible approach. ArtMuseLondon covers exhibitions, concerts, opera and chamber music, CD and book reviews, and general cultural musings. The quartet of reviewers are selective about what they see and hear and don’t “review everything”. Instead, they choose to write about the exhibitions and music which interest them personally.

Recent highlights include reviews of this season at Opera Holland Park, exhibitions at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Barbican, and the world premiere of a new choral work by composer Richard Blackford in Poole.

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Jacky Colliss Harvey has worked in museum publishing for over 20 years, and speaks and lectures regularly on the arts and their relation to popular culture. She is the author of the best-selling RED: A History of the Redhead, and The Animal’s Companion.


Karine Hetherington

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. When she is not writing about music, she likes to sing in her local choir or tackle piano sonatas, some of which are far too difficult for her.


1085-6365-nm_photo Nick Marlowe studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. Formerly a reviewer for OneStopArts, a spin-off from Bachtrack.com, Nick has also reviewed for US-based art and culture site CultureVulture.net.


FranceFrances Wilson pianist and writers Wilson is a pianist, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A keen concert-goer, she writes music reviews for her blog and is a regular writer for classical music website InterludeHK. She also curates playlists for classical music streaming service IDAGIO, and has written for Pianist Magazine, The Schubertian (journal of the Schubert Institute of the UK), Bachtrack.com and Classical Music Magazine.

I should have known better than to attempt the fast octaves at the beginning of Schubert’s first Klavierstück, D946, with incorrect (or rather non-existent) technique (this was some years after I had returned to the piano seriously after an absence of 20 years and before I started having regular lessons again). My enthusiasm outweighed caution and I launched into the opening section with gusto, enjoying the energy and emotion of the music. The pain started across the knuckle of my right hand – a sharp, shooting pain which travelled down the hand into my wrist and which would be quickly replaced by a chronic ache in the entire hand and wrist, especially when I spread my hand to an octave span, or did anything that involved articulating the hand beyond its natural resting position. I took ibuprofen and made an appointment to see my osteopath.

Technique should serve the music, but it also enables us to play efficiently, comfortably, and, importantly, safely. At the time, without proper instruction on how to play rapid, forte octaves, my hand was as stiff as a garden rake.

I took my swollen, painful hand to my osteopath and after gentle examination she diagonosed tenosynovitis – in my case, a form of repetitive strain injury not helped by existing carpal tunnel syndrome (which had developed during pregnancy). She advised me to rest the hand immediately (i.e. do not play the piano at all), to use Voltarol gel to ease the pain and inflammation, and prescribed a supportive orthopaedic brace which I wore for three months. During the course of recovery, I was allowed to do very light finger exercises, both in and out of the hand brace.

It was frustrating not to be able to play the piano, especially as I wasn’t very keen on doing left-handed practice, and it was difficult when teaching because it was awkward for me to demonstrate to students. When the brace came off, despite seven sessions with my osteopath (and some considerable expense), my hand was stiff, sluggish and unresponsive. The rehabilitation process was slow. I steered clear of music with octave passages, fast or slow, and the slightest extension of the hand – even a sixth – terrified me, in case the pain returned. During this time, I had been considering taking piano lessons again and I contacted a teacher who specialised in hand health and tension-free piano playing. Through her guidance and support, I learnt how to relax, how to warm up properly, how to make the hand “weightless”, to support it with the arm, shoulders and back, how to sense instant control, and, importantly, how to play octaves safely, with the necessary softness and “spring” in hand, wrist and arm. With these techniques learnt and finessed, I was able to tackle far more challenging repertoire, including music by Liszt and Rachmaninov, composers who famously put huge demands on the pianist’s hands, pain free and without tension.

Musicians are, or at least should be, as attuned to their bodies as athletes, yet many of us ignore the signals and play through pain. The pressures of the profession – the need to practice for many hours every day, the unsociable working hours, and the reluctance on the part of many to admit they have an injury, fearing loss of work/reputation – may lead musicians to ignore the danger signs. There are some notable examples of pianists who have had to give up playing or adapt to left-handed playing due to injury, including Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer, both of whom suffered from focal dystonia and who both switched to left-hand repertoire in order to continue playing (Fleischer returned to playing with both hands some years ago).

There are other, less severe physical conditions which can afflict musicians, most of which come from repetitive strain and poor posture, including back, neck and shoulder pain and impingement, and tendonitis. Left untreated these problems can become chronic and debilitating, leading to emotional problems such as loss of self-esteem and depression. But if one is sensible, many conditions can be self-treated with anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and diclofenac (Voltarol), physical therapies (massage, osteopathy and physiotherapy), and with rest (and this need not mean a complete break from the instrument). Making small but meaningful changes to one’s practicing regime can help too – warm up properly, take frequent breaks, do stretches.

When we play, our hands and fingers are under constant pressure, and are prone to overuse, but we can use various techniques to protect the hands. Learning how to relax between notes (especially when playing large spreads, or octaves) is crucial; also ensuring one observes the correct posture at the piano. Take care of yourself, physically (the great teacher Heinrich Neuhaus expected his students to train in the gym at the Moscow Conservatory to keep themselves fit). Perhaps the most important advice is to understand and listen to your body – and never play through pain.

If you would like to contribute to the Advice to Myself series, please feel free to contact The Cross-Eyed Pianist


Resources

BAPAM

Healthy Piano Playing with Penelope Roskell

Stress in Piano Playing

Pianomap – Thomas Carson Mark


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Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

Beethoven is unlikely to have collected too much water in his ear, for his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the loss of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when he was completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.


This article originally appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s Manuscript Notes site.


Nick Hely-Hutchinson worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.