Piano teachers express their views on the new ABRSM Diploma (‘ARSM’)

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has launched a new performance diploma, the ARSM, designed as “a bridge between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM”. The new Diploma, ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music), is different to both Grade 8 and the DipABRSM in that it includes no supporting tests (technical work, sight-reading/quick study, viva (for DipABRSM) or programme notes). The repertoire list is taken from the DipABRSM syllabus, though much reduced, and candidates may include 10 minutes of own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 or above standard to create a recital programme lasting 30 minute in total. To all intents and purposes this “diploma” looks very much like a reinvented version of the Advanced Certificate or Trinity’s Advanced Performance Certificate.

Concerns about the new ARSM have been expressed by piano teachers via Piano Network UK, a large and very active Facebook group comprising piano teachers, pianists (professional and amateur) and piano lovers, of which I am co-administrator. I would like to share some of these views here. My colleague and friend Andrew Eales, who writes the excellent Piano Dao blog, will be publishing a more considered response to the ARSM, together with an interview with Penny Millsom of the ABRSM in which he hopes to clarify some of the issues raised below. 

Please note that any views expressed here are independent and my publishing them does not necessarily mean Andrew and I support or endorse them. They are drawn from a diverse range of British piano teachers of differing ages and experience. My own comments and views about the ARSM diploma are in italics.

Level of attainment, marking and assessment criteria

  • I find the fact that Distinction is set at 45/50 interesting (in comparison to 70/100 for the dip/Licentiate levels) – though I have yet to decide what this actually means, if anything, about the marking, relative standards required, contributions of the viva and quick study…
  • In my view, it is simply Grade 9. Something on easy terms just to get letters after people’s names. 
  • Any old examiner, presumably no requirement for them to be a specialist in your instrument. So the exercise itself is kind of worthless, and the marking will be pretty irrelevant. But here, have a qualification…

Is it really a “Diploma”?

  • It’s essentially a composite of other products/services that ABRSM already offer – an examiner who is already there to examine Grade 1 players, a repertoire list that already exists… from a business point of view it seems like a great idea because ABRSM don’t seem to have needed to do much at all to add this to their overall offer, but the market could be quite large.
  • I don’t understand why it is marketed at associate level
  • Doesn’t this just devalue the DipABRSM in performance? By all means have the equivalent of the Trinity Advanced Certificate but don’t call it a diploma when it so clearly isn’t!
  • Same repertoire as the DipABRSM. So like a diploma, minus the bits people complain about. So, not particularly educational. 
  • I just don’t think it is sufficiently rigorous to be called a Diploma
  • It claims “associate” status, but simply isn’t on that level. So it devalues genuine associate diplomas as a whole, and is misleading to potential students/parents.
  • By calling it a “diploma” ABRSM have blurred the boundaries between the graded amateur exams and the higher professional diplomas. And very few people, if any, outside the profession (parents of students for example) will appreciate the difference. My concern is that it may devalue the higher diplomas and lead to further dumbing down across all exams. I’m afraid I feel it is primarily driven by commercial interests on the part of ABRSM. 
  • One of the main purposes of a professional qualification – and especially having letters after one’s name – is so that prospective clients are reassured that we are properly qualified. 
  • Hard to believe that this will confer diploma status, and entitle the holders to put letters after their name. To the general public, there will be little difference between an ARSM and a FRSM, or anything in between
  • This is really just a money-spinner. I cannot understand the logic in it being marked out of 50, or am I missing something?! It doesn’t appear to be accredited at a particular level, and I agree with others that it shouldn’t really confer diploma status. 

Who it is for?

I can see this new Diploma suiting some of my more talented teenage students who would like to improve their performing skills and/or want a different challenge post-Grade 8. A number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have also commented that they would like to take this diploma because the format encourages one to “enjoy playing”. 

A couple of teachers who are keen to improve their performance skills have expressed an interest in taking the ARSM as a form of continuing professional development:

  • …to me it is simply about skill refreshing. I do appreciate others’ concerns but perhaps for piano teachers who haven’t done any serious practice in a while it could be a good thing?

If you have views on the new ARSM diploma please feel free to leave comments below or use the contact page to get in touch.

ABRSM new post grade 8 performance diploma launched today

Source: ABRSM Media release – 4 August 2016

ABRSM is strengthening its current diploma offering with the addition of a new performance qualification, launched today (4 August). The new assessment, the Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM), has been launched to provide learners with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their performance skills after Grade 8.

The new diploma will be available to take in all ABRSM practical exam venues worldwide from January 2017.

What is involved?

The exam can be taken by anyone who has passed ABRSM Practical Grade 8 or a listed alternative. ARSM is available in all instruments currently examined by ABRSM, including voice.

Within the challenge of performing a 30-minute programme, candidates are assessed on their musical communication skills, interpretation and technical delivery. Candidates will have to perform:

• at least 20 minutes of music chosen from the ARSM repertoire list (this is the same list set for DipABRSM);

• up to 10 minutes of music can be own-choice repertoire (of at least Grade 8 standard).

There are no written or spoken elements, and no sight reading, aural tests or scales.

John Holmes, ABRSM Chief Examiner said 

“The diploma, which is supported by the Royal Schools of Music, is suitable for musicians who are looking for a challenge after grades and will provide a meaningful goal to work towards.

ARSM is unique in focussing solely on practical performing skills – nothing more, nothing less. It’s about the art and craft of musical communication through a half-hour programme which you choose and put together according to your own individual musical strengths and enthusiasms.

As well as focussing on the playing or singing of your chosen items of repertoire, ARSM also involves assessment of the performance of your programme as a whole, giving you valuable feedback from two complementary perspectives.”

For more information about ARSM, visit www.abrsm.org/newdiploma

Meet the Artist……Jimmy Lee, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I discovered my ability to compose almost by accident. I had always been active and in love with the performing arts, school plays, school and church choir’s amateur dramatics etc…. It all started for me when I began to write poetry, mostly autobiographical of childhood memories, life experiences and so on. Without any formal training, I found that I could create melodies by turning my poems into song; I seem to have a natural gift as a songwriter. The four pieces on the album ‘The Empty Room’ were written on guitar some time ago and although I was not able to transcribe them for symphony orchestra myself at that time, When I was eventually able to hear the music played by the ensemble I founded, I was more than delighted and promised myself that one day I would record and perform all of my music albeit ballads, folk, Americana but most importantly, orchestral.  That time came a few years ago. Since that time I have produced four albums, written over thirty songs poems and produced two musical stage productions from albums.. All have been well received and proven very popular with a variety of audiences. I am ‘at one’ when I am performing!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

In my childhood and at school I became emotional, reflective and very thoughtful when I heard pleasing melodies and songs. I remember at school performing Schubert’s ‘Trout’, so beautiful and meaningful; also the songs of Stephen C Foster. I was captivated by their meaning and how simple it seemed to be able to tell a story and express emotion and events good or bad. In the early 60’s I was fortunate enough to share a flat in London with very talented musicians, with a wide range of musical interests from folk to orchestral and I attended many performances throughout London and yearned to play my part. I practised hard on guitar/vocals and played my first few gigs at the Troubadour and the Half Moon in Putney.. From then on I was hooked.

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

To keep my desire to perform in check. I have dipped in and out of the music scene from the late 70s, performing in the UK, Europe and the USA but my sense of responsibilities’ to provide security for my young family always overruled my personal ambition. I have no regrets in pursuing a career in the commercial world, which was thankfully both enjoyable and successful.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge is to understand what is required and to create something that will last, stand the test of time and be meaningful and pleasing not just to the audience but to yourself. I have no respect for transient music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I am not the greatest musician in the world and I am always in awe of the standard talent and ability of trained or gifted musicians. Sometimes I feel intimidated and inadequate but I am usually put at ease and enjoy that company enormously.

Which works are you most proud of?

Apart from my orchestral works, which I am enormously proud of, there is a ballad on my ‘Runaway’ album called Hard Man. It was a difficult song to write and sometimes too difficult to sing but the lyrics say it all. It is a song about my Father who suffered terribly in Burma during the WWI and carried the scars for life. It is both a criticism and a tribute to a man who was never able to be the Father that I know he could have been and wanted to be.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are many from Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, John Williams, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Adele, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson and many more!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing my orchestral works performed by a full symphony orchestra at the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, London in November 2015

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

For me, all music must tell a story that would be both interesting and in some way moving. The story line/lyrics will often suggest music and the music will often suggest a story line or lyrics. The two are inseparable do not be swayed by what is in vogue follow your instincts your gifts are specific to you… create and never give up!

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

Still alive and well.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?….

Contentment.

What is your most treasured possession?…

My health and my guitar.

What do you enjoy doing most?…

Snowboarding, wind-surfing, and performing but not at the same time !!!!

What is your present state of mind?…

Excited, apprehensive, confident and pleased that at this time in my life I still have a lot to look forward to.

From classical music to folk and country, Jimmy Lee has an exotic and diverse compositional style. Disregarding all barriers that stand between genres, Jimmy has pursued his love of music regardless of any rules. His career has taken him across the globe from bars and beer joints in America’s Mid West to London’s Wembley Arena. After taking a break from the music scene, Jimmy Lee founded the Blue Coconut Music Club and decided to take up his calling once again.

Jimmy Lee released his debut classical album for symphony orchestra in Spring 2016. Having caught the attention of the Director Music at The Army Corps of Musicians (CAMUS), Kneller Hall with the power and beauty of his music, Jimmy Lee begun a collaboration with the Military for his next project. The album was recorded by Abbey Road Studios at The Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks and Birdcage Walk with combined military and civilian musicians.

Read more about Jimmy Lee here

 

 

R is for……

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view… to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.
– Glenn Gould

R is for “robbed”. R is also for “rhubarb”. And, aged four, sat on a plump cushion, on top of my teacher’s piano stool, having just played the Minuet in G from the Associated Board’s edition of Eighteen Selected Pieces from ‘A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with about as much feeling as the Honda production line in Swindon,  I first came across what I initially thought was a portmanteau of the two. (By the way, I wouldn’t have known, then, what a “portmanteau” was, either. And I still have the very same music perched on my piano, today: such is the rustiness of the current state of what I laughingly refer to as my “technique”.)

“Technically, that’s excellent,” said Mr Bury (or words to that effect); “but it could do with some rubato…” – and then, of course, he went on to explain and demonstrate, beautifully, what that was.  And, although I have hunted it ever since, Snark-like:  at such a tender age, my emotional range was narrowly-focused. All I could see were Boojums.

My personal definition of the word Rubato is aural; rather than written or visual. Listen to the two (fantabulous) recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which (the fantabulous) Glenn Gould made at each end of his career. The first, from 1955, <https://itun.eslasts 38:34, and is a demonstration of pure technical genius. The second, from 1981 – at 51:18 – lasts exactly one-third longer – and transforms each variation from what could easily be a mechanical Baroque exercise (see above) to something of a romantic, yet contrapuntal, serenade: particularly the opening (and closing) Aria. The difference, I believe, is not in the time taken – although there is a definite contributory effect from the time taken between making the two recordings. Subtract the first from the second – although I have to admit, given my word limit (and being, ahem, robbed of time), this is a little simplistic (and may be over-egging the pudding a little): there are a few more repeats, as well… – and what you are left with (IMHO) is the very essence of rubato.

The tempi are not so much “robbed”; as generously donated. Or, as Michael Kennedy so wisely states in the 1980 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (which also sits atop my piano), rubato is…

A feature of performance in which strict time is for a while disregarded – what is ‘robbed’ from some notes being ‘paid back’ later. When this is done with genuine artistry and instinctive musical sensibility, the effect is to impart an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity. Done badly, rubato merely becomes mechanical.

…and I’m sure you can easily evoke your own guilty parties with regards to that last comment. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you disagreed with my exemplar, above. (I’m sure Chopin would.) But, surely that’s what rubato is really all about – the individual, “instinctive” subjectivity (hopefully dredged up from your very soul, and bypassing most of your mind) that you can bring to any piece of music: whether it be from your emotions; or even from a desire to stress a melody hidden deep within a morass of complex notes (see, for instance, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto).

In other words, rubato – whether applied to one note, or a thousand – is simply a symptom, an expression, of one’s own interpretation.

Stephen Ward AKA The Bard of Tysoe

 

sergei_rachmaninoff_loc_33969uUp, up in the highest echelons of the pianistic pantheon sits Sergei Rachmaninov….

Regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard. Today, his piano music remains amongst the most well-loved and widely-performed in the standard repertoire, yet in the 1950s the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed it as “monotonous in texture….. consist[ing] of mainly of artificial and gushing tunes….”. He was composing at a time when music was undergoing huge sea-changes (atonality and the development of the 12-note tone row, for example), yet he remained true to his own compositional vision and his music is unashamedly Romantic, full of sweeping melodies and rich textures. Even in his miniatures (for example, the Preludes, Moments Musicaux, Études-Tableaux) his music seems to express the vastness of the Russian landscape. It has a visceral and deeply honest quality.

“A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves…My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music”

Sergei Rachmaninov

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op 32, no. 12

Many of his piano works enjoy legendary status, and are performed around the world by the famous and the lesser known, such is their beauty, appeal and scale of challenges. Take the Third Piano Concerto, by his own admission his “favourite” of all his piano concerti – “I much prefer the Third, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play”. Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff could not practise the piece while in Russia, and instead he practised and memorised it using a silent cardboard keyboard that he brought with him while sailing to the United States. It was premiered in New York on 28th November 1909 by Rachmaninov himself, and was dedicated to the pianist Josef Hofman, whom Rachmaninoff regarded as the greatest pianist of his generation, though Hofman never actually performed the Third Concerto.

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The opening theme of the Third Piano Concerto

Monumental, treacherous, gorgeous, its fearsome technical difficulties reflect the composer’s own transcendent prowess at the keyboard. For the pianist it is forty-five minutes of almost continuous playing, the equivalent in energy expended to shovelling three tons of coal just to move the keys – and this excludes the emotional and intellectual energy used. For the audience, when played well it, it encompasses the full range of human emotions in its towering virtuosity.

 

Meet the Artist……Marios Papadopoulos

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(photo Chris Gloag)

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

A keen ear and an aptitude for music I showed as a boy of five

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

I have always been inspired by great performances, particularly those of artists of the old school such as Cortot, and have sought to make strong, informed musical statements

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

To be able to keep my playing to a high standard. I am much more demanding now than I was ten years ago and the musical challenges are greater. Also, I have to ensure that the Orchestra has the resources to maintain its status and continue to expand.

You founded the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998, why did you decide to establish a new orchestra?

To establish an instrument of the highest quality in a town which is revered the world over for excellence. My colleagues and I have worked hard to create an orchestra worthy of the attention of some of the world’s greatest artist who now collaborate with us on a regular basis. I am totally against having to create a niche in order to attract attention. The OPO makes strong musical statements playing all kinds of repertoire, including your all time favourites.

Your piano festival begins on 30th July: what are you most looking forward to in the festival?

To acquaint myself with emerging talent and share my musical experiences with them.

The Oxford Piano Festival and Summer Academy is now widely acknowledged as one of the most prestigious of its kind in the world. A residential course at St Hilda’s College, it welcomes to Oxford some of the most talented young pianists from all continents to study with some of the world’s greatest artists and teachers. This year’s artists include Marc-André Hamelin, Peter Serkin, Dame Fanny Waterman, Paul Badura Scoda, Menahem Pressler, Peter Donohoe, Tong-Il Han, Alexandre Tharaud and Nikolai Lugansky.

The students attending are of the highest standard and many are on the verge of international careers. This year, we will be welcoming as students both the winner and runner-up of the 2015 Leeds International Piano Competition. In the younger category, we are delighted to be welcoming again three scholars from the Lang Lang Foundation, chosen by Lang Lang himself. It is a privilege to be amongst such outstanding talent: I learn a lot. 

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I rarely listen to my recordings once they have been edited

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I identify strongly with the German/Austrian classical repertoire of Mozart and Beethoven but also enjoy performing the romantic and 20th century repertoire.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

We are here to serve the Oxfordshire community. As the only professional orchestra in Oxford, we are free to perform works we think our audiences would enjoy, including much of the core repertoire. The Oxford Philharmonic does not have to adhere to any gimmicks or acquire a niche to attract attention: it has a territorial claim and is in the service of the community.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love playing in the Sheldonian Theatre. Other than its revered history, it has wonderful acoustics and provides an intimate setting for our audience and musicians alike

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

The works I work on at any given time. We have just performed Walton’s Façade which I loved, and I am now preparing to conduct Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony: what a great master he was!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Those who move me

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The few concerts I have given in my life which were less discomforting than others 

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

Do not be afraid to be an individual and always aim at making strong musical statements

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

I hope to be still alive and on stage tackling repertoire I have still not been able to perform: would love to conduct more Wagner, for instance. Also, I would like to devote myself to recording a lot of the piano repertoire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be with my family

What is your most treasured possession?

My family

What do you enjoy doing most?

Anything that makes me feel alive

What is your present state of mind?

One of huge responsibility for something my colleagues and I have created and which I would like to see continue its legacy when I am gone

Marios Papadopoulos MBE is the founder, music director and driving force behind the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly Oxford Philomusica), Orchestra in Residence at the University of Oxford.

www.oxfordphil.com

Oxford Piano Festival 2016

Meet the Artist…..Bartosz Glowacki, accordionist

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Who or what inspired you to take up the accordion and pursue a career in music?

I started playing the accordion quite late, when I was 11 and I began attending one of the national schools in Poland where I am from. I soon realised that this is what I wanted to do in my life. I was very lucky to have amazing teachers who were also great human beings so that helped me a lot in my decisions.

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

I cannot name a single person in my musical career who has been the most important to me. I tend to take inspiration from everyone I have come across or worked with. My teacher Owen Murray from the Royal Academy of Music is one of them, for example, as someone who showed me the importance of sound quality.

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

I think that maintaining the artistic vision in every concert is the biggest challenge but I think this problem touches most artists.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

It is very hard to name them as every performance is special for me and I try to give my best in each of them. If I have to choose one it would have to be my performance of Concerto Classico by Mikolaj Majkusiak for accordion and symphony orchestra in Vienna or my first album “Encuentro” with my group, the Deco Ensemble.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love to play classical contemporary works for accordion and I think that is the most natural repertoire in classical music for accordion nowadays. But, I enjoy playing all different styles of music as it helps to develop your musical taste.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

My choices are based on my new discoveries. I love to go for the pieces or transcriptions which are not very popular or completely new.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I think the Wigmore Hall is one of my favourite venues because of the acoustics. Also Studio S1 of Polish Radio is outstanding. I am also really looking forward to playing at the Wallace Collection for the first time as part of City Music Foundation’s Summer Residency on 28th July.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Works by Gubaidulina are my favourite to perform and Chopin to listen to.

Playing Chopin on the accordion would be one of the biggest mistakes possible.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My favourite musicians are the ones who I work with as I am often very lucky to meet people who are very talented but, more importantly, are nice people to work with. I think is really important. From the musical legends my favourites are Vladimir Horowitz, the great jazz pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, and Paco de Lucia.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I remember playing for one of the political institutions in Brussels during an exhibition of pictures on the martology of Eastern Europe. I did not want to spoil the institution but the organisers asked me to play one of pieces in my repertoire called The Gulag Archipelago based on Solzhenitsyn’s book. Unfortunately, straight after the performance, the audience were supposed to move to the area where the post event reception was meant to take place. However, most of the audience went there after I started playing. I thought that it was a very bad concert experience until one lady came to my dressing room crying and explaining that her family went through the Gulag prisons and how touched she was.
We went for coffee together and she told me a lot of incredible stories from her life which were absolutely inspiring. Those kind of moments compensate for all the bad experiences in a musician’s life.

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

I would have to say it is the concept of musical journey in the concert which the musician can reflect on.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The word “perfect” should be completely erased from any language as there is no such thing in real life. For me happiness should be balanced between what you do, who you do it with and how you do it. Having a lovely family, doing a lot of concerts with my artistic vision and being able to enjoy life is as close to perfect as it can get in my opinion. Finding this balance in real life situation is the hardest bit.

Accordionist Bartosz Glowacki performs works by Scarlatti, Arvo Pärt, Trojan, Makkonen, Semionov and Piazzolla on Thursday 28th July as part of City Music Foundation’s Summer Residency at the Wallace Collection 25-29th July. More details here

City Music Foundation’s mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians at the outset of their careers with the tools, skills, experience and networks they need to pursue music as a viable and rewarding livelihood. 

www.glowackiaccordion.com

 

 

The Three C’s

Confidence Commitment Concentration

Sometimes, and more frequently that you might imagine, my husband’s world (mountain-biking) and mine (music) intersect, with interesting results. At first sight, our respective passions could not be more different: he likes to hurl himself and his bike down the side of mountains, riding rough-shod (literally) over rocks and gnarly tree roots while I get my share of excitement out of playing the piano or hearing others play it in concert. How could there possibly be any connection between those two activities?

But a chance conversation between my husband, myself and two pianist/piano teaching friends over dinner recently revealed some noteworthy parallels between the world of the downhill mountain-biker and the performing pianist. In fact, there are many parallels between sportspeople and musicians, from the way we prepare for a race or a performance to the importance of listening to and taking care of our bodies (see The Musician as Sportsperson).

“Confidence Commitment Concentration” is a mantra my husband regularly repeats in relation to his cycling. In his world – and that of other sportspeople – Confidence is a key factor in propelling one down that vertiginous mountain track or round the running circuit. While negotiating a rocky descent there’s no time for self-doubt because a moment’s hesitation can lead to one to misjudge the line and ride into a tree, or worse. Confidence, and the ability to handle one’s bicycle or instrument adroitly, comes from practising and honing one’s technical skills. Assured technique then provides the firm foundation on which to build creativity and artistry. It also gives us the freedom and confidence to make snap decisions during performance and to prevent small slips or errors from distracting us or pulling us off course.

 

Commitment – so you’re barrelling down that alpine track and there’s a jump ahead. You can’t apply the brakes because you need the right speed to propel you over the jump. Now is the time to commit – don’t hold back and don’t be tentative. In a musical performance, we commit from the moment we start playing. At that point there is no going back – the first notes have sounded and we must play with commitment to offer our audience a convincing performance. Commitment also means playing fluently and not allowing errors or slips to distract us. And just as a moment’s hesitation on the mountain track could lead to an accident, tentative playing may hint at lack of confidence which might make our audience uneasy for the rest of the performance. Of course piano playing is not nearly as hazardous as downhill mountainbiking (I know this because my husband is a fairly frequent visitor to the A&E department at our local hospital), but a metaphoric accident during a performance can do serious damage to our confidence and self-esteem which may harm future performances.

 

Concentration – sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you need to concentrate, but our concentration can easily be disturbed which can then disrupt or sabotage a performance. My husband cites things like “your mates standing at the side of the track taking photos or yelling at you“. In a musical performance, external factors such as a member of the audience coughing or rustling their programme can interrupt our concentration, in addition to internal issues such as the negative voice of the inner critic. Concentration can be trained to such a degree that we can accept external interruptions without affecting our performance – see my earlier post Mind Games for more on concentration.

Taken all together, The Three C’s can lead to a performance – musical or sporting – that is fluent, convincing and successful.

If you get one of The Three Cs wrong you can probably still pull it off, but if you get two of them wrong you’ll probably crash. 

Meet the Artist……Frederic Chiu, pianist

rt2020130925_fr_s15_0003Who or what inspired you to take up the piano nd pursue a career in music? 

I don’t recall myself the beginnings of my musical studies, but it was my parents who made the decision. They loved Classical Piano, and specifically my father, who was exposed to the rigors of Classical Piano training through his sister. She had studied seriously in NY, and turned to teaching because of a hand injury.

Playing piano was part of the process of growing up and getting education – which also included school, sports, cub scouts, etc.

The idea of pursuing a career in piano evolved steadily and slowly, but unconsciously, on my part and on the part of my parents. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20’s that I consciously made that decision. By then, of course, I had already attended two of the greatest music schools in the world (Indiana University and Juilliard), played around the world, made recordings and had management! I realized that I could pursue a number of different careers, but that, given my training, playing the piano was the most interesting and rewarding path. From that point, I doubled down on my commitments and focus. And it hasn’t stopped since!

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

Having Classical music playing 24/7 in my parents’ house since before I was born made a huge difference. I still play some of those recordings virtually in my head. My brother (a 1st violinist in the Chicago Symphony) and I lived within music, not realizing how unusual it was to have that kind of upbringing. 

Each of my teachers brought me an essential element at the right time. I think about their teaching regularly as I continue down my path.

In terms of icons, I was most influenced by 3 pianists: Horowitz, who taught me what the piano can do, through his amazing recordings. Richter, who taught me how to position yourself relative to the music when performing. And Glenn Gould, who taught me why one should explore music and performance.

Later, when I was in Paris, I discovered Alfred Cortot, who embodies all of that. His words about music (and I feel grateful to have learned French, if only to be able to understand Cortot in his mother tongue) are able to describe music in a way that I have not found anywhere else.

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

Balancing career building with other aspects of life – family, health, friends, other interests. I often leave piano playing to the end, which is both a plus and a minus. A Minus because sometimes I don’t spend the time I truly should, when I truly should, focusing on career development, piano development, etc. It’s a Plus because, coming at the end of a long to do list, my playing really becomes a receptacle for all of the thoughts and ideas that the other activities inspired. It’s where I’ve always processed all of my thoughts and feelings, and I think it has become richer for that.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

That’s like – “Which of your children are you most proud of.”!! I can say something about every album that has come out!

Transcriptions: part of the leading edge of the acceptance of Transcriptions in the repertoire.

Complete Prokofiev Sonatas: Wow, I actually recorded this!

Mendelssohn Sonatas: So happy this is one of my best-selling albums – the music is amazing, confident, historically significant AND people recognized this.

Rossini Sins of Old Age: I learned how to produce an album (under dire circumstances!) through this fun, virtuosic recording.

Chopin Etudes Opus 10 and Rondeaux: A complete change in my approach to Chopin, plus doing the 2-piano recording, playing with technology!

Liszt Annees de Pelerinage: My first big concert in Paris was playing this cycle. So moving to get to put it down for posterity.

Schubert/Liszt Schwanengesang: Intermingling one of the greatest achievements of Liszt with some of the most important personal relationships in my life.

Reflections – Ravel, Decaux, Schoenberg: I consider this my greatest contribution to the part of programming – discovering Decaux and using those pieces to bridge the chasm between impressionism and expressionism.

Chopin Complete Mazurkas: Chopin possibly used every iteration of ¾ time available somewhere in this genre. I wanted to create a CD that could be compelling but also play in the background, and I think I succeeded.

Chopin Etudes Opus 25 and late works: Making a link between works of Chopin that have not been associated before. And being able to record the great late Chopin works.

Brahms Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): Brahms Sonatas, what more need I say?

Grieg Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): beautiful, unrecognized pieces. Pierre and I both entered into a world of discovery with this recording and bonded in a wonderful way.

Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet: My favorite recording of my own to listen to. The rhythms and melodies are endlessly fascinating and compelling, no matter how many times I listen.

Prokofiev Volume 5, early works: Fugitive Visions and Sarcasms – love the contrast between these two early works.

Prokofiev Volume 6: middle works: Obscure sets that are never played, but which illuminate an important time of Prokofiev’s life. It’s impossible to understand his music without knowing these works.

Prokofiev Volume 7: children theme: I have always loved music for/about children, and Prokofiev has a special connection to this theme as well.

Prokofiev Volume 8: a kind of wrap-up of the complete set, but includes the Choses en soi, which exemplify the turmoil within Prokofiev that eventually led him to return to the Soviet Union.

Prokofiev Volume 9: transcriptions: Includes my complete Lt Kije Suite, as well as the Divertissement – never played and beautifully complex.

Prokofiev Volume 10: Violin Sonatas: an important annex to the three “war sonatas” that tell an important part of the Prokofiev life journey in music.

Beethoven Symphony V – My first independently produced album, working with the great Judy Sherman. I felt great putting this together from A to Z.

Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals – so wonderfully fun working with David Gonzalez, story-teller.

Distant Voices – truly a revolutionary recording, using Disklavier technology to be able to produce a great audio CD AND an incredible video DVD and DisklavierTV show. This is the future!

Hymns & Dervishes: A successful Kickstarter project, this recording has been maturing in my mind for over 15 years, and will finally be out in 2016. The fundraising and recording processes have brought incredible depth and richness to the project, and to me in general.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I love Prokofiev, and feel I’ve aptly demonstrated how diverse and richly nuanced his music actually is, compared to the cliches that surround him and his work. In particular, perhaps the Toccata, Fugitive Visions, Sixth Sonata and Seventh Sonatas have most benefited from that. I would love to present the 4th Concerto more often. It’s not just a work for left-handed or Russian pianists!

I love Mendelssohn’s Opus 6 Sonata, and no one plays it, for some reason.

I love transcriptions, and hope I bring a special attention and passion for them in concert. I’m especially proud of my Lt Kije transcriptions.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I have some recurring themes and ideas – Prokofiev, Classical Smackdown, French impressionists, Transcriptions, unusual collaborations. I have the luxury of following my sense of where I am and where the world is. From the time I decided to forgo the competition circuit, the freedom of exploring and presenting repertoire has been wonderfully inspiring. That inspiration has continued to this day (almost 30 years). My choices almost always come from taking the perspective of the open but untrained listener, willing to take a chance with a new musical experience. This has a huge influence on my choice of repertoire and the structure of the programs that I put together.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

My nostalgic favorite is the Salle Cortot, in the Ecole Normale of Paris 17th. I played there the first time in Paris, and have since played there over 20 times. It is a beautiful wooden hall that seats 440, designed by the same architect who went on to build the Theatre des Champs Elysées.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love to listen to jazz and Middle Eastern music. Things with a strong rhythmic element and an improvisational aspect. I relate to rhythm deeply, and I am terrible at improvising, so that is kind of aspirational to me! It puts together my best and my worst qualities in playing!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

My favorite musicians today? I think that I’m not that inspired by musicians in general. I feel much more like a conduit of other kinds of perspectives and thinking, and channeling them into my own music-making as a communication tool. I’m not a big concert-goer, but when I do go, it’s usually for friends, and I’m totally connected with them and the music-making experience.

If I had to name names, I would include Valery Gergiev.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One striking memory is my first exposure to Horowitz at Carnegie Hall. It was the premier screening of “The Last Romantic,” a concert filmed in his NY apartment, and a prelude to (one of) his return to the stage the following year. I remember the visual experience resonating with the sonic experience to make something so compelling, so hallucinating. It was my first time in Carnegie Hall. Everything came together that evening.

Soon after, I bought the soundtrack, and realized that, without the visual element, the performance was actually quite lacking in some ways. It was a ground-breaking discovery on my part

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

Be sure of your vision first, and then be open to others’ ideas. Bring your vision to others, but be ready to interact with their ideas. Not having your own values and vision means you have no convictions, an unclear profile. Not being open others’ ideas means you are just barrelling through life and not relevant.

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

Moving around the world, doing residencies that allow building musical relationships and programs with roots.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being with my wife with a group of friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

None. I could see giving up anything as long as I’m healthy.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Reading and thinking.

What is your present state of mind?

Curious, fascinated.

Frederic Chiu’s intriguing piano-playing and teaching springs from a diverse set of experiences and interests: his Asian/American/European background, his musical training, and an early and ongoing exploration of artificial intelligence and human psychology, especially the body-mind-heart connection.

Find out more here

 

 

Q is for……

Quietude

Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Arvo Pärt

0e9a4e9b60bf60fa96f5a0a69bf97e1dWhy pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music in between.

Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4′ 33″) – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying, single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret it – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self-examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))

Q is also for Quakers, of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring qualities (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

– TS Eliot: Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.

Stephen Ward, Writer in Residence for the Orchestra of the Swan, and blogger at The Bard of Tysoe

Quasi – As if…..

Perhaps the most famous work for piano which utilises the word “Quasi” is Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight”. The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title the work shares with its companion piece, Opus 27, No. 1.

This is extraordinary music, this “Sonata like a fantasy”, with its first movement of delicately veiled sounds, hushed melodic fragments, those peaceful, certain triplets, the slight hesitancy in the dotted figure in the right hand, the suggestion throughout of improvisation, the pedal markings, senza sordini, indicating that the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old. A twilight first movement, shimmering, shifting, hinting at the tension between the forward pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision, and the solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, the use of thematic material and texture beautifully demonstrated in the construction of the initial melody. A prophetic theme built on a single note, G-sharp, this the composer’s core idea. A single note, repeated six times, proceeds to A, then returns. A single note, reharmonized on its return, not by the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with luminous E-major. A single note forms a single theme; there is no second subject in the first movement, only that the triplet accompaniment assumes a more melodic role, only that tension rises as new harmonies are initiated. A single note, a single theme, now heard for the first time in the left hand in the coda. A single note, foreshadowed in the opening measures, recollected at the close. A single note, a simple triplet accompaniment, a crescendo and decrescendo first in the right hand, then in the left. The movement ends as quietly as it began…..

Frances Wilson

If you listen to one thing this week…..

‘The Single Petal of A Rose’ – Duke Ellington

Another troubled, turbulent week – at home and abroad – but on Friday evening, at an informal performance platform/social event for members of Piano Network UK, a 1500+ strong Facebook group of pianists, composers, piano teachers, and piano lovers, I discovered via one of the performers, jazz pianist Rick Simpson, this piece by Duke Ellington. As Rick said when he introduced the piece, it’s Ellington’s hommage to Debussy and Ravel, and there’s more than a hint of Claire de Lune in it with its sensuous harmonies, repeated melodic fragments and softly undulating rhythms.



This rendition is by Marian McPartland from her album ‘The Single Petal of A Rose: The Essence of Duke Ellington’.

The piece comes from ‘The Queen Suite’, written by Ellington in honour of Queen Elizabeth II in 1958 after he met her at a reception in Leeds. The six-movement suite had remained hidden in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, since the composer’s death in 1998 before it was played at the Marlborough International Jazz Festival as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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