As BBC Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season drew to a close, last night’s late night request programme, Play Mozart for Me, featured music from the last year of Mozart’s life, including my request to hear the Rondo in A minor, K511, a piece which I have written about previously on this blog.

You can hear the entire programme via this link. My comments on the K511 come at about 2’40” in (near the end). The performance is by Richard Goode, though I had requested Mitsuko Uchida’s recording, which, to me, is pure perfection, with a liquid clarity and some passages of truly heart-rending melancholy….

This groundbreaking study aims to reveal the musical abilities of the nation and help redefine what it means to be musical. (BBC Lab UK site)

The test, which takes about 25 minutes to complete, comprises questions and listening exercises (for those who have been through the treadmill of graded exams, these will be quite familiar!). It is quite fun – in fact, it is very interesting – and at the end you are presented with a colourful pie-chart indicating your musical awareness, and your scores for the listening games. The test results are being analysed by a team from Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

I was relieved to find that I scored highly, particularly in categories such as “Enthusiasm for Music”, “Musical Curiosity”, and “Social Creativity”. My aural tests were pretty secure too – a good score for a piano teacher!

To take the test, click on this link.

There’s an amusing, silly season thread doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment called “Less Ambitious Operas” (search tag #lessambitiousoperas). Here are some of my favourites (and some of my own):

Boris Not Quite Good Enough

The Love of Two Pears

The Tweets of Hoffman

Flu in Venice

La Spinta Gentile del Destino (The Gentle Push of Destiny)

Dildo and Aeneas

Nixon in China Town

The Semi-Functional Flute

Einstein on the Couch

Infidelio

The Floor Sweeper of Seville

Orpheus in the Cupboard Under the Stairs

The Mild Embarrassment of Faust

The One-Penny Melody

The One Night Stand of Figaro

The Turn of the Corkscrew

I could go on (and on)……….but I won’t. Plenty more on Twitter, or add your own in the comments box.

“I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians is to make it differently” – Glenn Gould

Whatever you may think about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – genius, nutcase, eccentric – his life remains fascinating, partly because he was at once both enigmatic and open. He was extremely articulate about his music, as well as many other subjects, including art, poetry and philosophy, yet his interior life remains clouded by his eccentricities: the pills,  the scarves, the funny chair his dad made for him. This new film attempts to go beyond all the myths and misconceptions, and, from what I can tell from the official trailer, will be as insightful, perhaps more so, as Bruno Monsaingeon’s wonderful 2006 film ‘Hereafter’.

For North American readers, you can access the film online until 11 January here. For the rest of us, for the time being there is the official trailer, and then the release of this award-winning and highly-praised film on DVD in the UK in late March (pre-order from Amazon).

Genius Within – official website of the film

Bruno Monsaingeon’s website

Radio 3 is currently revelling in a major Mozart-fest, by broadcasting “every note he wrote” between now and January 12th. It has been a pleasure to tune in intermittently during the day and hear excerpts from his operas, choral works, symphonies, piano music, chamber music, and much more, reminding us of his immense and varied output, and in yesterday’s Breakfast show (presented by Rob Cowan), listeners were treated to a truly wonderful live performance by the Heath Quartet of the Divertimento in D major, K.136, which surely is a first for the Breakfast programme. (You can find a full programme listing and listen again here)

Other delights include Play Mozart for Me, a late-night request programme presented by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch. Listeners are invited to send in their requests, and to write to Sarah with thoughts on their favourite Mozart pieces, or why Mozart is important to them, or indeed any other personal ‘Mozartiana’. There are lunchtime concerts, evening performances, blogs and forums – and there is even a Mozart Mash-up where you can download 20 Mozart fragments, and create your own 60 second “mash up” (I am downloading the material as I write – just for fun). The best clips will be broadcast (and if my own mash up is successful, I will add a soundclip to this blog).

All this Mozart-mania suggests that “Wolfie” remains perennially popular, and Radio 3’s plethora of programmes and related articles, videos, blogs, interviews seems a great way to encourage more people to discover him. Many of us had our first encounters with his music as young children or novice students. Some of his earliest, most youthful piano pieces (many of which were written before he’d reached his teens) appear in the syllabuses of the early graded music exams, and I am sure most of us can recall a Fantasia or Sonata or two which we learnt when we were more advanced pianists.

While Mozart may be master of the Classical period, Franz Liszt, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, is undoubtedly king of the Romantics. Let us hope Radio 3 finds a way to celebrate this all too-often misunderstood and under-represented composer with similar panache and enthusiasm.

For more on Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season click here.

The holiday is over, and my students return next week for the start of the spring term – which means I must get organised! As I start to plan the upcoming term, with the usual emphasis on finessing pieces for exams later in the spring, and encouraging students to think “musically”, a quote from the pianist Artur Schnabel comes to mind, that bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard.

When I introduce the way music is constructed and written to novice students, I explain that bar lines are there to “keep the music tidy”, and that each ‘measure’ of music is separated by a bar line. This immediately sets them up as notional hurdles to keep the unruly sheep of notes tethered in the right place. Quite soon after, students meet phrase marks, and are then presented with a conflict: bar lines forces the eye read music vertically, while phrase marks ask the eye to read horizontally.

Many novice students play music bar by bar,  literally “vertical” playing, since seeing the notes contained within each bar as a single entity that must not be allowed to stray along the stave seems to force the hand and fingers to adopt a piston-like up and down action, which can result in very chunky, “notey” and overly accented playing. Meanwhile, I try to encourage students to see music in terms of phrases, or “sentences”, as long strings of melody, and urge them to “read ahead” so that they are continually anticipating what is to come. Alongside this, I ask students to think about the movement of their hands, and to play with more relaxed, elliptical movements (“polishing” was one of the words I used with Bella to help her achieve a lovely fluidity in her Bach Prelude). This is one of the great conflicts of playing the piano: the mechanical action of the instrument requires an up-down movement to produce a sound, but to produce beautiful sound – which is what we all strive for, whether the quietest pianissimo or the most forceful fortissimo – one must free arms, hands and fingers to play with looser, more parallel movements, and learn how to distribute weight through the fingers or to allow the arms and back to draw weight away from the fingers.

With practice, one learns to read the music horizontally, and good keyboard geography will enable a student to stop checking their hand/finger position every bar. And so, from reading line by line, one goes on to take in the whole page in a single glance. I tell my adult students that reading music is like driving: one must look at the road ahead to anticipate hazards, speed markings, and stop signs. Anticipation is crucial, for it allows one to play fluently, and seeing beyond the bar lines helps to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on the first beat of every bar. When looking at new music, I now ask all my students, children or adults, to point out phrase marks, tempo, dynamic and articulation markings, and any other signs or symbols which they need to be aware of in their journey through the score. Thus, the music becomes a map – and the job of the pianist is to navigate and interpret it.

Of course, it would be far easier, in many ways, if bar lines did not exist. Without these hurdles and dividers, our eyes would automatically take in the score horizontally and read along the stave rather than up and down it, and we would be able to achieve more nuanced phrasing and fluent playing. As it is, the majority of music we encounter will be divided into measures, and so we must train our eyes to see past the bar lines, to read the score as a whole rather than in small sections, and to strive for a coherent, fluid and well-shaped reading,

With all this in mind, I really should be practising…….