It’s my mother’s seventieth birthday and I have organised a little party in my courtyard garden for her, her family, and her ‘London friends’, people she met when she still lived in north London, before she escaped to the country.

Some of the friends go back a long way: two colleagues from her History of Art MA at Chelsea College of Art in the 1980s, a fellow artist whom she met while doing her Fine Art BA (the friend’s daughter is a good friend of mine; in fact, we were at university together), a couple who have been family friends for 40 years. In the hot July sunshine, the friends gather in my little garden, drink rosé wine, and eat the selection of salads and dips I have prepared. The atmosphere is cheerful, relaxed and friendly.

“I hope you’re going to play,” my mother said the day before the party. I assured her that I would, but that I would not be playing Farewell To Stromness, a favourite of my mother’s and the piece she has chosen for her funeral ceremony, because I had not practised it. “Oh, I don’t want you to play that anyway,” she declared, leaving me to think of up a suitable mini-programme for an afternoon birthday party in July.

Michael, a long-time friend of both my mother’s and mine, arrives with a sheaf of scores but won’t reveal what he is planning to play. He played La Cathedrale Engloutie at my students’ concert the previous weekend, and I have a suspicion he might play it again as it’s another of my mother’s favourites. I realise, as I rifle through the scores which live on the lid of my piano and which represent my current learning, that my repertoire is varied and disparate: Poulenc, Chopin, Haydn, Debussy, Schubert and Gershwin. And nothing really ‘concert-ready’. The Opus 25 No. 7 Etude, which I played at my teacher’s concert in March, is very beautiful, but too melancholic for a sunny afternoon. The late Haydn Sonata in D is rather too grandiose, and the Poulenc is still a little rough round the edges. Schubert’s fourth Impromptu from the D899 set is also a favourite, but the trio seems too passionate, too pleading. In the end, I settle for the Gershwin Prelude No 2, which I played at my students’ concert, segueing straight into Debussy’s Le Petit Negre. The Gershwin, with its nod to Summertime and its lazy, languid tone, seems just about perfect. Afterwards, I decide Schubert’s second Klavierstück, from the D946, will round off my recital nicely. True, this piece has its storms and passions, like the Impromptu, but the opening melody – an aria from a forgotten opera – which returns twice, is charming and elegant, and pretty enough for the occasion. I’m not sure if Schubert should be played on two glasses of wine, but it does give me the necessary chutzpah to play for the assembled guests!

The room in which my piano lives is very hot at the moment (something my tuner continually bemoans when he comes to visit), and by the time I’m on the last page of the Schubert, I’m inelegantly pouring with perspiration and desperate for another chilled glass of something. I retire to the summer house to “talk piano” with Michael. We discuss ‘rubato‘, that subtle slackening of tempo. “It’s ‘stolen time’, so you have to give it back eventually!” I say bossily. Michael insists that there should never be rubato in Bach, nor in Beethoven, who, he says (quite rightly) is very firm about the tempos of his music, but I argue that even the music of Bach and Scarlatti demands some slackening in tempo here and there, to emphasise shape, mood, colour or cadence. “It’s a different kind of rubato,” I explain, remembering that Michael’s repertoire is more Romantically-oriented than mine: he favours Schumann (the score of the ‘Kreisleriana’ is often left on the rack of his Steinway when I go to play it, just to torment me), Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Granados. The discussion about rubato leads us onto the subject of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 3, which I am learning at the moment. “How on earth do you play the sixths?” he asks, referring to the fiendish Con Bravura passage which marks the climax of the piece. “They have no pattern or coherence to me.”

“There is a pattern to them,” I say. “And the fingering scheme helps too. I spent a week practising it on the kitchen table in the chalet in France at Easter. The other guests thought I was bonkers, but it worked a treat!”

Michael persuades me to play it, and I tell him that only he, and possibly one other person in the garden, will know where I get it wrong! Unsurprisingly, I go to pieces with the sixths. I am just aware of Michael standing behind me while I’m playing, and afterwards I say, “You shouldn’t have mentioned the sixths! I was worrying about them too much and that’s why I went wrong!” Of course, I know I can play them – painfully slowly at the moment, but accurately.

Michael then sits down to play, beginning with some really charming Elgar, Dream Children, a little winsome, very pretty. Then a transcription of the Fauré ‘Sicilienne’ from Peleas et Melisande, and finishing off with Debussy: Clair de Lune and La Cathedrale Engloutie (aahh!). I sit in the cool of the sitting room with his wife, enjoying the great pleasure of hearing my piano being played so very well (usually, I only hear my students banging away at it, with the odd moment of vaguely cantabile playing – and I don’t always enjoy my own playing either!). I had been worrying that the piano was slipping badly out of tune in the heat, but it sounds wonderful in Michael’s hands. And what a treat for the little audience gathered in my garden, and beyond – my immediate neighbours and the friend who lives across the road – to hear such beautiful music on a summer’s afternoon.

Opening the new Grade 2 piano study book yesterday to check out the repertoire for the 2010-11 season, the name Felix Swinstead leapt off the page at me, and took me straight back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. I remember learning quite a few pieces by Swinstead as a young piano student, and Felix Gerald Swinstead is one of those composers, like Dunhill and Markham Lee, that those of us who learned the piano as children associate with our early studies. Many of his pieces were studies, or genre pieces,  easy enough for children from about Grade 1 onwards, with winsome titles like ‘Cornfields’, ‘In a Playful Mood’, ‘Day Dream’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘A Tender Flower’ and ‘Malvern Hills’, and evoke a pre-war golden time. ‘In a Playful Mood’ rings a bell with me: I probably played it when I was six or seven, and I probably didn’t enjoy it that much as my then teacher had a tendency to make me play the same piece week after week, until I was bored witless with it.

Recently, returning to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I opened my old ABRSM edition and saw another teacher’s annotations, including her diagrams explaining the construction of the fugue form (Sue Murdoch, Rickmansworth, circa 1980-1985). It brought a great rush of memories and nostalgia: of cycling to her house for my lessons, of playing her grand piano with a dog across my feet and a cat staring at me from the lid, of exams taken in the studio of a local professional pianist (a room devoid of all furniture except for the vast black Minotaur of a Steinway), and of being told off by her husband (a prof at the RAM, who was scarily tall with a huge booming voice) for saying I was about to play “only some Beethoven” (it was the Sonata Op 10/i).

I like to think my students will enjoy similar reminiscences of their lessons with me when they are grown up. What will they remember, I wonder….?

My forays into the periphery of jazz repertoire have made me reconsider and adapt some techniques to suit the mood, nature and simple ability to play the pieces by Gershwin I am learning at present. This issue came up on the piano course in March, when one of the students, who presented the first two Gershwin Preludes for the masterclass, was urged by teacher to put aside all her classical training and thought processes, and to start thinking and playing like a jazz pianist. Thus, in the opening measures of the first Prelude, she was urged to “slap” the keys, literally throwing the hand at the keyboard, to allow the weight of the arm to create tenuto, and to employ heavy, lazy staccato. The difference in the sound of the piece was instant. It was immediately more “cool”. unforced, lazy almost. This kind of playing is very difficult to achieve – and this brief lesson in jazz piano technique proved that even the most improvisatory playing is based on very solid foundations of technique and harmonic awareness.

I’ve been putting some of these teaching “tricks” into practice with my students, a number of whom have expressed interest in learning some jazz, and while I would never ever profess to be a teacher of jazz piano (it’s a whole ‘nother world as far as I’m concerned!), I’m happy to work on some simple pieces with my students.

One student, who joined my studio last summer, was “escaping” from jazz. Her previous teacher was obviously keen on jazz and was teaching the ABRSM jazz syllabus which is very separate and distinct from the ‘classical’ piano syllabus. Like me, Bella was finding the music quite incomprehensible. Together we looked at the score, puzzled by some of the markings. I’ve been playing the piano for a long time (over 35 years), and I pride myself on my excellent sight-reading skills which enable me to pick up most music and gain a reasonable understanding of it on first view. Grade 2 jazz repertoire, however, was a mystery. What did the instruction “straight eights” mean? And what were those dashes where the notes should have been on the stave? (We realised eventually that this was a marking for improvisation.) Some internet research didn’t enlighten me much, and I was relieved when Bella declared she wanted to return to classical repertoire. Indeed, it was a relief to both of us to open the Grade 2 book and see a comforting page of Haydn.

Fortunately, Gershwin’s scores look like ‘traditional’ piano music: there are no weird markings, and he uses standard Italian terms, and places where crossed hands are required are less for virtuoso effect and more for ease of playing. So, by not having to translate the score into a language I understand, I can devote more time to honing technique to suit the music.

My students are growing familiar with my weird and wonderful visualisation techniques. Asking them to “tell the story” of the music has produced some wonderful effects, especially in those students who have been working on exam repertoire, where musicality is as important – if not more so – as playing the notes accurately. Reminding them that the piano can be “orchestrated” or played to mimic a particular instrument is also useful. Another trick I employ is asking a student to “hear” or “sing” the music in their head before playing. My teacher does this with me and it really does work. Another technique, employed at a recent lesson, was asking me to play the opening movement of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes closed, thus forcing me to think about touch and quality of sound.

Most of my students now know about the “giant invisible hand” which “lives” in my piano room. This helps them to articulate their hands towards the black keys by moving their elbow, or to push the wrist down to play drop slurs. It also pushes the forearm along to move the hand and wrist fluently when playing scales and arpeggios. It sounds daft, but this, more than anything else, is the visualisation technique which works the best. Even my adult students have come to know it and tell me they find it useful when practising at home.

Something else my teacher does is play on my bare forearm to demonstrate touch. The skin on the forearm is very receptive and it’s amazing how a quick demo of how I should be playing the opening measures of my Chopin Etude can be translated into sound on the keyboard. I have not yet tried this with my students; sadly, these days of child protection and over-cautiousness about touching children have made me wary of doing anything more than occasionally adjusting a child’s hand position.

Little Sam, who is only 8 and is already showing an affinity for jazz after only a year of lessons (he pulled off a characterful performance of ‘The Entertainer’ at my summer concert), proved at his lesson yesterday that he understands about “jazz hands”. He quickly picked up the idea of “slapping” the keys, lifting his hand off the keyboard momentarily before allowing it to fall heavily onto an E flat, thus emphasising the syncopation in the bar (he’s learning a piece called ‘Homework Blues’). Later, when I was looking at the opening of Gershwin’s first Prelude, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, which just goes to prove how one’s teaching can inform one’s own playing: it seems that by teaching a new technique it crystallises it in my mind – and fingers.

And now I really must do some practising…….

I’ve never been that keen on jazz, and, if I’m honest, it’s because I don’t really understand it. For all it’s grooviness and funkiness, it’s very esoteric, almost to the point of being impenetrable, sometimes even more inaccessible than the most obscure classical music. I am told, on a fairly regular basis, that the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is a genius, once a child prodigy, classically trained, who gave his first formal piano recital at the age of 7. However, whenever I have heard recordings of him playing, it just sounds like random notes, a bit plinky-plonky here and there, sounds that move off into the strange tangents of Jarrett-land, avenues and cul-de-sacs of improv which seem to have little coherence or structure. I’ll probably get into trouble with jazz fans and Jarrett-afficionados for saying that, but hey ho…..

Of course, I’ve always been aware of Gershwin. How could one not be, when ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Porgy and Bess’, and his piano concerto are some of the most famous works which bridge the gap between the classical and jazz worlds. His music epitomises the excitement of the 1920s, as the world emerged from the darkness of the First World War and people began to enjoy life again, now liberated from the social mores of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

My first attempt at playing Gershwin was a piano reduction of ‘Promenade’, more commonly know as ‘Walking the Dog’, a cute little number originally written for clarinet with small orchestra as incidental music for the film `Shall we Dance` (1937) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (The music accompanies Fred and Ginger as they exercise their dogs on a ship deck somewhere mid-Atlantic.) It was fun to learn and relatively easy to play.

I had heard the second prelude from the Three Preludes while looking for an MP3 of ‘Promenade’. I liked its languid mood, its tempo, Andante con moto e poco rubato, its use of blues chords, its nod to ‘Summertime’ in the main melody, wending its way above a smooth, steady quasi ostinato bass-line. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby”. I first heard it, and the first prelude from the set, played live by one of the students on my teacher’s piano course in March. I got hooked on the second prelude and decided to learn it for my students’ concert. It has been a useful and occasionally steep learning curve, for, as my teacher pointed out, it has been necessary to set aside much of my classical training and try to think like a jazz pianist. At first this was very hard: letting go of nearly 40 years of training and method is not easy, and to start with, the piece sounded stiff and formal, with “classical” ornaments, and a melody that refused to ‘swing’. Gradually, though, I learnt to let go and the piece began to assume its own identity under my fingers. A run through for my teacher a couple of weeks ago confirmed this, and by the time I played it in my summer concert, I felt it had exactly the right mood: lazy and ‘cool’.

The first prelude from the set, marked Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, is altogether more ‘jazzy’, with its syncopated rhythms based on Brazilian “baiao”, and chords containing flattened sevenths (which sound – and feel – like “real” jazz chords). It begins with a 5-note blues motif and virtually all the melodic material in the piece is based on this. I’m just beginning to get my fingers, and head, around it. On first sight, I thought “Crikey! I can’t possibly play THAT”, but a bit of careful reading, going through it line by line with a pencil clamped between my teeth, and already it’s a lot clearer. It’s fun to play, as it contains fragments of a number of virtuoso techniques, including repeated notes, octaves, scales and crossed hands, each of which is used for only a moment before the piece catches a glimpse of some new idea.

I love this music, and I can safely say I am well and truly hooked on Gershwin. It’s satisfying to play – those big chords feel wonderful under the fingers – and a refreshing contrast to Chopin, Schubert et al, music that’s at ease with itself. I am thinking of playing the first Prelude at my Christmas concert, and offering all three as part of my performance Diploma programme.

Fiction:

‘Music and Silence’ – Rose Tremain

‘An Equal Music’ – Vikram Seth

‘Grace Notes’ – Bernard Mac Laverty

‘A Disturbance of the Inner Ear’ – Joyce Hackett

‘The Song of Names’ – Norman Lebrecht

‘The Concert Pianist’ – Conrad Williams

‘Longing’ – J D Landis (a novel recreating the extraordinary love affair between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck)

‘The Page Turner’ – David Leavitt

‘The Language of Others’ – Claire Morall

Non-fiction

‘Piano Notes’ – Charles Rosen

‘The Piano Shop on the Left Bank’ – T E Carhart

‘Grand Obsession’ – Perri Knize

‘With Your Own Two Hands’ – Seymour Bernstein

‘Notes from the Pianist’s Bench’ – Boris Berman

‘Piano’ – Louis Kentner

‘Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures’ – Noah Adams

‘A Musician’s Alphabet’ – Susan Tomes

‘Beyond the Notes’ – Susan Tomes

‘Chopin’s Funeral’ – Benita Eisler

‘Mozart and the Pianist’ – Michael Davidson

‘The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience’ – Kenneth Drake

‘Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson’ – Tricia Tunstall

‘The Inner Game of Music’ – Barry Green

‘Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations’ – Bruno Monsaingeon

I picked up Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia at the library the other day. I remember reading several favourable reviews of it when it first came out, and thought I might like to read it, but feared it may be too scientific for my taste. However, having dipped into it over the course of an evening, I find him an engaging writer, whose numerous case studies offer some fascinating insights into music and the human brain.

The chapter which interested me the most, initially, was the one entitled ‘The Key of Clear Green: Music and Synesthesia’. I am a ‘synesthete’, and, like some of the case studies referred to in the chapter, see the musical keys as colours.

Synesthesia literally means “a fusion of the senses”, and was not, until quite recently (i.e. in the last 100-odd years), considered a physiological phenomenon. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a “condition” for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Oliver Sacks states that musical synesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic”. It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it.

As far as I can tell, I have always had it, and, until not that long ago, assumed that everyone else had it too. I regard it as something perfectly normal, and indeed, it came as something of a shock to discover that not everyone experienced a fusion of different senses as I do. For me, letters, numbers, days of the week and months of the year all have their own distinct colours (for e.g. two = blue, five = pink, Monday = red, Wednesday = greenish-blue, January = pale orange), while others are more obscure: murky hues and shades which almost defy description. These colour associations are unchanging and are not dependent on my mood or state of mind at the time of thinking of them.

The same is true of the musical keys, each one having its own distinct colour or ‘colour scheme’. Reading one of the case studies in Dr Sacks’ book, I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the people who contacted him experienced colours when thinking about the musical keys in exactly the same way as I do – though his colours were different to mine, which demonstrates it is very personal. The colours are also entirely inward and are never confused with external colours: for example, if I were to put D major (bright, sky blue) against a yellow background, I would continue to see it as blue, rather than green.

Here’s a selection of my ‘personal key colours’:

Major keys

C = Brick red

D = Sky blue

E = Orange

F = Mauve

G = Greenish with black

A = Red, brighter than C

B = Greenish-blue

E flat = Orange, but softer than E

A flat = Soft red

B flat = sea green

Interestingly, the enharmonic keys do not share the same colours, for they are all distinct (just as D flat major sounds different to C sharp major!):

C sharp major = Dark red

D flat major = Soft blue-green

F sharp major = purple-pink

G flat major = pale yellow-gold

The colours of the minor keys are always related to the major keys, but tend to be softer or more diffused hues.

Baroque and classical composers’ music seems to me, for the most part, to use a simpler palette than, say, the music of Schubert, Chopin and Schumann whose complex modulations and harmonic twists make greater demands on my synesthesia.

The opening movement of Schubert’s great, final sonata, the D960 in B-flat major, is, for me, a movement in sea-green and the colours of water. I see these colours when I hear the music, and when I play it, and it sits very well with my feelings about the music: that it suggests a great river, plotting its final course towards the sea. This metaphor, however, has nothing to do with my synesthesia, for the colours I see are not metaphors: they just are! And, incidentally, my colour schemes for the other movements are II: dark red and burgundy hues; III: yellow, fresh green, blue while the Scherzo changes to cooler colours; IV: cold greens and blues with occasional red patches.

In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Op 27/2, the colours shift with the harmonies, and thus, when the music is reharmonised into E major, I see strong orange hues replacing the deep, red-blacks of C sharp minor.

The word “chromatic” has taken on a fuller meaning for me while learning Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No. 3, for the chromatic passages in augmented 4ths in the stormy middle section of the piece are a riot of almost psychedelic colour as well as sound. Sadly, my synesthesia has not helped smooth the difficult path of learning this piece, but it does make it more interesting when I practise it! And by the way, this piece is mostly orange, green and red.

I have never found my condition peculiar or disabling in any way. Indeed, it positively enhances my experience of music, offering not just aural but also visual pleasures.

I would love to hear from any other musicians who experience music/sound in a similar way.

Composers who saw “key colours” include Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Messaien.