Image credit: Lise de la Salle © Stephane Gallois for Vanity Fair

The first lunchtime concert of the Wigmore Hall’s autumn season featured young French pianist Lise de la Salle, who brought passion, poetry and panache to a neatly contrived programme focussing on “narratives” within music, with works composed by musical friends, Chopin and Liszt. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

As English as Earl Grey tea, wasps at a picnic, warm beer, wet summers, Rupert Brooke, and Andy Murray not getting past the semis at Wimbledon, the Last Night of the Proms is a fine tradition and a much-loved national treasure.

Music snobs and cynics may criticise the Last Night (and indeed other programmes in the Proms season) for “dumbing down” classical music. Others may regard all the flag-waving and singing of Rule Britannia! as rampant jingoism verging on unpleasant nationalism – and if the Prommers were skinheads and card-carrying BNP members, maybe that would be true. But in fact, watching the Last Night on television on Saturday night, the overriding sense is of a wonderful shared experience and a real celebration of music and music making. And not all the flags were Union Jacks, not by any means…..

Photo credit: BBC

The Proms has grown, from its relatively humble origins at the Queen’s Hall in London at the end of the nineteenth century, to an internationally renowned music festival. When the Proms were first conceived, the motivation was to bring classical music to a wider public and to encourage those who might not normally go to classical music concerts to attend. This is still the Proms’ USP, and something it is clearly doing right, given the record attendance figures this year. Latterly, the Proms has become more populist: this year we’ve had a Horrible Histories Prom, a Comedy Prom and a Spaghetti Western Prom, but alongside these more popular programmes we’ve also had many premiers of new works, fine orchestras and soloists from all around the world, and night after night of fantastic music.  I have been to four Proms, reviewing for Bachtrack, and have enjoyed every single one of them. After the stuffy, hidebound, reverential atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, with its (mostly) snooty, superannuated audience, the Royal Albert Hall is a breath of fresh air. At each Prom I attended, there was a wonderful sense of people coming together to enjoy and celebrate music.

It’s hard to get a ticket to the Last Night: like Wimbledon, tickets are allocated by ballot and you have to submit your request months in advance. Thus, the sense of occasion is even greater, if you are one of the lucky ones to be there. Even if you are not, the tv and radio coverage is so good these days that you can join in the festivities from your living room, as I did last night. Or attend a Prom in the Park, a relatively new innovation which aims to bring music to an even wider audience.

The programme started seriously enough with a new work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, followed by some lively, spiky Bartok, before the first Main Event of the evening, Susan Bullock singing Brunhilde’s self-immolation scene from Wagner’s Ring cycle. I can live without Wagner, though certain friends insist that I can’t, and while I admired Susan Bullock’s performance – and her striking scarlet dress – I found the extreme vibrato in her voice obscured the music. She’s clearly a popular performer, and interviewed afterwards by Katie Derham, she admitted that the atmosphere in the hall was remarkable.

Next up was Chinese posterboy rockstar pianist Lang Lang. He’d dashed from the Prom in the Park across the road in Hyde Park, where he’d played the most ridiculously flashy account of Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ I have ever heard, to perform more Liszt, the First Piano Concerto, in the main hall. I admit I have very little patience with performers like Lang Lang. Sure, he’s a fine technician, but there’s no real substance nor depth to his playing – and this was more than evident in the Liszt Concerto, which he reduced to another display of unnecessary piano pyrotechnics. Added to that, his gurning and grinning, his affected gestures, and his Liberace-like smiles at the camera…. He’s a big crowd-pleaser and received rousing and sustained applause. He returned after the interval to wreck Chopin’s ‘Grande Polonaise Brillante’, more schmaltz and sugar plums, before offering the most sycophantic, sentimental Liszt (the ‘Consolation’ No. 3) as an encore.

Next, Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, a welcome relief after Lang Lang’s extreme attention-seeking, with Jenny Agutter reading a rather toe-curling new version of the text written by poet Wendy Cope. The rest of the programme is, traditionally, devoted to the massed singalong, beginning this year with ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (from The Sound of Music) and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Susan Bullock returning to the stage in a vivid electric blue gown, to lead the singing. Then it was Elgar, twice, the audience urged by conductor Edward Gardner (the youngest conductor to conduct at the Last Night) to sing up and drown the piccolo. And finally, Rule Britannia!, sung by Susan Bullock, wearing a hilarious parody of Britannia’s costume, complete with flashing daffodils on her breastplate, and Jerusalem. All good wholesome fun, and entirely uplifting.

So, the Proms is over for another year, yet predictions are already being made about next year’s programme. I’ve heard rumours that Barenboim will conduct all nine of Beethoven’s Symphonies, and, being the Olympic year, the 2012 season is likely to be really special. I’m looking forward to it already!

Meanwhile, the autumn season at the Wigmore Hall has just begun, and I have a full diary of concerts to look forward to, beginning tomorrow lunchtime with young French ‘piano babe’ Lise de la Salle. Other highlights include Robert Levin playing Mozart with the OAE, Garrick Ohlsson, Louis Lortie, Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida. You can find links to all my reviews for Bachtrack on this blog, as well as plenty of other piano-musings. And don’t forget to check out Bachtrack’s listings for concerts, opera and ballet around the world (click on the graphic on the left).

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (spot the quote which inspired this post!!)


Piano-Yoga® is a unique method of piano playing, performing and teaching designed for all levels of pianists. It has been created and developed by Russian virtuoso pianist and educator GèNIA.

In Piano-Yoga® we believe that creating an optimal environment which promotes the student’s sense of well-being is the best approach to learning the piano.  When we feel relaxed, think positively and our concentration is at its peak, we can learn more quickly and efficiently. In this state, learning can even feel like having fun, where studying and mastering something new become an effortless and pleasurable experience.

It is true that some of the best educational systems (like the Russian school, for example) are based on a strict, disciplined approach to learning, where competition is the upmost motivation for success and the strongest students are stretched to the maximum.  Such systems have produced amazing results, but the weakest emotionally often give up, unable to progress and develop.

Whilst Piano-Yoga® aims to help students to perfect their technique this is only a tool, as our foremost motivation is to make the piano playing process as enjoyable and pleasurable as possible, within the wider framework of the student’s lifestyle.  In order to do this not only do we instruct students specifically in the Piano-Yoga® technique, but we also show them how to efficiently schedule their practice sessions, and how to take care of their health and their body in order to get the most out of their practice and create a positive mindset.

I like to address this issue by using ideas taken from ancient Indian Ayurvedic philosophy – the traditional Hindu system of medicine, based on the idea of bringing balance to the body using diet, herbal treatments, yogic postures and breathing.  In line with the discipline of Ayurveda we ask students to pay attention to what they eat, ask them to monitor how they feel each day, and if they are not happy with the results we teach them how to change their sense of well-being, correcting it through various exercises, simple posture adjustments and the use of aromatherapy.  We very much encourage our students to create a practice environment full of clean energy, and where the student feels comfortable, safe, private and nurtured.

Would you like to try this for yourself?  Here’s what you can do in just one week:

  • Notice when your energy is at its best and try to practise at that time

Are you a morning person or evening? Is the afternoon the best or the worst time for you? Try to practise when you brain is at its best and your muscles are not stiff.

  • Find out if there is a regular time you can practise and, if possible, stick to it.

Getting into a routine will help the body to feel comfortable in its environment and will enable you to concentrate faster and more acutely.

  • Try not to practise on an empty stomach, but also not on a full one.  According to how you feel we recommend using the main principles of Ayurveda

According to Ayurvedic principles a person can either be TAMASIC (sluggish/slow), RAJASIC (hyperactive/fast) or SATTVIC (balanced) depending on their current state of mind.  If you are feeling unsettled you will most certainly be feeling either Tamasic or Rajasic and therefore should aim to bring yourself back into a Sattvic (balanced) state.

Decide how you are feeling at this present moment: TAMASIC or RAJASIC?

For people in TAMASIC (sluggish/slow) state I recommend:

Going for a brisk walk before practice, if possible.

Playing the piano at a moderate or fast tempo but not too slowly!

Eating a moderate amount of RAJASIC foods before practice to induce more energy into your system (chocolate, tea, coffee (but not too much of these, otherwise you may find yourself in a rajasic state) as well as fish, eggs, chilli peppers and strongly-flavored herbs and spices to help bring yourself into a state of balance. Do some physical exercise. Yoga is excellent as long as it is a vinyasa sequence (dynamic flowing yoga practice).  This encourages better blood circulation and warms up the muscles.

For people in a RAJASIC (hyperactive/nervous) state I would recommend:

Going for a slow walk or doing some simple slow stretches, mainly with forward bends (make sure that you do not have any back issues and know how to do stretches safely).

Playing everything on the piano slower then usual. Eat some TAMASIC food before the practice time to induce a calming effect on the body (i.e. meat, cooked vegetables, mushrooms, dried, tinned and frozen fruit).

Practising slow, deep breathing as it has an excellent calming effect on the body. (The yogic breath technique of Ujjayi is particularly good if you are familiar with it – otherwise I would recommend initial guidance from a qualified yoga teacher).

Trying to meditate and rest more between short practice sessions.

  • Make sure that you feel comfortable in your environment

In the morning have plenty of fresh air in the room (no dust, as not only is it bad for your health, but it is terrible for the energy of the place).  In the evening make sure that the room is warm and well lit, but that the lights are not too bright, as this can make you feel tired.

  • Do some physical exercises before your piano practice

Doing some physical work can do wonders for your body and mind. Either walking, running, yoga, pilates or swimming: anything that keeps your body alive, well toned and oxygenated. 10–15 minutes of exercise before your piano practice can dramatically improve your playing and your ability to concentrate!

  • Have some fluids by your side

Preferably have some water (ideally at room temperature, unless you feel hot) or some tea (herbal would be the best, but if you are feeling tired sometimes black tea or coffee can help – make sure that these do not make you too over-active).

  • Use aromatherapy as this can do wonders from your practice

Before embarking on the use of aromatherapy, I strongly suggest that you do some homework, find out what oils and smells you like and how they make you feel. The oils could either be applied to your skin as a cream or used as a room spray or in oil burners. You really need to know what products you are using and which method is the most effective for you, as it can create a very strong effect and this can really elevate your mood, improve your concentration or simply make you feel happier!

I use room sprays the most, and these days create my own fragrances by mixing various oils.  It is so simple: fill a glass bottle with water and add various oils that you like; they usually change with seasons, the time of day and my mood, hence I have many different bottles. Use a diffuser to spray these out.  My favorite morning mix at the moment is a combination of cypress, lemon grass, peppermint and lime.

Below are a few examples of how different oils can help you, but really you need to check out yourself what works for you.  There are endless possibilities for creating various smells.

    • Bergamot helps to fight anxiety, confusion, depression, relieve headaches, and reduce irritability and stress.
    • Pepper is great for fighting apathy, relieving colds, cramps, flu, muscle ache, shock, creating calm and boosting energy.
    • Ylang-ylang helps to fight depression, stress, improve sleep and enhance mood.
    • Rose helps with anxiety, depression and fear, creating nurturing and positive feelings.
    • Clary Sage helps to fight hyperactivity, improve sleep, avoid panic attacks, and induce peace of mind.

Try to pay attention to these few ideas and see how they can improve your practice!

Having said all this, it is important to have a clear goal (know what you would like to achieve from each practice session) and maintain a planned practice process. Try to be undisturbed during your sessions.  And always approach your practice thinking constructively: don’t see problems, only solutions!

Here is a little video about our Piano-Yoga® Retreat in Cyprus, which we have created as the ultimate holistic approach to piano learning.  It includes piano masterclasses and seminars, yoga exercises, food tasting, wonderful sightseeing excursions and communication with inspiring, like-minded people!

Enjoy!

Further information:

GeNIA’s biography

Piano-Yoga®

As my autumn teaching term is about to start, a post on practising seems appropriate. Several of my students have already fessed up to me, via email and Facebook, that they have done little or no practising over the summer break. I’m disappointed, of course, especially as one is working towards Grade 3 at the moment, but I’m not surprised. Children have a wealth of other activities to distract them, and seem to regard the long summer holiday as the ultimate down time. Piano practice goes the way of schoolwork: forgotten for six weeks.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (with apologies to Jane Austen), that regular, focussed practising reaps rewards. On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.” On a simpler level, to me this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone”. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions. “Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality” (SB). Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

And remember:

“The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come”

(Seymour Bernstein)