I can think of few better ways to spend a Monday lunchtime, especially a very rainy Monday lunchtime in June. It was a pleasure to duck away from the milling shoppers on a very greasy, wet Oxford Street, and slip into the plush, civilised embrace of the Wigmore for a concert by two charming Frenchman (François Leleux and Emmanuel Strosser) of music for oboe and piano by Britten, Poulenc and Dutilleux. I was “off duty” yesterday, i.e. not reviewing, merely meeting a friend to enjoy some quality music, followed by a chatty lunch at Comptoir Libanais, just across the road from the hall.
It’s a while since I heard live woodwind, and, from my vantage point in row B, I was able to enjoy the physicality of the oboist’s performance. It was wonderful to hear his breath actually being pushed into the instrument, and the click-clacking of his fingers on the keys as he wrought a huge range of colours, moods and shadings from the music. Britten’s Six Metamorphoses, a work for oboe alone, was introduced with great humour, and played with wit. The Poulenc Sonata was both wistful and jazzy, while the Dutilleux contained nods to his contemporary, Olivier Messiaen. The musicians were clearly good friends, evident from the ease of their body language as they performed. They were genial and smiling, and we, the audience, smiled back. An encore “by a very famous French composer [Saint-Saens]” (more smiles and good-natured laughter) was generous and humorous.
I have never been to an indifferent concert at lunchtime at the Wigmore; and I have been to some truly superb lunchtime concerts. The 2pm end time means there is still time for a late lunch: a while back a friend and I went to the restaurant at the Wallace Collection for lunch, which was really wonderful treat. Often you can pick up a ticket on the door, and the lunchtime recitals are excellent value at £12 (concessions £10). Go on, try it. You know you want to.
It’s about time we stopped referring to Grayson Perry as “the transvestite potter who won the Turner Prize”. That was then (2003); this is now, and Perry, by his own admission, hasn’t made a pot for ages. Perry, who is articulate and highly engaging on any subject, and who has always used his art and craft to comment on contemporary society’s mores, hypocrisies, and preoccupations, has now turned his keen artist’s gaze and curiosity onto taste and the British (which is, of course, synonymous with class) in a television series and an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery in north London of six monumental tapestries inspired by Hogarth’s social commentary ‘The Rake’s Progress’.
Who or what inspired you to take up the ‘cello, and make it your career?
As a young child there was a lot of music around the house and I listened to Jacqueline du Pré play Bach’s Cello Suites every night before bed. I am not sure what an attentive listener I was – I believe the aim was for me to drop off to sleep! – but I refused to accept any other interpretation of that music! As for my decision to make cello my career, I became accustomed to the life of a touring artist on a series of cruises aged five (!), during which I seemed to take in my stride the challenges of performing among top professionals, signing autographs and even being interviewed by Richard Baker before rushing back to the swimming pool!
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I grew up attending my father’s concerts with Alexander Baillie and listening through the door to their rehearsals at home. I even discussed the finer points of ‘Lord of the Rings’ Warhammer modelling with Emma Kirkby, whose individual approach to singing has always seemed the most natural to me. Lately, I have been influenced more by ideas and principles of making music than by specific performers: I am not aiming to emulate any cellist in particular but to reach my own personal sound in ways I am discovering myself. Of course there are cellists whom I greatly admire and I have seen many things that interest me in the performances of Rostropovich, Miklos Perenyi and Natalia Gutman.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have not taken regular lessons for quite some time but just after I took the step of becoming independent of a teacher I had to learn and perform Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo Variations’ in quick succession. It was a steep learning curve but the experience was very formative and I considered both performances to be great successes!
Which performance/s are you most proud of?
I try to make every performance better than the last, but rather than pride, I experience enjoyment when I play.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
When I was sixteen I performed in Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Room for the first time, and fell in love with the beautiful domed ceiling and generous acoustic – you can play anything in there and it sounds good! I completely lost myself, staring into the chandelier as I played a Bach gamba sonata, and this performance marked a big jump forward in my development as a musician. The first time I played in the Kleine Zaal of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, it totally blew me away.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
That is a very difficult question to answer – I am constantly astonished by the different sensations and emotions I gain from listening to a wide range of music, from Wagnerian opera to sixteenth-century vocal music, right up to the myriad styles of music in the twentieth century.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I admire those musicians who try to reach the heart of the music and do not aim to impose their own stamp on it just for the sake of it. Carlos Kleiber and Martha Argerich have been particular inspirations. The cellist whom I look up to above any other is Mstislav Rostropovich. I regret that I was never able to hear him live but even on a recording his vivid communication is unsurpassed. He was also an excellent pianist and conductor, and I intend to conduct and compose as part of my musical life.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
When I was eleven years old I was lucky enough to perform the Vivaldi Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor with Alexander Baillie. I remember being more nervous than I have ever felt (before or since) and Alexander tried to abate my nerves by assuring me that however badly I played everyone would love it anyway because I was cuter than he was! Needless to say, it was not a comforting thought, but as soon as I went on stage, as always, all my insecurities drifted away.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I don’t think I am quite at the point of imparting wisdom, but if pushed I would say that what I have learnt so far is to approach every work with humility and love; approach every work like a composer and put one hundred per cent of yourself into it and value that input. I have also learnt that your understanding of something you take the time to discover by yourself is so much deeper than something given to you fully-formed by a teacher.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to have the privilege of performing around the world, in recital and perhaps with professional orchestras as well. I also love to perform in the wonderful smaller venues and local music societies dotted around, which are often fascinatingly quirky and frequented by the best audiences!
This post was prompted by a conversation over the weekend with a piano friend of mine: we were discussing ways in which students can free themselves from the constraints that prevent them from giving their all in a performance situation, and the expression “playing naked” came up, which I thought very appropriate. It refers not to a means of dealing with performance anxiety where one imagines that the entire audience is naked (an empowering way of turning the dynamic in a stressful situation), but to giving oneself permission to stand back from the music, to let go, and to play with passion and commitment.
If you are naked at the piano, whether literally or metaphorically, there is nowhere to hide, and you must do everything in your power to distract the audience from your “nakedness”. (Those of us who perform, and who suffer from the anxiety of performance, may well have had the dream/nightmare where we are in a performance situation without the protective carapace of clothes.), So, do you run screaming from the stage, or do you face up to the challenge?
Playing “naked” means:
Stripping away inhibitions, over interpretation, unnecessary gestures, and pretentions
Giving yourself up to the music
Playing with heart and soul
Believing completely in what you do
Fearless and focussed performance
Playing “for the love of music” (Rostropovich), with a vibrant sound and charismatic rhythm which radiates authority and emotion
Precise execution from well-honed technique
Crafting confidence and developing a positive response to stress
Finding meaning, desire and depth in your performance
As adult pianists we all know how hard it is to carve out practice time every day. Our days slip by full of errands, phone calls, appointments and chauffeuring kids. Sometimes whole weeks or even months fly by while we’re bombarded with family emergencies, travel, or job obligations. But we’re constantly nagged by that inner voice that tells us that consistency and time at the piano are required for steady improvement.
For the past few months I’ve been very lucky to have a lull in activity on the home front. With my daughter happily off studying abroad and two sons away at college, I chat with them often and know that they are safe, healthy and independent. For five months I was able to fill my non-teaching hours at the piano preparing for each week’s Go Play Project recording. But now things are heating up. I’m getting ready to launch a new website and learning everything I can about marketing, branding and book proposals. I’m preparing students for their annual National Guild Auditions and Spring recitals. And I’m getting excited about my daughter coming home to finish high school and start the college search and application process. My time at the piano these days is limited.
When I do find the time to sit down at the piano I aim for deliberate practice. But I also find that more often than not, simply finding the easiest way to play a difficult passage is often the best way. The shape of the phrase leads me to find the best fingering or hand movement. Awkward hand positions are made more comfortable by simply moving the hand into the black keys. Large leaps are spot on when I move my arm in an arc and look before I leap. Cantabile comes from the fingertips along with a freely suspended arm and close listening. Fast octaves? For me it’s all in the rebound. Playing the piano is not hard work. It’s not about getting in shape or building muscles. In fact it’s the opposite of the “no pain, no gain” rule of sports. When you’re doing it right, it feels good.
So to all those pianists who are bombarded by life’s obligations, take heart. Piano playing is not always about how regularly you practice or how long you practice or even how deliberate you practice. It just might be about grabbing that half hour before a student arrives at the door, or those first minutes of daylight with your morning coffee, and ‘coming home’ to the piano. It’s about sinking into the keys and expressing yourself through your fingertips. It’s about deep listening and communication. And in the end it just might about the child leaving home for college or the military. Or about the recent break-up or new romance, the death in the family or the new baby’s birth.
Catherine Shefski is pianist, teacher and blogger who is currently recording one piano piece a week for The Go Play Project.
Here’s a helpful post from Gretchen Saathoff’s blog Gretchen’s Pianos for those of us who are feel certain parts of our anatomy need some care & attention.
Any type of pain associated with playing an instrument needs to be addressed.
Let’s talk about neck pain in this post, though, to keep things manageable for readers.
When and how did your neck pain start? What were you doing at the time?
What do you do when not playing the piano? For example, do you drive long distances? Work at a desk? Use a computer for long periods of time?
Your work setup, car seat, steering wheel angle, different mattress, different pillow, bicycle handlebars, even not wearing sunglasses outdoors can all be factors.
Look at your practice setup.
Bench too high or too low?
Music at a comfortable height?
Have you had your eyes checked recently?
A glare on the music
Recent changes in technique
Practicing too long without a break
Learning a lot of notes all at the same time
Sight-reading for hours
A look at some other factors
Not getting enough sleep.
Not eating regular meals.
Being under the weather.
Having a cold
Coming down with something
Ask a friend to watch you play
Videotape yourself playing
Make small changes as indicated above
Stretch before and after practice
See a doctor who treats musicians
Get a massage
See a chiropractor
Work with a physical therapist or sports trainer to strengthen back and shoulder muscles
Letting pain continue while proceeding as usual is not a solution, but will exacerbate the problem. Even if you are busy, have several performances coming up, or can think of a list of reasons not to address the pain, you must. Your longevity as a musician depends on it.
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