Canadian pianist (and sometime composer) Marc-André Hamelin can play anything, you know…….

Or so it appeared last night as he wowed the Wigmore audience with a programme of radical and adventurous repertoire. Read my review for Bachtrack here

“If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And that means we [the audience] can’t hear it either.”

This is what my teacher said to me at my recent lesson, during which we worked on Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 no. 2, the last Nocturne published in his lifetime. In bars 20-22 the left hand plays descending sustained minims, achieved by silently changing from a thumb to a fifth finger. I’d got the fingering right, but I could not sing those sustained notes. As a result, they were lost amid all the other sounds and textures in this passage. Once I’d sung the notes, I found I could sound them easily, and a little extra weight in the finger added a warmth and resonance which was obvious, but not overpowering, under the gorgeous treble line.

It sounds obvious, that we should listen all the time when we are playing, whether in practice or performance, but it is quite common for us not to listen, and to allow the mind – and ears – to wander as we work, and thus not take in fully what we are doing at the keyboard. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.

My piano lesson last week was mostly concerned with listening as both pieces I presented have a strong melodic line which needs to sing out over the bass (the other piece was the slow movement from Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello, BWV 947). As I listened to myself playing, striving always for the most beautiful cantabile sound, I learnt to adjust my arm weight, lightening it to produce a better sound. In the Chopin, even where a passage is marked crescendo, leading to forte (for example, from bar 12), one should not allow the arm to become heavy: the sound one is aiming for here is increased warmth rather than volume. At this point, my teacher and I paused to discuss first-hand accounts of Chopin playing: it is said that he never played louder than mezzo-forte (even if he had written forte in the score). ‘Warming up’ the sound can create the effect of an increase in volume, without losing a beautiful tone.

I find it hard to persuade my students to listen. Too often they want to gallop through their pieces, get the notes right and not bother too much about producing a good tone. Yet, the production of beautiful tone is what pianists strive for above anything else: even the most spiky passages of Prokofiev or Stockhausen should be played with careful attention to tone. Be critical as you play: listen all the time and if you don’t like the sound you are hearing, find ways to adjust it to make it better by experimenting with arm weight (lightening the arm will usually produce a better tone), and by ‘visualising’ the sound you want to achieve before you play it (it’s amazing how different your tone will be if you spend a few moments before you play imagining the sound). We should keep our ears open and attuned to what we are doing, to allow us to make minor adjustments to our playing and sound production. If you like the sound you are producing in a particular passage, try and remember that sound for next time, and what it felt like as you were playing it. Were your arms light, your wrists soft? What else were you doing with your body to create that sound?

Recording yourself playing is another invaluable aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams fairly imminently, and sending them a soundclip to listen to. I ask them to listen critically, not for errors and slips, but for an ‘overview’ of the sound. I ask them to make notes (to bring to the next lesson for discussion with me) about what they liked and disliked about the sound, and to think about how they can improve it or change it.

If you do record yourself playing, don’t listen to the recording as soon as you’ve made it. You are likely to be far more critical at this point and may not listen in the right way. Leave it a few days, and then listen to your recording. Review it carefully and note what you like and dislike about your playing. Compare recordings of the same piece, made at different times and in different circumstances (for example, in practice, in performance, on a different instrument etc.).

Another aspect of listening is of course hearing other people play, live and on disc. Go to concerts, listen to recordings and note what you enjoy about the sounds other pianists make. Remember that they are probably employing the same techniques as you to create that sound!

Chopin – Opus 62 no.2

Here is Richter

Friends and regular followers of this blog will know that I took my piano performance diploma in December. I am pleased to announced that I passed – with Distinction! Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much, this is a significant achievement for me: to have studied for and taken a high-level music exam in my mid-forties, some thirty years after I took my Grade 8 is no slouch, and I’m very glad I did it. I owe a debt of gratitude to my teacher, who gave me the confidence and self-belief to do it. Also to those friends and colleagues who have been so supportive – hearing me play, offering advice, putting up with me cancelling dinner dates etc. And not forgetting my loyal page-turner, Andy, a good friend of mine, and one of my students, who accompanied me to practice rooms in Edgware Road ahead of the exam, and who carried my briefcase containing my scores to the exam centre in Greenwich on the day.

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest, Associate level, is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification, recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world. (One of my students, Eli (10), described my Diploma as “Grade 14”!)

Diploma candidates are expected to create a recital programme that demonstrates a range of musical styles, moods and tempi, as well as artistic coherence, and to provide programme notes for each piece. Marks are awarded, or deducted for the artistic balance, planning and timing of the programme as a whole. One of the nicest things a friend said to me about my programme was “When I read it, I really wanted to hear it”.

Candidates are also assessed on ‘stagecraft’, which is more than just ‘presentation skills’ in the manner of, say, a job interview. The exam should be treated as a professional public recital, and one’s clothing, attitude and communication should reflect this. For me this was one of the harder aspects of the exam, as I have, until recently, always been a reluctant performer.

Here’s my advice on preparing for a diploma, based on my recent experience:

Repertoire: Select pieces you know you want to spend time with: you may be working on them for a year or more, and you need to love every piece to hold your interest and excitement. Don’t be tempted to select repertoire because you think it will “impress the examiner”, such as a Chopin Ballade or a big Beethoven Sonata, but choose pieces which you feel will highlight your skills and demonstrate your ability to tackle a range of music. If you have time, consider learning one or two extra pieces than you need to for your recital to give yourself some flexibility when organising your programme. You can plan a programme entirely from the published repertoire list, or a mixture of own-choice and set list pieces, or entirely own-choice (if including own-choice repertoire, you must seek approval in advance – allow plenty of time for this as it can take up to 20 weeks). As your exam date grows near, try to recall what excited you about the pieces in the first place – you want to convey that excitement and passion in your performance.

Stagecraft: Get as much performing practice in as possible ahead of the exam – play for friends, do competitions and festivals, masterclasses, courses. Have a proper dress rehearsal in your exam clothes in advance and practice walking to the piano, bowing, pauses between pieces etc. I also regularly recorded myself playing – but don’t listen to your recordings immediately afterwards. Leave it a day or so, and then listen. It is an incredible useful exercise and can highlight areas which need refining.

Check the regulations: Go through the exam regulations and syllabus very carefully. Some Diplomas have pre-requisites (such as proof of a pass at Grade 8) for entry. Make sure you qualify and ensure you fulfill all the exam entry criteria. An oversight here could lead to disqualification. Check the closing dates for entries and the exam seasons.

Practice on a variety of instruments: Play as many different pianos as you can, especially if, like me, you do not have a grand piano yourself. Rehearsal rooms can be hired from as little as £10/hour: Jaques Samuels in central London has a Steinway D and a dinky little Kawai baby grand, both very good instruments (I actually preferred the Kawai to the Steinway, which spooked me). Don’t expect the set up on the day to be perfect: I was fortunate to warm up and perform on Steinways but the piano stool in the exam room was wobbly!

Ahead of the exam: Make sure you know where to go. Do a practice run, if necessary, to check out transport links, parking, practice facilities etc. Sometimes exam centres will even allow you to try the piano in advance – it’s worth asking. Write your programme notes and have them proof-read/checked by someone else. Print your notes on good-quality paper or lightweight card. Make sure you include timings for each piece as well as the duration of the whole programme.

Don’t over-practice: In the final days before my exam, I cut back on my practice time, and what practice I did was mostly spent on openings and endings. Some pieces needed to segue into one another (Bach ‘Toccata’ to Debussy ‘Sarabande’, for example), while I wanted a longer pause after the Schubert (Impromptu in E Flat, Op 90/2) and the Liszt Sonetto. All these details count: don’t stint on them.

The day before the exam: Don’t over do it! I did a light run through of the entire programme and spent the rest of the day doing very little. It is important to keep body and mind rested ahead of a performance. Play your pieces quietly and slowly, or play music which you enjoy, just for relaxation. Avoid alcohol and make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

On the day of the exam: Do very light practice. Try and rest as much as possible. On the day of my exam, I got up late, did light practice, got changed and packed my briefcase. I did everything slowly and quietly.

I think the most important factor I drew from the whole diploma experience is that if you are well-prepared you should have nothing to fear. I had been working on my repertoire for over a year, in the case of some pieces, and I knew everything really well. (You are not required to play from memory and no extra marks are awarded for pianists who play from memory.) I loved every single piece in my programme and was excited about presenting the programme to the examiner on the day. I wore a dress that was comfortable – I was very careful to choose something that had no tickly labels or other distractions. All these things are very important.

All in all, I found the whole experience of studying for, and taking a music Diploma extremely positive. To immerse oneself in a set of pieces for such a long time, to know them intimately, and to grow to love them, was deeply satisfying. I also learnt how to practice deeply, thoughtfully and productively, useful skills which I can pass on to my students. And the end result, not just a pass, but a pass with Distinction, endorses everything I do at the piano, day in day out.

There are many different music diplomas to choose from, and plenty of support for those studying for a diploma. Summer schools and courses are also a great way of sharing repertoire and gaining useful insights from the professionals, as well as offering an opportunity to have your playing critiqued by peers. The current issue of Pianist magazine contains comprehensive details of summer schools.

So, what next? No sooner had I read the exam report and chatted to a friend who took her Diploma on the same day as me (and who also gained a Distinction) than I started looking at the LTCL repertoire….

Further resources:

Trinity College of Music Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, repertoire lists, regulations, entry forms and entry information

ABRSM Diplomas Overview of different types of diplomas, regulations, repertoire lists, supporting material for viva voce requirement, and writing programme notes.

London College of Music (Thames Valley University) Diplomas

Writing programme notes

Rehearsal rooms for hire in central London

As some of my readers already know, I write regular music reviews for international concert and opera listings site, Bachtrack.com. A new sister site, OneStopArts, has just gone live, specialising in listings for theatre, music, exhibitions, comedy and lectures in London. Do visit the site to find out more.

My latest reviews for OneStopArts are here

A recent search thread which led someone to my blog – “classical music you should be practising” – set me thinking: what are the “must plays” of the standard repertoire, and why?

Please feel free to join the discussion and leave your comments and suggestions. I will then compile a proper blog post.

To get the conversation going, I have so far:

Bach – Partitas, WTC and Italian Concertos

Chopin – Etudes

Use the comment box to leave your suggestions, or contact me via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.