This incredibly useful article comes from Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano blog, which is full of sound advice and guidance for productive practising. This article chimed particularly with me, as this week I have been getting students, and myself, ready for our concert next weekend, and careful, attentive practice has been the watch word of my lessons recently.

We all have ‘black spots’ in music we are learning: sometimes these are not the most difficult passages, but such places need special attention to stop them becoming major problems, which can affect the overall continuity and flow of the music.

Read Graham’s excellent advice here

The mercurial and fiercely independent Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, friend and protégé of the late great Sviatoslav Richter, stamped her mark emphatically upon some of Schubert’s most well-loved works in a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here

“Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of losing track of time and of being unaware of fatigue and of everything else but the activity itself.” I read this recently in a book entitled Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure (quotes in this post are from this book). It’s a fascinating research report on how family, school, personality, education and motivation affect teenagers’ ability to become and remain talented in a field of endeavour such as music.

A state of flow is inherently productive for a musician. During a flow experience, musicians achieve their goals without even realising how hard the experience has been. Furthermore, it will have been enjoyable and satisfying and practice time will have flown by! Even more exciting is that the research shows that once a student has experienced a state of flow in their practice, they will want to repeat it, no matter how hard or how much concentration was required. That is, they will become intrinsically motivated to practice. Now wouldn’t that be nice?!

To quote the research, “…a deeply involving flow experience usually happens when there are clear goals and when the person receives immediate and unambiguous feedback on the activity”. Luckily in music, this “immediate and unambiguous feedback” is readily available: when you’re practicing an instrument, you can instantly hear when things don’t sound right and you immediately know when you can do something that you couldn’t do a few minutes earlier. But goal setting, particularly for children, is much harder.

The goal for teachers is helping students find the balance between the fun of finding new challenges in their music and/or technique and the hard work involved in skill building to surmount those challenges. “The pleasures associated with flow are highly desirable, but they are also intensive and energy demanding. You have to risk learning the limits of your present capacity.”

So what can we do to help out students achieve flow in their practice? Here are a few ideas which I hope will be just as relevant for musicians as their teachers:

  1. Flow comes from complete and utter concentration in one activity. It involves focusing on the present, so that all those irrelevant thoughts and worries can disappear. Flow is therefore a little like meditation. Students must setup their practice time and space so that they can practice without distraction. Teachers may need to give suggestions to parents about this as I’ve found that some just don’t realise how to structure their child’s practice time.
  2. Students must find what they are doing enjoyable in order for them to persevere long enough to achieve flow. Teachers therefore must, first and foremost, make learning enjoyable! A no-brainer, I hope, for most! This will be a product of a variety of things like repertoire choice, but really comes down to a positive and engaging teaching style. As the research says, “…flow most often happens when a person enjoys what he or she is doing for its own sake”.
  3. Set really clear and unambiguous goals for your students to achieve each week and break them down as much as required. Be specific! Philip Johnston’s book, The Practice Revolution, will challenge every teacher’s views on music teaching and is highly recommended in this regard. My post about how my teaching has changed as a result of this book is here – please read it for more detail on this vital aspect of flow.
  4. Set the right level of challenge. In another article I wrote based on this book entitled Too Easy or Too Hard – Finding the Right Challenge, I wrote about how important it is to find the right level of challenge for students to ensure they don’t get bored, but aren’t overwhelmed by insurmountable challenges (as so often happens when they bring in a piece of music they want to play that’s way beyond their skill level). Setting an appropriate level of challenge comes with experience which I believe is strongly supported by a teacher’s own endeavours to learn new, and increasing challenging, repertoire for themselves.

Our job as teachers must therefore be to set the stage for regular flow experiences for our students each week. According to the research, a student’s ability to achieve “flow” regularly in his/her practice time is directly related to how successful they will be in their talent area in the future: “…when students experience flow, the likelihood that they will keep on developing their gift increases significantly”. This week, take notice of any time during your own teaching or practice when you’ve felt a flow experience and time has disappeared. What happened? What did you achieve? How did you feel? What made it happen? And how can you help your students to have the same experience?

Good luck!

Tim Topham is a Melbourne based piano teacher, pianist and accompanist. He writes regularly on his blog about practice, teaching and repertoire and has a particular interest in helping other piano teachers work more successfully with boys. He has over 10 years’ teaching experience in a variety of fields and is currently studying performance with renowned concert pianist, Caroline Almonte and theory with Louise Robertson-Glasgow.

This post comes via my friend Somewhere Boy, who in turn sought inspiration from Gramophone, which poses the question “what does iTunes Shuffle reveal about your [music] collection?”. As Gramophone states, “the concept is simple: you just open up iTunes, press shuffle, and see what the first ten recordings to emerge are”.

I rarely use the “shuffle” function on my iPod or in iTunes (though I notice pianist Paul Lewis opts for the “snuffle” function when he performs), partly because it annoys me when a four-movement Schubert sonata is interrupted by, for example, a Chopin Prelude or a track by Baroque group l’Arpeggiata. What I have used quite frequently is the ‘Genius’ function in iTunes, which will compile a playlist for you based on one track (good for creating mixes for parties, long car journeys or boring gym sessions). Anyway, here goes…..I’m pressing Shuffle now. Let’s see what happens…..

Rachmaninov – Prelude in B, Op 32 No. 11 (John Lill). I learnt this a few years ago and then forgot all about it. Nice to be reminded of a piece I actually enjoyed playing. Maybe I should revive it?

Rachmaninov: Prelude in B major, Op.32, No.11

Mozart- Minuet in, D K355 (Mitsuko Uchida). Uchida playing Mozart. What more can I say?

Mozart: Minuet in D, K.355

Beethoven – Six Bagatelles, Op 126. I. Andante con moto. Beethoven’s Bagatelles always remind me of childhood piano lessons and exams, which is unfair, since many of them are really wonderful and deserve proper study.

Artur Schnabel – Bagatelles, Op. 126: No. 1 in G Major – Andante con moto

Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 11 in A, K331. 1st movement (Uchida). More beautiful, graceful Mozart….

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Piano Sonata No.11 in A, K.331 “Alla Turca” – 1. Tema (Andante grazioso) con variazioni

Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in E Flat Op 120 No. 2, 3rd movement. The second movement of this sonata formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam, the memory of which still causes the hair to stand up on the back of my neck…. Enough said! Beautiful music, though….

Gervase De Peyer – Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E flat Op. 120 No. 2  III. Andante con moto

Enigma – Je T’aime Till My Dying Day. I have never, to my knowledge, listened to this, or indeed any of the other tracks on this album, though I do like Enigma’s first album….. Must’ve downloaded it while asleep/by mistake.

Enigma – Je T’aime Till My Dying Day

Schubert – Suleikas Zweiter Gesang, D717. I often listen to Schubert’s songs on my way to work: it makes a boring commute more pleasurable. I have two albums streamed together, Ian Bostridge’s fine Schubert collection and another by Lynda Russell (one of those budget Naxos ones). I met Ian Bostridge a few years ago, after he’d sung the part of the Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion. I say “met”…… Tanked up on Sauvignon, I flung my programme in front of him and demanded an autograph, while declaring huskily, “Oh Ian! I just LOVE your Schubert album!!’. Poor man! He’d just sung very demanding and emotional music, only to be confronted, post-concert, by a mad fan. He was seen exiting the Barbican at high speed soon after….

Gerald Moore/Dame Janet Baker – Suleika II D717

Haydn – Piano Sonata in D Hob. 16/37 (Hamelin), 1st movement. Hamelin’s Haydn albums are wonderful: full of crisp articulation, attentive phrasing and graceful melodic lines.

Piano Sonata No. 33 in D Major, Hob.XVI:37: I: Allegro con brio

La Vie en Rose – Indien, from The Best of Claude Challe. Oh, I love Claude Challe and his Buddha Bar collections! This song is wacky and fun: Piaf meets Bollywood.

Pascal of Bollywood – La Vie En Rose – Indien

Orchestra Baobab – Nijaay. I often have this or Youssou N’Dour playing in the cabana in the garden on a hot summer’s evening (i.e. last year!)

Orchestra Baobab – Nijaay

Just for the purposes of comparison, here’s the list from iTunes on my Macbook:

ABRSM Piano Grade 1 2010-12  Menuet in F

ABRSM Specimen Aural Test – Grade 1, Test 1A (“Is it in 2-time or 3-time?”)

Carla Bruni – Quelqu’un M’a Dit

Haydn – Piano Sonata No. 47 Hob. XVI:32

Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata – Ciaccona, Pt. 2

Clara Rodriguez (piano) – El Atravesado

Schubert – Ian Bostridge – Du bist die Ruh D776 (Rückert)

Ding Dong Merrily on High – played by Bella (one of my students)

Beethoven – Rondo in C major, Op. 51, No. 1

Gershwin – Prelude No. 3

Not sure what these lists say about me or my music collection, but an amusing diversion for Saturday morning. Might go and look up that Rach Prelude again now…..

Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).

So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch  (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).

But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?

This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.

One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?

Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.

Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).

Glenn Gould – French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813/I. Allemande

Bartók : For Children – Quasi Adagio