Learning music is a journey: sometimes – often! – it’s an amazing journey of discovery with new horizons and vistas constantly opening up before you as you travel through the score. As you grow more intimate with it, you find interesting bye-ways and twitchells. Sometimes, you come across a short-cut: a clever way to resolve a tricky passage, a fingering scheme which is perfect for a run of difficult chords. Set a piece aside for a few months and then go back to it, and you find even more, things you might have missed first time round, or elements which you appraise in a new or different way.

But occasionally it’s a journey fraught with pitfalls, cul-de-sacs and u-turns. Doors are closed, alleyways prohibited. Access denied. It’s rare for me to give up on a piece of music. I’m tenacious, persistent and perfectionist, and it irks me horribly if a piece gets the better of me, but now and then I take on something which just does not suit me, and no matter how long I spend with it, I just don’t progress. And so, in the end, I become a hostage to it, confronting the same page of score day after day and not moving forward. Shades of ‘Groundhog Day’! A few examples:

Delius – ‘Scherzando’. A really beautiful, lyrical piece, playful and spritely, which I started learning last year when I was going through my “English Romantics” phase (including Ireland and Bridge). but my hands – and head – simply could not cope with all its weird and awkward arpeggios, which did not sit comfortably under the fingers. It’s harder than it looks!

Delius – Three Preludes

Gershwin – No. 1 of Three Preludes, Allegro ben ritmato e deciso. I learnt the middle piece of this trio and performed it in my students’ concert last summer, a lazy, languid prelude with motifs redolent of the composer’s more famous work ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. The first Prelude is exuberant, opening with a 5-note blues motif on which virtually all the material in the piece is based. This was no problem for me: but the syncopated rhythms, based on a Brazilian baião, completely foxed me. Unfortunately, I mis-learnt the rhythm and then found it virtually impossible to un-learn and re-learn it. After days spent playing the rhythm on the fall of my piano – and nothing else – I had to admit defeat. But it’s a piece I would like to return to when I have the time to learn it properly.

Gershwin  3 Preludes

Shostakovich – Prelude in D Major, Op. 87, No. 5. This piece, from the LTCL repertoire list, was supposed to herald my first serious foray into Shostakovich’s repertoire for the piano. Arpeggiated chords over a simple, tranquil melody, first in the bass, then in the treble. Sounds easy? Looks easy too…. But my left hand refused to play the game of arpeggiated chords, and the right hand got tired too easily. Even with some helpful tips from my teacher to relax the hands, I found this piece painful and awkward. It was with great reluctance that I had to set it aside, and rest my right hand. I intend to return to this piece, but when, and only when, my right hand is 100% fit.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember labouring over the same wretched piece week after week, my teacher insistent that I was jolly well going to learn it. It was demoralising to have to struggle through the same thing each week, and I grew to despise certain pieces. Thus, when I am working with my students, I always play through a new piece to them so they can hear it and tell me whether they like it, and, most importantly, would like to learn it. There’s no point forcing a child (or indeed an adult student) to learn something they don’t like (though I do occasionally impose certain pieces on students for the purposes of improving technique or studying a particularly aspect). Some of my students have very clear ideas about what they would like to learn: one child, Sam, 8, is keen on jazz and has a real affinity for it. Sadly, I do not teach jazz, but I do try to accommodate his wishes. Another, Ben, loves Beethoven, and his treat this week will be to start learning a simplified version of the Moonlight Sonata. (Ben can already play the opening measures by ear, correctly transposed into D minor.)

If a child is really struggling with a piece, despite requesting to learn it, we will abandon it. Much as I dislike admitting failure, sometimes it’s necessary to just move on and select a new piece. It also reminds students that there is a wealth of fantastic repertoire out there just begging to be discovered.

As a freelance music teacher, you have to be endlessly cheerful, good-natured, adaptable, patient, resourceful and tolerant. You should be able to tailor your teaching style to suit each individual student, and be flexible and imaginative to make lessons fun, stimulating AND educational. You should never:

  • forget students’ names, or where they are in their learning
  • assign music that is too hard, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • assign music that is too easy, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • make a student cry (one of my pupils told me her previous teacher was “horrible” and regularly reduced her to tears)
  • drop the fall (lid) on a student’s hand. A friend of mine had a teacher who did this (in the 1970s). Unsurprisingly, she switched from piano to flute, at which she excelled, with a brilliant teacher.

A teacher who does at least two of these things on a regular basis is probably a teacher to be avoided. Eccentricity is permitted – indeed, actively encouraged in music teachers – but not inefficiency, ineptitude, or cruelty.

Of course, pupils and their parents fall into categories too, and you get to know their quirks and exigencies in the course of your teaching. For example, one of my students, Laurie, just loves scales and other technical work. Rather than play a piece of his choosing to open his lesson, he will always opt for scales, and will rattle through them with fluency, speed and accuracy. He’s recently got to grips with hands together scales (for Grade 2) and loves to show off how brilliant he is. Then there is Harrison (taking Grade 1 in a week’s time), who always has a packet of Polos. It has become a running joke between him and I, and when he arrives for his lesson, I always ask “Have you brought the Polos?”. We will pause mid-lesson so that he can offer me a Polo, a pleasant break for both of us! Or Ben, who has a fantastic ear and who can play almost anything, by ear, from the opening of the Moonlight Sonata, transposed into D minor (with all the correct harmonies) to a riff from ‘I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone’. The range of pupils, their individual personalities, abilities, habits and quirks while at the piano, makes the teacher’s working week varied and full of entertainments (and, less frequently, luckily, frustrations).

Parents are also an integral part of your teaching, and need a degree of kid-glove treatment. They are, after all, the people who pay your bills, and you owe it to them to involve them in what is going on, keeping them informed of their child’s progress, and co-opting them to encourage regular, productive practising between lessons. Parents who feel included in the activities of your studio are more than happy to turn out for end of term concerts (even bringing contributions to the post-concert tea party!). Being pleasant, courteous and friendly with parents costs nothing, and reaps huge rewards.

There appear to be several distinct types of parent:

  • Late to drop off/pick up: possibly the most irritating, especially when one is trying to run an efficient studio to a tight schedule. Parents who are late to pick up interrupt other students’ lessons, and seem to regard teacher as some kind of childminding service. Late to drop off parents often expect the lesson to still last for the full 30 minutes, and are consequently also late to pick up.
  • Late to pay: you get to know which parents are prompt in settling termly bills, and those who are not. Excuses tend to be the usual, clichéd ones such as “I’ve run out of cheques” or “I forgot my chequebook”. I live in a very affluent area of SW London, where the demographic is largely upper middle class, professional people. They have no excuse for not paying on time – especially when my bank details are included on my invoices, for ease of paying by direct bank transfer. I have on occasion been moved to consider a “no payment, no lesson” rule, though have yet to implement it.
  • Pushy parent: again the product of living in an affluent, high-achieving area, where the competition for school places is tough, and parents with an “agenda” abound. Pushy parents are endlessly demanding and persistent: they hang on to your every word (though do not always take in what you have said!), muscle in on lessons, make excuses for little or no practice, overrule teacher’s directions, “re-teach” the child in the week between lessons, pester about exams, and generally double your workload.
  • Disorganised parent: the child arrives without music or practice notebook, or both. Or the wrong music. Children of such parents often arrive late for lessons as well, forget to do homework, or, on occasion, forget to turn up for the lesson!
  • “I wish I’d had the opportunity” parent: these parents are the best. Enthusiastic without being pushy, supportive, encouraging and interested. They ensure the student does the practice/homework, though without standing over the child, and are well-organised. They are endlessly positive, and grateful, making both child and teacher feel valued and rewarded. They must be nurtured.

In an ideal world, teacher, student and parent form a perfect circle: instruction-practice-encouragement-progress. The student feels supported and valued, and goes on (and on) to produce consistently good work, pass exams with flying colours, and. we hope, develop a love and fascination for the instrument and its repertoire. This last point is my ultimate goal, and my main motivation for teaching. I am passionate about the piano and its literature, and by teaching, I have the opportunity, every week, to share my passion with others. If even a tiny bit of my boundless enthusiasm rubs off onto my students, then I can consider my job well done.

Music and Synaesthesia

I have written before about synaesthesia and how it effects me personally, and relates to my experience of music, both playing and listening to it.

Synaesthesia is a physiological ‘condition’ (I hesitate to use this word, as I am in no way disabled by it), which literally means “a fusion of the senses”. 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. Musical synaesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic” (Oliver Sacks). It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it. I have always had it, and until quite recently, I assumed that everyone else had it. It was only at dinner one evening, when I revealed that Monday is always red, Thursday is a brownish-mauve, and the key of B-flat major is sea-green, and my friends looked at me slightly askance and declared “You’re nuts, Fran!”, that I realised I was one of the one in two thousand….

From quite an early age, I suspect I was aware that my brain assigned individual colours to the musical keys – just as it does for letters of the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year, numbers etc. It seemed perfectly normal to me. I have met other synaesthetes, including those who share my particular version of the condition, though our ‘colour schemes’ are never identical. My particular colour scheme is unchanging: A is always red, no matter what background it is set against or in what context; F major is always a dusky mauve

As a musician, this makes for an interesting experience. At concerts, even if I do not know what key the piece is in, the music will conjure up colours in my head. And when I am playing music, the score is most definitely not black and white: chromatic passages, in particular, are extremely vivid and colourful. When I am working, I do not add my synaesthetic colours to the score – this would only add to all the other annotations that are scribbled on my music. But I am always aware of the colour scheme as I am working, and it definitely informs my practising.

A quick browse of the internet threw up some interesting articles, including colour analyses of some of Beethoven’s music, including the Kreutzer Sonata and the Pathetique. However, these are not the work of a synaesthete; rather a means of mapping the music in a more visual, easy-to-follow way.

Some facts about synaesthesia:

  • The most common form of synaesthesia is the experience of colours linked to letters and numbers (‘grapheme-colour’ synaesthesia), which is what I have.
  • Synaesthesia is involuntary and automatic
  • Synaesthetes are often highly intelligent, ambidexturous, creative individuals, with excellent memories.
  • Synaesthesia is believed to be due to cross-activation within areas of the brain, and is probably hereditary
  • The occurrence of synaesthesia is higher in women than in men
  • Synaesthetes are not mad! Nor is true synaesthesia a form of hallucination (though the drug LSD can induce temporary synaesthesia): for each synaesthete, their particular experience is unchanging.

Historical precedents:

Aristotle wrote that the harmony of colours was like the harmony of sounds. This set the stage for a later connecting of specific light and sound frequencies, as Aristotle’s works were translated and incorporated into European scientific study. From the late 15th century, academics, scientists (including Isaac Newton) and musicians were assigning colour schemes to notation, intervals, and the musical scale. Musicians who were genuine synaesthetes include Franz Lizst, American pianist and composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944), who had both perfect pitch and a set of personal colours for musical keys, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien. Scriabin claimed to have synaesthesia, but it is more likely that he was simply responding to the then salon fashion for “colour music”, and the writings of Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Founder of the Futurist movement in art, Marinetti, aspired to have all the senses (he counted five) employed in “interactive synesthetic ecstasy”, and The Futurist Manifesto includes suggestions as to how colours, shapes and sounds combine, which has influenced composers and musicians, as well as artists. English composer Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a Colour Symphony, but this is not the product of a synaesthetic mind. Like Scriabin, he was influenced by the idea of “colour music”, though it was not a mystic association for him but rather a response to the symbolism usually associated with the colours of the English heraldic tradition.

Messiaen’s music, for me, vibrates with colour. The fourth Vingt Regard, which I am studying, is full of chords with rich layers of colours stacked atop one another, flashes of bright gold, orange, royal blue, deep red. Combinations of colours were very important in his compositional process. “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.” He found that raising a note an octave produced a paler shade of the same colour, while lowering the note produced a darker hue. Only if the pitch altered would the colour change (my experience is identical). His colour associations were very consistent (as mine are), and so to help musicians understand his particular colour schemes, he annotated his scores with the precise colours he perceived. The piano part, in the second movement of his extraordinary and moving Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German PoW camp in 1940-41, contains the instruction to aim for “blue-orange” chords, a difficult concept for a non-synaesthete to grasp, perhaps.

I have yet to meet a fellow synaesthete who is also a musician. The subject fascinates me, in a non-scientific way, and I would be delighted to hear from other musicians who also see colours, either when they listen to music, or when they read it off the score. My experience tends to be more intense when I am actually reading music.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s colour scheme follows, one of several I could have included. My colours are in brackets. As a general rule, minor keys are a more muted version of their major counterparts. Enharmonic keys are different, however: while D-flat major is a pale greeny-blue, C-sharp major is deep red; F-sharp major is purple, which G-flat major is a pale yellow-orange.

B major gloomy, dark blue with steel shine (greenish-blue)
Bb major darkish (sea green)
A major clear, pink (deep red)
Ab major greysh-vioket  (pinky-red)
G major brownish-gold, light (whiteish-green)
F# major green, clear [colour of greenery] (purply-blue)
F major green, clear [colour of greenery] (pinky mauve)
E major blue, sapphire, bright (orange)
Eb major dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (muted orange, with pink)
D major daylight, yellowish, royal (deep sky blue)
Db major darkish, warm (softer sky blue)
C major white (red)

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato, or vivace – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

One of my latest activities with my students is to get them to work out their own fingering schemes (with me sitting beside them to offer guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through. It is also more sensible to allow a student to suggest his or her own preferred fingerings than for me to add what I think they should be doing. Many editions, especially study books and music for children, come with quite involved, suggested fingering – but it should be remembered that these schemes are just that: suggestions, and if a scheme does not work for a particular student, it can be overruled!

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score. In the Bach Toccata (from the Partita BWV 83), a consistent fingering scheme is essential to maintain the flow of the music, especially in the semi-quaver passages (of which there are plenty!), and in one or two places, it is necessary for the right hand to play notes normally assigned to left hand, which can be awkward if one is not forewarned. There are also a few places where I simply do not like the scheme I have worked out with the help of my teacher (a fifth finger or a thumb on a black note, for example). Here, we have added articulation, usually staccato, as if to highlight the more awkward passages; interestingly, this adds more colour and texture to the music – and I can play it comfortably too!

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register. Almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree in part with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, but I feel that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

One of my teacher’s great skills is in working out a fingering scheme that is both natural and musical, thus avoiding unnecessary strain on the hands (something I am all to aware of with my chronic tenosynovitis in the right hand). She has written widely on this subject (she contributes a regular column on technique to Piano Professional magazine) and has published a book The Art of Piano Fingering, which offers unique and enlightening explanations of how to finger scales and arpeggios, and discussion of how to apply these principles to specific pieces of music. It contains some surprising innovations, and is a must for all advanced pianists.

‘From the outset all manner of unacceptable behaviour, whether manifesting itself emotionally in false rapture or facial grimace, the stamping of feet to mark the rhythm, accompanied by an all-embracing unsightly body movement, the shaking and nodding of the head to and fro, snorting during a trill or difficult passage, all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither can politeness nor indulgence toward the fairer sex be permitted even a mere consideration. Despite music being perceived solely through the ears, there can be no excuse to offend the eyes with such wild antics being carried on in public. Those musicians who enrapture through their performance perceptibly tend to weaken an otherwise good impression when their caricature-like behaviour either induces laughter in us or their apparent convulsions tend to instil fear and horror amongst the listeners’. (Daniel Gottlieb Turk, translated from the German).

Until very recently, junior doctors were not taught “bedside manner” at med school; likewise, are aspiring concert soloists taught concert etiquette while at conservatoire or music college? The thought certainly conjures up an amusing image of a roomful of would-be virtuosi being taught how to bow and curtsey properly…. In the regulations for the Diploma exams, one of the requirements is “a high degree of stagecraft”. I know I can cope with the fashion element: as a friend said when we were discussing what I might wear for my diploma recital, “One thing’s for sure, Fran: you’ll be the best-dressed candidate by a long way!”. But bowing, or, worse, a neatly executed curtsey? Not a quick bob-down, but a proper, graceful, deep curtsey? Hmmmm…..

Just as the first piece of a concert is the soloist’s “calling card”, the way the soloist presents him or herself on the concert platform can also set the mood for the rest of the evening. There are many different ways of doing it: continental, especially southern Mediterranean and Easter European performers, seem to favour a deep bow and hand on heart, perhaps expressing the inexpressible even before the music has begun? Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja strides purposefully onto the stage, her bow is a little impatient, as if she is keen to get on with the evening’s work. Paul Lewis, with his Byronic dark curls and stormy brows, always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but the concert hall; I used to think this was a sign of his general grumpiness, but lately I’ve concluded he may just be shy. Angela Hewitt, on the other hand, has a smile as sparkling as the crystals on her gown and exudes general pleasure at being there.

Some of the greatest artists of our time, indeed, of all time, are or were famously miserable: Sviatoslav Richter shared Paul Lewis’s grumpy face, as did Rachmaninov (there is even a photo of him in the green room at the Wigmore Hall looking as if the last thing he wanted to do was play the piano), while Grigory Sokolov has a reputation for dismissing his audience with a curt nod, as if the audience are an irritation to be borne for the duration of the performance. Why do artists find it so difficult to acknowledge the audience who, after all, are a critical component of the concert experience? For without an audience, it would not be a concert…. If one’s body language on greeting the audience is negative, then no matter how beautifully and movingly, and technically flawlessly one plays, the audience will always feel rather hard done by, perhaps even questioning why they paid good money for such a misery-guts to entertain them. Incidentally, at the end of a concert, Paul Lewis cannot wait to get off the stage. He takes the most peremptory of curtain calls, and scuttles away to the green room as soon as possible. Or maybe he is just anxious to get out of the Wigmore Hall before the pubs close?

Then there is the outfit: these days, many male soloists are eschewing the traditional virtuoso uniform of white tie and tails in favour of lounge suits, nehru jackets, smocks, and even grubby tee-shirts. Given that the physical effort of playing the Rach 3 is equivalent to shovelling coal, I suspect many a concerto soloist would happily play in a vest. Some soloists have developed a very studied and careful on-stage image through their attire: Stephen Hough favours shiny metallic green shoes; Lang Lang has his wide-sleeved Chinese jackets; Mitsuko Uchida’s Issey Miyake pleated creations (which, when she moves her arms, gives the impression of butterfly wings). “Russell Brand of the piano” James Rhodes, with his Joe-90 glasses, 4-day stubble and tattoos, has gone to the other extreme, by choosing to appear in scruffy tee-shirt, frayed jeans and dirty Converse trainers, rather like the traditional music student.

Interestingly, the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses and long gowns. The last time I heard Angela Hewitt, my eyes were dazzled by the rhinestones on her satin dress. All rather lovely – and the music was pretty good too. At one of the ‘Maria Joao Pires and Friends’ concerts at the Wigmore in 2007, my seat was located to one side of the stage, so I could only see the musicians’ feet. MJP wore a rather striking tunic and flowing skirt. And on her feet? Big, clumpy sensible shoes.

It’s not just the outfits that can delight or offend the eyes: it’s the gestures too. I have never favoured extravagantly, virtuoso affectations: they just get in the way of the music. Obviously, certain music demands certain gestures: I did a lot of work last winter with my teacher learning how to float my hands and arms about the keyboard while playing Debussy’s ‘Voiles’. One’s body language can certainly inform the music and help to convey mood and meaning to the audience. But when the gestures are simply for effect, to draw attention to soloist rather than to music, they become irritating. The Turkish pianist Fazil Say is a specialist in extravagant movements, and to say he is “all over the piano” is an understatement: he sways and swoons, tosses his greasy locks around, raises his eyes to heaven, or brings his nose almost to the ivories. None of this makes any sense when he is playing a Bach Toccata or the elegant slow movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata (which, incidentally, he ruined).

Snuffling and grunting, sighing and humming are other virtuoso habits. I wonder how many piansts are actually aware that they are doing it? I accept that some habits are probably the result of nerves; others are just that – habits, which have become ingrained. A friend of mine sighs as he plays; Glenn Gould famously muttered; Paul Lewis grunts, so much so that the first time I heard him play, I thought there was a problem with the piano! It reached a climax of growling as he approached the hauntingly beautiful Arioso of Beethoven’s Opus 110; curiously, he did not snuffle once during the sublime and ethereal second movement of the Opus 111.

So, can I please make an appeal to all soloists? Smile as you walk across the stage and bow in such a way as to dispel remoteness: it will bring the audience closer, draw them in, and remind them that this is to be a shared experience. Oh, and wear a clean shirt, and maybe a nice pair of shoes?