Joy Lisney (photo credit: Nick Rutter)

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!

 

Interview date: June 2012

 

www.joylisney.com

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

by Catherine Shefski

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.

Onset

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?

Possible causes

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?
  • Enough light?
  • Music at a comfortable height?
  • Have you had your eyes checked recently?
  • Body alignment
  • Drafty room
  • Cold room
  • 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.
  • Anaemia
  • Virus
  • Having a cold
  • Coming down with something
  • Dental issues

Possible solutions

  • 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.

Related posts:

Warming up & keeping fit

Piano Pilates

Piano Yoga

 

Alex Woolf

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

My mum was performing in Les Miserables in the West End while I was in the womb, so I think music has always been somewhat inescapable! My parents have always broadened my experience of different types of music, and that, in effect, is what inspired me to try and make music of my own. It then seemed natural to me to want to write music down as soon as I’d started learning the piano. I guess it’s that classic scenario of neglecting scales practice in favour of making ‘nice sounds,’ and before I had the slightest idea what I was doing I was at least trying to write down my efforts!

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

I’m influenced by anyone whose music moves me in some way, where there’s a tangible relationship between the music that’s been created and its audience – it doesn’t matter what idiom they’re working in. For example, in the next fortnight I’m going to see the Madame Butterfly production at ENO and the Keane gig at Brixton Academy, both of which should offer that connection in equal measure.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I’ve just written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House orchestra with Pappano lasting 30 seconds, and I think it’s the brevity which made it so challenging. The material came quite quickly, but trying to grapple with a full orchestra over such a tiny amount of time, whilst also trying to make it memorable and special, really was a challenge!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Whenever a group of musicians play my music it is a thrill and a pleasure, so I find it above all very exciting. I do get slightly stressed preparing scores for larger ensembles though – if you get one tiny detail in any of the parts wrong, if the score isn’t clear for the conductor, if there are any conflicting messages, then the rehearsal could be ruined!

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Last year my first substantial choral piece was recorded at Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge by Phoenix Chorale, and that recording is very special to me. It’s my first professional recording, and I learnt a huge amount from the process, and I am now in awe of people who specialise in production.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I have three: Barbican, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Snape Maltings Concert Hall. All absolutely beautiful, and I’ve had some unforgettable experiences at those places.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The members of the National Youth Orchestra that I’ve met over this past year are all absolutely incredible – it’s such a huge melting-pot of fantastic musicians that it would be impossible for me to say anything else!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Oh, there are so many! Something that springs to mind immediately though is Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys at ENO last year, which I found absolutely spell-binding both musically and visually.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

At the minute I’m really into playing the Beethoven sonatas on piano – they’re so physical and explosive. I’m listening to lots of Thomas Adès and James Macmillan. I think what links everything I’m into at the minute is these really powerful ideas which just grab hold of you. Pieces like Adès’ America: A Prophecy or MacMillan’s Magnificat grab me every single time I hear them.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

I still am an aspiring musician! Having said that, I can’t think of a time when I won’t see myself as aspirant musically. Maybe what I would say then is that a thirst and desire to constantly discover more about the art form is the most important thing of all.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a piece for the Aldeburgh World Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder at the minute, which is really exciting! It’s quite tricky, because I’ve got to create 2 versions of the same piece, one for indoor concert performance and one outdoor, unconducted version for the Olympic torch relay. It’s a great challenge though!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness for me is simply to have achievements to be proud of, new challenges to look forward to, and great people to enjoy them with.

Twitter: @alexanderwoolf

Alex lives in Cambridge, and is a composer with the National Youth Orchestra and an Aldeburgh Young Musician. In the last year, his music has been performed at venues such as the Southbank Centre, the Sage Gateshead and the Britten Studio, as well as in Holland. In June this year his Fanfare will be premièred by Sir Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra, and will be heard as an alternative to the interval bell at each opera/ballet of the 2012/13 season. His choral work Phoenix was recorded in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge last year, and his music will feature at this year’s Snape Proms, as the Aldeburgh World Orchestra première a new piece to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. He studies with Jeffery Wilson, and also receives tuition from Anna Meredith, Larry Goves and Charlotte Bray. He is winner of Cambridge Young Composer of the Year and the NCEM Young Composers Award 2012. His NCEM competition piece is being sung by the Tallis Scholars as part of a Jubilee Concert at Durham Cathedral on 2nd June (further information here).

A pleasing trend is the increasing number of enthusiastic adult amateur pianists who are enrolling for lessons. Some are players who had lessons in their youth but who gave up, for various reasons, and who are returning to the piano after a prolonged period away from it. Others simply want to learn a new skill, or, in the case of two of my adult students, want to learn so they can help their children who are learning to play the piano.

I am what is classed as an “adult returner”: I took lessons from the age of 5 to nearly 19, with two teachers, and worked through all the exams (practical and theory). Then I went to university, fell in love, started work in London, got married, all things that conspired to keep me away from the piano. It was only when I started writing a novel in which the principal character is a pianist that I began to play again, figuring the best way to research the music I was writing about was to actually play it. It was hard, at first, to return to pieces I’d played well in my teens, but it was also cheering to find I hadn’t forgotten that much.

I started taking lessons again in my 40s, in part to try and understand the psychology of being taught as an adult, so that I could help my own adult students, all of whom are very nervous and lacking in confidence.

This is a key factor in teaching adults: building confidence. As we get older, we seem more aware of the embarrassment of making a mistake or appearing foolish in front of someone else. Just as my teacher does with me, I try to make my adult students feel comfortable and confident. Yes, it is hard to play for someone else, but they know I am not going to bite them!

Confidence comes through good and thorough preparation, self-belief, and praise from a teacher or mentor. Many adults arrive at lessons with an idea of what kind of music they want to play, and many find their own choices are too difficult. I try to select repertoire which will suit my adult students, taking into account their individual abilities and tastes.

One of the nicest aspects of teaching adults is more involved communication than one enjoys with a child. One can explain concepts and technical issues, and feel that the student has understood what is being asked of them. There is greater opportunity for more discussion about the music, and many adults have a good grounding in music history and/or theory (if they had studied music as a child), or general music appreciation, which helps enormously. The relationship often becomes personal and close; one of my adult students has become a very good friend.

Some of my other observations on teaching adult amateur pianists:

Practising: many adult students have busy lives with other commitments such as work, family and so forth which can prevent them from practising as regularly as they would like to. A teacher should be able to guide and advise an adult student on best and most effective ways to practice given time constraints. I encourage focussed practice: breaking down the music into manageable chunks and learning how to spotlight tricky or problem areas for special attention.

Repertoire: some adults, especially “returners”, can have ideas somewhat above their capabilities and will arrive with music that is, in reality, beyond them. Rather than dampen their enthusiasm, I will either find a simplified version of the piece for them to learn, or suggest learning just a small part of the piece – though it can be frustrating, as a teacher, to listen to Debussy or Chopin being mangled week after week (!). I always let adults select the repertoire they would like to learn, rather than be dictatorial about it.

Exams and benchmarking: No one, neither adult nor child, is forced to do exams in my studio. I have two adult students who want to take exams because they enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, and find that this keeps them focussed. When my student Sarah, who has been learning with me for four years now, achieved a Merit in her Grade 1 exam, we both enjoyed a huge sense of achievement! Other adult students are more than happy to play for pleasure, with the teacher offering more advanced repertoire so that they have a sense of progression. Another of my adults regularly asks me what level the music she is learning is (roughly around Grades 2-3 at the moment).

Performance anxiety: Many adult students can be very very nervous when faced with a performance situation. I can sympathise with this, having been in a similar condition myself a few years back when I first started having lessons again. But adult students who want to take exams need to be taught how to overcome their anxiety. First, they should be encouraged to play within their capabilities; and, secondly, they should take every opportunity to practice performing – be it to the family, pets, neighbours, or in the more formal setting of a music festival. “Mock” exams are useful, along with physical exercises away from the piano to help relieve tension.

Enthusiasm: Adult amateurs are generally very enthusiastic about their piano lessons, usually because they are learning for completely different reasons to children (sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, personal development etc). Never dampen that enthusiasm, and be accommodating if the student cannot make a lesson one week (I find it helpful to have adult students on a “pay as you play” basis) or hasn’t completed their practising.

Courses and workshops: a great way for adult amateur pianists of all levels to get together, share repertoire, receive tuition from top-class teachers (often professional pianists), and simply enjoy playing the piano! More on courses here.