This question seems particularly pertinent as I help prepare another crop of students for their piano exams. The question was, in fact, put to me last week by a student of another teacher (Clarinet) who came to me for some extra aural training ahead of his Grade 5 exam next week. I found myself quoting from the ABRSM website when I said “Aural tests help to train your musical ear, and to help you make an important link between listening to music and playing music”.

I think most of us who took music exams as children would agree that, along with sight-reading, the aural tests were the most dreaded element of the graded music exam. I can still remember being “trained” by my music teacher at school, Mr Weaver, and, in my nervousness, finding it almost impossible to sing a simple major third or fifth. (I was also tested for perfect pitch when I was about 12, in front of the entire class, which was excruciating and cringe-makingly awful.) One of my students, Laurie, absolutely refuses to sing for me and so when we come to the part of the test, where he is required to sing an echo, we mime (or I sing it for him), on the strict understanding that he will sing at his exam!

Joking apart, as well as forming an integral part of the graded music exams, training the musical ear is a crucial process for the developing musician. Intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of good music making, whether listening to others, or to oneself, and is fundamental to music training, especially for performance. The key aspects from the Prep or Initial stage are:

  • Identifying and clapping a pulse
  • Clapping a rhythm
  • Singing and echo or pitching notes in a sequence
  • Identifying simple features in an extract of music – e.g. detached or smooth playing, loud or soft

As one proceeds through the graded exams, additional skills are tested

  • Identifying a rhythmic or pitch change in an extract of music
  • Identifying features such as staccato, legato, dynamic, tempo or key changes
  • Singing and identifying intervals
  • Identifying cadences
  • Learning to appreciate music from different periods – e.g. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazz

What bothered me while working with the other teacher’s student last week was that the child had no idea why he was required to take an aural test, hence my explanation about training the musical ear. Being able to identify a pulse is crucially important, for any musician, and those of us who have played in ensembles or orchestras can surely still remember the player/s who could not keep time. I regularly do pulse and rhythm exercises with my teacher, and anyone who has learnt ‘Bah-Ba-Doo-Bah’ (John Kember, ABRSM Grade 2 syllabus) with me this term has had to do a lot of clapping and counting to master the syncopation in this piece.

Singing is also incredibly useful as a musician, and I often sing (not especially well!) to demonstrate a line of melody or the shape of a phrase. So much music follows a “singing line”, and singing a phrase rather than playing it demonstrates “natural shaping” which comes from the innate rise and fall of the human voice. It’s a pity that so many students are reluctant to sing because I think if they were more prepared to try it, they would find phrasing music so much easier.

When I worked with the clarinet student last week, I was astonished at his lack of knowledge of music history and the distinct periods in classical music. He did not even realise that the piece he played for me was jazz! He came armed with a book on how to improve your aural, and, flicking through it, it fell open on a page about the main periods of classical music. Each one – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – had four bullet points identifying the key features. When I played an extract of a Gershwin Prelude (No 2 – the middle section) he reeled off the salient features of Baroque music – and my heart sank.

If one doesn’t develop an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of music – and not just ‘classical’ music, but jazz, rock, pop, world, ambient, electronic etc – how can one properly understand how to interpret and play a piece properly? One of the first things I do when looking at a new piece with a student is set the music in context. When we study Bach, we look at the kinds of keyboard instruments he was writing for (I have pictures loaded onto my iPad) and listen to Bach played on the harpsichord or organ. While working on a simplified version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ with a student recently, I played both the sung version and the quintet to him. Result: the next week he was beginning to play the piece with clearer phrasing and a nice sense of the “song line”.

I was very fortunate when I was growing up: my parents were keen concert-goers and LP buyers, and of course there was live music in the house because my father played in both a wind ensemble and an orchestra. From a very early age, I went to concerts, and my tastes and knowledge developed quickly. Listening and playing were normal activities for me – and remain so today. But many children who are learning instruments now are doing just that – learning the instrument, without being taught an appreciation of music. Perhaps their parents are not interested in music, or the school is not encouraging an appreciation? I admit I’m on something of a mission to encourage my students to both play well and to love music: if just one or two of them remember what they did with me as students when they are browsing iTunes or similar when they’re older, and they download some Beethoven piano sonatas, or one of Schubert’s String Quartets, then I can consider my job well done.

So, there is a lot of point to aural – and it is important for us, as teachers, to explain WHY!

Having spent most of the afternoon compiling the wretched thing (time which would have been better spent practising, or sunbathing), I felt I should share my Classical music timeline here. There are sins of omission, I know, so please don’t contact me to point out who I’ve forgotten! It is intended simply as an overview, and, because I am a pianist, is somewhat weighted towards composers of the piano.

Radio 4 is kindly allowing us, Joe Public, to offer up our own choices as the venerated programme approaches its 70th birthday (you can submit your choices here, and explore the archive). I put together a playlist on Spotify last week, but didn’t give it that much thought. Meanwhile, a very thoughtful and varied post by fellow-blogger The Argumentative Old Git inspired me to review my choices and make a more considered selection. I have always enjoyed the programme, and although I am not 70 (nor will be for another 25 years!), I do remember Roy Plomley presenting the programme. Desert Island Discs is, like The Archers, and Woman’s Hour, one of our radio national treasures, to be cherished and revered.

The music listed is available via Spotify, free to download and free to use, and the list is in no particular order, rather the pieces are listed as they come to mind. Nor are they necessarily “favourites” (though many are); these are simply pieces which have special resonances for me.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, K581, II Larghetto: My father was a fine amateur clarinettist and this was one of his favourite pieces (sadly, he had to give up the clarinet some years ago because it was affecting his teeth). We used to play a reduced version for piano and clarinet together, and he often played this with Music Minus One, which I would hear from my bedroom as I was going off to sleep as a child.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet In A Major, K. 581: II. Larghetto

Beethoven – Symphony No. 7: My paternal grandfather was a Marxist, a (old) Labour man all his life, and a trade union leader (NUPE) in the 1960s. He was a fascinating man and I had a great fondness for him. He encouraged me to play the piano from a very young age, and he had a great affinity with fellow Old Radical and his music. This, along with the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6), was one of his favourites. He requested this movement at his funeral, but only I remembered his request – and too late.

Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 In A Major, Op. 92: III. Presto

Kate Bush – ‘Wuthering Heights’: I have always been a great fan of Kate Bush, a musician who never stands still and who has never rested on her musical laurels. She is constantly reinventing herself, while retaining the key elements of her music which make it so distinctive. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first single I bought, after seeing Kate on Top of the Pops in 1978 when she was still a teenager. Her latest collection ‘Director’s Cut’ is about to be released, a compilation and reworking of tracks from her 1990s albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights

Talking Heads – ‘Road to Nowhere’: This is the track of my university days in the mid-80s, oft requested at discos and parties, along with ‘Once in A Lifetime’ from an earlier album of the same name. Whenever I hear this song, I am transported back to Exeter, to a cold attic room in a drafty student house, to learning how to cook for myself in a kitchen with a permanently sticky floor, and arguments over whose turn it was to do the washing up. Happy days! I had waist-length dyed auburn hair, and a penchant for maxi skirts and chunky jumpers. I don’t remember doing that much work, though I did stay up all night to finish typing my dissertation to make sure it was handed in on time! Listening to the track now, the opening lyrics seem rather appropriate for a group of young people poised on the threshold of adulthood.

Talking Heads – Road To Nowhere – Early Version

Joy Division – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’: By being born in the middle of the 1960s, I was slightly too young to appreciate Joy Division first time round, when their lead singer Ian Curtis was still alive. Nevermind the tragic circumstances of Ian Curtis’s suicide, this song is the sound of a heart shattering, of the end of a love affair, the hauntingly tragic lyrics almost crooned over a mournful bass line and robotic drums. Monstrously beautiful and utterly beguiling, brutally claustrophobic, potent and ethereal, as sublime and chilling as Schubert sharing his painful outbursts and lyrical consolations, it sums up emptiness and sadness, yet is both enchanting and intoxicating. This is preposterously good music, with a spine-tingling uniqueness: it gets to me every time I hear it.

Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Schubert – Impromptu in A flat, D899, No. 4: I first encountered Schubert’s Impromptus (the D899 and D935 sets) when I was in my teens and about to take my Grade 8 piano exam. I probably heard the pieces in concert and was struck by the ethereal nature of the fourth of the first set. I bought a Peters edition of the score and set about learning it. When I played it to my piano teacher for the first time, she shook her heard in disbelief at my total misunderstanding of how to play the fluttering semiquavers which make up the main motif of the piece. Once set on the right track, I was able to learn the piece correctly. This, for me, is part of my “tingle factor” collection, a piece I will also stop for, if it comes on the radio. It is both romantic and plaintive, beautiful and haunting. I still play it, though I have, with my current teacher’s guidance, “unlearnt” the fingering scheme of my teens and replaced it with a more logical and comfortable scheme to cope with the semiquavers. It is one of the few pieces I can play from memory (just!).

Murray Perahia – Schubert: Impromptu No. 4 in A-flat Major. Allegretto

Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now‘: As well as missing out on Punk, I missed out on the flower-power generation, and so became a “neo-hippie” in my teens in the early 1980s, discovering the protest music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, as well as Janis Joplin, The Doors, Patti Smith, Carole King, The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, and, my most favourite female singer of all, Joni Mitchell. Like Kate Bush, Joni has managed to reinvent herself, and is still going strong, songwriting and painting. Her voice has deepened, grown more gravelly (like Dylan’s), with time. This song is my absolute favourite, and one which can trigger tears, even when I play it to myself on the piano.

Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A, No. 31, Opus 110: “Who’s your favourite composer, Fran?” asked Ben, one of my keenest students, after a lesson spent working on a reduced version of the Moonlight Sonata with him. “Beethoven” I replied emphatically. “And who’s your second favourite?” he asked. “Ah, now that’s a difficult one, Ben, because there are so many composers whose music I love…..”. Lucky Ben, poised on the cusp of a lifetime of discovery of the greatness of the piano’s repertoire….. I’m not working on any Beethoven myself at the moment (though I probably should be), but he is a composer who I always return to, for his wisdom, his wit, his humour, his ever-changing moods, his sheer weirdness and unpredictability. I have favourites among the piano sonatas, but the Opus 110 is my absolute favourite, and the piece I would take to the desert island with me (also the choice of tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste). This isn’t music, it is philosophy, written near the end of the composer’s life, though there is nothing valedictory nor depressing about it. Truly life-affirming, with that amazing fugue, the most stable and steadying of music devices, in the final movement. Favourite recordings? Glenn Gould, who gives it a quasi fantasia reading by segueing effortlessly between movements, Claudio Arrau, Mitsuko Uchida…..

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major Op. 110: Moderato cantabile molto espressivo

Kirsty Young: “And so, Cross-Eyed Pianist, we come to your book choice. You have the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare…..”

How difficult to be asked to select one book out of many! Here, I think I would have to bend the rules of the programme and ask to take all the books I’ve been meaning to read, and all the books about which friends and colleagues have said “you must read this!”. These include Charles Rosen’s ‘The Classical Style’, Chopin’s Letters, Alan Walker’s three-volume ‘Life of Liszt’, Adam Zamoyski’s ‘Chopin: Prince of the Romantics”, and many, many more, too numerous to list here. You see, I’m far too idle and lacking in practical life-skills (beyond being able to cook and change a plug) to try and build a raft to escape from the Desert Island. And so I will sit on the beach in the sun, or in the shade of a palm tree, reading,reading, reading…..

Kirsty Young: “And your luxury?”

If I was replying as my other blogging persona, Demon Cook, I would request a good cooking knife and a wok. As The Cross-Eyed Pianist I must, of course, request a fine grand piano, and the score of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven. That, and the extensive reading list should keep me pretty occupied until I am rescued….

I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.

Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)

From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.

Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.

At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.

Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.