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.

One of the great pleasures of being an active member of the ‘Twitterati’ is the opportunity to connect with all sorts of interesting people around the world, who share similar interests to me. While many I will probably never meet outside the Twittersphere, I have met a few of my fellow Twitterers at concerts, for lunch and at other events (amusingly, at a recent Bachtrack party, a fellow reviewer and I identified each other by our Twitter call-signs, rather than our real names!). One of these is the left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy, and last night I attended Nicholas’s graduation recital in the lovely Amaryllis Fleming hall at the Royal College of Music.

Nicholas McCarthy

Nicholas was born without his right hand; that he plays the piano beautifully with just his left hand is remarkable in itself. What is more remarkable is that he only started playing the piano seriously when he was 14. He has studied with Lucy Parham at the Guildhall School of Music & Dance, and, since 2008, with Nigel Clayton at the RCM. This summer he will perform with the Paraorchestra (an initiative of conductor Charles Hazlewood) in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paraolympics.

There has been something of a theme of left-handed piano repertoire and performance on my blog recently: ‘Meet the Artist’ interviews with Nicholas and another left-handed pianist Keith Snell (who was forced to switch to left-handed repertoire when he developed focal dystonia in his right hand), and a guest post on the history of left-hand piano, also by Keith Snell. There are some very well-known works for the left-hand, perhaps most notably, piano music by Godowsky and Scriabin. For his graduation recital, Nicholas selected a programme which contained no music by these “greats” of the left-hand repertoire. Instead, he opened with the graceful Meditation from Prelude No. 1, Gounod’s transcription which intertwines Bach’s sublime Prelude in C from the WTC with Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’. The rest of the programme was a mixture of well-known works (‘Casta Diva’ from Norma, arranged by Fumagalli, Morgen! by Strauss, transcribed for left-hand by Jonathan Mann, and Du Bist die Ruh, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song, transcribed by left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein) and less familiar repertoire, including a moody rendition of Britten’s The Miller of Dee (transcribed especially for Nicholas) and a work written for Nicholas by Anglo-French composer Tim Benjamin called Et Nous Les Os. With its unsettling clusters of sound high up in the treble and its plangent, sonorous chords in the bass, it was redolent of Liszt and Messiaen in both its scope and soundworld.

Nicholas is an elegant and understated performer. The movements and gestures he makes are so precise, so measured, so fluid that very soon one forgets he is playing with just his left hand. And his playing is not confined to the lower registers of the piano: far from it. At times, he moved nimbly between the furthest reaches of the keyboard as the score dictated, and the final piece of the programme, Der Erlkonig, provided a particularly physical work out. (As I said to him afterwards, “it’s difficult enough with both hands!”) His dynamic control was impressive, his tone and voicing poetic and subtly nuanced: achingly tender in the Meditation, growling and agitated in Erlkonig.

The whole programme was delightful, well planned with pleasing shifts in energy and mood, and beautifully presented. For me, the Tim Benajmin piece was the highlight, but I enjoyed every minute of it, and it was lovely to have the opportunity to meet Nicholas’s (very proud!) mum afterwards, and to congratulate Nick on a wonderful performance.

Nicholas’s Meet the Artist interview


Tim Benjamin composer

The Paraorchestra

Guest Post: A history of left-hand piano

Jan Vriend

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?

It grew as I made my way into the musical world. From early childhood composers inspired me – and still do. The ‘urge’ to create is not unlike feeling hungry or any other ‘needs’, part genetic (nature), part imparted (nurture). The rest is discipline and hard work as you keep learning (which is also an urge) and developing (which keeps the urge alive) – voilà, a virtuous circle. Out of all the things I have done in music, practical and theoretical, composing slowly began to take over.

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

‘Inspiration’ or ‘influence’ comes from many sources, from nature to books, from people to science and technology, from a musician’s special skills to the nature of a commission, from a problem to the search for a solution. In different stages of my career, different influences dominated. For example, when I was infatuated with Xenakis, his music and writings, his persona and reputation left noticeable traces in my music.

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

To stay alive and make a living out of a profession which has become ever harder to pursue in a musical world that tends to cling on to the familiar rather than to taking risks – especially in times of hardship, such as now.

Apart from that, the greatest challenge was to discover my strengths and weaknesses, to acknowledge that I cannot be Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky or Varėse, and find Jan Vriend.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

Huantan (1968), Heterostase (1981), Jets d’Orgue (1985-91), Hallelujah II (1988), Hymn to Ra (2002), Anatomy of Passion (2004), Echo 13.7 (2006), Meden Agan (2006)…

Who are your favourite musicians?

Young people, who are still full of curiosity and passionate in their commitment to the cause of the music they play, as opposed to the pursuit of fame and fortune or as a chore to making a living.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A concert in Amsterdam in the 1960s, when Yuji Takahashi performed Eonta by Xenakis with a brass ensemble from Paris conducted by Konstantin Simonovich. Details of that experience are in a book I am about to finish.

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

The question encompasses too many issues (ideas and concepts) for an easy answer. But here is a thought: whatever sounds you choose to work on in whatever combinations, the point of their interactions is to make musical sense. To find out what that means is a lifelong preoccupation, something we put to the test again and again in each new composition (project) we undertake.

What are you working on at the moment?

A work for string orchestra – a challenge, an ambition I have been harbouring for many years but never had the chance to concentrate on. The difficulty is that I haven’t yet been able to find an ensemble to take it on, which makes it a somewhat fortuitous (gratuitous?) enterprise and has given me my first ‘writer’s block’ in many years.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

On holiday in a sunny resort by the sea.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being in love and in the closest possible proximity of the beloved.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano – since I cannot claim my two daughters among my ‘possessions’.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Work… when it goes well.

What is your present state of mind?

It’s in survival mode. But, overall, I look on the bright side.

More details are on my website and the real ‘story’ is, of course, in my music.

Jan Vriend’s ‘Degrees of Freedom’, written specially for Ensemble Matisse, receives its premiere on 3 November 2014 in music and media event ‘Interference Patterns’ at London’s Kings Place . The work aims to explore the provocative idea that freedom cannot exist without boundaries. Further information and tickets here

Jan Vriend on SoundCloud:

Interview first published May 2012

Recently, The Guardian published an article by Leo Benedictus on the subject of badly behaved audiences at theatre, film, concerts, and similar events. The article included a sort of ‘manifesto’ for audiences, with tips and advice on how not to behave. It is both amusing and true. I ran an informal poll amongst Twitter and Facebook followers, asking for people to submit their particular “audience irritations”. The best ones follow below:

People who sit behind and scratch their knees… An odd one I know, but sat in a tiered theatre their knees are at ear level!

Flash photography when one is performing – very distracting!

People talking through overtures is my worst bugbear. I was at South Pacific in Cardiff recently and it was so noisy throughout the overture, and the chap behind me constantly was singing and humming along to most of the songs and making comments….

At a Proms concert once, I saw a Prommer reading a John Grisham novel while Abbado conducting the Bruckner’s 9th symphony provided some no doubt pleasant background music.

Child unwrapping sweets during a Bach Suite… grrrrrr!

People who go to a concert with a cold! Sniffling every other minute. So distracting, inconsiderate and unhygienic!

Re. hummers, I remember childhood carol services at church where every year, without fail, one old man who couldn’t sing in tune to save his life would persist in joining in with the solo first verse of Once in Royal. Pity whichever poor child had been given that dubious privilege…

I was at a Chopin recital where the man next to me hummed tunelessly throughout Chopin’s last Piano Sonata (indeed, throughout the entire concert!). It reminded me of a sketch from ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ in which a certain concert-goer (Smith) hums throughout the performance. Another (Jones) becomes very irritated by this and starts shushing the hummer, only to be told by others around him: “Would you please be quiet? We have come here tonight specifically to hear Mr Smith humming!”

Because of the average age of its audience (very elderly), the Wigmore auditorium is often a cacophony of whistling hearing aids, snuffling, stentorian snoring, and – particularly at lunchtime recitals – satisfied, fruity farting (the sign of a good lunch in the Wigmore restaurant!)

My father’s first visit to Carnegie Hall was marred by a man in front of him who conducted, from his seat, with full score, throughout a Beethoven Symphony.


Please feel free to share your own particular “audience irritations” via the comments box!

Read Leo Benedictus’ article in The Guardian here

This afternoon is my annual student concert. On one level, this is simply a happy gathering of children, parents, family and friends, and an opportunity for my students to share and show off the music they have been studying recently. The programme, as always, is selected by my students, resulting in an eclectic mix of music, and an indication of the wide variety of repertoire we study. Each performer has chosen pieces which reflect his or her particular tastes and skills – surely the basis for any musician’s selection of repertoire?

On another level, the concert is about sharing music. A professional pianist, who I interviewed some years ago, described performing as “a cultural gift”: a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to hear the piano and its literature, a sharing of the music between soloist and audience. As a performer, one enjoys a huge responsibility, and privilege, rather like a conservator or curator, in presenting this wonderful music to others.

Performing is a very special experience, and one which I have come to relatively late in my musical career. As a pianist at school I was sidelined, encouraged to learn an orchestral instrument, and to recede into the relative anonymity of first desk clarinet. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, and I only played one festival in my teens (an excruciatingly awful experience). At the last school concert before I left to go to university, I was allowed to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata. Apart from that, ‘performing’ was limited to taking piano exams. My current teacher gave me the confidence and self-belief to perform, starting with the informal concerts which she hosts at the end of her twice-yearly piano courses. While not as nerve-wracking as playing in a ‘proper’ concert hall, these concerts have their own special atmosphere and attendant anxieties, but the nicest part is the sense that the audience is there because they love to hear piano music, and at every concert I’ve played at Penelope’s house, I’ve felt this important communication between performer and audience.

Of course, performing is not just about playing pretty pieces to other people. To be a performer, one needs to hone a stage personality which is different from the personality which encourages disciplined, focused practising day in, day out, to prepare repertoire for the performance (pianist and teacher Graham Fitch has blogged about this in detail – read his post here). While one’s onstage personality should never obscure the music, one should be able to present oneself convincingly to the audience – and not just through the medium of the music.

There are all sorts of ‘rituals’ involved in performing: travelling to the venue – by car, train or taxi; the clothes one wears; waiting in the green room (whether an elegant space such as at Wigmore Hall, or a dreary municipal cubicle); then waiting to go on stage, behind a door, or a plush velvet curtain, just offstage, pulse racing, real fear now passed, only excited anticipation, and enough adrenaline coursing through the veins to propel one onto the stage. Then the door opens, the curtain swings back, and the adventure of the performance has already begun as one crosses the stage. Applause: the audience’s way of greeting one, and, in return, a bow, one’s way of acknowledging the audience. And now, isolated at the keyboard, the full nine feet of concert grand stretched before one, ready to begin, the brief moment before starting a work resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, the performance cannot be withdrawn. It identifies the music, singles it out for scrutiny: it is irrevocable. All these things combined are the ‘adventure’ of performing.

Whether my students will have a sense of this ‘adventure’ this afternoon I am not sure. I know some are very nervous: one of my students has never performed in one of my concerts before, and to help with her anxiety, I have placed her near the start in the running order, so she can play her piece and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the occasion. Others, who have been learning with me almost as long as I’ve been teaching, betray no nerves and seem to actively enjoy the chance to ‘show off’ to family and friends. Some play with real chutzpah and flair, others prefer to simply play the notes, but each and every performance will be unique, special and memorable. I should probably remember to take some tissues!

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, where I hold my student concerts