How long have you been playing the piano? 

On and off, since about age 12. Playing implies a bit more than what I did then; playing at playing would be nearer the truth.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

Playing, I enjoy Bach more than anything. This is because he wrote pieces for all levels of ability that challenge and inspire the player. Also because of the diversity of beautiful, rewarding musical experiences one gets from exploring his works. No two sittings produce the same interpretation. My second favourite pieces to play at the moment are American songs, by Gershwin, Berlin and Porter.

Listening I love Chopin, Bach, Debussy and Ravel, with Takemitsu looming larger on the radar. Chopin favourites include the Polonaise Op 40 No. 2, Etude Op 25 No 2 and the ‘Largo’ from the 3rd Piano Sonata.

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising? 

I work full time and commute daily from the Isle of Wight to the mainland, so practice time in the week is generally tired hours around 8/9 pm. Curiously the tiredness doesn’t seem to matter. I find it so profoundly pleasurable to play at any time.

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons? 

The most enjoyable thing is hearing praise from my teacher and demonstrating any progress I may have made. My current teacher Valentina Seferinova is thoroughly encouraging and pleasant to be with so lessons are always a joy. The most challenging thing is preparation, often to my shame at the last minute.

What are the special challenges of preparing for a piano exam as an adult? 

Exam nerves can be quite daunting for adults and of course the time factor is often key for the working person. I took up exams in middle age and there are biological challenges such as less flexible joints, that can be a real difficulty when mastering scales and arpeggios.

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

I have had a number of teachers including Shirley Camfield on the Island, and now Valentina, who have become friends. Also, playing seriously has opened doors for me to play in a local restaurant and for a local pantomime, meeting lots of people and making many friends and acquaintances. It also motivates me to do something creative in the evenings and weekends and stimulates musical appreciation at concerts and while listening to music. The spin-off benefits are actually countless.

Do you play with other musicians? If so, what are the particular pleasures and challenges of ensemble work? 

I don’t play with other musicians but have occasionally had the pleasure and privilege of criticism from other pianists.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing? 

I love to perform and hope to do more, perhaps performing classical pieces as I improve. What I love is expressing my feelings about the music to others and hopefully communicating the love I have for the pieces.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming lessons? 

I would encourage anyone, who feels they have a talent, to go for it. Do not dwell on negative thoughts about your ability but practice assiduously and you will improve.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Chopin’s Polonaise Op 40 No 2.

Final thoughts: I was inspired very much reading Alan Rusbridger’s story about Gary who found solace from depression by playing piano. I too find it the one thing that gives me creative satisfaction and effective therapy from the trials of existence.

The Baha’i Writings state: “We have made music a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on high” This perfectly says it for me.

Ian Digby lives on the Isle of Wight, and recently passed his Grade 8 with Distinction

by Madelaine Jones

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There is so much orchestral repertoire which is often banished to the realm of the giant concert hall, and the more intimate experience of being able to see the faces of the musicians providing us with such wonderful music is far too often lost. My first visit to Lanterns Theatre Studio, a spacious gem tucked away in the heart of Docklands, provided me with the chance to get acquainted with some deliciously close-up orchestral works at the premiere performance of Ensemble Lunaire. Composed of both graduate musicians and those still studying at conservatoires, the chamber orchestra was formed earlier this year, guided by the interpretative hand of conductor Christopher Atkinson.

The programme started with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The acoustic proved absolutely perfect from the outset with the opening flute solo (played by Lindsay Bryden) blooming beautifully in the boomy, giving space of the hall. Washes of colour from the harp shone brilliantly, pizzicatos bouncing around the strings with a keen sensitivity in both orchestra and conductor alike, creating an instantly atmospheric scene. The overlap of various melodic strands was not always brought across to the audience quite strongly enough, as if the orchestra had yet to settle down enough to push their own and each other’s boundaries to the limits, but on the whole, the tonal palette and imaginative interpretation within the structure of the piece was impressive, and the ensemble showed promise even at this early point in the programme.

For the concerto item, we were treated to not one but two performers with sibling soloists Iain and Mark Gibbs, on violin and viola respectively, performing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K. 364. The grand, yet exuberant opening showed – excuse the pun – another string to the ensemble’s bow, flurries of tremolos and scales excitedly humming and swooping over the full-bodied, rich orchestral sound. Soloists Iain and Mark proved themselves to be in no way daunted by such an animated orchestra, and held the stage with poise and an understated confidence which was refreshing. It was easy to see from the outset that the pair were used to playing with each other (they also form two thirds of the Gibbs trio along with their sister) from the ease with which they exchanged musical material, playing with and passing it between themselves with no disjointedness and yet with entirely different personal touches, Iain being a shade more extroverted and Mark more introspective. Their exchanges had the qualities of a debate, measured and yet intense, as opposed to the fraught, argumentative scrubbing we occasionally get with more egotistic, over-enthusiastic soloists: the cadenza of the Allegro maestoso was particularly remarkable, each one grazing harmonies cheekily as the other whisked through fingerfuls of notes without even blinking. The Andante proved marginally less successful as a whole, the strength of connection between soloists and orchestra a little less focused than in the first movement, but the pulsing string accompaniment with yearning solo lines was still well-shaped and musically presented. The third movement was a return to the spectacularly triumphant feel of the first, and soloists and orchestra garnered a rather hefty bout of applause, and deservedly so.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to something a little different: a collaboration between dance and music for a performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, suite for 13 instruments, with new choreography was by Thea Stanton and Alicia Meehan. I am most certainly not a dancer (nor will I pretend to know much about dancing, for fear of being lynched by those who do) but as an engaged and interested audience member, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the offering from all angles, as a piece of collaborative art and as pieces of music and dance respectively. The musical interpretation was full of character, swapping from more melodic sections to impulsive bursts in split-second switches and not a hint of any difficulty. The accompanying choreography gelled with the music wonderfully, and all four female performers (I did say it was a spacious performance space!) handled the material with individuality and flair. As one cohesive unit, both musicians and dancers interacted with assurance, and invested their whole selves into what turned out to be another rapturous-applause-reaping item ending a thoroughly enjoyable programme, and a wonderful first outing for the new ensemble.

www.christopheratkinsonpianist.com

 

Madelaine Jones is a London-based pianist and writer. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Extemporisation Competition 2012 along with duo partner and dancer Adam Russell, and was awarded an LCM London Schools and Teachers Award in 2011. Madelaine also has a passion for ensemble playing, duetting with soloists and working with choirs from an early age: her choral accompaniment experience has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir. Madelaine has a particular interest in early keyboard music and instruments, previously studying harpsichord with James Johnstone via an Early Music Scholarship at Trinity Laban. She has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist with the Trinity Laban Baroque Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival.

 As a soloist, Madelaine is a previous winner of the Medway Young Musicians Awards, and the under-16s category of the Kent Messenger’s Focus competition, judged by Jools Holland. She has also participated in masterclasses with numerous renowned keyboardists, including Cristina Ortiz, Richard Meyrick and Ronan O’Hora. At present, Madelaine is currently attending Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and improvisation with Penelope Roskell and Douglas Finch respectively.

Madelaine is also a keen writer. A regular guest-poster for this blog and Zeitschichten, she has also reviewed for Bachtrack.com. She was a winning entrant in the Foyle Young Poets Awards 2008, and has since been published in e-zines and magazines such as Pomegranate and Popshot.

www.madelainejones.co.uk

 

 

The final guest post by Charlotte Tomlinson

In my last two blogs on this topic, I wrote about some practical tips for managing stage fright and the deep shame that many performers have as a result of having stage fright. Stage fright is a taboo area and professional musicians, rarely admit to it, even to their closest colleagues, which causes immense distress and can impact the quality of their performance.

Stage fright comes from fear. It comes when the mild dose of adrenalin that you need to help you perform well, gets out of hand. Your body overreacts and goes into fight or flight from a perceived threat. You are ‘only’ performing but that performing in its most extreme form, can feel as if you are in extreme physical danger.

The perceived threat can come from a number of different sources but the biggest is from your own negative self-talk. It can run something like this: “If I don’t do this concert well, I might not be booked for the next one” or “they’re going to think I’m useless if I mess this up.” Just from those two examples, you can see the pressure we put on ourselves, and our anxiety about what other people might think of us. That negative self-talk can be our downfall. It is easy to slide into a barrage of negative emotions, which then give enormous power to what we don’t want to happen.

The first step is to acknowledge the stress and pressure of the situation and let go of beating yourself up – it never helps! Then start to notice when that negative self-talk kicks in:

“Wow! I am being really hard on myself….is this really what I want? Is it helping me by feeling like this? What do I want to feel? What do I want to see happen?”

The next step is to find a way of getting in to a good feeling place. Negative emotions that stem from fear are very powerful and can feel overwhelming at times, but there is a choice here. You are not at the mercy of your negative feelings. You can choose to feel good. Remember your love for the music you are playing and why you are playing music in the first place.

You may say: “But I don’t love that music – how can I feel good about playing it if I don’t love it?” Sometimes it is more challenging than at other times. If you find that you dislike the music you are playing, find something, anything, that will help you feel good. Feeling good comes from the simplest things: remembering the feeling of sun on your skin, the feeling of your child’s hug, the colours of a stunning sunset – whatever lifts you. And then bring those feelings into your present situation.

Now explore choosing some more encouraging and supportive thoughts for yourself:

“I’m about to get up and perform…I do feel nervous…but, I choose to do this and I really want to do it well….I would love to enjoy this whole experience…I would love to feel a connection with the audience…it would be great if all these people liked it as well….they are here to hear me…I’d love to inspire them and leave them feeling good…wow, just thinking like that is starting to make me feel better….oh, I’m actually looking forward to going onto the stage…”

It would be tempting to think “Oh, that’s all nice and fluffy…I’ll give it a go and if nothing changes, well, clearly it doesn’t work…nice idea, but not very effective.”  Start by taking it seriously and give it your attention. Then it is a case of building it into your neurology and this takes practice. It can take as much practice, if not more so, than preparing for the performance itself.

Be aware of the performance, whatever it is, in advance and then, just as you prepare for it physically and mentally, prepare for it emotionally. See yourself giving a wonderful performance; see it going well every time you think of it. Feel the good feelings in advance so that it becomes normal and habitual to enjoy performing. It may take time and commitment, but if it helps you enjoy your performance and let go of your fear, then it is surely worth it!

Charlotte Tomlinson is a pianist, educator and a published author who specialises in helping musicians overcome issues that stop them from performing. Her book Music from the Inside Out deals with the thorny issues that can profoundly affect you as a musician, and which you may not want to face. You are encouraged to look at what lies beneath the surface and you are guided to unlock what’s holding you back.

  • Learn how to transform your own Inner Critic
  • Get to grips with your performance nerves
  • Discover how to play with complete physical freedom
  • Perform to the peak of your expressive power

Music from the Inside Out gives you tools that can transform your whole approach to performing music.

For more information about Charlotte, and to order a copy of her book, please visit her website:

As befits an up-and-coming young artist who draws inspiration from James Bond not just in his music but also his image, pianist Emmanuel Vass’s debut at London’s Steinway Hall was stylish and suave.  And the title of Emmanuel’s concert tour and debut CD, ‘From Bach to Bond’, reflected his varied musical tastes and repertoire.

He opened the “rush hour” recital (so-called because it started at 6pm) with Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude (1943), a work replete with classic foot-tapping boogie-woogie rhythms offset by traditional etude elements more commonly found in the music of Chopin and Liszt. The piece was a great opener, played with wit and energy. Placing it before Bach’s Italian Concerto was inspired: to hear Bach after Boogie-Woogie highlighted all the “jazz” idioms present in Bach’s music, some 300 years before the genre came to be – syncopation, counterpoint, and dynamic diversity. This was a lively and colourful account. The slow movement, which bears some relation to the Adagio of the Concerto in D minor after Marcello, was a study in restrained elegance. I was pleased too, that Emmanuel opted for a more reined in tempo in the final Presto, allowing us to enjoy all the elements of this movement. The entire concerto was convincing and proof that Emmanuel is equally at home in this type of repertoire.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 27 No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’, was pensive and mysterious, while the middle movement had a pleasing rusticity. There were a few anxious moments in the final movement, but despite this a strong sense of forward motion and purpose was retained.

Chopin’s Op 27 Nocturnes followed, with some sensitive handling of the melodic lines, the subtle shifts in mood and romantic sweep of these works. Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm reprised the humour and swagger of the Boogie-Woogie Etude. And another Etude closed the concert, the James Bond Concert Etude, Emmanuel’s own arrangement of classic Bond film themes, given a Lisztian treatment with vertiginous cadenzas and sparkling fiorituras. It could have been cheesey, but in Emmanuel’s hands it was classy and clever, and looks set to become a sophisticated virtuoso showpiece or encore.

Emmanuel’s debut CD includes more from his wide-ranging repertoire, including a sensuous Malaguena by Leuona, works by Debussy, and another of Emmanuel’s own arrangements, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, all stylishly rendered.

Further concerts in the ‘From Bach to Bond’ tour:

Friday 3rd May – St. Saviourgate Chapel, York YO1 8NQ

Saturday 4th May – St James’s Piccadilly, London W1

Saturday 11th May – Heswall Hall, the Wirral, CH60 0AF

My Meet the Artist interview with Emmanuel Vass

www.emmanuelvass.co.uk

James Bond Concert Etude for solo piano – Barry/Fleming, arr. Vass

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

When I visited my maternal grandparents as a child I was always drawn to their piano. It was in their front room, a room reserved for I’m not sure what. They didn’t ever sit in there, and it was filled with objects I was told not to touch which all added to the mystique of this instrument. I was fascinated by it and they decided to have it moved to my parents’ house in Gloucestershire when I was five so that I could begin piano lessons. Looking at it now, it is a very small upright, with not much tone and poor action made by that infamous piano maker ‘Luton’. This was my piano until I left home at 18. When I went to University I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with music and while I enjoyed playing the piano it wasn’t my sole musical interest and as such I left school with an advanced diploma on violin and grade 8 flute and organ too. At University I was joint study violin and piano until my second year when my piano teacher was unwell for one term and so a replacement from the RAM was sent, Jeffrey Harris. He was a wonderfully generous man who said in my first lesson ‘Frederick [I’m still not sure why he called me this], you’ve got a technique from Mars’ and so he began rebuilding from scratch my understanding of what it meant to sit at a piano. He taught me for two years during which time I travelled to his home in Surrey and he would give me whole days of free lessons. After two years of the most remarkable and hugely influential lessons, he died suddenly while on tour in the far east. I think ten years after my first lessons with him, I am beginning to understand many of the concepts he was trying to impart. Shortly after he died I won the conducting and concerto prizes at University and applied to the Royal Academy of Music half thinking I’d stay at University and turn my MPhil into a PhD. The RAM offered me a generous entrance scholarship however and I ticked a box to be taught by Michael Dussek and Malcolm Martineau which was one of the best uses of biro I’ve ever made. They turned out to be a superb double act and Malcolm, with his customary generosity, introduced me to the song literature and also instilled in me the desire to, having done ‘all the work’, rely on my musical instincts. Through him I also found what I wanted to do, be a song accompanist.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

Now that I have chosen to specialise in the art of playing for singers, I’d say the most important influences are the texts great composers chose to set: that magical marriage of word and music, when ‘music does not run its course beside, beneath or even above the poem. It is entirely born of the poem‘ (to paraphrase Henri Sauget). That, and having a fascination with art. A memory bank of images is a wonderful thing if you have an over-active imagination and can find pleasure in music’s play of light and shade. I am also influenced on a daily basis by the other artists with whom I’m fortunate enough to make music.

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

Any challenges of this career soon pale into insignificance when you stop and realise what an incredibly fulfilling life you can have as an artist doing what interests you and working with a medium you feel is important. Providing your income is such that you can survive, it is a privilege beyond measure to work for yourself doing what you love. That being said, piano-playing is the easy part of the puzzle. Balancing a home life so that you feel you’re not jeopardising the quality of your playing or missing out on experiencing life with family and friends needs constant reassessment. Admin is also a necessary evil. Vulnerability is also worth mentioning. It is one of the greatest assets a musician can have, to be able to let his or her guard down when performing but with this comes an openness which can be at odds with the business elements of this profession. Having a part of you that you keep sacred for music-making sounds pretentious, but it is necessary.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I performed Dichterliebe with Tom Allen in Toronto a few years ago and his mastery of timing and the way he made a 2000 seater hall as intimate as the spaces Schumann would have known in performance was miraculous. I look back with fondness on the recording sessions I enjoyed with Felicity Lott for our Elgar disc. She is a very generous colleague and a very warm person and even though the repertoire is not from the top drawer, to have recorded with her is something of which I’m proud. Tom and Flott seem to me like beacons in the music business of people who got it right as good musicians and good humans. I’m also proud of my first Wigmore Hall concert which I performed in 2007 with Clara Mouriz. We worked for months on that recital programme and it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and friendship as well as the start of many happy hours of music-making in that hall. I’ve also been very fortunate in being offered recitals to programme myself for Wigmore and in series for the BBC. It’s an aspect of my work I relish and the singers I’ve worked with for these projects have been very special.

Schubert’s Winterreise holds a spell over me too and I first performed it at the RAM with Allan Clayton and got totally obsessed with how rich the psychological tapestry is within the masterpiece. Recently I played it through with Tom Allen in his front room, just because we both had half a day free and fancied it. It was a strange performance that I wish the whole world could have been able to hear because of it’s spontaneity and informality – we didn’t discuss it or rehearse, we just opened the book, began at song 1 and performed it to each other without break. As with all live music it was a moment that passed in time without record.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Wigmore Hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

This is impossible to answer. I am attracted to most classical music. I do however feel my life would be much the poorer without Bach, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and Britten.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’d better just mention pianists, otherwise we’ll be here for a while:

Martha Argerich, Benjamin Britten, Krystian Zimerman, Emil Gilels, Walter Gieseking, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, Menahem Pressler, Maria João Pires, Paul Lewis, Radu Lupo, Rosalyn Tureck, Gerald Moore, Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau, Bengt Forsberg.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I remember playing violin in Mahler 4 and thinking, aha, I finally think I get this composer. It was music so much easier to understand from within the orchestra. The last piece I conducted was Shostakovich 5 and it’s a work where every gesture must count. I remember being at Symphony Hall and hearing Barenboim conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle in Brahms symphonies over two nights. It was an occasion when everything seemed to line up perfectly – repertoire, musicians, hall, audience’s attentive listening. It was electric, the standing ovations were immediate and for once, necessary and I’ve never heard wind playing like it since.

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

  • To learn to sing or play clearly. That is, to communicate the essence of whatever you are performing by having a clear map before you begin and to put across the work in the strongest possible light (much easier to write about than to do!). To be humble and learn, because the composer teaches us what to do.
  • Preparation is freedom in performance – Try to understand what the symbols in front of you mean – with each composer they mean a different thing.
  • If you are an instrumentalist, learn to sing. Singers phrase music instinctively and instrumentalists can learn much about music’s natural ebb and flow from vocalising music. All music consists of consonants and vowels, a mixture of singing and speech. Also become aware of how singers breathe and support breath and use it in piano playing. Loads of pianists hold their breath when they play and this stops the music. As an accompanist you get used to sharing a collective lung with the singer you’re playing for.
  • It’s very helpful when you’re accompanying a singer to imagine how you would support them as a conductor.
  • Become obsessed with the quality of the sound you make, how it takes up space and time and how it resonates to put across emotions.
  • Everyone has a safe, default setting in their playing or singing. Know what yours is and try not to spend time there.
  • Don’t have regrets for too long after a recital, just have expectations for yourself in the next one. Will yourself to play it better next time.
  • Let people ‘overhear’ what we do on stage (don’t put the ‘emotion’ over to an audience).
  • To take huge and guiltless pleasure in what we do. Music is one of mankind’s greatest achievements and without being all quote-y, I love what Fauré wrote: ‘music exists to lift one as far as possible above what is.’
  • To exploit the right kind of tension. Much music relies on the performer using emotional tension without getting physically tense.
  • Be vulnerable.
  • Have an obsessive curiosity to learn.
  • I wish I could achieve some of these things more of the time!

What are you working on at the moment?

This season I return to the Wigmore and make my Concertgebouw debut with Katarina Karneus, I have BBC broadcasts with Christopher Maltman and next season will make my Vienna Konzerthaus debut accompanying him and then in San Francisco too. I’m also looking forward to returning to the Cheltenham Festival with Dame Felicity Lott, the Tetbury and Three Choirs with Sarah Connolly, I’m playing for Christianne Stotijn’s study of Britten’s Phaedra with it’s dedicatee Dame Janet Baker, recitals in Oxford, Leamington and Cambridge with Roderick Williams, Sussex with Christiane Karg, and in Freiburg with Carolyn Sampson. I’m also recording Purcell/Britten songs with Ruby Hughes, Anna Grevelius, Robin Blaze, Allan Clayton, Ben Nelson and Matt Rose and I’ll have my residency from the Lammermuir Festival broadcast by BBC Radio 3 with Sophie Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Andrew Kennedy and Marcus Farnsworth. Recital CDs will be released with Amanda Roocroft and Clara Mouriz.

Pianist Joseph Middleton specialises in the art of song accompaniment and chamber music and has been highly acclaimed within this field. The Times recently described him as ‘the cream of the new generation’ and The Telegraph wrote that he ‘represents the crème de la crème of young British-based musical talent’. He performs and records with the greatest international singers in major music centres across Europe and North America.

Read Joseph Middleton’s full biography here

@jpianomiddleton