I received an email late last night from my teacher (who I haven’t seen since the early autumn) wishing me luck in my Diploma exam next week, and offering, I felt, a genuine endorsement of all the learning and preparation I’ve put in over the past year. In her final paragraph, the line “try to remember what excited you about these pieces in the first place” reminded me of how important it is to keep repertoire alive and fresh, even if one has been working on it for a long time.

A busy professional pianist will need to have several programmes of music “in the fingers” at any given time, which can be made ready for some kind of performance at any given time. Alongside that there is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going. And then there is the “emergency” repertoire – stepping in for an indisposed colleague or being required to learn something quickly. “Note bashing” is no substitute for the hard graft of careful, in-depth learning, spending time with the music and understanding what makes it special.

One of my students was amazed when I told him I had been working on the Debussy ‘Sarabande’ for a year and a half. “Don’t you get bored with it?” he asked. I replied that, on the contrary, I actively look forward to spending time with my Diploma pieces each day, and I do so with a degree of excitement and anticipation. A long association with a work can make one hyper-sensitive to all its subtleties and nuances, yet with that growing familiarity, one can also approach it in new ways. Listening or playing around the music can also offer new insights; also, playing for others, as I have done in the course my preparation for my exam, has thrown up new thoughts and ideas. I believe that this “living with the music” – and for some of my pieces that includes just having the score lying around my home, open on a table or by my bed so I can see it – gives one a profound understanding of the music. These days, it strikes me that many young pianists learn far too many pieces too quickly, perhaps pushed by tutors or, more likely, promoters and PR people to make them more appetising to the listening public. While one may marvel at the vast repertoire someone like Lang Lang carries in his fingers and his head, listen carefully to a performance of say, his Chopin Études at the Festival Hall earlier this year, and you will hear a largely superficial reading of these extraordinary pieces. Surface artifice, showy technical wizardry, crowd-pleasing pianistic gimmickry seem to be the order of the day, rather than a true understanding of the music. Alternatively, there is middle-of-the-road technique and formulaic modes of expression (nothing too controversial, but sounding sufficiently exciting or natural to satisfy crtics and audience) which also avoids having to confront the music head on, and live with it.

When I selected the pieces for my diploma over a year ago, I did not, then, have a clear idea of how I would organise the programme. I selected the repertoire on the basis of my passion and love for the music (which is always my criteria for selecting repertoire), though I was aware, at the back of my mind, that I should choose a range of music that would demonstrate my ability to handle different styles and tempi. With my teacher’s recent comment in mind, here is a brief resumé of what excites and interests me about the pieces in my Diploma programme:

Bach – Toccata in E minor from 6th Partita BWV830: Bach was an obvious choice: I hadn’t learnt any Bach seriously since school (amazingly, since I adore his music), but my teacher warned against selecting anything too intricate or fast as rapid semiquavers in an opening piece could trip me up. This Toccata is grand and serious, redolent of the Toccata in D minor in its chromaticism, yet it combines more virtuosic/decorative toccata elements with the singing serenity of the fugue subject and involving contrapuntal textures. It is cerebral and meaty: I play it virtually every day, even if I don’t need to, as I love to lose myself in its intricacies. It requires total mental commitment. When I play it, I see the interior of a northern European Baroque church, gold arabesques and curlicues adorning the fundamental architectural structure.

Debussy – ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano: I’ve always loved the music of Debussy, especially his piano music. The first piece I learnt as a junior piano student was a simplified version of the Prelude La Fille aux cheveux de lin (‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’) and this remains a favourite piece. I liked the nod back to a Baroque model in the suite Pour le Piano and intended to present both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Sarabande’ in my exam programme. But the Prelude proved too tricky. The Sarabande sits perfectly with the Bach and is a calming contrast to the intricacies of Bach’s writing. I love the shifting colours of this piece and the ambiguous parallel harmonies.

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90 No. 2: I first learnt this piece when I was about 14, and played it very badly then! My teacher advised me not revive something I’d learnt in my teens, but I persisted with this piece and simply approached it in an entirely new way, to the extent of buying a new Henle score (my Peters Edition had disintegrated!). I felt it was important to have something rapid, playful and contrasting in the the middle of my programme. I love the “prettiness” of the opening section – too many pianists play this too darkly for my liking – and the rough gypsy flavour of the trio and coda. It is an immensely difficult piece, not least because of its speed, and there is a tendency to focus on tempo rather than shaping. Played well it dances and mesmerises: my turner got a bit lost in it when we rehearsed earlier in the week and forgot to turn for me, despite some serious head-nodding on my part!

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: My first serious foray into Liszt and proof that I could play Liszt, having avoided him for years, thinking his music unplayable for an amateur. This piece soothes after the frenetic Schubert, with a beautiful, romantic melodic line, interspersed with breathless climaxes. Played badly, this music can sound schmaltzy and self-indulgent. I have tried to let the music “breathe” (listening to the earlier song versions has been very helpful) and relax. It is one of my most favourite pieces and has inspired me to learn further pieces from the Annees de Pelèrinage.

Karol Szymanowski – Mazurkas Opus 50: A friend once said to me, “If you like Chopin, you’ll love Szymanowski”. It’s true that some of his music shows a clear connection with that of his fellow countryman, but he also drew influence from Debussy and Ravel, as well as Bartok and Smetana. The Mazurkas have a rough folksy edge with moments, especially in the first one, which could be pure Debussy. The second one adds a nice roughness and energy after the Liszt and before the Messiaen…..

Olivier Messiaen – ‘Regard de la Vierge’ from the Vingt Regards: I found this piece deeply arresting the first time I heard it, not because of its profound religiosity and spiritualism, but because of its soundscape. This was my first serious attempt at atonal music, and now I am hooked. It is full of interesting colours and textures, is absorbing to play and expresses concepts that are far bigger than us.

My exam recital is next Wednesday. Having lived with most of these pieces for over a year now, it will be strange to wake on Thursday morning and think what I should be practising….. but also very exciting to be considering new repertoire.

You can hear my complete programme on SoundCloud via the Media page.


At my recent kids’ masterclass, the class leader, pianist Graham Fitch, likened playing in different situations – at home, for teacher, in a festival or exam, in a concert – to walking a tightrope. When practising at home, often alone, or with the family getting on with their own things around you, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. When you play for your teacher, you may feel a little anxiety initially, but once you start playing, you settle into the music and look forward to your teacher’s feedback. The tightrope is still manageable, not too high, not too scary, and not far to fall.

However, when we put ourselves in more stressful situations, the tightrope is suddenly yanked up, and is sometimes dauntingly vertiginous. We view it with trepidation, and the nerves may well set in from the moment we receive the exam date, book the concert venue or send off the competition application form. Dealing with performance anxiety can be a major issue for many musicians and is, for some, the reason why they choose not to perform at all (most famously, perhaps, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould). As I prepare for my diploma exam (mid-December), coping with anxiety on The Day has been up there at the forefront of my mind, along with ensuring my repertoire is ready, my programme notes are accurate, the page-turner is primed, and my dress is appropriate for the occasion.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety, but there are some well-established strategies which can help, from physical exercises, deep breathing, sensible diet and rest, to psychological activities to help encourage a positive outlook on the event, and thorough preparation. For me, anxiety manifests itself mostly in physical symptoms: dry mouth, racing heart, trembling hands, feeling hot, feeling cold, headache and light nausea. Lately, I have learnt how to counteract this with positive thinking, Bach Flower Rescue Remedy and the “piano pilates” exercises from my teacher.

In preparing for a concert, exam or similar situation, where one knows one’s playing will be held up for scrutiny, it’s important to set that tightrope slightly higher, even if one is working in the relatively stress-free environment of one’s home or piano studio. This past week, my practising has incorporated recording myself playing, using a neat digital recording device (Olympus LS-5). It’s amazing how just having that little machine behind me as I played has upped the anti: knowing that there is an extra pair of “ears” listening has either made me play better, or caused me to crash through my repertoire with all the finesse and poise of a grade one schoolgirl. I posted the recordings on Soundcloud, and have been surprised at the positive feedback. It all helps!

It is also important to present one’s concert or exam repertoire to an uncritical audience ahead of The Big Day. Playing for friends, in the informal surroundings of one’s own home (if space permits), can be very useful. Ply the friends with coffee and cakes, don’t expect them to sit in hushed reverential silence, and just play for pleasure. You know you’re on show, but no one’s going to boo or slow hand-clap you.

Ahead of the event proper, try on your concert clothes and ensure everything fits and is comfortable. As a female pianist, it is crucial (for me at least) to have shoes with a heel which is comfortable on the pedal, and will not slip (much as I love high heels, they are impossible for playing the piano). Match your concert attire to the venue and time of the concert: you don’t need to wear evening dress for a lunchtime or early evening recital. Find out how to get to the venue well in advance, especially if you have to rely on public transport, and work out a route that will ensure you arrive in good time.

Even in the concert setting, on The Big Day, you can engage in psychological strategies to counteract the nerves. Imagine yourself walking across the stage, greeting the audience, sitting at the piano and placing your hands on the keys. Visualise the opening page of the first piece you will play and hear the music in your head. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, allow your hands to float onto the keys ready for the opening measures. Deep, thoracic (“Pilates”) breathing can also help when you are playing: in our anxiety, or extreme concentration, sometimes we do actually forget to breathe (I know I do this in the second half the Schubert Impromptu Opus 90 No. 2 – I have marked a reminder to myself on the score!). A deep breath in and slowly exhaled can help refocus, and can even have a softening effect on the music, especially during sections where a bugbear error has always cropped up in practice, or which are just plain difficult. Remind yourself that you are well-prepared, that you are ready,  looking forward to sharing your music with others, that you fear nothing, and that the experience will be fun, exciting, and instructive.

When helping my students prepare for our end of term concerts, we talk about performance anxiety and I remind them that playing the piano is very hard. The audience (parents, grandparents, siblings and friends) is sympathetic, nay, gobsmacked that anyone has the guts to get up on the stage and play. My own mantra in this situation is “I can do it. And you can’t”. Bullish? Egocentric? Of course – but you need a degree of chutzpah to drive you out onto the stage in the first place. And it makes you play better.

It is adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormone) which causes the unpleasant symptoms of performance anxiety, but it can also be harnessed to create the right excitement, daring, poise and sprezzatura to perform – and perform well. My teacher has a lovely anecdote about her daughter, who was taking part in a school drama show. The child asked her mother excitedly “I wonder if I’ll get adrenaline on The Day?”, knowing that it would enhance her performance.

On a more prosaic level, it is important to go into a performance or exam situation well-rested and properly fed. Don’t hammer through your pieces on the morning of the concert or exam. Do gentle practice, eat a light lunch, preferably not overloaded with rich salad dressings or carbohydrates which will make you sleepy, take a nap, prepare your concert clothes, put your music in your brief case. At the venue, familiarise yourself with all the key entrances and exits, and facilities (including fire exits). Move calmly and quietly. Avoid too much conversation with venue staff, house manager etc. Get dressed and warm up. Now, start to think yourself into the music…..

The Inner Game of Music and The Mastery of Music, both by Barry Green, and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein all contain sound, sensible, and reassuring advice on how to prepare for a concert, strategies to overcome performance anxiety and how to “become a performer”. The accompanying Musician’s Way website is also extremely helpful.

My Recital Diploma exam is on 14th December: the date came through during the week, much to my relief as I’ve felt suspended in limbo for the last couple of weeks, waiting to hear….. Meanwhile, a number of people have asked me about the pieces I will be playing: you can listen to my entire programme via this link on Spotify (not me playing, I hasten to add!):

ATCL Diploma Programme

There are any number of diplomas available through different exam boards and music colleges (see links at end of post), right up to Fellowship level. The first level diploma is equivalent to the completion of one year at music conservatoire, and represents a proper professional qualification. The DipABRSM and ATCL repertoire lists are very similar, but the DipABRSM has the additional components of an unseen study (sight-reading) and a viva voce. In both, the candidate is expected to produce programme notes, and to display a high level of stagecraft and presentation skills.

Some comments on my programme:

Bach – Toccata from 6th Partita, BWV 830: I really love Bach, always have, always will, and I regret I do not play more of his music. I tend to begin every practice session with this Toccata, regardless of whether it needs work or not. I find it so satisfying to play, plus the level of concentration required gets the head in the right place for the rest of my practising. It is grand and serious, with a singing fugue subject laid over highly textured writing.

Debussy – ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano: This has been a real labour of love: I’ve been working on this piece for over a year, yet it still interests me. In order to protect my right hand, which is prone to tenosynovitis, I had to learn a new technique to keep the hands soft and relaxed, and the arms loose. I love Debussy’s nod back to a Baroque model; this was my main reason for pairing this piece with the Bach.

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90 No. 2: The hardest piece in my programme! Despite its speed, this piece needs to breathe and sing. Embedded in those scalic figures in the first section are moments of great lyricism and charm, humour even. Too many pianists, in my humble opinion, capitalise on Schubert’s dark side when playing this (and the other Impromptus in this Opus), whereas I feel the “prettiness” of the music should be highlighted. Thus, the middle section, a rough Bohemian waltz, offers a greater contrast.

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: My first serious foray into the music of Franz Liszt, a composer I’d avoided for years, thinking he would just be too difficult for me. This beautiful piece is a reincarnation for piano of an earlier song, and it retains a wonderful singing melodic line throughout. I have recently started learning the Sonetto 47, and will probably learn the 104 as well now that I’m hooked!

Szymanowski – Two Mazurkas, Opus 50: A recent discovery, though I knew of Szymanowski’s music and had listened to it. I love his nods to Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, and the way, like Bartok, he takes folksongs and peasant rhythms, and melds them with modern idioms.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge: My first attempt at Messiaen and truly atonal music. A piece I found incredibly difficult to begin with, not least because it looks awful on the score! Now it is like an old friend. Messiaen was a pianist, and, once learnt, the notes sit comfortably under the hand most of the time. I am not religious but I find Messiaen’s music profoundly arresting, spiritual, captivating, and beautiful (despite the dissonance).


Trinity College of Music Performance and Teaching Diplomas

ABRSM Diplomas

London College of Music Exams and Diplomas

“Never play faster than you can think”

This well-known maxim by pianist, teacher and composer Tobias Matthay has, for me, a relevance both in day-to-day practice, and also in performance. When we practice, in our eagerness to move on to a new section or movement, we may rush ahead without taking the time to fully absorb what we are learning. I am as guilty as the next person of this habit, though I now practice in the way the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter claimed to: I do not turn the page of the score until I have learnt it properly. There is also the habit, particularly among young students, of playing everything too fast without taking the time to think. And how often have we played a piece marked Allegro and taken it at such a lick that the fingers work ahead of the brain and we end up in an unholy muddle?

At the recent EPTA-organised piano day at Steinway Hall, pianist Murray McLachlan talked about allowing the music to “breathe”. This is a perfect analogy, not least because the melodic line in piano music can, and should, be approached as sung line. On a practical level, where a singer might take a breath marks the natural end and beginning of a phrase, but singing also lends shape to music: the human voice has a natural rise and fall and cadence, something we should strive to imitate at the piano. Other physical gestures and body language can also help to enhance both sound and mood: the wistful lifting of the fingers off the keyboard to allow the music to float around the room; the speed and angle of attack and lift off, to suggest different moods; differentiation between the various “layers” of sound/melodic line within a piece; “implied dynamics” rather than actual volume of sound (for example, a fortissimo marking in Schubert or Chopin can be suggestive rather than actual).

In his book The Craft of Piano Playing, pianist and professor Alan Fraser talks about ‘entasis’ in music, the careful distortion of pulse, melodic shape or harmonic colour to enhance innate musical content. The term, derived from architectural language, means a slightly convex curve given to a column, pier or similar structure to correct the illusion of concavity created by a straight shaft. ‘Aural entasis’, Fraser says, can, just as in architecture, create the illusion of greater lengthening or shortening, thus highlighting the contours of the music, and should suffuse every bar we play (note: not to be confused with Rubato, which is a more deliberate action in music). At the simplest level, this can be the increase in dynamic level as the music ascends the register, and a softening the lower the music descends. It can also refer to rhythmic elements, such as waiting an instant longer before sounding a syncopation, or the shortening of the first part of a dotted rhythm to increase vitality, emphasis and drama (something I have been working on in the opening measures of Bach’s Toccata from the 6th Partita). Waiting a microsecond longer before playing the next note in a sequence offers a wonderful sense of delayed gratification to the listener, especially if combined with ambiguous harmonic shifts, such as in Chopin’s First Ballade, or at the end of the Opus 62 Nocturnes, which have the most mezmerising harmonies. No two beats will ever last exactly the same amount of time: only a metronome has this exacting regularity, and music that is played with such a rigid pulse will never sound natural.

It is hard to teach such subtle elements as these, which are often very personal to the individual performer, but a good performer will employ ‘entasis’ almost unconsciously, thus giving the music its human, ‘speaking’ quality, an innate sense of an inner pulse, and natural colour and shaping. Music which lacks these qualities can sound static, flat and dull, no matter how well it is played technically, and audiences will soon lose interest because mechanical music lacks a spiritual quality: as Aristotle observed “sameness of incident soon produces satiety” (Poetics XXIV). Mistakes, even very small slips or smudges, can also be far more obvious in music that is played without ‘entasis’, and the requirement to play with extreme accuracy, both of pitch and metre, is the cause of much performance anxiety amongst musicians.

Of course, too much ‘entasis’ may produce chaos in music, which listeners can find confusing and uncomfortable. To achieve a natural sense of pulse in music, drill the piece with the metronome until it is almost too fast, and then allow it to relax as you sense its metre from within, as you might your own heartbeat. The musical beat must fluctuate according to the emotional content of the music – just as the human heartbeat fluctuates at times of stress, excitement, contentment or relaxation. Remember, true musical perfection is in the soul of the listener, rather than in the performer’s ability to produce a performance in which each and every note is metrically and pitch perfect. ‘Entasis’ can be seen as the balance between a feeling of predictability and one of uncertainty, and this is what gives music its sense of anticipation, delayed gratification, excitement and ‘musical thought’.

Evgeny Kissin playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, Op 23

Alan Fraser’s website

photo credit: A Newton

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard demonstrated Liszt’s far-reaching musical legacy in a spell-binding concert of intense concentration and illuminating pianism celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary and the release of Aimard’s new recording, The Liszt Project. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.