A friend of mine, who subscribes to this blog, asked me recently, “What I want to know, Fran, is how the F— do you find the time to write all that stuff?!”. Another friend said, “Why write it if you don’t know if anyone reads it”, evidently completely missing the point of why one writes anything. In anwer to the second question, I write because I enjoy it, and I find that writing about the music I am learning or am interested in, helps to crystallise my thoughts and feelings about it, allowing me time to consider it away from the keyboard.  Also, my visits to my teacher are very precious and valuable, and I would rather work with her than muse about music.

I am often asked how much piano practise I do; when I reply casually, “Oh, about two or three hours a day”, this statement is met with much exclaiming and pulling of eyes: “How do you find the time for that?!”. Sometimes, I am tempted to point out that Liszt allegedly practised for 12 hours a day, and that the average professional pianist puts in at least five or six hours per day, every day. The old adage “practise makes perfect” is definitely borne out by hours of repetitive practise: it’s the only way to improve muscular memory and it breeds a familiarity with the score – its shapes and patterns – that is invaluable. “Thinking time” away from the keyboard can also be classed as practising, as well as reading the score, going through it with a pencil, and listening and reading around the subject.

Regular practise gives structure to my day (and I am the world’s greatest procrastinator when it comes to boring reality tasks!), and a productive practise session can leave me on a “high”, with a self-satisfied sense of a job well done. And, as those who live with me will attest, not being able to practise – for reasons of absence from the piano, illness, tiredness etc – can leave me very grumpy indeed. The sheer physical effort of piano playing is akin to going to the gym: both activities release endorphins, the happy hormones which induce feelings of exhilaration, the so-called “runner’s high”.

During term time, when my time is limited by my teaching schedule (some 8-10 hours per week), my practising has to be highly organised. I don’t do exercises, in the traditional sense of 20 minutes warm up with scales and arpeggios, though I do create my own exercises out of the pieces I am working on (the Chopin Ballade has some useful arpeggiated passages, while the Gershwin Prelude No 1 is an exercise in syncopation and pulse). With at least three pieces on the go at any given time, I set myself clear targets for each practise session to ensure I cover everything I have set out to do. I set my iPhone to “airplane mode”, which means no one can call, email or text me, and try to ignore the doorbell. Then, armed with a mug of Lapsang Souchong, I begin.

Advice from my teacher about good working habits has been invaluable; also the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green taught me useful concentration and confidence-boosting techniques, which I now try to encourage in my students, especially the adults, who seem far more nervous and unsure of their abilities than the children I teach. But by far the biggest encouragement to keep going is actually being able to appreciate how much I have improved in the last eighteen months: I can hear the difference! And my confidence has been sufficiently raised that now when I open new music, I don’t immediately think “Ooh no, I couldn’t possibly…..”. I do admit, though, to being slightly fazed by Evgeny Kissin’s performance of the Chopin Ballade I am learning: I made the mistake of listening to him playing it only a few days into my work on the piece. It left me feeling utterly demoralised, but now, six weeks into the learning process, and roughly halfway through the piece (with all the really stormy, speedy passages still to learn!), I am delighted with the progress I have made, and am actively looking forward to playing it for my teacher next month.

And I’ve stopped listening to Kissin….

At my recent piano lesson, my teacher suggested I set Chopin’s Etude Opus 10, No. 3 aside for a few months and turn my attention to “one of the bigger works, perhaps a Scherzo or a Ballade?”. Eighteen months ago, not long after I started having lessons again, I would have said “Oh, I’m not sure I am up to it”, and my teacher would have had to bolster my confidence sufficiently for me to actually open the manuscript. This time, I replied, most emphatically, that I would love to learn at least one of the Ballades. In fact, I heard the third and fourth Ballades at the Chopin evening at the Wigmore last Sunday and was struck, not for the first time, at how beautiful and varied they are.

“Learn the first or the third, for sure!” Sylvia said over pre-concert drinks at Tuesday’s concert. The first was in my head already, as I’d been listening to it on my iPod. “I just love the ‘ticking clock’ in the third.”

They are all wonderful, and looking through my just-received Dover edition of the Ballades, Impromptus and Sonatas, it occurred to me, yet again, how lucky we pianists are: to have so much repertoire to choose from. Every taste and ability is catered for. One could spend a lifetime only learning Chopin’s music and still one would not have time to tackle his entire ouevre.

“Too much fodder, not enough time!” is one of my oft-repeated laments, as I consider all the music I want to learn. My obsession with Chopin continues, but I love Schubert too, and Beethoven. Oh, and while we’re about it, I love Mozart, especially his later piano music. And Haydn. Then there’s the Bach Italian Suite I heard on Radio Three the other morning and thought “Ooh, I fancy that too!”. This time last year I was “into” the English Romantics – Delius, Ireland, Bridge. Before that, it was Albeniz, his exotic melodies reminding me of holidays in Andalucia. I am always hearing things on the radio, looking them up and thinking, “I’ll have a look at that next”. This is how I came to learn Chopin’s Etude Opus 25 No. 7, a deeply melancholic work, and my first ever Chopin Etude. By beginning a study of the Etudes, I felt I was striding with giants, for to me, and, I suspect, most serious pianists, the Etudes represent the high Himalayan peaks of the classical piano repertoire. With two now learnt (kinda), it has given me the confidence to tackle some of Chopin’s bigger works. One day I might even learn a Sonata…..

Selecting an appropriate programme for my Performance Diploma could be a nightmare, as I have such varied tastes at present. But that is one of the great pleasures of studying for the Diploma: the opportunity to study repertoire I might have otherwise ignored.

My students are equally spoilt for choice, though they do not realise it yet. At the beginner and early intermediate level, there is a wealth of music, not just “standards” such as easy-peasy Bach, Haydn, Dussek, but reductions of famous works (two of my students played a simplified version of ‘l’Autunno’ from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi for Grade 1 – an imaginative and enjoyable piece), plus huge amounts of newly-written music. One of the most popular pieces I have taught in the last year is John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’, a joyful piece in F major, with a relaxed township lilt and echoes of jazz in its harmonies and syncopation. I try to select music that will suit the individual personalities of my students: most of the boys want to do jazzy, fast, loud pieces or theme tunes like ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but sometimes, doing something like Bartok’s ‘Former Friends’ can be a good lesson in thoughtful, careful playing. Then there is Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. I have taught the Andantino from this suite to about five students, adults and children, and they are all hooked by it. It is easy under the fingers, requiring no hand jumps nor tricky fingerings, but it sounds “different”, with some interesting “crunchy” harmonies. It’s pretty and quirky, and a great introduction to twentieth-century repertoire.

Going back to the Ballades, I sight-read through the first Ballade yesterday, and skimmed through the other three. It’s definitely the No. 1 for me, with its rather stately opening achieved through the use of a Neapolitan chord, and questioning harmonies at the end of the introduction, not fully resolved until later in the piece. It has one of the most memorable melodies (the second theme, introduced at bar 68), and is a work full of contrasting textures and moods. Played badly, it can sound self-indulgent and egotistical. Played well, it spoils the senses, “pure music” in its finest form, allowing both listener and player to form their own personal narrative as the music unfolds.

So, which would you choose?

In the last thirty-six hours my musical life has gone from one extreme to the other, both in terms of genre and venue. Saturday night: jazz legend Courtney Pine at an open-air swimming pool. Sunday night: Chopin at the Wigmore Hall. Monday morning: my monthly piano lesson in Finsbury Park. All special and memorable musical experiences in their own way.

I nearly didn’t make it to the Wigmore. Living in leafy suburbia can be delightful, but on a Sunday there is a frustrating lack of trains into the capital, and if you don’t time your arrival at the station correctly, you can be left waiting for half an hour. It takes me an hour to get to the Wigmore from home and so in order to arrive in time for pre-concert drinks and chat with my friends, I needed to be on the train at 6pm. I arrived at the station, after a somewhat fraught consultation with my son about his plans for the evening (he is just 12, and has the sort of complicated social life no A-list celebrity would tolerate). Having established that he would be having a sleepover with a friend, I set off for the concert. Arriving at the station in the warm early evening sunshine, I wanted to purchase a bottle of water. I reached into my handbag: no wallet, and therefore no concert tickets. I had already missed one train by a whisker, and as I stomped back home to collect my purse, another train swept into the station. The next train was 20 minutes later, thereby denying me my pre-concert drink.

On reflection, I could have gone up to town without my wallet. Sylvia, my regular concert companion and the person who books all the tickets, would have been able to procure a replacement ticket for me at the box office, and I know she would have stood me a drink or two. I was pondering this while broiling on the Bakerloo line. I was alone in the carriage but for two men sitting opposite me, one of whom I recognised as the radio presenter Paul Gambacini. I have enjoyed his programmes, especially his music quiz and the one about the Oscars, but since it was a Sunday evening and he was clearly “off duty”, I didn’t tell him this. I followed him and his friend out of Oxford Circus station and across Cavendish Square, and when they turned into Wigmore Street, like me, I concluded they may well be attending the same concert.

At the Wigmore, the vestibule was crowded with people still hopeful of returned tickets. I bolted down the stairs to the loo, as far as it is possible to “bolt” against a tide of (mostly very) elderly people tottering up the stairs, and then followed the tide back upstairs to the hall. At the door, the young man who had been sitting with Mr Gambacini turned to me and said “Oh, hello! I saw you on the tube. I hope you enjoy the concert.” I was flattered that he had noticed me and said “It should be really lovely. Just the thing for a Sunday evening!”. We took our seats in different parts of the hall (I’m always near the back as Sylvia prefers economy to enjoying a good view of the stage). Sylvia was waiting for me, fanning her face with the very thin programme (“£3! For this!!” she grumbled), and soon after Gefry joined us, and we settled down for what promised to be a delightful evening of readings about and by Chopin – from his letters, from George Sand’s diaries and letters, and observations from other friends and colleagues who had known him (Lizst, Charles Hallé, Delacroix). The readers were the actors Sam West, who looked the part in his long velvet coat, and the painfully thin Harriet Walter. The pianist was Lucy Parham.

The mood of the evening was immediately set by the first piece, the Nocturne Op 48 No. 1, in which there is only momentary relief from its overriding sense of melancholy and poignancy. The readings were interspersed with music: Mazurkas, Polonaises, Waltzes, each half of the concert ending with a Ballade (the third and fourth). The music was not presented chronologically, rather it was selected to suit the mood or context of the readings. The whole thing worked very well; indeed, as the chronology of the readings drew inexorably towards the composer’s cruel treatment at the hands of Georges Sand marking the end of their relationship, and his tragically early death, there were some deeply moving moments. It is all too easy to present a saccharine, sentimental view of Chopin: the effete pianist with the delicate constitution and fondness for lilac kid gloves, coughing consumptively in a cheap, cold room in an unfashionable arrondissement of Paris. The romance and legend surrounding his death goes on: a Polish friend of mine told me that Poles believe he died of “zal”, that particularly Eastern European condition, an inexpressible longing for the homeland, because he could never return to the country of his birth. True, his music is imbued with “zal” – and trying to recapture that particularly untranslatable emotion is one of the most difficult things to do as a performer of his music – but listen carefully and you hear the sounds of nature too: the flora and fauna of Nohant, Sand’s house in the French countryside, which he loved.

In fact, if his letters to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana are anything to go by, the sickly “Chip Chip” (Sand’s nickname for him) was actually an astute businessman, demanding the best prices for his scores because he had bills to pay. And whatever one may speculate about his relationship with Sand, there was a time when she clearly cared deeply for him, as a lover, artistic companion, champion of his art and craft, and helpmeet when he was ill.

The Wigmore programme, entitled “Nocturne” was really charming, and if the piano playing was a little flat and sloppy in places, it didn’t matter. It was a delightful event, imaginatively presented, and I hope it may encourage similar evenings at the Wigmore.

I was planning to play Chopin at my lesson this morning (the E-major Etude from the Opus 10). Playing it at home before my lesson, I felt it really coming together (at last! After 8 months work on it!) but in the end there wasn’t time to play it for my teacher, as we were busy with Debussy, Gershwin and Poulenc. When I said goodbye to her, she urged me to perform the Chopin for friends, and then put it away for six months. This is wise advice: I did the same thing with Schubert’s D960 sonata, after working on it for over a year, by which time I had developed all manner of “issues” about it and was beginning to resent it. Playing it again after a long absence, I learned to love the piece again and I know I will revisit it, ready and willing to learn the rest of it.

In the meantime, my next challenge is a Chopin Ballade – not sure which one yet, but I was chuffed to bits that my teacher reckons I am at least up to it. “Not for the Diploma, just for fun!” were her parting words. I suppose it depends on what one classes as “fun”!!

The day ended with a trip to the cinema with my son, and my best friend and her kids to see ‘Toy Story 3’: unashamed escapism and the happy ending we all craved.

A summer’s evening in mid-July in the leafy suburbs of south-west London, and we’re queueing patiently outside Hampton Open Air Pool – and to those of us who live in the area, this is a very special place: an old-fashioned lido-style swimming pool which is heated and open 365 days of the year. You can swim there on Christmas Day (as I have) and New Year’s Day, you can swim on a weekday evening in April and have the pool almost to yourself, you can sunbathe on the terrace, or on the grass by the pool, and in the summer you can hear jazz legend Courtney Pine perform there.

I heard Courtney Pine at the pool two summers ago, and he and his band were magnificent. It was my first proper experience of live jazz. For someone who spends most of their concert life inside the rarefied surroundings of the Wigmore Hall in hushed reverential silence, jazz played by a UK jazz legend in the open air was something else, and I was completely blown away by it. Not just his fine skills as a performer, but also his generosity of spirit, introducing each member of the line-up in turn and giving each musician a chance to shine with solos and improvs – and they are all highly talented and very committed musicians.

Two year’s ago it rained, that fine rain that doesn’t look like much, but leaves you quickly soaked. It is a tradition at the Hampton Pool open-air concerts to bring a picnic, meet friends, share food and wine, and wait for the musical event of the evening to begin. We huddled under raincoats and umbrellas, passing food in tupperware boxes along the line of camping chairs, and in true British ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ dug in for a cold, wet evening. The ticket price at Hampton includes a swim, and despite the rain, my son spent most of the evening in the pool, until turfed out by the attendants. Then he surprised us by going right down to the front of stage and strutting his funky stuff, holding his hands up to Courtney. Fortunately, the rain stopped by the time the band took to the stage and we warmed up by hand-clapping above our heads and dancing energetically.

Yesterday evening was perfect: the sun came out and we had our picnic in the last warming rays, while big fluffy clouds scudded high above the stage and the occasional aeroplane shimmered in the clear evening sky. The feast laid out on the picnic rug at our feet was a joint effort, a kind of ‘pot-luck picnic’, and we enjoyed homemade falafels, venison pate, smoked salmon, Serrano ham, and my delicate green pistachio macaroons. Wine was served in a plastic jug in plastic glasses, beer was swigged from cans, people talked and laughed, sprawled on the grass, or settled into their picnic chairs. A typically English summer scene. Meanwhile, my son was diving into the pool, over and over again…..

The warm-up act was a Scottish singer called Eileen Hunter, who had something of Cleo Laine in her voice, and sang some forgettable, but pleasing-on-the-ear tunes, music more suited to the end of an evening in a jazz bar, the lights low, a weary barman cleaning up, pausing in his work to listen…… With my current obsession with Gershwin, I was more interested in getting a look at her hands on the piano, to see if I could pick up any technical tips.

The main event began with deep, rasping notes on the bass, shimmering cymbals and snare drum, some notes picked out on the piano – and then, seeming far away, the unmistakable throaty voice of Courtney’s saxophone. Thus, began nearly two hours of the most enegertic, passionate, raw and committed music-making. Courtney explained that his latest tour was a ‘hommage’ to Sidney Bechet, and many of the pieces he played were from his latest album, some familiar, some unknown. What I loved about the whole performance, aside from the music, was the way the musicians interacted. Watching string players in a quartet, you see the eye contact, the little nods and winks, the feet keeping time, and you sense their connection. It was the same with the musicians on stage last night: you notice that they are all watching each other, waiting for cues, listening, marking time before their solo. There were laughs too, some private shared joke between the drummer and the pianist (the amazing Zoe Rahman), who was laughing so much at one point, she had to stop playing. You sensed their sheer enjoyment in the music, as well as their deep commitment.

Toes tapping on the grass, hands clapping, wine glasss at our feet, one felt the audience, still rooted to their camping chairs, wanted to get up and dance, but were a little too restrained; nice, middle-class, middled-aged people just don’t do that! Or do they?

The final number was a sort of ‘township jive’, and soon, urged on by Courtney, everyone was on their feet, dancing, clapping, waving, all our middle-class, middle-aged inhibitions cast off (“we were wild, in the old days”, as Joni Mitchell once sang). Courtney left the stage, still playing, weaving his way through the moving crowd. I turned, and there he was, in front of me, grasping my hand in his, still playing…. He gathered a crocodile of people behind him, and together they Conga-ed around the grass at Hampton Pool, while the rest of us carried on dancing.

It was a wonderful evening, and he is a wonderful showman, who clearly loves what he does, a superb saxophonist and a fine flautist too. And I’m not sure there are many performers who would lead a Conga around a suburban swimmig pool! We left on a high, picking our way through the debris of other people’s picnics to the car.

“I’m going to the Wigmore tomorow night, for an evening of Chopin,” I told my friends as I said goodnight to them. “From one extreme to another!”

Yet, I have a feeling I will experience something of last night’s performance in tonight’s………though perhaps without the Conga.

Friday morning, and I was enjoying fairly leisurely tea and toast in bed (not having to get up early, for a change, to chivvy my son off to school) when I switched on Radio 3 and caught the charming Scherzo of Beethoven’s Opus 97 Piano Trio, the ‘Archduke’.

This work was one of the set pieces for my music A-Level (circa 1984), and has remained a favourite ever since. Pubished in 1811, it is Beethoven’s last piano trio. It comes from the same period of the composer’s creative life as the Opus 96 Sonata for violin and piano, and shares some of the same qualities of this work in its elegant long-spun melodies and nobility of expression. I was fortunate in my music A-Level group in that the other students were a violinist and cellist respectively – and we were all of a similar standard, having all done our Grade 8 exams at roughly the same time. The A-Level syllabus required us to analyse the complete work, and as well as studying it in the classroom, we spent a great deal of time playing it together, which was both enjoyable and educational, since it reinforced many of the things we had been discussing in class.

The opening movement is in B-flat major, the same key as the first movement of Schubert’s great valedictory D960 sonata. The two works share some characteristics aside from the key, which is both serene and grandiose, poignant and wistful: both begin with a stately and graceful, long-lined opening theme, establishing the nobility which permeates the entire work. The Archduke is full of sweetness and spaciousness, monumentality and intimacy. Its emotional core is the third movement, an ethereal set of variations on a hymn-like theme, and one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving accomplishments. Player and listener are reminded of similar movements in the late piano sonatas (especially Opp.109 and 111), the Ninth Symphony, or the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the Op. 132 string quartet.

Of course, I didn’t know these things when I was studying the work in my teens. We tended to do the analysis, without regard to the historical or compositional context of a work, studying it in isolation, blanking out all the other music that Beethoven was writing at the same time. But the work must have touched me, because whenever I hear it now, I experience a great rush of memory which can transport me right back to the music studio at school in the mid-1980s.

My school was blessed with an extremely fine music department, headed by a very energetic and hands-on music master. I was an active member of the department from the day I joined the school, and belonged to the senior orchestra (playing first desk clarinet), chamber orchestra (playing harpsichord continuo), choir, wind and recorder ensembles, and the madrigal group. I was a rather argumentative, opinionated and competitive A-Level student, always picking a fight with my music teacher (memorably, over my use of the word “bucolic” to describe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and behaving in a (totally unjustified) diva-ish way about my piano playing. I thought I was the brightest student in the A-Level group, and I still cringe at the memory of my pretentious, know-it-all behaviour. I’m not sure what the other students thought of me, but when we were playing the Archduke Trio together, we were all equal before the music – which is how it should be. The violinist used to stand by the piano in her imperious violinist’s stance, tuning her instrument with much huffing and hair-tossing, while the ‘cellist, a clumsy, rather nervy girl who could be guaranteed to knock over all the other music stands when taking her place in the orchestra, struggled to secure the spike of her ‘cello. Then the music would begin, the quietly beautiful opening melody in the piano, and we would forget ourselves for awhile, enjoying the music and that particular give-and-take that comes from ensemble playing. Playing with other musicians can be so satisfying – far more enjoyable that hours of grinding practise alone, with no one to chat and joke with. It’s like belonging to a very special family with its own vicissitudes, petty niggles, tears and triumphs, and, like a proper family member, one has a responsibility towards the others, to be generous and open-hearted, and to keep going, no matter what, transcending oneself. It forces one to be modest, before the music and the other members of the ensemble.

We never performed the Archduke at school, though all three of us worked together on other works, including the marvellous Bach ‘Double’ Concerto (I was on harpsichord) with the chamber orchestra. I still have the manuscript of the Trio somewhere, covered in my analytical notes, a souvenir of some very happy and memorable years of music-making.

I admit it: I’m a frightful purist and unashamed pedant when it comes to learning new music, preferring a careful, methodical approach, working slowly with a pencil behind my ear. I like to work things out for myself, and only very occasionally will be completely stumped by something in a score, which will either have me searching for some hints on the internet, or arriving at a lesson to consult my teacher, who knows that I prefer to work at problem-solving on my own, and is often happy to point me in the right direction and leave me to get on with it.

In an earlier post, I talked about familiarity with the music, not just the physical sensation and the patterns of the notes under the fingers, but also of seeing the score in front of me, day in day out, so that I begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of the printed music. I try to instill similar habits in my students, but I would be naive if I thought any of them practised as meticulously as I do. There are no budding Kissin’s or Lang Lang’s amongst my students, for which I am relieved as teaching a very talented student would fill me with dread, but there are one or two who show a real affinity for the instrument, and are sufficiently interested to practise regularly. One or two hardly practise at all – I know who they are! And one makes it look easy – ggrrrr!! With an age range of five to mid-forties, my student all have plenty of other things going on in their lives – drama, sport, after school activities, work – and piano practise just has to fit in around everything else. My adult students tend to be more committed and focussed, but that is because they are learning piano for slightly different reasons to the kids and are all self-motivated people.

To help with the learning of new music, I ask a student to read through the score and highlight any signs or markings which they don’t understand. Then we look for recurring patterns, breaking the score down into manageable pieces. Sometimes, being confronted with a whole A4 page of music can be very daunting for an early learner; showing them where the music repeats itself (either a straight repeat, or a repeated pattern or motif) can demystify it, making it simpler to understand. I use quite a lot of visual cues too – words or little drawings to describe the mood, tone or “story” in the music. I also ask my students to imagine the pictures and stories in the music. I like to think all these things combine to make the learning process more enjoyable. We also listen to other music to gain insights into context, both compositional and historical, and to highlight that piano music should not be considered in isolation.

I never been particularly keen on things stuck on the keyboard or behind the keys to help with note-learning, partly because I think such things are a distraction, forcing the eye down to the keys, instead of straight ahead at the score. However, one of my adults regularly uses one of these devices, ‘IMP’s Keyboard Indicator’, which shows not only the layout of the keyboard, but also the notes as they are written on the stave. She has found it invaluable in improving her knowledge of the geography of the keyboard and as a consequence, her confidence has also improved a great deal. My only concern is that she may not be able to cope without it if and when it is removed from the keyboard.

I ordered a Keyboard Indicator to keep in my piano room, and yesterday it arrived from Amazon. Setting it up on my piano (to make sure it fitted properly), I found myself checking some chords in both the Debussy and Gershwin preludes I am learning, where the right hand is taken to the very upper registers of the keyboard, a place I do not visit that often. I must say it was jolly useful to be able to make a quick check, annotate the score and then play the music, but fearing “dependence”, I quickly consigned the indicator to the top drawer of my desk, and carried on with the Debussy in my usual fashion. At the end of the day, only repetitive practise will truly fix those high chords in my head and fingers.