This came to me via the weekly newsletter of the IPTG (International Piano Teachers Group), and is from the blog of Elissa Milne, an Australian piano teacher and composer of piano music for students. Her pieces regularly appear in the syllabus of the ABRSM and other exam boards, though I have not taught any yet….

1. Piano lessons are for learning to do cool stuff on the piano

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your emotions and your intellect all at the same time.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are

8. Piano lessons are for joy.

At the risk of sounding a little trite at times, this is a rather good ‘manifesto’ of the purpose of piano lessons, for  students and teachers. Sometimes I think students (and teachers) lose sight of the reasons why they are taking piano lessons. Some children are made to take music lessons (I was!) because their parents think it will be good for them, or because the parents didn’t keep up their lessons as children, and now have a need to live their lives vicariously through their children (dangerous). Where I live, in the leafy, affluent, aspirational suburbs of SW London, there is a strong trend amongst parents for signing their children up for extra-curricular activities which are both healthy (sport) and mind-stretching (music lessons, Kumon maths, learning Mandarin Chinese etc). I am all for children having full and active lives, but I also think children should have the right to choose what they do with their free time. Fortunately, all of my piano students come to me willingly, i.e. they have chosen to have piano lessons, for whatever reason, and gradually, they will come to appreciate the value of their lessons, beyond the activity of “typing” notes on the keyboard to create a pleasant sound.

For my part, my lessons are for self-improvement, first and foremost. At 40, I decided it was ridiculous to have more than a modicum of talent that was under-used and under-stimulated. My lessons give me a proper focus and the practising lends structure to my day. I enjoy the discipline of it, and draw satisfaction from hearing myself improve. On another level, the piano is a form of therapy: it’s my “me time”, the place where I go to play (forgive the pun), to escape. It’s a displacement activity that actually brings tangible results (unlike my other great displacement activity, shopping for clothes, which simply ruptures my bank balance!). It’s intellectually and physically tiring, yet I can come away from a successful practice session of a couple of hours buzzing with endorphins. It has made me more self-reliant and self-critical because it has forced me to confront my own imperfections and to strive for excellence every time I sit down to play. It has taught me confidence and self-belief. It is also a huge privilege to engage with some of the greatest music of the repertoire, wonderful works to be explored and understood, full of things which continually surprise and fascinate, and remind one of the full rush of human life.

Read the full text of Elissa Milne’s manifesto at http://elissamilne.wordpress.com/.

Performance anxiety is a familiar condition, and it’s rare to find someone who does not experience it, at least once in their life. And I am not just talking about musical performance: sitting an exam, giving a paper, addressing a conference, taking part in competitive sport, going to an interview. All experiences designed to crank the pulse up and set the adrenaline flowing through the body. The racing heart, sweaty palms, nausea and a whole host of other symptoms, are the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to such stressful situations. I am sceptical of people who claim to feel no fear prior to a performance, because we need that “fear” to propel us out on to the concert platform, the stage or the running track. Of course, there are some people who simply cannot cope with the anxiety of performance: the great and eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould famously gave up performing, preferring to concentrate on recording.

I am continually amazed, and concerned, at how nervous my adult students are when they play for me. One or two are good friends of mine, confident and centred people who seem in control of their lives, but put them at the piano and ask them to ‘perform’, and they can go to pieces. One student tenses up so badly, her hands become rock hard and, as a result, her playing is lumpy and laboured. Another woman giggles hysterically, especially when she is playing well. Another simply berates herself for her poor performance, while I sit beside her, calmly assuring her that she has played well. All of them tell me they played “better” when practising at home. The children who I teach seem to suffer no such qualms. Many of them know me very well, are familiar with the set up in my house, and swan into my piano room for their weekly lessons with a brief “Hello-Fran-can-I-feed-the-rabbit-later?!” before launching into their music. I like to hope they treat their exams with the same chilled, relaxed manner.

When I took my final music exams (Grade 6 to 8), in my early teens, I can still clearly recall being very nervous on the day. The exams were held in the studio of a local professional pianist in Rickmansworth, a large room tacked onto the back of his house, reached by a corridor, in which the prospective candidates had to wait. The atmosphere was akin to the dentist’s waiting room, not helped by the fact that, like the dentist’s, we could hear what was going on in the studio. Once inside, there was no furniture but for an enormous black minotaur of a Steinway, and the desk at which the examiner sat. My then teacher offered no advice for dealing with anxiety: she assumed that I drew confidence from the fact I could play my pieces and technical work well, and had a good sense of the music. I was never taught the kind of useful focus and concentration techniques which can enable one to blank out the audience, the examiner, and all other extraneous distractions that can surround one in a performance situation.

One of the reasons why I started taking piano lessons again in my 40s, aside from a wish to improve and work towards a Diploma, was to try and understand the ‘psychology’ of the pupil, and of being taught, as an adult. I wanted to try and feel what my adult students felt: the fear of failure, of playing wrong notes, of not being able to play at all…. As adults, we are more fearful, more aware of our failings, less inclined to take a risk. All these factors, contribute to performance anxiety. I took a short Beethoven Rondo (Op 50 No 1) to my first lesson with my new teacher: I’d done quite a lot of careful work on it and I was quite pleased with it, looking forward to having my playing critiqued by someone whose judgement I trusted. I was nervous initially, but I was so enjoying playing on a really lovely piano, in an elegant sitting room in north London, that the nerves soon disappeared. The comments from my teacher were incredibly useful and positive, and thus we embarked on a 6-month programme to unpick all the bad habits I’d picked up in the 25 years when I was not taking lessons. Now, I actively look forward to my lessons (which happen, on average, about once a month), though I do spend the few days just before a lesson wandering round the house wailing “I haven’t done enough work! I haven’t done enough!”. But I never finish a piece I have played for my teacher with the words “I played it much better at home”. She is a sufficiently experienced teacher to know that, even if my playing is rather rough around the edges, I have done the groundwork, and she is very skilled at hearing improvements in my playing, big and small.

I was determined to play in her end of course concert in March, even though I had not performed in public since I was at school (I do not count playing for friends, or for my pupils and their parents as “in public” – since such impromptu concerts usually take place in my home). I firmly believe that performing a work in public endorses all the lonely hours of practise one has put in; it also offers it up for scrutiny and validation by others, and reminds us that music is for sharing. It is for these reasons that I encourage all my students to perform in my end of term concerts. Performing also breeds confidence, not just in musical ability but in many other aspects of life.

All the falseness of ego disappears when one performs, for to face, for example, a Beethoven sonata head-on, it is no longer about me, how fast I can play, how technically accomplished I am. It is about getting beyond myself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas become my own, developing a sense of oneness with the composer. When we consider and play the sonatas, we speak about fundamentals: the meaning of life, shared values. And when sharing the music with others, one is debating, with the listeners, what it means to be alive, to be a sentient, feeling human being, the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us still.

When one considers these aspects of playing the “great works” of the standard repertoire, there really should be no room for anxiety, for one should feel privileged to share these works with others, offering up this huge cultural gift, a gift to oneself and to those people who love to listen to the piano.

To be considered skilled enough to perform a Chopin Etude in public, albeit in  the drawing room of a house in Finsbury Park to a small audience of friends, family, and fellow students, was, to me, a huge honour, and a very levelling experience, not least because 18 months ago, I would never have considered myself capable of playing such a work. As well as helping me improve my technique and alter my practising habits so that I get as much as possible out of each and every practise session, my teacher has given me confidence and helped me to believe in myself and my abilites. I no longer consider myself “a Sunday pianist”, one who dabbles, a drop of Bach here, and smidgeon of Schubert there. Chopin’s Etudes, the Opp 10 and 25, are considered to be the very pinnacles of the piano repertoire, and by learning and performing them, I feel I am traversing the same musical pathways as some of the greatest pianists of all time. The Opus 25 No. 7, in C-sharp minor, was the first Etude I learnt, and by the time I came to perform it, I had been working on it for eight months. This helped ensure a reasonably nerve-free performance, for I knew the work extremely well. Before the concert, my teacher talked of deep-breathing techniques and ways to draw positive things from anxiety. As Barry Green says in his excellent book, ‘The Inner Game of Music’, what is the worst thing that can happen? One is not about to perform delicate brain surgery or disable an unexploded bomb, though performing does represent a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. The audience are not going to “boo” or slow-hand-clap if one produces a few smeared or incorrect notes. The trick is to accept the feelings of anxiety, and try to use them positively. The unpleasant symptoms are, after all, just a release of adrenaline to provide the necessary energy for the huge task ahead. And when it came to the moment to begin the Etude with that plaintive cello-like motif in the left hand, I saw only the music in the front of me, felt only my fingers and hands moving about the keys, heard only the sounds I was producing.

Coaching one of my adult students to perform a reduced version of Chopin’s A-minor Waltz for the summer concert, I encouraged her to learn the work carefully, which she did, reminded her that no one would boo or heckle her performance, and then, at the moment when she sat down to play, to take a deep breath in, and, as she exhaled, to allow her hands to float onto the keys. I remember doing this when I played the Chopin Etude in March, and whenever, during the performance, I felt my concentration slipping, I employed the same technique. It works wonderfully, because it both both calms and focusses.

With the Diploma recital looming reasonably large on my musical horizon now, I need to continually improve my performance technique. I have not taken a music exam for over 28 years, and I suspect that, come The Big Day, I will be nervous. But I also hope to counter that anxiety with the confidence that I have learnt my pieces carefully so that I am intimate with all their quirks and exigencies. Plenty of performance practice, at my own concerts and others, and impromptu recitals at home will all help.

Dinner guests: you have been warned! (Oh, and by the way, I don’t do requests – except Beethoven’s Op 27 No 2 for my always appreciative friend Nick.)

Today was one of the highlights of my life as a pianist and piano teacher: the bi-annual visit by Rolf, my piano tuner from Chappell of Bond Street (where I originally purchased my piano). He has been looking after my piano for nearly three years, and lavishes care and attention on it every six months when he comes here.

As part of the after-sales service when you purchase a piano from Chappell, or indeed, Steinway, you have a complimentary follow-up tuning, 6 weeks after the instrument has “moved in” with you. This is important, not least to check that the instrument has settled into your home. Pianos are fickle creatures (growing more fickle with age, like old ladies), and do not like change. They prefer an even level of humidity and temperature and react badly to being placed near radiators and such like. Sunlight is also an enemy: unfortunately, my piano has to reside in the conservatory, not the ideal home, but the only place for it until I move house or rebuild the conservatory and turn it into a proper studio. It suffered a bit during the hot summer, but my conservatory never gets humid, which is the real enemy of the piano.

When I was growing up, my piano was an old Challen upright (circa 1930s), rescued from a friend’s greenhouse in Shropshire, where it had lived, neglected and unloved, for two years. It was not in great condition when my parents acquired it, but thanks to the perseverance of the tuner, and a considerable amount of money, it was reconditioned, refelted, and gradually tuned up to concert pitch. It was on this piano that I learnt to play, endured the treadmill of exams, and grew to love Bach, Beethoven, Schubert et al, after graduating from Swinstead, Dunhill, Czerny, Clementi and co. My tuner in those days was a rather scary man with several stumps instead of fingers – one did not dare ask how he lost his fingers – yet he was a very skilled tuner, and would play the most amazing cascades of Liszt and Chopin when he had completed his work. Sadly, my father sold my piano when I moved into my first flat in London, because he didn’t want it any more, and I didn’t have room for it.

When I bought my current piano, I went up to the new, bigger, and much grander Chappell showroom on Wardour Street, in the Grade 1 listed ‘Novello’ building. Before the move from the Bond Street premises, the piano department was consigned to a cramped basement and had to share the space with all the sheet music. Now, the piano showroom is a large, elegant, wood-panelled room, stuffed with pianos of all sizes and specifications, including a Liberace-style white grand. I took a friend there last year (she was looking for a digital piano) and she was completely gob-smacked, especially that one could just sit down and tinkle the faux-ivories of a full-size concert grand. Arriving at the showroom in January 2007, I was greeted by the salesman who I’d been dealing with over the ‘phone. He introduced me to my piano (he actually said “this is your piano”) and invited me to play. No sooner had I played the opening measures of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A Op 120, than, over in the far corner of the room, a young man started on a very heroic and virtuosic Chopin Scherzo. “Oh no!” said the sales assistant. “He’s here again! He comes in every day to practise. He shouldn’t really be here”, and promptly went over to chase the young man off the piano and out of the showroom. Chappells like you to try their pianos, but they don’t want you taking up residence in the showroom on a regular basis. Meanwhile, from another corner of the showroom came a medley of songs from the shows and some very vamped-up Scott Joplin. I gave up trying to hear myself playing, concluded that the piano would suit me very well, and went to organise payment and delivery. Still reeling from the effect of putting such a huge sum through my Visa account, I went downstairs (the sheet music is still in the basement) and purchased some new music: Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, pieces which I had been listening to endlessly, and playing from flimsy sheets, downloaded from the internet, and the Grazer Fantasy (which I still haven’t learnt) .

The piano arrived the following week, amid much ceremony and obligatory huffing and puffing by the piano movers. Fortunately, it was easy to deliver, as my house is a normal size and shape (unlike a friend’s, whose grand had to be manouevred, by crane, through an upstairs window of his 18th century vicarage). I was so thrilled with my new instrument, I spent the entire day learning the first movement of Schubert’s last sonata. I would say, on reflection, it took me about six months to properly make friends with my piano and get used to it. Last year, in a bid to tone down its very bright sound, I had it regulated (by Rolf) and ‘voiced’, and he did some work on the hammer felts, which, much to my surprise, altered the sound quite significantly. It is richer now, more mellow, less “shiny”.  I do really like the bright treble, though. The hard surfaces in the conservatory (windows, limestone floor) do not help, but with Rolf’s help, I put a picnic blanket under the piano, and it has various fleecey bedspreads and rugs behind it. I will put some curtains up for the winter, ostensibly to help soften the hard sound further, but also to make the space a little more cosy. And to ensure I do not have to stare at my neighbour’s wall the entire time when I am practising.

A maintenance tuning takes about an hour. After the obligatory “is-it-really-six-months-since-I-was-last-here” chat, I usually leave Rolf to it until he summons me back to play after he has finished. When he was here in March, I played the opening bars of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. It came from nowhere, and sent Rolf, who is German, off into huge exclamations of dewy-eyed delight about Beethoven. Rolf never seems to be in a hurry to go to his next appointment, so today we enjoyed a chat about obscure religions of India – prompted by the Buddha which I have in my piano room – the pleasure and discipline of writing, and the fate of Kemble pianos. Eventually, Rolf strolled off to his next appointment in Clapham, and I spent a happy hour or three working on Debussy, on an in-tune piano once again.

I think most pianists would agree that one has a special relationship with one’s tuner. Other instrumentalists tend to their instruments themselves (when I played the clarinet, I got very good at taking it apart, mending the pads, and keeping all the chrome and cork in good nick), but a pianist must turn to another specialist to maintain his instrument, and a specialist whom one trusts to do a good job. Tuners spend years learning all the nuances to become skilled at bringing out the full tonal beauty of the instrument, and a piano is a complex piece of machinery, comprising some 5000 parts. Being a piano tuner is a highly skilled occupation, requiring  a good ear, practice and, above all perhaps, patience.

I’ve found a truly charming and very unusual venue for my Christmas concert – and it’s only 10 minutes from where I live.

The Langdon Down Centre, formerly called Normansfield, is a Grade II* listed building, and is tucked away between Teddington and Kingston. It is the former home and medical centre of Dr John Langdon Down, the Victorian physician who first identified Down’s Syndrome. Attached to the modestly-proportioned house is a hidden gem: a purpose-built private entertainment theatre, complete with minstrels’ gallery, vaulted ceiling, pre-Raphaelite panels and painted scenery which is an exact facsimile of the original. The theatre was used by Dr Langdon Down and his family for entertainments, as well as providing a space for his patients to enjoy. Indeed, Dr Langdon Down was an early advocate of drama therapy. Today, the theatre is used for various events and as a location for film companies looking for something a little different. Earlier in the year, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang used the theatre for a video promotion. The hall is equipped with a medium-sized Yamaha grand piano and a good acoustic. http://www.langdondowncentre.org.uk/

There are many hidden gems in and around London which serve as music venues. Last summer, I discovered Sutton House, a fine Elizabethan building in Hackney, managed by the National Trust. It boasts a charming, intimate and friendly recital space, and in the interval you can enjoy drinks and strawberries and cream in the pretty courtyard. I was impressed not just by the space but by the audience when I visited last summer: a very different crowd from the Wigmore, and one sensed a great deal of support and enthusiasm from the audience throughout the performance.

Across the river, at Walton, is Riverhouse Barn, a converted 18th century barn, which retains many of its original features. It hosts music events, as well as exhibitions and other arts and drama activities for children and adults.

The Red Hedgehog in Highgate looked so unprepossessing the first time I visited it in winter 2006 that I walked straight past it: from the outside, it looked like a kebab shop! (It has since undergone considerable restoration.) Once inside, it is a little like visiting Schubert’s salon (it is in fact named after the coffee house in Vienna which Schumann, Mendelssohn and especially Brahms and friends liked to visit). It offers a variety of music, poetry and drama events throughout the year and has been host to some eminent performers, including pianist Peter Donohoe and actor Simon Callow.

The great thing about attending a musical event in places such as these is that one can get up close and personal with the performers in a way that is impossible in a bigger venue. Watching the Fitzwilliam Quartet playing Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart last summer was fascinating: how the players interact with each other, and the soloist (my piano teacher), see the sweat on their brows which are furrowed with concentration, and all the other gestures, big and small, which go into producing music. It reminds us that so much of the music that was written before circa 1850 was meant to be enjoyed in this way: it was salon music, to be played for friends and amongst friends.

  • The Langdon Down Centre will be open on 18th and 19th September as part of the London Open House scheme. For further information go to http://www.londonopenhouse.org/
  • The new recital season at the Red Hedgehog opens on 7th October with what promises to be a fine concert celebrating the bicentenaries of two great composers for the piano, Chopin and Schumann. The Red Hedgehog is conveniently located close to Highgate tube station.
  • Sutton House in Hackney is the regular home of Sutton House Music Society, whose concert programme for the 2010/11 opens next month, and concludes, in June next year, with a performance by my teacher, Penelope Roskell, which includes Schumann’s ‘Papillons’ and the Sonata in G minor.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor, op 23; Etude in E, Op 10 no. 3

Debussy – Voiles, Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande, Dr Gradus ad Parnassum

Poulenc – Suite in C

Gershwin – Prelude no. 1 from Three Preludes

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S. 161: VI. Sonetto 123 del Petrarca

‘The Tingle Factor’ used to be a programme on Radio 4, a kind of second cousin to ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which reasonably well-known people (I hesitate to use the word “celebrities”), usually musical, artistic or literary personalities, discussed which pieces of music made them “tingle” or made the hair stand up on the back of their neck, and why. I expect most people have their own personal ‘Desert Island Discs’, and lists of significant songs and pieces. Remember the character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity who made endless musical lists?  As a student, me and my friends were always making “mixes”, cassette tapes of our favourites, for parties, for driving, for working to, for chilling on a Sunday afternoon in bed…. Sometimes when I hear a song from that time (mid-1980s), I am instantly transported back to the attic room in my hall of residence, or to a pub, or a party, or a club somewhere in Exeter. I only have to hear ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads or ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds, and I am back in a crowded student club near the River Exe, on the dance floor, my doorkeys tucked into my shoe….

We gather music along the way and it forms a soundtrack to our lives, evoking memories, good and bad, and a few bars of a significant song or piece of music can create an instant reaction, a ‘tingle’. Music can arouse very powerful emotions. Psychologists suggest that there is something about the way music unfolds over time, as do emotions, and when we hear music we re-live the emotional sequence that happened the first time we heard it. This makes music so much more powerful than a smell or a painting: it draws us into a very special sequence of relived experiences. Music also raises our expectations, simply by granting or delaying a bar or beat in a piece, or by leaving a harmonic progression unresolved, or by using a device such as a Picardy Third. We would not be moved by music that fulfils our expectations; our emotions are at their highest when we are un-expected.

Then there is the music that seems to have seeped into the collective consciousness: Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ is synonymous with space travel, specifically the Apollo moon landings, after it was used in Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, even for those people who are too young to remember the film or the moon landings. Or the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, often simply called ‘Elvira Madigan’ after the 1967 Swedish film of the same title in which the music memorably featured. Or the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (‘Death in Venice’). Or Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Hear just a few bars and one instantly thinks of poppies, the First War and the annual, sombre ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. And – dare I mention it? – ‘Nessun Dorma’, now forever associated with football. We are constantly bombarded with soundtracks and jingles, musical tags and cover versions, which induce an unexpected “tingle” in us.

The other week, I was listening to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, as I often do when I’m surfacing for the day with my first of many cups of tea, and I heard a piece which immediately took me back to my family home in Rickmansworth, where we lived when I was at secondary school in the early 1980s. The piece, for solo oboe and orchestra, was ‘The Watermill’, by Ronald Binge, composer of “light music”, and was used as the theme tune for the 1970s children’s tv series ‘The Secret Garden’. I loved the series, and the book it was based on: as an only child, I had (and still have) a vivid and romantic imagination, and was used to keeping myself entertained, making up stories and plays on my own in the garden or at the piano. But I wasn’t remembering the tv series when I heard ‘The Watermill’: I was recalling my father playing it on the clarinet, with me accompanying him on the piano.

Another piece which always reminds me of my father and sends a distinct tingle down my spine, is Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. My father was an accomplished amateur clarinettist who, sadly, had to give up the instrument some years ago because it was affecting his teeth. We often used to play the Finzi Bagatelles together, our favourite movements being the Prelude and the Forlana (which formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam). Thanks to a neat little gadget on my computer, I have created a personal ringtone for my father, based on Finzi’s Prelude!

There are many other pieces which induce a tingle in me, and some of these are distinct from my Desert Island Discs, which are pieces I simply cannot live without. Many of these pieces can transport me instantly to a point sometime in my recent past, others evoke a vague memory of a person or a place. Some are just heart-achingly beautiful: music that stops one in one’s tracks, or makes one cry. One or two are so painful I can hardly bear to listen them. Here is just a small selection of my ‘tingle’ factor music:

Beethoven – Opp 23 and 96 Sonatas for violin and piano

Beethoven – Op 110, slow movement and fugue

Schubert – D899 no. 4

Schubert – D960 1st movement

Schubert – D940 Fantasie

Schubert – Op Post 148 Notturno

Janacek – On An Overgrown Path (all of it)

Part – Speigel im Speigel

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor K511

Handel – Harp Concerto, first movement

Chopin – Impromptu in G flat, Op 51

Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now’

Ian Bostridge singing Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’

Franck – Sonata in A, last movement

It says something about the music of Schubert that I have highlighted four pieces by him. There are, of course, many, many more!