This article first appeared on No Dead Guys, the blog of pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo


It starts with fascination and attraction. Sometimes it happens slowly; other times it’s all at once. You want to spend every moment with this person. You want to know everything about the object of your desire, big and small. No detail is unimportant. No story is boring. And one day you realize that you know this person almost as intimately as you know yourself. This is what we commonly refer to as falling in love.

It starts with analysis and observation. Everything about the specimen is studied, examined, catalogued, and dissected. You draw conclusions based on findings. You write dispassionate observations. This is what we commonly refer to as scientific analysis.

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Making music, when it’s done right, is like falling in love. We tumble helplessly, passionately into a relationship with a piece of music, and in our effort to understand everything we can about it, we discover things about its structure, the composer, the circumstances in which it was created, others’ ideas of how best to play it, and (crucially) all the ways we can share our insights and love of what we’re playing through every note we play.

One of the greatest disservices a teacher can do to a student is to teach music like a scientist, not a lover. When this happens, it’s usually because the teacher has never had the experience of falling in love with music, or has shut out that love for one reason or another. In their hands, music is no longer alive, but is a thing to be dissected and coolly studied. Everything stays clean and scientific, there are safe “right” and “wrong” answers, and no one makes poor musical decisions in the heat of passion. Music becomes clinical, and (as a result) dead.

No one can think oneself into being in love. The magic is either there or it isn’t. Music is a sensual art first—we hear the notes being struck and then dying away; we feel the smoothness of the keys under our fingers; we see the play of light and shadows on the piano and the score; and we sense the interplay of sound, silence, composer markings, and our own hearts in the phrases we help shape. Analysis, observations, scholarship? These serve the senses, not the other way ‘round. This is what many of the late great pianists knew, which is why their recordings frequently offer more depth and humanity than many modern players, who play quickly and oh-so-correctly, but have little to say. We can read, memorize, study, and analyze everything there is to know about a piece, but until we abandon ourselves to the experience of playing the notes, the music lacks life. That doesn’t mean that playing the piano should be an anti-intellectual act; it means balancing head and heart; it means acknowledging that the heart part of this equation must come first.

If I could wish one thing for every pianist, it would be this: let yourself go. Let yourself be seduced—ravished!—by the music. As my undergraduate piano professor once told me, “make love to the piano.” Let the music teach you about itself through loving attention to the score, to historical writings, and to others’ experiences with it, and then abandon yourself to it. Hold nothing back. This is what it means to bring a great piece of music to life.


rhonda_rizzoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.

She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.

It may surprise you to learn that Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer, who won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics women’s road race, is an amateur rider. She doesn’t belong to a professional team (she left the Spanish team Lotto Soudal in 2017) which would pay her salary; she holds a PhD in mathematics and is a researcher and lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

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She may be an amateur on paper, but watching her dominate the women’s road race, storming far ahead of the main field, it was evident that she is someone who takes her training and preparation very seriously, as seriously as any pro rider.

“….cycling takes up a lot of space in my life. I don’t earn money. For the last one-and-a-half years, I was completely focused on today.

– Anna Kiesenhofer, in a post-race interview

There are several aspects of Anna Kiensenhofer’s attitude and training regime which I feel are particularly relevant, and also very inspiring, to the serious amateur musician – and indeed the professional too – and her dedication is proof that if one sets to a task with efficiency,  commitment and self-determination it is possible to achieve greatness.

Of course we may not aspire to Olympian greatness, but many of us strive for self-improvement, personal fulfillment and excellence in our music making – at whatever level we play.

Like the sportsperson’s, the musician’s training can lay the foundations of efficient, intelligent practice habits, secure technique, confidence in performance, musicianship, artistry, and – importantly – independence. While many of us may rely on the advice and support of a teacher or mentor, there comes a point when we may choose to step away from a teacher, either temporarily or permanently, and pursue our musical studies independently (and I will explore my own decision to do this in a later article). It takes a leap of faith to set oneself on a path of self-coaching, encompassing self-reliance, self-determination, and personal autonomy without the support of a teacher, but this is, I believe, necessary for one’s development as a musician seeking excellence and mastery.

Anna Kiesenhofer’s principles of self-coaching:

Don’t trust authority too much/Don’t necessarily believe your coach/teacher

By her own admission Anna Kiesenhofer is “anti-authoritarian” when it comes to coaches/trainers, especially the ones who claim to have all the answers and who seek to impose their own ways of doing things on their students.

“I started to realise that all those people who say they know, they actually don’t know. Many of them don’t know, and especially those who say that they know, don’t know, because those who do know say that they don’t know.”

A good teacher is not authoritarian; be wary of those who claim to have all the answers. A good teacher is open to discussion, adjustment, reflection to find what is best for the individual student, rather than a “one size fits all” approach. Don’t expect a teacher to have all the answers – and the best teachers know that they don’t have all the answers! A good teacher will equip their students with the skills with which to become an independent, self-reliant learner, and also a self-coach.

Find out what works for you personally

I meet people in the amateur piano world who’ve had lessons with a wide variety of teachers and attended many piano courses, hoping for the big answer, the miracle, which tells them “how to do it”. Instead, they are overwhelmed or confused with such a wealth of advice (much of it expert or well-meaning) and lack the confidence to extract from that advice what will actually be useful to them. This is also connected to the notion that there is a “right way” to play the piano (there isn’t!).

Exercise a degree of healthy scepticism when taking advice from others, even the most highly respected teachers. Be open to suggestions, but also questioning and curious, and select what advice works for you to support your own musical development.

Be wary of overly dogmatic or controlling teachers whose approach is “it’s my way or the high way”. Such a blinkered attitude will not serve your progress.

Create your own training (practicing) plan

Someone else’s practicing regime may not be the right one for you. Again, the “one size fits all” approach is impractical because we are all different, and while one person may do the bulk of their practicing first thing in the morning, others may prefer to break up the practice sessions into smaller sessions throughout the day. Create your own practicing regime and stick to it, but be willing to make adjustments to suit your changing needs, progress and goals.

And talking of goals…..Set yourself clear and achievable goals – a series of smaller targets is easier to manage that one big one and also helps to keep you motivated without feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead.

It may be helpful to discuss practice habits with others and to observe what others are doing, but be wary of comparing yourself to others as this can lead to issues with confidence or self-esteem. Have the confidence to stick to your own plan.

There are no short cuts, no miracles 

“If it was easy, everyone would do it” was a favourite line from one of my teachers, and he’s right. Playing the piano is difficult, at whatever level one plays, and appreciating and accepting this is an important part of the self-coaching mindset.

There are no miracles: self-determination, commitment, grit and, above all, a willingness to submit to the ongoing process of learning with persistence and passion are the qualities which drive achievement, whether you are a pianist or an Olympic athlete.

Further reading:

A Passionate Pursuit: The Pianist’s Mastery

Persistence and the concept of ‘Grit’


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Leon Fleisher New York Times

A special tribute to the great American pianist Leon Fleisher on the first anniversary of his death, created by pianist Lydia Seifter.

Lydia introduces the project:

The focus of this initiative is the secondary theme from the first movement of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, which I have invited my wonderful pianist colleagues to perform and post as an hommage to Mr. Fleisher.
I would also like to shine the spotlight on the fabulous pianists who contributed such heartfelt performances, each bringing his or her unique perspective to the Brahms Concerto. (Remembrances and links to individual performances are located in the Comments Section)

 

 

What could be nicer than gliding along a quiet canal, drinking in beautiful music and scenery, accompanied by delicious refreshments?

The Piano Boat offers just this experience, aboard ‘MV Rachmaninov’, a bespoke wide beam canal barge, whose intimate, elegant music salon is host to a Steinway Model A grand piano and an exclusive audience of just 12 people. The boat has green credentials too; it’s fitted with solar panels on its roof and a hybrid engine which  allows for silent cruising with minimal disturbance to wildlife, and a truly relaxing and immersive experience on the waterways.

Classical music presented in small intimate venues such as this allows audiences to get “up close and personal” with the music, plus an opportunity to meet and talk to the musicians and other audience members. And for those who might hesitate to visit a large impersonal concert hall, venues like The Piano Boat offer a wonderfully exclusive experience.

This unique and intimate floating concert venue based in West London offers musical afternoon tea and brunch cruises complete with an exclusive piano recital with acclaimed concert pianist Masayuki Tayama, as well as workshops, private hire days and musical holidays on board.

The Piano Boat has its official launch on 1 August at the London Canal Museum, near Kings Cross. 

For full details of concert cruises, visit The Piano Boat’s website

Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.

Guest post by Walter Witt


As a pianist and admirer of Ravel, my visit to Ravel’s house and museum in Montfort L’Amaury several years ago could be considered a sort of pilgrimage.

Ravel purchased the house on the outskirts of Paris, called “Le Belvédère,” in 1921, as a respite from frenzied Parisian social life, a place to entertain his friends, to seal himself off from the world to meditate and to compose. He lived there until his death in 1937. Ravel carried out extensive design work on the house throughout the 1920s.

A deeper understanding of Ravel as a composer, as a master of colour counterpoint, an ornamentalist with miniaturist inclinations, the non-Impressionist and non-European allusions that he employed in his music, can be gleaned from Ravel’s own decorative practices at his home and garden at Le Belvédère. Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.

Le Belvédère is what you might call a confidential address, accessible only on certain days and in small groups. Once inside, you can see why. Though the house is picturesque, it’s no chateau. A panorama of hills and forest stretches out beyond the cobbled streets of Montfort-l’Amaury. For Ravel, it was the view from the balcony that first sold him on the house.

The composer was in his mid-40s and at a low ebb when he bought Le Belvédère. He had failed to win the coveted Prix de Rome three times, losing out each time to composers whose names are hardly known today. Determined to serve his country in the first World War, he had tried to sign up for the air force, but was refused on grounds of height. (Ravel’s brocade waistcoats are displayed near the entrance – at 5 foot 2, he was every inch the dandy).

Finally, he was allowed to drive trucks at the Front. He caught dysentery. His beloved mother died in his absence and he felt he had abandoned her. For months, he never touched a manuscript.

Instead, he threw himself into the design and decoration of this house – his first – re-shaping it to reflect his highly individual tastes and personality. He created his own Art Deco wallpaper. He arranged his collection of singular objects, arranging them for harmony or piquancy, creating patterns for the eye. He immersed himself in gardening books, tended to his orchard and turned the sloping garden behind the house into a Japanese style garden.

Ravel was an inveterate antique hunter. He’d invite friends to admire the latest treasures in his sitting room, before revealing how much – or rather, how little – he’d paid for them. The cabinet of Creil et Montereau picture plates, the antique Chinese cups, the drapes, the furniture …everything feels curated, elegant – and personal. Often, homes of famous people feel as if they have been reconstituted from the original. Not this one. It feels as if the owner has just stepped out to buy a baguette or a pack of Gauloises.

Upon entering the house, the first impression is that of a doll-like miniaturism. The stairway and hallways are tight. Throughout the house, the rooms are snug. There’s even a small, secret annex off the music room behind a cabinet (handy for Ravel to whisk manuscripts away from prying eyes).

In the music room, Ravel’s rosewood piano, an Érard which I played during my visit, is still in good condition and kept in tune. The piano fills most of the space. His mother’s portrait hangs above the piano. A portrait of Ravel as a young boy hangs across the room, facing the pianist. Surrounded by portraits of his family and silhouettes of composers, this is where Ravel composed Boléro, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, the Concerto in G and L’enfant et les sortilèges. On the piano are more of his treasures – a collection of snuff boxes, butterfly wing art and a rare 19th-century scene made of spun glass, a speciality of Nevers.

While it was here that Ravel wrote his most famous work, Boléro, the work most embedded in the property to my mind is the opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. To walk around the house and garden is almost to step into the magical arc of the opera – its first act featuring teapots, armchairs and wallpaper that come to life, its second moving to a night-time garden brimming with cricket calls and croaking frogs – as well as to feel its unforced mix of playfulness and profound seriousness.

In fact, the longer one stays in the house the more one begins to sense the “small wonder” of Ravel: the connoisseur’s mind, the watchmaker’s heart, the eye for beauty and detail, the feeling for pathos. The suggestion of a hidden interior that is bigger than it appears from the outside.

There is a small room full of Asian objects. The collection seems like a mix of objects from China, Japan and Indonesia as well. The extent of his collection is quite impressive, and what was immediately obvious is the almost obsessive way he placed the objects symmetrically in the room. This symmetrical pattern is evident in almost every other part of Le Belvédère.

Ravel in fact gave us a small opening onto Le Belvédère’s aesthetic, as reported in the Dutch tabloid De Telegraaf in 1931. According to the journalist, Ravel asks, “Don’t you think that it slightly resembles the gardens of Versailles, as well as a Japanese garden?” Then the correspondent connects the composer’s question to the idea of miniaturism: “Doesn’t this remark reflect upon the entire man, on the one hand, filled with memories of the stately, joyous century of Couperin and Rameau, yet on the other coupled with a refined sensitivity and miniature workmanship which conjure up Japan?” (quoted in Orenstein, Arbie, ed. 1990. A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, p 475). It is safe to say that Ravel’s decorations in Le Belvédère were themselves a latent allusion to the miniaturism connected with France’s eighteenth-century musical past and the twilight of the ancien régime subtly entwined with the art nouveau aesthetic recognized as “le Japon.” Or, as the Ravel scholar Roger Nichols, stated in his biography of Ravel: “In his life this manifested itself in the division between bouts of socializing, at home or in Paris, and periods of hermetically sealed composition; in his music, between tradition and innovation, between knowing the rules and knowing how to break them. The lifestyle division was no different from that of most composers, for whom long stretches of uninterrupted time are vital (and in the modern world, increasingly hard to achieve). The divisions within Ravel’s music itself are much more interesting, and go to the very heart of its beauty and power” (Nichols, Ravel – A life,  2011, p. 351).

After Ravel’s death in 1937, his faithful housekeeper kept everything precisely as it was. Downstairs, in his smart monochrome bathroom, his toothbrush is still waiting in its beaker.

La Maison musée de Maurice Ravel



Walter Witt is an American-born classical pianist and educator based in France. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figures in classical music today.

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Mark Padmore 2018 Photo: Marco Borggreve

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I am one of five siblings and their love of music in all different forms has probably been my biggest influence. My mother had a great love of music although she never learnt an instrument and my father drove me to music lessons and youth orchestra courses. 

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

The last year and a half has been devastating for many musicians and Brexit has been a disaster for the whole profession.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

Having the opportunity to be artist in residence with Berlin Philharmonic and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras – something that now seems a remote possibility for a young UK based musician.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

Bach, Schubert and Britten have formed the core of my repertoire. They wrote music I feel I can understand.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Reading and going to the theatre. You need intellectual and spiritual nourishment to be a performer

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I have always responded to challenges and most often repertoire chooses me rather than the other way round.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The church of St Endellion in North Cornwall (where I am Artistic Director of the Summer Music Festival) has been the scene of the most memorable music-making.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

We could start by persuading the Government not to cut further education in the arts by 50%!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House was a highlight as was Billy Budd at the BBC Proms.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you get a sense that you have really captured the attention of the audience and that they love the music as much as you do.

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

It is all about quality of attention – notice everything. And be generous.

Mark Padmore performs songs by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, with pianist Imogen Cooper, on 20 July as part of this year’s Petworth Festival. More information here


Mark Padmore is one of our greatest interpreters of Lieder and song. Born in London and an alumnus of King’s College Cambridge, he has established an international career in opera, concert and recital. His appearances in Bach Passions have gained particular notice, especially his renowned performances as the Evangelist in the St Matthew and St John Passions with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, staged by Peter Sellars. Mark was voted 2016 Vocalist of the Year by Musical America and was appointed CBE in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

markpadmore.com

(Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve)