Tag Archives: adult amateur pianists

An intensive piano week in Italy

Guest post by Claire Vane

If music be the food of love….play on….(but please let it be in Italy)

I know Italy well, and in particular central Italy – Le Marche – which is not, as imagined, anything whatsoever to do with marshes. It is a wonderful and prosperous area of Italy which brings together the mountains and the sea, greenery and sunshine, as well as many concerts and wonderful performances and, in addition, a Sferisterio in Macerata where operas are staged every summer in the most magnificent surroundings.

I decided that I would indulge myself by having a week of playing the piano in total peace and quiet in central Italy at Music Holiday Italy. Gil Jetley, who won the second edition of the prestigious triennial International Chopin Competition for amateurs in Warsaw in 2012, has set up a piano school in Italy. Although Gil has in the past run a number of group courses, he has now decided to focus on one-to-one tuition. If you think you’re going on a total relaxation holiday, forget it. But, I must admit, the food was delicious and the surroundings couldn’t be better. I adore the piano and take it very seriously… My children, who are now grown up, joke that it is at the top of my priority list… I perform as much as I can, and always for charity. I have been back at the keyboard for about ten years after a thirty-year gap and have been learning for the last three years with Warren Mailley-Smith, who is a marvel.

It’s late Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting in the Italian sun on a hill in southern Le Marche, contemplating the view and recovering from the physical exertion of playing the piano for 6 days, 6 hours a day. I agree that this is not a particularly huge amount if one is preparing for a recital and, in actual fact, I find 6 hours of practice, perhaps broken into two lots of three hours, not so physically demanding, but where this time is made up of six days, consisting of four hours of onte-to-one tuition, followed by 2 hours of practice, then the mental energy seems much greater.

The proof of the pudding….

I arrived in Ancona airport at Falconara to be whisked away in Gil’s Jaguar, into the mountains near Amandola and not far from Ascoli Piceno. Apart from speaking to Gil and the local grape farmers and restaurateurs whom we met in the evening, I did not speak to another adult, except on the telephone, for an entire week. It is a great place to avoid distractions and it is in sharp contrast to living in the middle of Cambridge where we ride bicycles because there are no hills.

What could be better doing the thing you love for a whole week? The only problem comes with everybody thinking that you’ve been on holiday. Do not be deceived by the name of the website!

Gil’s expertise in the kitchen is as excellent as his technique on the piano.

Every evening we ventured out to dinner, again in the beautiful Jaguar, and experienced the rewards of the region, including delicious salamis, wonderful mushroom risotto and the local restaurants around Montefalcone.

I was a little shocked to find that another piano nut such as myself did not have a name for his piano. My own piano, Charlotte, a Schimmel C189, would have been shocked to find that Gil’s mellow 7ft Italian Kawai did not have a name until I arrived.

I took with me a number of pieces including the Mozart Rondo K511, six Schubert Impromptus, the slow movement of Schubert D960 and the Mendelssohn Rondo Capriccioso… Gil is a man of detail and does not let anything pass. Though we did not always agree on interpretation or even sometimes on technique, Gil had me analyzing works in a way that I had not done for years and reminding me of harmonies long forgotten since my days at Junior College at the Royal Northern under Marjorie Clementi.

I stayed in the room called ‘Mozart’, which was a good choice for me, situated next to ‘Bach’, which was not occupied that week, and Mozart provided a lot of peace for me in a week when I was taking a break from the heat – both physical and mental. All in all an excellent learning experience, which I can recommend.

Gil is a man of many parts, and is pretty handy with screwdrivers, saws and other tools required to turn an old property into a very comfortable home. Be warned that if you wish to go for walks in the afternoon; if you descend to the local village 5km away you have to come back up the hill again…and the hill is steep. This is also, of course, an opportunity to get very fit. If you want to do some touring and take your family then this is also possible, though I would imagine that that this takes some of the focus away from the purpose of going in the first place – mainly to play the piano intensively and to enjoy being solitary and focused.

If you would like a week of intensive piano learning and practice in a peaceful environment with glorious walks in the hills of Italy, then this is the place to be.

One-to-one tuition 

Further information about MusicHolidayItaly

 

14657451_10154312353421773_4844777016158226596_nClaire Vane read Classics with Languages at Cambridge. She was a Saturday exhibitioner at what was the Royal Manchester College of Music and was taught by Marjorie Clementi, and over the last three and a half years by Warren Mailley Smith. Claire holds an Associate Diploma in Piano Performance and performs for a variety of charities. She is a Human Resources Consultant by day and is the founder and MD of a bespoke HR and Recruitment Consultancy, Integrated Resources Ltd. She describes herself as a “piano nut”, and enjoys courses which help her develop musically on the piano.

The Accidental Pianist

I never really intended to become a pianist and piano teacher – nor a blogger on classical music and pianism, and a concert reviewer. Sure, I was mad keen on the piano as a child and teenager, completing all my grade exams and enjoying consistent rather than startling success in them. I harboured some desire to go to music college rather than university, but an offhand comment by my music teacher at school, suggesting I was not “good enough” to audition for conservatoire (a comment which still has the power to sting, some 35 years on), set me on a different course at 18: I studied Anglo-Saxon at university and had a career in art and academic publishing for 10 years post-university, until I stopped full-time work to have my son.

But the piano had always been there, in the background, a rather frustrating itch which could not be scratched because my father sold my piano when I left home and I had no instrument on which to practise. I occasionally played a friend’s grand piano but lack of practise led to frustration, and it was not until my mother bought me a half-decent digital piano that my passion for the instrument was rekindled. It was gratifying to discover that music I’d learnt in my teens was still “in the fingers”, if rather rusty, and I began to enjoy the routine of practising once again. Around the same time, I started going to concerts regularly again, something I had enjoyed as a child with my parents, and into my teens, reacquainting myself with repertoire I knew and loved and making new discoveries. A chance conversation with a friend in the school playground while waiting to collect our children led me into piano teaching – that was 10 years ago…..

Alongside this, I felt it was important to improve my own playing, and in 2008 I returned to regular lessons with a concert pianist and professor of piano at one of London’s leading conservatoires. It was daunting initially: I had not been taught for nearly a quarter of a century, and lots of bad habits from my teens and lack of technique were quickly exposed, but the teacher was sympathetic and supportive, and it was satisfying to see my playing improve rapidly under her guidance. Because I had not had a formal musical training at 18, I always (and still do) felt I was trying to catch up with those who’d had that education, and this was a major motivation for taking an external performance diploma, in addition to the desire to continually improve my playing by setting myself the personal challenge of preparing for the diploma. And so in December 2011, some 28 years after I last stepped into a piano exam room, I took my Associate diploma in piano performance. The Licentiate diploma followed in 2013. Both experiences were entirely positive (in complete contrast to some rather uncomfortable exam experiences as a child): I enjoyed the challenge of learning and finessing the repertoire, researching and writing programme notes, and learning how to be a performer (for one is assessed not just on one’s playing but also on stagecraft and presentation, just as in a formal professional concert), and above all, I enjoyed studying with a teacher again and the self-imposed routine of regular practising. Since 2013, I perform quite regularly, in solo concerts and in joint recitals with friends and colleagues. Learning to manage and understand performance anxiety has been a big part of my development as a pianist, and an aspect I know many others struggle with, which is why I organise workshops for adult amateur pianists on coping with anxiety and developing good stage craft.

I think the rather “accidental” path into my current role, in addition to the long period of absence from the piano, has given me the freedom and confidence to fully indulge my passion for the piano and its literature. Had I gone to music college and had to make a career from music as a young woman, I may have lost that spark, that passion. I’ve met a number of professional musicians who have expressed resentment at the heavy demands of their career, which can rob them of their love of the piano and its literature. (Admittedly, I am fortunate in that I do not have to make my main living from music: I have what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” and do several other admin and writing jobs in addition to my teaching.) Returning to the piano in my late 30s, and completing my diplomas in my mid-40s, has brought a maturity to my approach – and in the years when I wasn’t playing I was still listening to music and going to concerts, soaking up all those notes and forming my own opinions about the music I was hearing (which in turn was given a further outlet when I started reviewing concerts for Bachtrack.com).

As an adult pianist, one has the freedom to explore whatever repertoire one pleases, without a teacher bossily insisting on Czerny exercises (been there, done that) or having to play repertoire which one hates (and I suspect many of us can remember, with a shudder, the terrible/dull music we were made to learn as children). We take responsibility for our practising without recourse to others. As we mature we get to know what repertoire suits us (I was very touched at a recent London Piano Meetup Group event when a friend commented on how much a certain piece “suited” me), what we are physically, and mentally, capable of tackling, and as pianists we are incredibly spoilt by the vastness of the piano’s repertoire: there really is something for everyone! While some of us dream of playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto to a full house at Carnegie Hall, we gain a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from working on pieces and presenting them to others at piano clubs, meetup groups, and on courses (where one can meet other piano fanatics and where lasting friendships are forged). We enjoy the challenge of learning a Beethoven sonata, a handful of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, or a brace of Chopin Etudes, and the sense of achievement when we gain “ownership” of our music, making it our own.

“It’s an overriding passion, not just for the music [but] for the challenge……And the challenge is constant: there’s always a harder piece, you can always take it to the next level, you’re never finished. But there’s also the fact that the piano is your friend; it’s always there. That gathers more significance as you get older: what you can express through it, in a personal language, becomes incredibly important.”

Lucy Parham, concert pianist

Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, advanced pianists, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this consuming passion. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of a piano group and this love is more than evident as members discuss the myriad aspects of the craft of piano: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers and recordings. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Music has known therapeutic benefits and the piano is no exception. Time spent with the instrument can be relaxing, invigorating, inspiring and comforting. A good practise session can feel as beneficial as a run – and we release the same “happy hormones”, endorphins, when we practise, as we do when we exercise. If I haven’t touched the piano for several days, I get tetchy and frustrated, and it’s the first thing I go to when I return home from a holiday. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it now, and I am lucky enough to possess a rather fine antique Bechstein grand piano, known affectionately as “Bechy”, who has pride of place in my living room and is treated by the rest of my family like a rather large pet.

If you are something of an “accidental pianist”, or someone who has returned to, or taken up the piano later in life, I would love to hear from you to explore this fascinating subject in more detail. Please feel free to contact me to tell me your story, or complete my Piano Notes – adult pianist interview (word document)

 

 

Pleasure and pain: on being an amateur pianist

A regular commentator on this blog has asked me to write more on amateur pianism. Here are some honest and occasionally light-hearted thoughts on the joys and frustrations of being an amateur pianist.

Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play It Again’ (published in 2013) shone a delightful and inspirational light on the world of amateur pianism, but people have been playing the piano at home and with friends for almost as long as keyboard instruments have been in existence. In the nineteenth century, when advances in design and production significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing pianos, an upright piano in the parlour was the norm for family entertainment, much as the PlayStation or smart TV is today (sadly).

Pleasure

Probably the single most positive aspect of being an amateur pianist is not having to make a living from playing the instrument. Recently, I have begun to paid for solo performances and accompanying, which puts me in the hallowed category of “professional pianist”, but my main income comes from piano teaching, and I wouldn’t have it any different, to be honest. Not having to earn a living from playing the piano means one can truly indulge one’s passion for it. (Indeed, the word “amateur”comes from the Old French meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator.) All the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it.

That is not to say that professionals don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed for the Meet the Artist series have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano and its literature. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Talking of which, the piano has a vast repertoire, more than enough to suits all tastes, a good chunk of which is copyright-free and easily available online from sites such as IMSLP and Pianostreet. One could spend a lifetime learning and playing only the music of, say, J S Bach or Fryderyk Chopin and only scratch the tiniest surface of the piano repertoire. And in addition to solo works, there is music for three, four, six hands to enjoy with other pianists, not to mention being called upon to accompany other instrumentalists and singers…. Really, we are spoilt rotten!

Pain

Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation/hobby (though I like the solitary nature of the instrument) and working alone on that knotty section of Liszt or Hanon exercises can at times be frustrating and demoralising. However, it needn’t be lonely: in recent years the popularity of piano meetup groups and piano clubs, or even informal get togethers at one another’s houses, has created a wonderful community of like-minded people who meet regularly to play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and I still attend the group’s meetings when I can. Our drinks and lunches after our informal performance platforms are always noisy with conversations about the music we are working on, concerts we have enjoyed and discovering new repertoire.

Some adult amateur pianists are shy about playing to others for fear of making mistakes and looking foolish, or because of negative experiences in childhood. Piano Meetups and Clubs are a good way of overcoming these anxieties – you quickly discover that most people feel the same and playing to a friendly non-judgmental group of people is an excellent way of overcoming those performance nerves.

Adult pianists may also find it difficult to find the right teacher to support and encourage them. Some adults like to be pushed by a teacher, others need more gentle handling. Many come to lessons with a lot of “baggage” and anxieties, often a hangover from childhood music lessons, and need encouragement and support. Some have rather over-ambitious ideas about their capabilities (I had an adult student who informed me at his first lesson that he was going to play the Rach Three one day!) and want to play repertoire which is too challenging. In such instances, I recommend selecting repertoire that is well within one’s “comfort zone” to give one confidence, while gradually introducing more complex repertoire to extend and challenge one’s abilities, both technical and musical. And no repertoire should ever be considered “off limits” to the amateur pianist: the music was written to be played!

However, the music still has to be learnt and one of the greatest frustrations expressed by amateur pianists is finding the time to practise, especially if you have a busy day job and/or family commitments. We all know that “practise makes perfect”, but what is more important is that practise makes permanent and regular practise means notes are learnt, finessed and made secure. My personal mantra is “little and often” (a shoulder injury means I cannot practise for more than about 45 minutes in one sitting without a break) and I have become adept at sneaking practise sessions in to a particularly busy day or if I am going to be away from the piano for a period of time. It’s amazing what just 10 minutes focused practising can achieve – but you need to know what needs to be done (a good teacher will offer guidance on this and give one tools to practise efficiently and effectively). If you are serious about your piano practise, try and set aside some time every day for it. Alan Rusbridger used to practise before he went to work, shoe-horning a brief 20 minutes on the Chopin G minor Ballade into his busy day. And if you are very serious about your practising, be ruthless about setting the time aside, turn off your phone, and simply shut yourself away with the piano.

alan-rusbridger-chopin-s-015
Alan Rusbridger (photo: The Guardian)

If you don’t have the benefit of regular lessons with a teacher, there are plenty of online resources in the form of blogs, YouTube tutorials, and forums, and there are also courses for adult amateur pianists where you can study with international concert pianists and acclaimed teachers or simply enjoy being amongst like-minded people. Such courses are a great way to meet other pianists and observing others being taught in the masterclass or group workshop setting can be really useful. You can even have a rather special “piano holiday” and stay in luxury accommodation with gourmet food and beautiful facilities (though “mandals” seem to be mandatory for both male participants!). Many of my pianist friends return to the same courses year after year and firm friendships have been forged.

newroom3medium-470x314
A rehearsal room at Peregrine’s Pianos, London

Not everyone has the luxury of an acoustic piano (upright or grand) but there are some excellent digital pianos on the market now. There are also street pianos at railway stations and airports, and if you crave the sleek elegance of a grand piano, there are rehearsal rooms available to hire for a modest fee and many churches and community centres have grand pianos which are just begging to be played. Seated at that glorious, gleaming expanse of mahogany, you can dream of playing to a full house at the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.

Above all, love your piano and its wonderful music

 

If there are any specific aspects of amateur pianism which you would like me to cover, please leave a comment below or contact me

Frances Wilson, author of this blog, is experienced in teaching adult pianists and also runs performance workshops for adult amateur pianists.

 

Further reading

More than hobbyists: the world of amateur pianism

The Adult Amateur – article on Practising the Piano blog

Street Pianos

 

Rehearsal rooms in central London

Peregrine’s Pianos

1901 Arts Club

Markson Pianos

Steinway Hall

Bluthner London

 

Piano Day in Hitchin

Last weekend I ran a masterclass for members of the Hitchin Piano Club who are taught by a teaching friend of mine. It was the first time I’d taught adults in this format and I found the experience hugely enjoyable and stimulating – and I think the participants did too. In addition to one-to-one coaching while the others observed, we covered warm up exercises away from the piano, managing performance anxiety and finished the day with a listening game in which participants were asked to try to identify nationality, period and style of a selection of pieces chosen from Spotify. The day ended with me giving my friend a brief lesson, which was interesting for both of us and an important test of mutual respect and trust.

The commonest issue with adult amateur pianists tends to be performance anxiety – by which I don’t mean the fear of playing in an actual concert, but simply playing in front of other people. This anxiety has its roots in a number of places, including negative musical experiences in childhood and the simple, and entirely understandable, fear of making mistakes and feeling a fool in front of one’s peers. Whenever I discuss performance anxiety with any student, I stress that such feelings of anxiety are normal, natural and common – even amongst top-class professional musicians. Until fairly recently, performance anxiety – like injury – was not discussed amongst professionals. It was considered taboo to mention it for fear of admitting to a weakness, but recent projects such as Charlotte Tomlinson’s Beyond Stage Fright and interviews with leading musicians who have revealed their own anxieties and how they deal with them, has led to greater openness. Personally, I find a state of acceptance about the symptoms of performance anxiety, coupled with solid preparation of one’s music, can lead to greater confidence in performance, whether this involves playing in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, as at our Piano Day, or in a formal concert.

The participants in Sunday’s piano day had not been taught in a masterclass format before and I tried to ensure that even while I was giving individual coaching, everyone found something useful in what I was saying and doing with the other student. In fact, the masterclass format can be one of the most useful and inspiring ways of being taught – one can learn a great deal by listening and observing, and I encouraged the others to comment on one another’s playing, including differences in sound and touch. We covered a number of technical aspects, such as rotary motion and lateral arm movement to help certain players release tension in their hands and arms, and to help them achieve the kind of sound they envisaged.

My main aim when teaching is to help students to achieve the sound and emotional content they desire in their music and to enable them to play with colour, expression and confidence. To achieve this, I use visualisation techniques in my teaching, asking students to explain what they like about the music they are playing, to describe the character of the music and ascribe a narrative or mental picture to it to help them create a vivid portrayal in their playing. Technique, such as a cantabile legato or particular type of staccato, gives us the tools to create timbre, mood and emotional impact in music, and technique must always be seen as something with a clear musical purpose. Combine solid technique with imagination and the rather elusive “artistic vision”, and one can create wonderful music, and play with confidence and authority.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and very stimulating day and a pleasure to work with a group of such engaged and receptive students.

Repertoire played:

Mozart – Fantasy in D minor, K.397

Philip Glass – Metamorphosis 3

Beethoven – Sonata in F minor, Opus 2, No. 2 & Sonata in D, Opus 10, No. 3

 

Further reading

Masterclasses without tears

More than hobbyists – the world of amateur pianism

 

Pianists at Play

I was delighted to rejoin the London Piano Meetup Group (a friendly and supportive group for adult amateur pianists in London which I co-founded in 2013) for the March performance event. We met in the airy upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos where we had the opportunity to play a medium-sized August Förster grand piano (one of the many attractions of the group is the chance to play different pianos). There was, as usual, a varied range of repertoire from Scarlatti to contemporary British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, with some impressive and enjoyable Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Bach, Howells, Liszt, Mayerl and even a drop of “cocktail jazz” (‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’). Afterwards, we repaired to The Clerk and Well pub for a jolly lunch and lively piano chat.

newroom3medium-470x314
Upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos

The original motivation for forming the group remains very strong – to provide a supportive and relaxed environment for adult pianists to meet, play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I’ve made some very good friends via the group, as have others, and it was very nice to reconnect with old friends and make new ones too. The popularity of the group – and others like it – is an indication of how many pianists there are in and around London who enjoy the opportunity to meet and explore new or familiar repertoire. The chance to exchange ideas about practising, taking exams, performing, teachers and teaching, courses, concerts and more is also very important, and many people use the informal performance opportunities as a place to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of an exam, diploma, competition or festival performance.

Being sympathetic towards nervous players is a crucial component in creating a “safe place” where nervous or inexperienced players can perform without fear of criticism or negative comments: everyone’s performance receives warm applause and appreciation.

For further information about the London Piano Meetup Group or to join the mailing list to be kept informed about upcoming events, please email londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or find the group on Facebook

Related content

Courses and Summer Schools for Adult Amateur Pianists

 

Celebrating amateur pianism

Final of GPP/LPE adult amateur piano competition, adjudicated by Leslie Howard. Saturday 27 June 2015, All Saints Church, West Dulwich

If anyone needed proof of passion for the piano amongst adults look no further than the final of an amateur competition which took place last weekend in south-east London. A joint collaboration between specialist piano restorer and retailer Grand Passion Pianos and London Piano Events (formerly London Piano Meetup Group), the final brought together seven pianists whose playing demonstrated a high level of technical facility, artistry, musical understanding and committment. The first round (YouTube submissions) presented the judges with the unenviable task of selecting eight people to go through to the final.

The competition final was adjudicated by acclaimed international concert pianist Leslie Howard. The finalists had to cope with a church acoustic (great for the audience, but tricky to judge for those at the piano) and little or no time to warm up, and they all rose to the challenge with poise and confidence (any nerves were well disguised!). At the end of the competition, Leslie made some helpful and encouraging general comments, and everyone left with a sheet of more detailed comments on their individual performances.

The results of the competition were as follows:

Winner – David Griffiths

Mazurka op 17 no 4 – Chopin
Etude pour les arpeges composes – Debussy
Etude-Tableaux op 39 no 5 – Rachmaninov

Second place – Michael Cheung

Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (1st movt) Beethoven
Widmung – Schumann arr. Liszt
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 no. 5 – S Rachmaninov

Third place – Claudia Lazarus

Litaney – Schubert arr. Liszt
Mädchens Klage – Schubert arr. Liszt
In Dahomey (“Cakewalk Smasher”) – Grainger

The Raymond Banning Trophy was presented to the winner by Lorraine Womack-Banning, whose late husband Raymond Banning was a concert pianist, professor of piano at Trinity College of Music, London and a keen supporter of amateur pianism.

Download the full programme here

This slideshow requires JavaScript.