Tucked away in a tranquil leafy corner of Great Elm, a small village near Frome in Somerset, is Jackdaws Music Education Trust. Now in its 25th year, Jackdaws was established by the singer Maureen Lehane in memory of her husband, the composer Peter Wishart, and took its name from his most-performed song, ‘The Jackdaw’. Their modest former home is host to a wide variety of very popular short music courses and workshops for adults and children, as well as concerts and opera performances.

Courses take place throughout the year, usually run from Friday evening until teatime on Sunday. The courses are led by inspiring musicians and teachers, and bring together passionate musicians, from the humblest amateur to the aspiring professional, to learn and develop together in a homely, nurturing and friendly environment. Tutors on the popular piano courses include Graham Fitch, Margaret Fingerhut, Julian Jacobson, Philip Fowke, Mark Polishook, Mark Tanner, Penelope Roskell and Stephen Savage. The ethos of Jackdaws is ‘Access-Inspiration-Inclusion’ and the atmosphere and teaching is relaxed, convivial and supportive. Course participants and tutors eat together at a large round table downstairs, meals are freshly made, generous and wholesome, and there are frequent breaks in the teaching schedule, plus free time to practise, socialise or explore the surrounding area. Participants stay with local bed and breakfast hosts in Great Elm  or nearby villages.

I have been meaning to visit Jackdaws for several years: I’d heard so many positive reports of the courses and the place from pianist friends, and a short course with a small number of participants appealed to me. (I have not been tempted by larger piano courses such as the summer schools for pianists at Walsall or Chethams, nor the very expensive summer piano courses in France). It was serendipitous when my regular piano teacher Graham Fitch suggested I go on course called Finding You Voice At the Piano with Stephen Savage. Graham studied with Stephen at the Royal College of Music, and from the outset I found Stephen’s sympathetic and encouraging approach familiar from Graham’s teaching style.

Teaching is organised in a masterclass format which allows all participants to learn by observing one another being taught. We were fortunate in that there were only 4 people on this course which gave each of us the luxury of longer sessions with Stephen and the chance to further explore ideas which emerged from the teaching sessions. And from a piano teacher’s point of view, observing an expert tutor in action is also very instructive.

Our enjoyable mealtime conversations included repertoire, concerts, favourite recordings and artists and piano teaching anecdotes. These convivial interludes in each teaching day helped to forge a sense of shared purpose and musical friendship, which I think really aids learning because one quickly feels more at ease playing in front of others if you’ve shared the same dinner table with these people.


The teaching was of the highest quality: Stephen is expert at very quickly seeing what each person needs to bring their repertoire to life (in my case, a greater richness of sound and drama in the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, and more continuous energy in the opening movement of Schubert D959), and gave each of us useful advice and suggestions for practising, including strategies to bring security to leaps, chord progressions or rapid passagework. It is always wonderful to see how individuals develop, how their music changes, under the tutelage of a teacher like Stephen Savage, and it gives one inspiration and encouragement to keep going on one’s personal musical journey. In addition, courses such as these are a fantastic opportunity to hear, share and discover repertoire, and a chance to make new piano friends.

In terms of facilities, Jackdaws has a good Steinway grand in the main studios upstairs, a further Bechstein grand downstairs plus several upright pianos, a digital piano, a harpsichord and a spinet. Practice time is booked In half-hour slots using a simple rota and everyone was very good-natured about organising this. There is also free WiFi.

In sum, this was an inspiring, stimulating, enjoyable and highly instructive weekend piano “retreat” which I recommend to any adult pianist but particularly those who have not attended a piano course before or might be unsure about signing up for a longer course.

For further information about Jackdaws piano courses please visit

https://www.jackdaws.org.uk/piano/

 

A magical place for music making, made more special by playing in such an intimate space, surrounded by beautiful nature……it encourages us to open up

– Wendy

Sharing music with empathetic people who understand what we’re trying to do and what the difficulties are. It takes courage to play at these events but as adult learners we bring our own life experiences to bear on our music  

– Susan

Small, domestic ‘at home’ atmosphere and lovely people

– Mark

It’s about interaction with new people – I really do value that – and it’s humbling to work with people from a multiciplity of professions who come on these courses with their hang ups. But there’s always a way to face these and to really get some focus into their playing. I think the key factors are the ‘craft’ of playing and rhythmic organisation in the music. As a teacher it’s important to be non-judgemental and respectful

– Stephen Savage

To coincide with the release of his debut CD of piano music, acclaimed impressionist, comic and actor Alistair McGowan shares his passion for the piano and reveals how he prepared for his recording.


What are you first memories of the piano?

My mother had and still has a very good Chappell upright – ‘from Corporation St in Birmingham’. She was always playing the piano when I was young. She was the accompanist at the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society for years and was always playing and practising the score for the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan show they did. She also played a few classical pieces which I would often ask her to play to send me to sleep. She was a fabulous sight-reader and could play almost anything. It breaks my heart that she no longer plays.

My older sister, Kay, learnt to Grade Eight and so was constantly practising. My father and I would listen to her pieces again and again and again as we tried to watch ‘Star Soccer’ in the room next door. It’s the only way to practise but it gave me a very good idea of how hard it is to live with or next door to a pianist. She didn’t touch the piano after her final exam. She is making noises about playing again after all the interest I have shown and I really hope she does go back to it. She was very good!

Did you have piano lessons as a child?

I did two years and passed two grades but stopped when I was 9. I regretted it for the rest of my life and finally took up the piano again for a couple of years in my 30s and then TV stardom got in the way. So, I have only really, finally, finally thrown myself at it again over the last 2-3 years and particularly since being involved in my debut recording project.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to? 

Nothing too ‘bangy’ and anything marked ‘lento’! Over the years, I’ve also loved piano music that I can work to and I think the album reflects that. The music is reflective and romantic, spanning everything from Bach and Field via Satie to Philip Glass. I hope it’s good to revise to, to work to, eat to and even to fall asleep to, too.

How do you make the time to practise? 

At first, it was a struggle fitting things in around other work and I had to cut a lot of things out of my life, but I began to love playing and improving so much that I soon didn’t miss reading about and watching endless football or even playing tennis. I watched less television in general with no regret and played less snooker too. I changed a few habits but have simply acquired new ones and made a lot of new friends through it too. Through it all, I kept on swimming as a wonderful release for mind and body!

Do you enjoy practising? 

I have to force myself to do scales and arpeggios and Hanon but otherwise, yes. I had some very good advice from lots of people. Fellow comic, Rainer Hersch, suggested putting a stop-watch by the music and making sure that every fifteen minutes you change your practise to a different piece or a different exercise to keep the brain active and receptive. I tried to do that. James Lisney [concert pianist and teacher at piano summer schools] is very keen on pianists getting up and stretching regularly, which is also very important (though not a good idea in a concert!). I am a little troubled with a sore right thigh and foot from all the pedalling though.

Have you participated in any masterclasses or piano courses? 

The person who got me playing again, the fabulous accompanist Lucy Colquhoun, suggested that I attend a weekend course with Paul Roberts in Sussex. I learnt a huge amount there in three days and realised above all how much I had to learn and that the learning is never done. Paul was just inspirational and in 2015 I went on his week-long piano course in France and then attended two courses in subsequent years at the delightful La Balie (in south-west France).

I also returned to Paul in 2016 for another woodsmoke-filled weekend. As well as learning from such inspirational players and teachers (James and Paul), who both have such a huge knowledge of piano history, it was great to meet other amateur pianists who shared my passion – most of whom were way ahead of where I was – all willing to play and share and talk about this fantastic repertoire that has been left to us by these amazing composers. I also performed in a number of practise concerts in Barnes with my teacher, Anthony Hewitt, and watching Anthony play live was a masterclass in itself.

What have you gained/learnt from this experience? 

Well, obviously, how much I enjoy playing the piano, but also the importance of goals and patience. I’ve gained even more respect for professional pianists and feel I’ve enriched my life and my soul. I have been a little surprised by how much I have enjoyed regularly turning my back on the modern world.

As an adult amateur pianist, what are the special challenges of preparing for a performance? 

Believing that the sound you are about to make is worth listening to. Believing that you know the music and not letting the occasion distract you from listening to the sound you are making with every note. I had moments of being very focused (reading ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ was a big help), but often heard myself saying ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?” If you can keep that voice out of your head, you will generally be fine!

How did you prepare the pieces featured on your new disc? 

I worked very hard, bringing each of them to the boil in turn. I did a lot of note-bashing on the electric piano at home but there is no substitute for a real piano for the touch. I was lucky enough to have some sessions in St Mary’s Church in Barnes on their excellent Steinway, which got me used to the touch and sound of the best big pianos. I also went to listen to a good few pianists in concert and learnt a lot from hearing James Lisney, Lucy Parham, Viv McLean and, of course, Anthony Hewitt.

I also listened to and registered recordings of the pieces I was playing – to get to know them intimately – on trains and even, especially, peacefully, in bed.

And how did you find the experience of recording the music?

It was like a lesson, an exam, a recital and the greatest pleasure all at the same time – immensely draining and yet utterly thrilling to hear the music I had learnt and loved coming out of the best pianos in the world !

It was also terrifying knowing that this was the one chance to get each piece recorded. I read a wonderful book called ‘Piano Notes’ by Charles Rosen which has a very helpful chapter on the challenge of recording and refers especially to the need to not to worry about mistakes. They can be covered. My teacher/mentor, Anthony Hewitt, was wonderfully helpful at and about the recordings. My producer, Chris Hazel, was unbelievably supportive, helpful and strict!

I had to pinch myself after each recording. I couldn’t believe what I was being allowed to do. I had been to drama school at The Guildhall and worked at The Barbican Centre tearing tickets as a student. So, to be recording in St Giles Cripplegate, just opposite these two important buildings in my life, felt like some sort of karma. And after the eight-hour sessions, I felt like some sort of korma!

What was your motivation for making the disc?

It was principally the challenge of seeing if I could get to a level somewhere near good enough that people would want to listen to the music I was playing. We all need an incentive and knowing that my playing was potentially going to heard by thousands was a real carrot.

I also hope that the album encourages people to play by showing them the beauty of some well-known and some much lesser-known pieces. I have often felt that virtuoso playing (impressive as it is) can just as easily put people off playing as it can inspire them. I know I heard myself say for many years, “Well, I could never play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto like that so, what’s the point…?” I really, above all, hope that people who hear the album will say, “I think I could play that” and do so

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up the piano or resuming piano lessons? 

Do it! It has brought me so much pleasure. There are moments of frustration, of course, but, with patience and a lot of hard work, it is just wonderful to be able to play pieces that you’ve loved listening to all your life. I think learning how to learn is as important as learning how to play ; it’s important to get the most from your playing time. Setting goals is also important. Perhaps organise small recitals at home, before friends, in order to give yourself a deadline.

If you could play one piece, what would it be? 

Ah! That changes all the time as I hear more and more piano music that I want to play and as I am improving. Currently, I am in love with Madeleine Dring’s ‘Blue Air’ but find even the opening few bars very challenging. It’s a wonderful evocation of ‘cool’ and sounds like a theme from any 1960s Michael Caine film. It’s unlike anything else I play. I also have an eye on Debussy’s ‘Ballade’ – but that’s a good few years away, I fear !

‘Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album’ is available now on the Sony Classical label and is the impressionist’s debut album

 


Further reading

Review of Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album

Why go on a piano course?

Courses for pianists

 

(Photo: usefulvoices.com)

Please do not reproduce this article without prior permission from the author of this blog

©Frances Wilson 2017

This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination.

-Alistair McGowan

alistair-mcgowan

The debut album from Alistair McGowan sees the BAFTA-winning impressionist, comedian and actor in a new role, that of concert pianist. Called simply ‘The Piano Album’, it contains 18 short pieces of roughly Grade 5-6 standard, including works by McGowan’s beloved Erik Satie, mostly romantic or flowing music, and is intended to encourage others to play the piano by offering attractive well-known and lesser-known pieces which are accessible to intermediate level amateur pianists. McGowan feels that hearing someone like him, who returned to the piano as an adult having had only a couple of years of lessons as a child, is perhaps more inspiring than a recording or performance by a top professional playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, which many amateurs “could never play” (AG). Having spent the last few weeks listening obsessively to Krystian Zimerman’s exquisite new recording of Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, which have provided me with much food for thought and yes, inspiration, I am not sure I would agree. But as someone who goes to and reviews many piano concerts by top  international artists (Aimard, Perahia, Osborne, Levit, Hough…..), maybe I am not the ideal audience for this disc….

The pieces are played nicely with some good production values, but there is nothing striking about the playing, no moments of insight nor real wonder. Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis No. 5, for example, is pleasant enough. It flows, it’s in time, but it has neither the spaciousness nor relaxed sense of breathing space that a more experienced player or someone who has spent a long time living with and in the music would bring to it. In short, it is rather too “notey” and somewhat laboured. Most of the pieces lack real expressive depth or subtleties of musical colour, and the result is a rather bland trawl through some nice piano miniatures. As a pianist friend of mine remarked, “people with a vague interest in classical piano music who want a “first album” would probably love it. Those of us more used to Perahia, Brendel et al will be less enamoured“.

Having said that, kudos to Alistair McGowan for taking on the challenge of learning, finessing and recording the pieces for this album. Integral to this process were lessons with several concert pianists ,notably Anthony Hewitt and Lucy Parham, and quality time spent at piano courses run by Paul Roberts and at La Balie in France. He has not taken on this project lightly, and his dedication to, and passion for, the piano is to be commended. That alone should be an inspiration to other adult amateur pianists.

The Piano Album is available now on the Sony Classical label

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.

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)

 

 

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.

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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.

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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