Amateurs have nothing to lose by being musically true to themselves…… professionals are sometimes too intimidated to display their individuality

– Daniel Martyn Lewis, concert pianist

The world of the adult amateur pianist is rich, vibrant and varied. In researching this article I came across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and the frustrations of practicing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

The cultivation and participation in the activity of playing the piano, and the commitment to it, is very strong amongst amateur pianists, perhaps because the activity is undertaken voluntarily, not for money, and for the intrinsic pleasure of playing and also striving to improve.

The more you learn, the more you realise you still have to learn – so you never run out of stuff to do. You can take as long as you like to learn something difficult, or learn something easy within a short time.

– an adult amateur pianist

Adult pianists enjoy greater autonomy and self-determination than they probably did as children taking lessons, when there was parental and teacherly pressure to practice and progress, the treadmill of exams, and being made to learn repertoire which they disliked (this is very much my own memory of childhood piano studies). Being solely responsibility for selecting your own repertoire and organising practice time is often far more satisfying. A love of the learning process is also very important in fostering a willingness to stick at the task and many adult pianists continue in their piano endeavours because they enjoy being the perpetual student or lifelong learner.

It’s an intellectual challenge, but, crucially, one that I can dip in and out of – shorter bursts of practice seem more beneficial than four-hour stretches, which I wouldn’t have time for. There’s also something very satisfying about reaching the point where your hands seem to know just how to play a piece, and what was previously the subject of great effort becomes almost instinctive. 

Clare

I love the rare practising sessions, when I don’t have to watch my time and can go back to previously played pieces (hours can go by without me even noticing, because I get so lost in it)

– Sylvia

Many amateur pianists attest to the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano (and engaging in music in general), not only for relaxation or escapism after work doing one’s “day job”, but for more significant, life-changing or healing therapy.

At the age of 29 my partner of 5 years took his own life. I was in a desperate state when I walked passed a music shop and saw a special offer on a weighted action keyboard … on impulse I bought it….I played for hours and hours each day. I’m not a pianist: I am someone who finds great comfort and therapy in playing. I’m a great believer that playing literally saved me…..it gave me a purpose

– Gary

I started playing the piano when I was 25 as an aid to recovery when I was going through one of my depressive states. I find music so uplifting that I’m now want to take it further and possibly get to a professional level. Being totally blind doesn’t stop me playing the piano the way I want to

– Lucy

I find playing the piano is an excellent opportunity to focus in a way that’s just not possible at work; it slows down your train of thought and forces you to stay in the moment.

– Clare

Those of us who teach adults are regularly impressed by the persistence and determination to improve which these pianists display. They may not have much time to practice, snatching precious moments at their beloved instrument between the demands of work and family life, but they do so with commitment and (usually) enjoyment. Some grow frustrated with the slow pace of progress and arrive at a level which is “good enough” for them to enjoy playing pieces; others strive for excellence, recognising that deliberate practice, self-regulation and reflection are the keys to success. Many take regular lessons or attend piano courses, at home and abroad, relishing the chance to study with a master teacher and meet like-minded people.

lessons are a great opportunity to think about the piece as a whole, and to actively articulate what is happening in the music in a way that isn’t easy to do on your own at home. External scrutiny is also very helpful in making sure practice happens

– Clare

I treasure the chance to learn from established, respected musicians and to challenge my own ways of thinking.  It’s then up to me to synthesise the various ‘inputs’ I have gained along the path of learning a piece – mostly between my regular teacher and the sometimes differing thoughts of whoever is taking a masterclass

– Douglas

Many adults who return to the piano years after ceasing lesson as children or teenagers reveal the hangover of authoritarian parents or teachers when they recommence lessons. I have taught adults who have had inculcated in them a clear sense of a “right way” to play the piano, or insecurity and self-doubt about their abilities, previously engendered in them by a dogmatic or overly negative teacher who continually highlighted mistakes as “failures”. Such attitudes can take time to change and empathetic and supportive teaching is crucial in these scenarios. Sometimes adults come to lessons with unreal expectations – I used to teach a London black cab driver who wanted to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. “I’ll do it one day!” he declared at his first lesson. But beneath the bravado was an anxious person who lacked confidence and was highly self-critical, and who needed gentle coaching to help him find his way through the first movement of Beethoven Op 10, no. 1 and a Bach Prelude. One of the many roles as a teacher of adult amateurs is to manage their expectations in a non-judgmental way and without ever dampening their spirit or enthusiasm for learning.

It has been the best decision to re-kindle my passion for playing piano. I don’t perform and feel very amateur still, but just enjoy practising, learning and improving.

As an adult, I am dedicating far more time and energy into improving my skills and learning about good practise than I ever did as I child. I absolutely love it, find playing therapeutic and relaxing, and enjoy learning new things every day.

– Ruth

Playing the piano can be a lonely activity, and while many enjoy the solitude and the chance to spend time with the instrument and its rich repertoire which we as pianists are so lucky to have, the opportunity to interact with other pianists can be hugely important. Piano clubs and meetup groups are a popular way to connect with other pianists, perform in a friendly environment, share repertoire and socialise for plenty of “piano chat”. Such groups can also provide invaluable support to those who are nervous about playing in front of others and promote the feeling that we are “all in it together” – because members of piano groups understand and appreciate the difficulties and the pleasures.

The piano meetups are truly inspiring and they help me to realise that I am by no means alone in my difficulties and it helps to discuss them with other adult pianists.

Kim

Performing, though never ever undertaken lightly and often fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, carries fewer consequences for the adult amateur pianist. One’s career prospects are not dependent on a pristine performance and there are no critics in the audience, barbed pen at the ready to flag up errors.

It helps that no matter how badly wrong a performance goes, there are no “real consequences” for me; I can fall flat on my face on stage (either literally or figuratively) and come Monday, nobody at work knows what happened. That really helped my performance anxiety.

Petra

Playing for one another in the informal atmosphere of a piano club (perhaps in someone’s home) or meetup group becomes an important shared activity – sharing music, repertoire and the sheer pleasure of playing the piano. Each performance is greeted with enthusiastic and supportive applause, and often such gatherings are places where new discoveries are made – about oneself as a pianist and performer, and of repertoire.

And for all the adult amateur pianists I spoke to in preparing this article, the notion of the piano as a “friend who has always been there for me” is very strong, providing solace or relaxation after a tough day at work, or simply a place to go and “play”.

I’d encourage anyone to play – it’s truly a beautiful thing regardless of ability

– Anthony


Thank you to all the amazing adult amateur pianists who contributed to this article.

Guest post by Emma Williams

Finchcocks is a handsome manor house in the Kent countryside, which has been filled with music since its inception in the 18th century.

Until recently, it was home to a living museum of music – which I had visited as part of a private visit. We’d had a marvellous time being let loose on the collection, which included some fine harpsichords and clavichords, square pianos (including one which belonged to Queen Victoria, made by John Broadwood & Sons), fortepianos, and grand pianos by Clementi, Pleyel, Erard and Broadwood. It’s no surprise therefore that I was sad to hear the news that Finchcocks was on the market and its exceptional keyboard museum was to be closed.

But there’s great news: the wonderful musical tradition, established by Richard and Katrina Burnett back in 1971, will be continued at Finchcocks! The new owners have announced they will be hosting regular residential piano courses at Finchcocks, and guests will be accommodated in the stunning, recently renovated 18th Century Coach House.

The first weekend piano course was held in November, run by Finchocks’ Musical Director Dave Hall, who did an excellent job engaging and inspiring a group of advanced intermediate pianists. Finchcocks’ courses will also cater for complete beginners (a welcome addition to the piano course world, as most courses are aimed at advanced players), and there’s a fabulous range of pianos to play on by Steinway, Bosendorfer, Yamaha and Broadwood. In the cellar, there are eight high-tech digital grand pianos.

My lovely piano teacher, Graham Fitch, will also be leading a few piano courses at Finchcocks next year. For more information about courses, tutors and accommodation, please visit www.finchcocks.com

Emma Williams is a keen piano player and recently attended a Finchcocks Weekend Piano Course.


Further reading

Why go on a piano course?

Courses for pianists in the UK and Europe

 

A three-day weekend course for adult advanced pianists (Grade 7 to post Diploma)

This exciting new course is led by tutors Dominic John and Maureen Galea, and is based in Leighton Park School, just outside Reading.

The emphasis will be on encouragement in a supportive  and friendly environment.

The course consists of individual lessons, workshops, Alexander Technique sessions and Harpsichord sessions.

Accommodation and meals are all part of this exciting course which aims to be a fun but intensive weekend.

The course will give the opportunity to meet other pianists as well as receiving expert tuition.

Course Dates

Thursday 5 April, 2018 arriving between 6 and 7 p.m. for dinner at 7 p.m., to Sunday 8 April 2018 at approx. 5 p.m.  (Times to be confirmed).

Fees

Fees for participants are £475.  Payable on booking

This is a not for profit venture but any profits that may arise will be donated to Help Musicians UK

Further information and booking https://penny560.wixsite.com/aurora

leightonparkschool1
Leighton Park School

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