Tag Archives: adult amateur pianists

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.

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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

 

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

 

La Balie – summer piano courses in the heart of France

Launched in 2015, La Balie is the brain-child of Fiona Page, a high-flying former CEO and amateur pianist. After a busy and satisfying career in finance, Fiona felt the tug of a change of direction as she approached a significant birthday. Here she takes up the story of how La Balie came to be:

I was CEO of another successful independent business that I’d really enjoyed building, but I was increasingly looking for other interests and a better balance – I’d started learning the piano and had been thinking for several years of buying a house in the sunshine. So at 49 I set myself the target of buying a house in France by the time I was 50. I thought I’d spend long weekends exploring different areas and looking for the perfect house: as it happened, I chose a few properties off the internet, went to France for one rainy, foggy, November weekend and came back with a house!

The house was La Balie – a collection of 7 stone farm buildings dating from the 16th century.

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When I bought La Balie it had three little cottages that were used for summer rentals. I continued with that for the first summer but then started to think about what else I might use the cottages for. It was an easy process for me: there were four key areas I was interested in and when I talked to other people everyone seemed to agree that music, well-being, cooking and some corporate stuff would be interesting and fun. And that’s how it started!

Along my travels I met concert pianist James Lisney, who I was lucky enough to persuade to lead the piano courses and we were off! The ethos of La Balie is to play serious music in a relaxed environment: the day starts with breakfast served under the cedar trees in the garden and class starts at 9.30 with 4 students playing prepared pieces in a Master Class environment. A lazy lunch is served at 1.00 with the rest of the afternoon free for sightseeing, relaxing by the pool, practice or further individual lessons with James. We gather again around 6.30 for an “Aperitif concert” given by the course participants or for a formal recital given by James. The opportunity to perform at the Aperitif concerts has been a great attraction on the La Balie courses and most evenings we’ve been lucky enough to hear two recitals. The second of James’s recitals this summer was held after dinner in the studio, lit only with candles. It was extraordinarily moving, no talking to the audience, no applause between pieces – just beautiful music and a chance to reflect. Dinner is either on the terrace at La Balie, watching beautiful sunsets, or at one of the many local restaurants.

All the classes take place in The Studio, a beautiful converted barn equipped with air-conditioning, an acoustic ceiling and audio-visual equipment which we use to record performances and some classes. We are lucky enough to have two fine grand pianos in the Studio, with four further practice pianos located in each cottage and in the main house.

The course:

A course for the advanced amateur (Grade 8 and above) and professional teacher with the focus on in-depth study of prepared pieces. This is an intensive course structured as a series of morning masterclasses, afternoon lessons/practice and evening recitals. The course is limited to 8 students to allow maximum participation for all.

Participants may choose three pieces (free choice of repertoire) to study in their masterclass sessions (each student’s chosen repertoire will be circulated in advance of the course). Additional pieces may be selected to perform in the evenings and at the end of course concert.

Class numbers are limited to 8

The Advanced Master Class course costs £1,750 and includes:

  • 3 x 45 minute Master Classes
  • 2 x 35 minute Private Lessons
  • 15 hours of observable Master Classes
  • The opportunity to give an “Aperitif” concert (which can be recorded)
  • Sight-reading and ensemble playing sessions
  • Two recitals from James
  • A personalised follow-up report from James
  • Accommodation, meals and wine

Much more than a “piano holiday”, La Balie offers participants expert tuition in a beautiful and convivial setting, all combined with luxury accommodation, gourmet food and a chance to explore the sunny Lot-et-Garonne.

Watch a short film about La Balie

For further information and booking, please visit http://www.labalie.com/about-2/

More photographs and video clips can be found on the La Balie Facebook page

What people are saying about La Balie:

“I had the most wonderful week at La Balie. A stunning 5-star venue, and the ultimate piano experience. I learnt so much from James’s truly remarkable teaching and performances, but also from all the other players. Hard to imagine a more supportive, warm and encouraging atmosphere. A wonderful group of people, gourmet food and wine, and a lot of laughter. But most of all, on cold winter days to come, I shall remember standing in the middle of beautiful La Balie in the heat of the afternoon, just listening to glorious piano music pouring out of every window and door. A very special place.” – Colin Winter

“An exceptional course with inspirational teaching”

“A wonderful time in every way – great people, great teaching, gourmet food and wine and a lot of laughter”

“The best master classes I’ve ever had”

“An incredible chemistry of place, people and learning”

“La Balie has been created with taste, expertise and passion” – James Lisney, concert pianist

“Beautiful place, surroundings, food & owners…wonderful to retreat to!”

“The Advanced Piano Course was a great inspiration and it was a real privilege to listen to so much wonderful playing.”

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.

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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

La Balie: courses for pianists in France

Survey on piano courses

If you are an adult amateur pianist who has attended a piano course this year (1-day course or workshop, weekend course, or longer residential course in the UK or abroad) please consider taking part in my survey which explores the reasons why people attend piano courses and what they hope to gain from them. I will collate the responses and include them in my round up of piano courses for 2016. All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence. Thank you in advance for your help.

Click the link below to take the survey:

Why go on a piano course survey

Students at La Balie. France
Students at La Balie. France

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

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How social media can support your practising

It may appear counter-intuitive to say that social networking, that most distracting and potentially time-wasting of modern-day preoccupations, could possibly assist in one’s piano practise. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote. A while ago, a renowned British concert pianist posted on Facebook that he was having trouble with a tricky passage in a work by Schumann and asked if anyone could suggest a more intelligent/efficient/comfortable fingering scheme. There followed a stream of replies, many of which offered alternative fingering schemes, while others took the conversation off on interesting by-ways and tangents. A few days later, the same pianist posted that, thanks to the comments, he had found a better fingering for the passage. This is an excellent example of “the wisdom of crowds in action” (to quote from another FB colleague of mine) and demonstrates how social media can, truly, assist in your practising.

When I first started this blog five years ago, I wasn’t very active on social media networks: in fact, the blog was the only “social media platform” I regularly engaged with. I started the blog as a way of recording my thoughts about the music I was listening to, enjoying in concerts and studying. I found it helpful to write down ideas about what I was practising – to think about it away from the piano allowed my thoughts to crystallise. As the blog became more well known, interesting discussions developed out of these posts, as people left comments or contacted me for advice about music or technical issues they were struggling with. When I took the decision to study for my first performance diploma, I charted my progress in a series of blog posts. After the diploma was completed and passed, a colleague wrote that I had been “brave” to have been “so public” in my attempt, and that  my efforts were inspiring and “liberating for so many people” (i.e. other adult amateur piansists). I was flattered that someone thought my writing and musical activities could offer support to others who were considering or actively engaged in a similar musical path to mine. In fact, in addition to writing my own blog posts about my diploma progress, I read and followed many other blogs on music and pianism which provided crucial support, especially in the final months leading up to the diploma recitals. Interacting, via comments and on Twitter, with the authors of these blogs made me feel supported and encouraged. Playing the piano is a lonely occupation (though I enjoy the loneliness) and I didn’t see my teacher that frequently for lessons. When we did meet, there was far too much work to be done on the actual music to spend time musing over more esoteric issues of, for example, interpretation, the psychology of performance and managing performance anxiety, stagecraft and presentation, and all the other myriad aspects which go into producing a slick, well-prepared and engaging musical performance. In short, my interactions with people on social networks made me feel less alone in my task.

A few days ago, I tweeted a picture of the final bars of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, which I am working on at present. This is a long-term project, but my tweet was to celebrate the fact that I had, finally, after 7 months work, learnt the entire sonata. (By which I mean, it is “in the fingers”, but is by no means finessed – that hard work begins now, and for the next half year, or more.) A number of people responded to the picture with words of congratulation and encouragement, while others expressed their liking for this sonata or offered links to their favourite performers and performances of the work. As is often the way with social media, an interesting discussion ensued, all of which, for me, feeds into my continuous circle of practise, study, discussion, interaction, teaching, listening, concert-going, and more.

Across the social networks, by which I mean the most widely-used platforms of Facebook and Twitter, there is a plethora of musicians, music teachers and musically-inclined people who regularly post about the music they are enjoying as a listener/concert-goer or studying and practising as a performer and/or teacher or enthusiastic amateur. In addition to people’s personal timelines, there are groups and forums where like-minded people can get together to bounce ideas around, often providing invaluable support, advice and solidarity for those of us who might be “stuck” in a musical impasse. Sometimes someone might flag up difficulties they are having with a particular section of a piece, or ask for suggestions for new repertoire for themselves or their students, or post a recording they have made for others to critique. Sometimes we just have a collective grumble about how difficult it all is! And often Facebook and Twitter simply provide a pleasant antidote to the enjoyable hardship of trying to refine Schubert’s “heavenly length” or get to grips with a knotty section of a Bach fugue.

On a more practical level, Twitter in particular is the place where you will daily find a wealth of links to blogs, articles, videos and other material which can assist in your piano practise – from the simplest “how to do it” videos to academic writing offering detailed critical analysis and commentary on specific works. Sifting through this material can be daunting, but both Twitter and Facebook have functions which allow you to “favourite” or save links to read later.

Here are some comments from people with whom I am connected on social networks about the usefulness of these platforms to the musician and music teacher:

I have learned FAR more useful teaching ideas and techniques from Facebook groups than I did by studying for a teaching diploma!

it really helps me as practising can be lonely and it’s nice to have piano chat during breaks

Facebook has helped me considerably (and less so Twitter) both to research piano-related information and has helped me hugely with practice through the support of specialised Groups, and of pianist friends on my News flux. Even my face-to-face teacher (not a lover of the social network society) has noticed!

For me it’s solidarity!!! Knowing that I’m not the only one having problems.

We can find solutions to more than just fingering issues. Plus lots of varying opinions. Without it we’d be at risk of only teaching in the way we were taught!

I think one of the most important aspects of social media is solidarity – it’s so good to be able to share problems, find that others are experiencing the same etc. I think that has a huge influence on our own well-being as musicians.

I think there is an almost unlimited amount we can learn from each other, and social networking helps build those connections both online and (hopefully) in the real world too

Selected resources

Practising the Piano (Twitter @PractisingPiano)

The Musician’s Way (Twitter @klickstein)

Piano Addict blog (Twitter @pianoaddictblog)

Stephen Hough’s blog (Twitter @houghough)

Pianist magazine (Twitter @pianistmagazine)

Musical Orbit (Twitter @musicalrbiter)

Piano Network UK (Facebook group)

Professionalism in Piano Teaching UK (Facebook group)

London Piano Events (formerly the London Piano Meetup Group)

The Bulletproof Musician

Sunday Feature: Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?

Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)

I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.

I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am involved in a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.

The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).

So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:

Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.

A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.

The Complete Piano Etudes – Philip Glass. I’ve just discovered these works by the master of American minimalism. Technically and musically challenging and very satisfying to play

Unicorn in Rainbows – Alison Wrenn. A beautiful short work infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms.

Please feel free to join this discussion by adding your comments below. Suggestions for repertoire are also very welcome.

Why go on a piano course?

Piano courses are very popular now, in part thanks to Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again. For many years, Alan was a regular at what he described as “piano camp” – Lot Music, based in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now in its 18th year.

So what is the attraction of a piano course? I think most pianists would agree that in addition to the opportunity to study with some top-class teachers and international concert artists, the social aspect is very appealing. As pianists we spend a lot of time alone with only dead composers (mostly) and that box of wood and wires that is our instrument for company. Many of us like the solitude, but it is also important for us to connect with other pianists. A course is one of the best ways to meet other pianists, to hear one another play, share repertoire, receive expert tuition in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, indulge in piano chat, and have fun. I have formed firm, lasting friendships with people I have met on piano courses, and some of us return year after year because we gain so much from the experience. If you are preparing for an exam, diploma, competition or audition, a course is also a great way of receiving invaluable feedback from a skilled teacher and the other participants, and is an opportunity to run a programme by an informal and sympathetic audience ahead of the big day. Courses such as Lot Piano and La Balie aim to combine expert tuition with a luxury “piano holiday” (partners are welcome too), and there is plenty of time to relax, explore the local area and food, or simply chill out by the pool in between masterclass sessions and tutor recitals. Some courses have a special focus on particular composers and/or repertoire, others on duo or chamber music, and most cater for pianists of all levels and ages.

Many courses are organised in a “masterclass” format – the “private lesson in public” – with group activities too. If you have never attended a piano course before, the masterclass experience can be daunting, and I know from my own experience that hearing other people play very well can be quite unnerving, especially if you lack confidence as a performer. However, most teachers go out of their way to be sympathetic and encouraging to novice or nervous students, and the masterclass can be one of the most rewarding and interesting ways of receiving tuition, for you gain not only the input of the teacher but also useful feedback from other pianists. This interaction can be particularly useful in helping you to evaluate how you practise and study, and watching others play and problem-solve at the piano, with the support of a teacher, can be enlightening and thought-provoking. For piano teachers, observing others being taught offers plenty of food for thought as one is exposed to new ideas and methods.

Another excellent benefit of piano courses is the chance to share and explore new repertoire. On every course I have attended I have discovered new music, from Cyril Scott’s sensual ‘Lotus Land’ to works by contemporary composers such as Stephen Montague and Peteris Vasks. I’ve even attended a course where one of the participants performed his own compositions, written for his young daughter and played with warmth and affection.

And then there is the opportunity to perform, which for many amateur pianists can be one of the most daunting things one will ever do, and also one of the most rewarding and inspiring. Performing to a group of people whom you have got to know over the course of a weekend or a week-long course allows you to perform in a ‘safe zone’, and can be less stressful than a more formal concert setting. The preparation, both musical and emotional, is the same, but it can be hugely less nerve-wracking, and there are usually opportunities to discuss aspects such as memorisation, organising page turns, managing performance anxiety and strategies for coping with nerves.

Above all, piano courses can be great fun, and I can think of few better ways to spend a long weekend than in the company of a bunch of equally fanatical pianophiles, all unashamedly in love with the instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but twice a year it is, for me, the pianistic equivalent of going on a retreat, and in addition to the very useful advice and skills I pick up during the course, as a pianist and teacher, I return to my piano with renewed enthusiasm and focus. And playing for one another at a course also reminds us of the primary reason why music was created in the first place – for sharing.

More on piano courses and summer schools for pianists

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano camp

London Piano Meetup group at Hanna Pianos

On Saturday the London Piano Meetup Group ventured south to Wimbledon for a recital at the showroom of Hanna Pianos. Nine pianists performed an interesting and varied programme of works by Shostakovich, Brahms, Granados, Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin, Stanchinsky and Szymanowski; we also enjoyed a performance of a clarinet piece by Paul Reade.

1452077_600409663360040_497822147_nHanna Pianos has had its showroom on Kingston Road SW19 since 1990. It’s a family-run business and the owner, Fadi Hanna, learnt his trade from a young age, observing and working with his father who established the business in 1960; meanwhile Fadi’s brother, Chucri, looks after the technical and tuning side of the business. When we visited the showroom was graced by a beautifully restored 1900 Bechstein, a Steinway Model O with a lovely burr walnut case and a 1927 Bluthner autographed by Kelenyi (?). We were lucky enough to play the Bechstein for our recital.

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Mr Fadi Hanna with LPMG co-hosts Frances & Lorraine

 

The audience, seated around the piano on stools and chairs, listened attentively and applause was given generously for every performance. The atmosphere was intimate and friendly, and one had the impression of everyone listening very carefully to such high-quality piano music. At the end of the event, Mr Hanna produced the most delicious baklava and other gifts for us. We were absolutely bowled over by his hospitality and generosity, and there was much positive feedback after the event, praise for both venue and instrument. We are hosting a masterclass with Graham Fitch at Hanna Pianos towards the end of this month, and we very much hope to host further recitals in the showroom.

1920 Steinway Model O with burr walnut case

A Hanna & Sons Pianos Ltd

London Piano Meetup Group