Amateur pianists – how has lockdown been for you?

What have you been playing?

Have you practised more or less during lockdown?

How has your motivation been?

Have you been able to continue with piano lessons? (If you have regular lessons.) How have you found Zoom lessons?

What has lockdown “taught” you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section or contact me if you’d prefer to talk in confidence

 

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, gave us some fascinating insights into the world of the amateur pianist in his 2013 book ‘Play It Again’ – a world hitherto regarded by many as the realm of eccentric hobbyists and ‘Sunday Pianists’ note-bashing their way through Chopin and Brahms, and old ABRSM exam books….

What Rusbridger’s book reveals is something quite different, and anyone who has attended a piano course or belongs to a piano club will have come across the exceptional amateur pianist, the one for whom “the distinction between the feats they can manage on the keyboard and that of an accomplished professional pianist is pretty negligible” (Alan Rusbridger).

Who are these exceptional amateurs and how have they achieved a standard of playing which, if presented in a blind audition, would be indistinguishable from a professional pianist?

Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the amateur and the professional pianist is simply mercantile: the professional gets paid for their performances. Aside from this, there is no reason why an amateur pianist cannot achieve the dizzy heights of a professional standard of playing

I’ve met a few exceptional amateurs myself, on piano courses and in my piano club. They are individuals whose playing one would happily pay to hear in concert, yet they have “day jobs”, perhaps the most famous being Condoleezza Rice, who served as US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and who has played at Buckingham Palace for The Queen. Then there is British-Australian pianist Paul Wee, a barrister by day, with two acclaimed discs to his name, including one of Alkan’s notoriously challenging Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano, works which require an exceptional level of technical and artistic executive function, and certainly not the repertoire would one normally associate with an amateur player.

But here’s the thing: amateurs can and do play repertoire like this, and the fact that they do debunks the notion that amateurs are cack-handed dilettantes. We know exceptional playing when we hear it – and being “exceptional” does not necessarily mean the ability to play the most demanding, virtuosic music. What distinguishes these people from other amateur pianists, what makes them truly exceptional, is their ability to play at and maintain this level, piece after piece, performance after performance.

Aspiration is everything” says Julian, an amateur pianist friend of mine who plays at an extremely high level of both technical and artistic fluency. But surely the ability to play at such a level goes beyond mere aspiration: we can all aspire to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne or Gaspard de la Nuit, or any of the other high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire. But only a handful of amateurs can do so convincingly and, more importantly, consistently.

Some exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, a training which ingrains in them good practice habits, how to practice efficiently and deeply, and an appreciation that one must ensure the foundations are in place on which to build technical and artistic assuredness. This includes selecting appropriate repertoire, and listening and studying around that repertoire to broaden one’s musical knowledge and place the music in the context in which it was written.

Commitment and time management are also crucial for the exceptional amateur (as indeed for anyone who wishes to improve their playing). Music is “always something I’ve made time for” says Paul Wee in an interview for Gramophone magazine. Other exceptional amateurs to whom I spoke when researching this article said the same thing, that making time to practice is very important to their pianistic development. For many, this means a regular daily (if possible) practice regime. Paul Wee admits that he blocks off several weeks to devote to his piano playing and that he is lucky that his job as a self-employed barrister allows him to do this. He also points out that this approach to practicing is often used by professional players who, because of concert and touring schedules, may not have the luxury of a daily practice regime.

While many exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, they have chosen a different career path while keeping music as a significant part of their life. I think this goes beyond merely “playing for pleasure”; as mentioned above, one must be willing to commit to the task and adopt the ethos of continuous improvement, with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to put one’s ego to one side, rather than wanting to “prove oneself”. But amateurs enjoy considerable freedom too: they are not bound by concert diaries, the demands of agents or promoters, and they can choose when to be exceptional – unlike the professional who is judged on every performance and who is under pressure to be exceptional all the time.

Is there really a difference between the exceptional amateur and the professional pianist? No – because they are both pianists and the same technique, musicianship and artistry applies.  

 

In a large early nineteenth-century former church – its previous life still evident from the grand organ situated above an elegant balcony – a group of people are ranged across plastic seating on tiers more usually occupied by orchestras in rehearsal. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a better view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. Below us are two beautiful gleaming Steinway concert grands, nose to nose like sleek racehorses. Players are called forward alphabetically and each person introduces their repertoire before sitting down to play. There’s an added frisson to today’s gathering because of the choice of pianos, a rare treat for these ‘piano nuts’ more used to playing at home on uprights or digital instruments (few have the luxury of space or money for a grand).

The performances are varied, some highly polished, a couple near-professional in their finesse and virtuosity, others are more tentative, a little hesitant as nerves get the better of the player and turn fingers trembly and the mind blank. But each performance is greeted with enthusiastic applause and there’s a palpable sense of community and collective experience.

I can’t remember exactly what I played at that particular gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG), a club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded back in 2013 when I was keen to meet others like me (being a pianist can be lonely!), but I do recall what Howard Smith played because it was by Satie, something of a rarity at LPMG events – and indeed in the concert hall. I’d not met Howard before, and I remember being struck by the sensitivity with which he played. Later, in the pub, we got talking and he admitted that he had felt very nervous playing in front of others, and had also found the advanced players quite intimidating. I assured him that he was not alone in feeling like this and that many of us were nervous (but had learnt to hide it!). We talked about the exigencies of practicing, the pleasures and the frustrations, and I discovered that Howard, like me, was a “returner” to the piano, and was working towards his Grade 6 exam. As we chatted, I sensed a quiet determination in him, to improve his playing, overcome his performance anxiety and connect with other pianists like us. Later, in an email, he told me he was writing a book about his experiences as an adult amateur pianist.

The world of the amateur pianist is a curious one – obsessive, often nerdy, richly varied, as our LPMG membership attests. We’re a motley bunch – several doctors, an actuary, a video games designer, a retired OU lecturer, a handful of piano teachers – of mixed ability players, from almost beginners to those who’ve had a formal musical training in conservatoire but who decided to take a different career path. Some have played the piano all their life, others have taken it up in retirement, or, like me and Howard, returned after an absence. But there’s one thing that unites us….

These are all people who confirm and reinforce the true meaning of the word “amateur” – not maladroit, dilettante “Sunday pianists”, but people who absolutely love the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of LPMG and this love is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our obsession: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, instruments, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, recordings and more. Released from their living rooms, basements and garden studios, where practising is often undertaken in pleasurable solitary confinement, regular meetups allow these people to indulge their passion and share it with likeminded others.

“You’re all weird!” says my cycling-obsessed husband. But when I point out to him that I have encountered a similar passion amongst his cycling fraternity, he concedes that we are all “nuts” of one kind or another!

Amateurs may never touch the professionals, but they might just conceivably touch the audience with their fidelity and commitment to the piano and its literature. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the sheer amount of hard work, and anxiety, grit and determination, that has gone into preparing for that performance.

And it is this hard work – the practising, the striving and a desire to improve, the sheer bloody-mindness to stick to the task  – which colours Howard Smith’s book ‘Note for Note’.

In part a memoir, ‘Note for Note’ is a Pilgrim’s Progress for the amateur pianist, and in it Howard charts the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”, as well as the sloughs of despond when one can feel stuck in a rut due to lack of progress or having reached a plateau in one’s musical development with no clear way of moving forward. These are aspects which all pianists, indeed all musicians, whether professional, amateur or student, will recognise, and Howard describes the setbacks and the triumphs, small and large, in an engaging, candid and witty narrative. There’s an immediacy to his writing too, which reflects his excitement in the discoveries or progress he makes: those wonderful breakthroughs when one thinks “Oh yes, now I understand!”.

Having had some lessons as a child, Howard decides to revisit the piano in his retirement, throwing himself into his practising and musical study with all the dedication and passion that befits the word “amateur”. That Howard loves the piano is clear from the outset: beguiled by the instrument, its literature, those who play it, the practice of practising, and the will to improve, he sets out on the rocky road to mastery, with the support of teachers, friends and other pianists (amateur and professional). The result is a remarkably honest book that will resonate with others on the same path and will provide inspiration and practical information for those who are just starting out on the journey.

But there’s more to this book than a straightforward ‘What Howard Did Next…..’. His intellectual curiosity and a voracious appetite for information lead him to explore music theory, harmony, improvisation and song-writing, and all his discoveries are documented within the pages of the book, as Howard shares his growing musical understanding with his readers. Such information is explained clearly, in some instances with diagrams, to assist the reader, and because it is presented from the point of view of someone who has only recently grasped the concepts, it is easy to understand and absorb. Thus, this book is also a primer for those interested in exploring harmony, and particularly jazz harmony, lead sheets and the building blocks of jazz improvisation, in more detail. Meanwhile, the ‘Postlude’/appendix includes a helpful checklist for the piano student and advice on managing performance anxiety, a perennial issue for many musicians.

I sense a courageousness in Howard too. It’s not easy to set oneself on a musical path such as this: playing for a teacher or in front of others at piano club or on a course, or taking practical music exams are perhaps the hardest things for the amateur pianist, yet Howard’s willingness, tempered with a healthy dose of humility, to “just do it” (to quote a famous advertising slogan) is admirable and inspiring.

This personal testimony, written by someone who understands both the daily practicalities and exigencies of learning a musical instrument and who also has a deep appreciation of the art and craft of music, regardless of genre, is a celebration of the wonderfully enriching experience, both physical and emotional, that music brings to so many people – as players and practitioners, teachers and listeners.

Above all, this book is a love story – for the piano and those who play it, and music and musicians in general.

‘Note For Note’ is available to order via Amazon


 

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Guest post by Christine Kammer


I hear this sentence from friends and colleagues all the time. Why add another obligation to our busy lives when we are in our thirties or forties? Many people seem to believe that taking lessons and practising the piano, violin or flute takes too much time and energy. They may be afraid that it could turn out to be a lonely and frustrating activity. And yet, I chose a different path… When I started taking piano lessons again several years ago at the age of 35, I didn’t know any other adult amateur musicians. An extrovert by nature, I soon started looking for like-minded people. And I discovered a wealth of possibilities: online music forums, piano summer courses – a whole new world opened up. For years, I spent lovely summer weeks together with other piano enthusiasts at workshops in Tuscany, France and Scotland. To meet fellow musicians in my home town Vienna, I founded the “Vienna Piano Meetup”. Since 2014, we have been meeting regularly to play for each other, informally and in a friendly atmosphere. And we’re not just pianists: some of us found their flute or violin partners via our group. I was thrilled to discover that there are similar activities all over the world. Over the years, our group has had visitors from Hong Kong, Canada and the UK – and I joined piano meetups when I visited cities like New York. In times of social distancing, many of these amateur music groups continue to socialise online. Occasionally, professional musicians discover our little get-togethers. Whenever they come along, they seem impressed by our spirit. What we do is not about competition – we welcome musicians at any level and encourage everybody to play. It is purely about sharing our love for music. “I envy you guys. You make music just for fun, without any purpose“, a stressed orchestral violist once said to me. In return, I can say that my admiration for any professional musician has grown tremendously since I started learning an instrument myself. Over the years, I have expanded my musical activities: Together with a software engineer and amateur flutist, I founded the non-profit association MUSEDU. We organise workshops and events for hobby musicians, like a cello workshop for beginners or a visit to a violin maker‘s studio. We offer a bilingual platform where local music teachers can promote their music lessons. And I enjoy sharing my thoughts on life as an amateur musician and other topics in our music blog. Learning an instrument takes time – that is certainly true. But it brings endless joy, energy and inspiration in return. And many new and interesting social contacts, if we‘re up for it. I‘m truly glad to have started this adventure! In fact, just earlier this year, I took up a second instrument – the lovely cello. Why wait until we’re retired?


Christine Kämmer is an intermediate pianist and beginning cellist with a degree in Asian Studies and Philosophy. In 2017, she founded the non-profit association MUSEDU in Vienna, Austria, together with amateur flutist Matthias König. musedu.at/en

 


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As part of the celebrations for my blog’s 10th anniversary, I asked people to submit recordings. Here are two very contrasting pieces by friends of mine, who are, like me, very keen amateur pianists and lovers of the piano and its literature. In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Neil and Julian at the very popular and enjoyable house concerts which Neil organises in his home in West Sussex.

 

 

Guest post by Julian on the piano course at Lot in France


 

The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site

Guest post by Lisa Davies

Having set up the office to be able to work from home, and been successfully working from home for a week or so, I receive a phone call to say that I have been furloughed with immediate effect. So what should an amateur pianist do to fill all these spare hours?

The answer is a no-brainer – PRACTICE!   So in line with Government restrictions, a routine soon built up: two hours in the morning followed by a walk (weather permitting) at lunchtime, another couple of hours in the afternoon, and then watch the ‘Rocky Horror Show’ from Downing Street at 5pm.

I am very lucky in as much as I have a brilliant piano teacher who foresaw exactly what was going to happen and helpfully suggested that perhaps it would be a good thing to abandon what I was currently looking at and learn a Beethoven piano sonata instead; he suggested Op 110 as it was a wonderful piece and had enough to keep me occupied and on the straight and narrow (if only he knew!) for the time being.  So I immediately ordered the Urtext edition, which duly arrived on my doorstep within 48 hours – and so the fun and games began.

After the initial read-through to get the overall feel for the piece and see how it was to be tackled, it was down to the nitty-gritty.  Out came the notes from the various piano courses I had attended with a view to putting all these different learning techniques in place – break it down, isolate the actual problem and get out the metronome, etc.,  and soon recognisable strains of Beethoven were emanating from the house.

So the ambitious plan was set – try and get through the whole sonata by the time I have my next lesson, whenever that would be.  The main reason I had avoided this piece like the plague was that it had a fugue or two in the last movement; however, with enough graft it should EVENTUALLY start to take shape and I was told that I couldn’t use the excuse that my hands were on the small side – so just get on with it.

Beethoven-Piano-Sonata-No.31-in-Ab-major-Op.110-Analysis-1
The opening bars of Beethoven’s piano sonata in A flat, Op 110

Now, having a practice regime is great but my husband and neighbours are not used to the constant aural bombardment.  So far they have been very polite about it and one has even provided my husband with a man-cave to retreat to.  I am sure they are all looking forward to me going back to work, whenever that might be, but in the meantime, I need to be considerate about the length of time that they have to put up with the noise and also the time of day it is inflicted on them.

As well as a superb grand piano, I am very lucky to own a Roland keyboard and this has really influenced the way in which I practice.  With a set of decent headphones, the sound is great but it also has a secret weapon – an internal electronic metronome which can’t be thrown at the wall when it doesn’t keep time with your constant internal clock!  So I can practice day or night without disturbing anyone (although I believe you know when I am playing as you can hear the noise of the keys being depressed over the top of the TV downstairs!)

Many hours of fun and bad language followed (particularly when tackling the fugues in the last movement) and then to prepare for a piano lesson with a difference – via Skype!  So a date was set and software tested with a neighbour, and come the day we couldn’t get a connection on the laptop.  But where there is a will, there’s a way. Abandon the laptop by the grand piano and use the keyboard with the mobile strapped to the top of the handle of the hoover!  I was more worried about our stack of towels by the keyboard being visible than Op 110….

Several weeks on and Skype has been mastered and the laptop is now behaving – shame about the pupil.  I am getting used to playing to a laptop balanced on a bar stool – shame there’s no bar! – and having my lesson at home with all the distractions that brings with it.  If anyone thinks piano lessons by Skype are a doddle – think again.  They work in a totally different way and are very productive, although I have yet to be convinced that pedalling is totally covered.  I still wonder if there is any possibility of rigging up YouTube and using a professional recording one week instead of me….nice thought!!!!!!

In the meantime, the horrendous disease that has been incarcerating us all seems to be receding and so, if all goes to plan, I will be attending piano masterclasses in France in late August.  Usually, I spend months preparing and memorising what I am going to take, but this year is different: the choice has been made for me – a certain Beethoven sonata.  Can I prepare it in time? Only time will tell, but due to an enforced lockdown routine, the notes are learned and it is now being memorised (slowly!).

So what have I learned over the lockdown?  On the surface the answer is very easy – Beethoven’s Op 110.

However, there is a deeper answer to that question. We have all been housebound for several months and there are people I know who have really found this period very difficult.  But at a time when the arts are suffering through lost performances, music is being cut from schools and rumours that it could be cut from curricula in the short term to make up for the loss in the Three Rs, music is a subject or way of life that gives you a code for living.

Music demands dedication – you have to practice. In order to practice you need patience, thoughtfulness and tolerance.  In the society in which we live, we need all of these in spades – particularly now.  Surely people must realise that music teaches you about life and not just the pieces for your next exam or performance?


Lisa started learning the piano at 10 and, having decided that riding professionally was not for her (or rather her parents!), she auditioned for a place on the GR Course at the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied the piano with Peter Uppard and Margaret Macdonald. On leaving the RAM, she did a short part-time stint at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama before going to work as a Director of Music at a prep school. However, the lure of the bright lights of the big city and her family relocating to the UK were too much of a draw and Lisa ended up moving back to London and working in the City for many years. She married and moved to the South West, competed in Endurance Horse Riding at the highest level both at home and abroad, and worked for a number of blue chip companies in various roles. She has recently come back to playing the piano after a gap of 30 years. Lisa is now making up for lost time and tackling all the repertoire she should have looked at years ago!