Today has been spent watching others play and being taught. Chets operates an “open door” policy which means you can go and observe other people’s lessons and attend workshops with any of the teaching faculty. From a teaching point of view, watching others being taught is highly informative; equally, as a player one gains useful insights from a teacher working with another student, and workshops/masterclasses like this are also a great way of discovering new repertoire. So, this morning I sat in on a workshop led by pianist and teacher Graham Caskie at which students played works by Liszt and Bach. While looking at the Aria and First Variation from Bach’s Goldbergs, we had an interesting discussion about reverence in music and how certain works are afforded a special elevated status (this is certainly true of the Goldbergs) which can make it harder for us to play them because we feel they must be treated in a particular way, when in fact we should simply take ownership of the music and make it ours. Graham also talked about breathing – both physical and metaphorical – in music. I enjoyed his commentary and advice to the students and found him a very thoughtful and considerate teacher.

After lunch I attended the daily Adult Amateur workshop. This runs every day for 2 hours and is led by Kathryn Page and Philip Fowke (whom I had hoped to see in action but he was rehearsing for the evening’s concerto concert). The Adult Amateur workshops give pianists of all levels an opportunity to play to an audience and receive feedback from the teacher. Kathryn is an enthusiastic, positive and highly supportive teacher who was able to give each participant some very useful nuggets of information with which to work when practising. There were some lovely performances of music by Janacek, Beethoven, Turina, Bach, and Sibelius. Once again, people’s love of the piano and its literature was really palpable.

Tonight’s concerts are all about concertos – four concertos in fact with pianists Seta Tanyel (Addinsell/Warsaw Concerto), Leslie Howard (Tchaikovsky 2), Dina Parakhina (Rachmaninoff/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) and Philip Fowke (Grieg Concerto in A). It promises to be a splendid evening and an excellent way to end my weekend at Chets.

I’m up in Manchester at Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists – or “Chets” as it’s affectionately called – for the weekend. It’s my first visit, though I have of course known about the summer school for some years and certain piano friends of mine are regulars here, some returning year after year (one is on his tenth visit!). Said piano friends have been urging me to attend, so it was serendipitous when I received an invitation from Murray McLachlan, who with his wife Kathryn Page runs the two-week event, to attend, primarily to review the public concerts which take place each evening, but also to observe some teaching and general get a flavour of the Chet’s experience.

I have written before about the attraction of attending a piano course or piano summer school and the reasons why people keep returning to Chets were quite clear from my arrival: after 5 hours travelling up from my home on the Dorset coast, I was met by smiling friendly staff at the school and shown to my room in (attendees are accommodated within the school – it’s basic but you don’t spend a lot of time in your room!). In the atrium next to the magnificent Stoller Hall (which opened in 2017), there were groups of people – pianists – talking and laughing, friends greeted one another and there was a palpable sense of excited anticipation about the days to come: the teaching, the workshops, the concerts and the socialising. This is what people come to Chets for.

The rather confusing walk to the accommodation block, the staircases and long corridors reminded me of my first day at university, navigating my way around the hall of residence where I lived, but I suspect within 24 hours I’ll have got the hang of it and it will soon seem very familiar.

A quick change and it was down to Whiteley Hall for the first concert of the evening, a very interesting programme of music with electronics and live visuals, performed Canadian pianist Megumi Masaki with composer Keith Hamel and visual artist Sigi Torinus – a full review will be posted separately. As I was making my way to a seat, I met my friend Noriko and I must say it was good to see a familiar face in the crowd. Afterwards, she, her companions and I went to supper in the school dining hall, another place which brought a rather Proustian rush of memory from university days. By the time we had queued for food, I had got to know Murray, a first-timer who is here for the new piano teachers’ course. He’s never attended a piano course of any kind before, so he’s really jumping in at the deep end having signed up for two weeks!

After supper we made our way back to the Atrium/bar at Stoller Hall for pre-concert chat and drinks before a performance of the Goldberg Variations, then more drinks and socialising ahead of the final concert of the evening, a performance of music for two pianos with Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch. Prior to this concert, I took the opportunity to chat to various people – some were Chets regulars, others were newcomers. All mentioned the quality of the teaching here as a main motivation for attending, plus the convivial atmosphere (the teaching faculty mingle with participants and take their meals in the same dining hall).

Stoller Hall

The final concert was stunning – as was the venue, a modern “shoebox” hall much like King’s Place or Milton Court, designed by Stephenson STUDIO and the recipient of a national RIBA Award, with wonderful acoustics.

I’ve been here less than half a day and already it’s clear that the Chets experience is pretty full-on. Each day has a full programme of activities from teaching and workshops to public concerts, so now I’m off to bed as I’m rather “piano-d out”!

Julian Davis, a retired professor of endocrinology, shares his passion for the piano…..

How long have you been playing the piano?

I started playing when I was about 6 years old, so quite a few decades now!

What attracted you to the piano?

My father was a self-taught pianist and enjoyed playing Chopin Mazurkas, so I heard piano music from a young age. He bought an upright piano, and I think I was just fascinated with trying to make a nice sound with all those tempting black and white keys.

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

My favourite composer since my teenage years was Bartók, and ever since then I have enjoyed exploring 20th century repertoire – initially I enjoyed Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, and then discovered some of the music written since the 1950s, by composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti. But as I have got older, I have discovered the huge riches of all the great classical composers, and favourites now have to include Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Over the past few months my big challenge pieces have been the Brahms Handel variations, Prokofiev’s 7th sonata, Schubert’s D784 sonata, and Bartók’s 1926 sonata. I really enjoy music for two pianos, and with some indulgent pianist friends I’ve had the pleasure of ranging widely over the 2-piano repertoire, from Mozart to John Adams. (Although no-one has been tempted to look at ‘Mantra’ yet!)

Apart from piano music, I have had some of the greatest pleasure playing chamber music. I think my favourite chamber music is that of Brahms, but I’ve been lucky to play a huge range of works, mainly 19th and 20th century music.

How do you make the time to practise? Do you enjoy practising?

Somehow practising – at least as an adult – has always been a pleasure in itself, and I have had real enjoyment from carefully working on something that’s quite hard but eventually starts to become possible. When I was working full time it was hard to do as much as I wanted, but somehow I always found a way to get to a piano. I did the LRAM performance diploma while working as a junior doctor. It was the hardest thing I’ve done: I managed to get 2 hours’ practice from 6am until starting work, and then had more time during the evenings when I wasn’t on call in the hospital. I’m surprised that the neighbours tolerated it!

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?

I have had lessons on and off all my life, and still gain a huge amount from occasional lessons. I find a lesson quite a goal in itself, and always find that I’m just as nervous playing in front of a single critic, however friendly, as I am playing in front of an audience. Having a lesson coming up makes me focus properly on practice, and review my goals. The most enjoyable aspect I think is the chance to focus for a couple of hours on music that I love, and that I’ve worked hard to master, combining advice on technical challenges with ideas about how to convey it more effectively, often in ways that I hadn’t thought of. The challenge: well, that is trying to master the technical aspects as well as possible beforehand in order to allow the lesson to move on beyond that – and the real challenge of course is always that I never play as well as I think I should!

Have you attended any piano courses? What have you gained from the experience?

I haven’t really had the time to attend courses until recently, when I have started to go to the Dartington International Summer School. I first went to Dartington in 1983, and returned 30 years later. The escape from work to a week of intensive music-making in the summer school has felt somehow magical every time I’ve been, and I haven’t been able to resist returning for the past few years. A week at Dartington has all sorts of opportunities for music, but for me the piano master-classes and workshops have proved particularly inspiring.

Do you play with other musicians? If so, what are the particular pleasures and challenges of ensemble work?

I love playing solo music, and the feeling of self-sufficiency and responsibility makes it important for me. However ensemble playing has always been one of life’s biggest pleasures. Each ensemble feels very different, and working together as a duo, or as a trio or a larger group provides something very special in terms of musical and inter-personal dynamic. At its best, the sense of musical give and take, intense listening, and working together to create something wonderful that you can’t do alone, can be one of the most magical experiences that I have had in music.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

I don’t think I’m naturally very extrovert, but I do enjoy performing. It’s a pleasure when I feel well prepared, and when I feel I can convey something about music I love to an audience. I find concerts where the performers talk about the music much more rewarding, and I like to talk about the music I’m playing, not at length, but enough to tell people about the context of when and why the music was written, how its structure works, and why I like it.

Recently I’ve found that house-concerts have been really satisfying. We can only fit 10-12 people into the room with the pianos, with a few sitting on the floor, but others can overspill into the hallway or in another room. The informality of a short programme, with tea and cake and friends and children milling around, seems to work well, and our very loyal friends and neighbours seem happy to come back for more.

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

Do it! I think that learning the piano is a peculiarly rich activity: there is the fulfilment of gradually achieving a technical challenge, and the tactile pleasure of interacting with the instrument, together with the magic of making a piece of great music come alive in front of you.

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

This sounds like the challenge put to me by my teacher, William Howard: ‘What work have you always wanted to play, but thought you couldn’t?’ The answer of course, is that there’s a long list of such pieces! But limiting myself to one work sounds rather tough… but for something unattainable, how about Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.


 

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