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
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
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.
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
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.
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, shedid a short part-time stint at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama beforegoingto work as a Director of Music at a prep school. However,the lure of thebrightlights of the big cityand 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 marriedand moved to the South West, competed in EnduranceHorseRiding atthe highestlevel both at home and abroad, and worked for a number of blue chip companies in various roles. She hasrecentlycome back to playing the piano after a gap of 30 years.Lisa isnowmaking up for lost time and tackling all the repertoire she should have looked at years ago!
I’m a returner pianist – and maybe, if you’re reading this article, you are too and therefore what follows will chime with you. Or perhaps you are thinking of taking up the piano again after a long absence (as I did), in which case you should definitely read on…..
I played at a piano club recently and during the coffee break someone asked me if I was “a professional pianist”. This gave me a momentary glow of pride – evidently I had “made an impression” – and I know that many amateurs dream of reaching the dizzy heights of ‘professional standard’ in their playing. It’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to practice; alone with that box of wood and wires we dream of playing to a full house to the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.
So I replied that no, I was an amateur pianist, an adult ‘returner’ and that I had given up the piano at the age of nineteen, returning to it just shy of my fortieth birthday with an all-consuming passion for the instrument, those who play it and its vast and varied literature. (You can read more about my return to the piano at the end of this article.)
The world of the adult amateur pianist is a curious one – at once rich, vibrant and varied, but also obsessive, anxious and eccentric. But above all, it is inspiring, and in my encounters with other adult pianists, through my piano group and on piano courses, I come 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 failures, the frustrations and pleasures of practicing, and the fear and thrill of performing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.
When you tell people you’ve taken up the piano again they always ask, “Are you any good?” And I never know quite what to say. Some days when my spirit and fingers are in sympathy with each other, I think I make a reasonable sound. On other days, spirit and fingers aren’t on speaking terms and the result is fumbling, dismal, depressing.
Alan Rusbridger, journalist and amateur pianist
When I put out a call for contributions to this article via Twitter, I was deluged with responses, as varied, fascinating and moving as the literature of the instrument we play. What follows are just a few of the responses, but what they demonstrate is that, while there are some obvious common threads, our reasons for returning to and playing the piano are often deeply personal and hugely meaningful to us as individuals, and that our passion for the piano is all-consuming. Never forget that the word “amateur” derives from the Old French word 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. Our love drives our commitment to the instrument – amateur pianists are possibly the most dedicated practicers – and many of us are absorbed by a compelling need to get better, to progress, to master. It’s a lonely road to travel, which is why piano clubs and courses are so popular for the opportunity to meet others who are similarly driven and obsessed. Those of us who commit to the journey do so willingly; it’s an ongoing process, one which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.
That is not to say that professional pianists 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 and know personally 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. 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.
Now, back to those inspiring adult returners…..
My primary reason for returning was that both my parents had lived the last ten or twelve years of their lives with advancing dementia, as well as some second degree relatives. I thought the best way to really work my brain was to go back to playing music. The secondary reason was to help relieve stress which was something my piano teacher had told me I would need at some point in my life……For me, having started to suffer the lacunar strokes in my family history which have a type of dementia related to them, I keep hold on the fact that the part of the brain the works with music is usually the last to fail. I still feel that playing the piano is probably one of the best avenues to take to keep working the brain. Apart from that I simply love playing again. – Eleanor
It was the death of an uncle which prompted me to return to the piano. He was very musical, and after he died my other uncle asked me whether I would like his piano, a rather fine Steinway grand which had been in the family for ages. However, grand pianos are somewhat incompatible with the three bedroom semi in which I live, but it did remind me how much I’d enjoyed the piano. I was lucky enough to be left some money in his will, and with that I bought a Yamaha upright with silent system fitted. I wanted a proper acoustic, but I have young children so a silent system means I can practice at night after they are in bed. I have lessons once a fortnight and they are completely indispensable for my enjoyment
I studied music at university and did two years of a performance major but struggled with various chronic injuries and dropped out as a result (I had two operations and had seen many medical specialists in attempt to resolve these problems). I then “sold my soul” to capitalism and started a business, following which I continued along a corporate career. I had always dreamed of getting back into playing but my schedule was punishing and not at all conducive to playing. I started to play again and unfortunately ended up with RSI (tennis elbow) which swiftly ended my return to playing. Then a few years later I managed to extricate myself from the corporate world and…..I managed to start playing again and although I had some niggles from the RSI, was able to play around 0.5 – 1 hrs a few days a week. I also started going for lessons with [a teacher who] focussed very much on reducing tension…..and I realised how much of my injuries came down to poor technique and tension. I wish a greater emphasis had been placed on this when I was a music student because while [my teacher] helped me find a much more natural, comfortable way to play, it was already too late and my RSI flared up again to the point where a few minutes of playing would leave me in agony for days. It was devastating after so long of trying to be in a position to have the time to play that I wasn’t able to. A few years later (whilst consistently seeing medical specialists and trying various approaches) I managed to have a breakthrough in which I was able to slowly start playing again, a few minutes every second day and was able to gradually build up. This was a useful exercise in that I had to be more focussed on practising effectively given the limited time available. Despite being told by numerous doctors that I wouldn’t play again, I’m now able to play for up to an hour on some days. This has been sufficient to learn some new repertoire and to perform in some amateur meet-up groups which has really been a wonderful experience. In fact, once I was able to let go of the inner critic (as a former music student, the inner critic remains highly developed even though one’s technical ability wanes without practice!), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed playing. It would have never have occurred to me all those years ago when I dropped out of university that I’d be able to derive so much enjoyment out of playing as an amateur.
I originally started piano lessons aged 13, of my own volition; I’d had one of those 80s electronic keyboards that were all the rage back then, and wanted to progress to something more substantial. My progress was very slow, however, and ultimately not very fulfilling. I managed to pass my Grade 1 but found the exam experience stressful. I think a lot of it had to do with the prescriptive way children are typically taught: everything was just scales, sight reading and set pieces that weren’t especially fun or engaging to play. Nearly twenty years later, I was in a piano bar on holiday, and the pianist was playing modern music set to piano. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of regret that I had abandoned such a beautiful instrument. On returning home, I did a spot of research and found that digital pianos had come on a long way in the intervening years and were now touch-sensitive with weighted keys and even a sustain pedal. I took the plunge, ordered a decent model (the Yamaha P115) and signed up for lessons with a local teacher. It’s been a wonderful decision, and I have fallen in love with playing. It’s still small steps, but I practice regularly and have actively witnessed improvement in my own playing.
I discovered classical music as a teen (Bach) and started taking lessons. I wanted to be a composer, and eventually became a composition major at a local university. Having started late, and not having received family support and good advice from those who did support me, I let my insecurities defeat me, and I ended up getting a degree in English. Decades later, we inherited a spinet from a relative, and I found my passion once again. I finally have a good teacher, and am making progress toward being the pianist I wanted to be.
And what of me, the author and creator of this blog who through my activities tries to support and advocate for amateur pianists? Discouraged from applying to music college with the suggestion that I wasn’t “good enough”, I threw myself into other studies (Medieval English), followed a non-musical career path for 10 years, while setting up home, getting married and starting a family. But in my late thirties, when my son was about eight, my mother bought me a digital piano and urged me to start playing again. So I dug out the music I had loved as a teenager – music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy – and also some I had hated: Chopin’s Nocturnes. I fell in love with Chopin’s music; coming at it as an adult with a greater degree of life experience, I found it vivid, beautiful, passionate, poignant – and incredibly satisfying to play. I also returned to Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, music I’d first started playing (badly!) at the age of about 12 when my mother bought me an Edition Peters score of this music, having heard Alfred Brendel play the Impromptus in concert. Within a couple of years, I was teaching piano to the children of friends and acquaintainces I’d met via my son’s primary school, and in 2007, my husband bought me a proper acoustic piano. The instrument arrived, and I spent hours and hours playing it and learnt the first movement of Schubert’s final sonata – in a day. Within eighteen months I was having lessons again with a sympathetic teacher who improved my technique beyond recognition and built my confidence. When she suggested I start looking at Chopin’s Etudes and Ballades, I knew I had reached a significant point in my piano journey – I felt I was now a “real” pianist – and she supported my decision to take a professional performance diploma (in fact, I took two and passed both with Distinction, under her guidance). Meanwhile, I had started writing this blog, initially to record my thoughts about the experience of playing the piano again, music I was enjoying at home and at concerts. (I had no notion of how successful and popular this blog would become in the subsequent 10 years.) Today I work in music: I’m not a professional pianist, but I am a ‘music professional’ (a writer, blogger, teacher and, more recently, a publicist working with musicians, and concerts manager), and everything I do now goes back to that decision to return to the piano at the age of 39. I’ve forged firm friendships through piano courses and clubs, and made significant connections with professional pianists, teachers, bloggers and others, and I know I would not given up this life for anything now.
My piano journey has been relatively straightforward compared to some of the accounts of other adult returner pianists, but we are all on our own personal path, some of us supported by teachers, others choosing to “go it alone”, but all driven by a common, consuming passion for the piano.
Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music….there has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard….inexplicable and almost fetishistic….
– Charles Rosen
The members of my piano Meetup group, my students, the people who play street pianos – they are all “pianists” to me.
Yet in the research for this article, I discovered that many people believe the title “pianist” assumes a certain level of capability and should only be conferred upon a select few – professional concert pianists or those who have achieved an extremely high level of musical attainment.
“Oh I’m not a proper pianist!” is a common refrain from the amateur pianists I meet regularly, some of whom are very advanced players. But what is a “proper” pianist? Is it someone who can perform complex repertoire from memory, with confidence, poise and flair, who has undergone a rigorous professional training, who has 50-plus concertos “in the fingers”….? Or is it simply a person who self-identifies with playing the piano?
Google isn’t much help either. Type in “Being a pianist” and the search throws up any number of “How to be a better pianist” sites, “top 10 worst things about being a pianist” or “15 steps to become an amazing piano player” (if only it were that easy!).
A confession: although I have played the piano for nearly two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until I had secured my first professional qualification (a performance diploma, taken in my late 40s), that I felt I could justifiably describe myself as “a pianist”, rather than someone who “plays the piano”. When I started to give public concerts, sometimes for real money, I stopped feeling like I was playing at being a pianist, a fraudulent concert pianist.
Being a pianist implies an intensity of connection, commitment, passion and focus. For those who play professionally, it can be all-embracing, sometimes overwhelmingly so, for one must live and breathe the instrument and its literature. Work shapes every hour of the day, the cadence by which one sets one’s life, always feeding the artistic temperament, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain, and always the uncomfortable knowledge that one is only as good as one’s last performance. In addition, the competitive nature of the profession coupled with its job insecurity leads many professional pianists to pursue, by necessity, what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” which may include teaching and lecturing, running summer schools, arts administration or even roles outside the music industry. “Being a pianist” can feel distinctly unglamorous, restrictive, sometimes lonely, often badly paid….
“I play the piano” suggests a more casual relationship with the instrument, something one does occasionally, at weekends, on Sundays….Yet many of the amateur pianists I encounter display a passionate commitment to the instrument which borders on obsession, regardless of the level at which they play. These people are not dreaming of the stage at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall; no, they play and practise for a personal challenge and fulfillment, a sense of one’s own accomplishment, to be better than one was yesterday while working towards tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…..It’s addictive, constant and consistent, sometimes therapeutic, often frustrating, but always, always compelling….It’s founded on love, of the instrument and its literature, and it is this love which drives these people to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, cherishing precious moments in their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano.
It’s a state of madness. Unless you’re any good. Even then, you drive yourself half mad and waste precious time proving yourself to idiots who haven’t a clue – David, professional pianist
There’s a frustration with which many of us who play at an advanced level are familiar – that people don’t really understand or appreciate what we do, or how hard it is (“does it get easier as you get better?” a friend of mine asked me recently. “No“, I replied. “You just get more efficient at working out how to do it!“). I remember the parent of one of my students commenting admiringly that it was “amazing” how the music just “came out” of my fingers. “How do you do it?” she asked. I felt like asking her whether she had ever considered why her daughter, my student, was required to practise regularly…. Yet for audiences and onlookers the magic, the mystique, of the pianist is very potent, and to reveal too much about our craft and art would dispel that.
Frustration, physical pain and constant setbacks. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be a mantle I can take off though – it’s just what I am
It’s my passion, frustrating, challenging and rewarding every day
It is the most important thing in my life, it makes me profoundly happy to play and teach this beautiful instrument and its wonderful repertoire. I never take it for granted. When I play, I am transported somewhere else beyond my music studio…
It means I can be pro-active with the world of music, and not just a bystander
It means feeling alive, it’s who I am. My life would be useless without music
– Tricia, professional pianist
Being a pianist puts us in touch with a vast repertoire, a rich seam of creativity, and some of the finest music ever written, and still being written. By engaging with it, we bring these works to life, like a conservator or gardener, every time we play. It puts us in touch with emotions and sentiments which are common to us all; it reminds us of our humanity, yet also transcends the pedestrian, the every day. In this way, for many of us being a pianist is an escape: as a child, I regarded the piano as a playmate, a place where I could go to weave stories and set my imagination free. Why should that be any different when one reaches adulthood?
For all of us who play the piano – amateur or professional – being a pianist offers limitless possibilities in what we can create and experience.
The real question is – what would you be without the piano?
amateur pianists at a piano summer school
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My first Chetham’s. The International Summer School & Festival for Pianists, that is. Manchester, UK. Two hundred and thirty participants. Forty tutors and staff. Phew!
What is Chetham’s? A holiday? An experience? A dream? Deep learning? A festival? Camaraderie? Joy? All these and more. Mental exhaustion? Yes. Tutorials throughout the day. Recitals each evening. And practice rooms open 6am til 11pm. Seven days (fourteen if you can do it) of end-to-end piano madness. Non-stop. Punctuated by meals and coffee breaks. And for those with stronger metabolisms than I, late nights in the bar or around town. I needed sleep. Lots. Be prepared to pace yourself.
So what is Chetham’s? A privilege. Yes. A shock, also. So much talent. I feel … inadequate. My journey just beginning, despite the last years of obsessive practice. I am … nowhere. Visceral. I feel it keenly as I watch the young people and experienced ‘adult amateurs’. It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, despite the modest progress I have made. So little for the effort expended. Like a heavy weight bearing down on me, I hardly dare to imagine what will happen if, in the end, I find the journey too onerous.
Day 0: Registration. Check in. Unpack. Explore. And in the evening (from 5pm) three recitals! Three!! Nearly four hours of music, including Peter Donohoe CBE (Haydn programme).
Day 1: Tai chi (optional) Breakfast. 1-to-1 and group workshops. Coffee break. Workshops or practice. Lunch. Workshops. I play on stage, on a grand, for six minutes, to over seventy people. I am first to volunteer. Not bravery. Far from it. Desperation. Unless I do this my performance anxiety will kill whatever progress I have made. Dinner. Then three more recitals. Top international talent. 10pm. Bar. Wine (large glass). Sleep.
Repeat for six days. And *everyone* gets a piano.
Day 2: 9am. I am sitting in (observer) on a composition class. A young man, clearly ambitious (and knowledgeable) is explaining to a faculty tutor that he wishes to write a toccata. His tutor opens a copy of Spectrum, book IV (ABRSM) and invites the young man to accompany him at the keyboard in selected ‘miniatures’. They discuss style and compositional ideas. Exploring. There is a poster on the wall of the tutor’s office: Peter Maxwell Davies. My mind returns to 1975.
What is Chetham’s? Memory jogger and nostalgia generator.
Time for my second 1-to-1. Schubert. I learn how to play big chords, softly. And how Schubert requires far less pedal than I was using. Somehow Tippett enters the conversation. My tutor has a close relative now occupying the house where Tippett lived and composed. He tells me about the garden path he trod while writing Child Of Our Time. And as the lesson ends, my tutor tells me – based on what he heard and the way I took instruction – that I should be playing more advanced music: Grade 8 music. Music to my ears … but he does not know just how much work I do at Grade 6. LOL.
Still day 2. Lunch. I sit down by myself. A lady a couple of chairs away seems eager to introduce herself. We exchange stories. As a student, she studied Jazz, at Leeds, and now teaches. I start listing some of my musical heroes, starting with Corinne Bailey Rae. Her face lights up. “I was at college with Jason and Steve!” Oh my. My new Chetham’s friend (Leeds accent, there’s the clue) shows me photos of herself and the gang.
Is this musical world smaller than we imagine? Is that because being ‘musical’ is rare? Or weird? Does it require a particularly high IQ, or is it just a niche innate ‘talent’? More evidence emerges … I am in the school shop (Forsyths, who also ship-in additional grand pianos for the summer school) and ask a question about the Spectrum series of ‘contemporary music’ I heard about in the composition class. A man standing nearby asks, “Ah. Do you like contemporary music?”
“Britten and Tippett,” I reply.
“Oh, not contemporary then,” he says. “Britten would be 106 this year.” He smiles.
(He has a point. I have some catch-up to do.)
And then explains he has “worked with Britten”, and “lived for a while at The Red House”. Wow.
“And did I mention that I also worked with Tippett. Nice man.”
And the young woman behind the book counter joins in. “Yes, Tippett came to conduct our school orchestra. I agree, really nice. Fun. Britten was a but stuffy.”
Racing ahead with more connections the man (a Faculty tutor I now see from his badge) adds, “I taught Ed Sheeran you know. Lovely family. Must catch up with him some day.”
So there we are. What is Chetham’s? The centre of things.
How can this still be Day 2? But it is. A (much anticipated) evening recital in the gorgeous Stoller Hall (perfect acoustics). Angela Hewitt. Bach. The monumental Goldberg (30) Variations. Four (four) standing ovations! A once-in-a-lifetime performance. Superhuman. Truly. Everyone agrees.
Day 3. The afternoon class introduces a wonderful idea. We are each asked to i) walk to the piano (applause), ii) improvise “anything” (no more than thirty seconds), iii) take a bow and iv) walk offstage. It works like a dream. Those who were reticent to play before are, by the end of the course, playing to the group.
Day 3. Evening. The bar. Chatting. We have just been treated to not one but TWO concertos. Brahms No. 1 and No. 2, with full orchestra (the first performed by Murray McLachlan, founder of the summer school, the second by the french-American pianist Eugen Indjic). A quiet lady joins us. I ask her what she has played to her group. In an accent I don’t recognise she explains she is too nervous. She has travelled to Manchester from Brazil. And not played! (other than to her tutor) Well, that has to end. Gathering up a colleague, and despite it being late (11pm), I suggest that we grab a room with a couple of grand pianos and play to each other for an hour or so. And we do. And my little plan works. She plays a complex piece by Villa Lobos. Slow and hesitant but lovely. And half an hour later she is showing off another piece, rich in Brazillian rhythms. Mission accomplished.
(Later in the week I repeat this trick for an IT Project Manager who had previously only played to his teacher at home … not even to his family and friends. But he played for me, at Chetham’s, and later found the confidence to play in his final group workshop.)
So what is Chetham’s? Mutual support network. Agony aunt for performance anxiety limited international piano tourists.
Day 4. I sit in on an ‘Improvisation” lesson. The pupil is a lady I met on the bus from the station. She has spotted my music bag and introduced herself. Her first Chetham’s, just like me. To the surprise of her tutor, she breaks down, tearful, before the lesson gets underway. The explanation: the first two days had shown her a new world: what it *really* means to be a musician. She explained that her musical education at school, and with various ‘teachers’ thereafter, was little but rote learning. No creativity. No authenticity. I understand her. My childhood experience was limiting. Decades pass and along comes Chetham’s to show us what the journey is really about. Two minutes later she has recovered her composure as she listened to the kind, empathetic, words of reassurance from her sensitive faculty teacher.
Day 4. Just before lunch. A friend from a London-based piano circle I attend (LPMG) emerges from class. We decide to help each other and find an empty practice room. He helps me with my sight reading. We exchange notes on Bach minuet style. We play Satie to each other, wondering how to achieve evenness.
Day 4. Afternoon tutorial. More input. Listen. Apply. This is good. I am learning. I hope it sticks. I’ll try.
Quote of the week:
Pupil: “I always get these bars wrong.”
Tutor: “I see. Have you tried playing them right?”
Evening concert. Sarah Nicolls’ ‘Outside-In-Piano’. Difficult to describe. Sarah builds vertical pianos, exposing the strings. The keyboard is sawn off and put back at a ninety degree angle. (No reaching over to get to the strings and the audience sees everything) Sarah uses this ‘instrument’ and a pile of electronics to compose new music. Tonal music washed in pads of sound coaxed from the unusual piano using her box of toys. What is this music? Part theatre, I could call it acoustic-electro-Dada’esque art. The hour with Sarah bewitches the audience. I meet up with her after the show, and she gives me an old piano-key from one of her construction projects. Apparently it contains a secret download-key to her digital album.
Sarah turns out to be an ex-student here at the school. So what is Chetham’s? Creativity incubator. And talent attractor.
Sarah is building a new InsideOutPiano (grand) using high-tech light weight components. The unique #StandingGrand will be built by FuturePianoLtd. The design will occupy no more space than a traditional upright and be able to be carried by two people. This will allow Sarah to perform more wildly and perhaps open the market for more musicians to own such a beautiful and unique instrument. Please consider supporting this project here on Kickstarter.
Day 5. Late (after an evening of recitals). Cabaret!! Not the musical; rather an end of summer school tradition. We assemble in the hall for the end of week celebration. A few have been roped in to provide the ‘entertainment’. A talented student plays the ubiquitous Bach Prelude in C major from the WTC Book 1. He is sitting on the ground, facing away from the keyboard, hands over his head and swapped left-right. This and a host of other entertainment closes the night. And before you ask … yes, I volunteered. It went down OK (for a first timer). Enough said of that the better.
Day 6. The following morning. Bit-of-a-head after late night wine. But I had signed up to play in the ‘leaving day’ recitals at 10AM. Without music! Memorization. Satie. Gnossiennes No. 1 and No. 2. Six minutes. That should be enough of me for this audience.
So what is Chetham’s? Unique. Essential. If you want to find out what lies ahead, just around the corner, waiting to pop up and poke fun at you. I’m back at school, where I need to be. The stepping stone.
What was the oddest thing I learnt? Clementi lives in Croydon. His name is Chris and he is a bellringer. Yes, Clementi’s great great (etc) grandson lives not too far. I knew there was a reason I found those exercises a little too close for comfort….
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