PeteCHow long have you been playing the piano?

Started with lessons at school 60-odd years ago, but never did any exams or grades; Kept it up, informally and somewhat chaotically, until after retirement; (I’ve usually had a piano in the house); started lessons again 3 years ago.

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

Mostly romantic standards: learned a few Chopin pieces recently, earlier did some Granados Spanish Dances. Also, Ravel, but I find most of it too hard, Debussy: a bit easier!

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

I’m retired, so I practise an hour or so most days when at home. Yes, I enjoy it or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience? 

Masterclasses at Broughton in Furness with Anthony Hewitt, Martin Roscoe and others. I feel I get more from the fact of performing in front of people than from what I learn at the class

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

Making discernable progress: e.g. attempted a piece 2 years ago (Ravel: ‘Menuet’ from Tombeau de Couperin) and gave up as it seemed beyond my abilities. Took it up again a month or two ago and realised that it was now quite feasible. I feel I am hampered by having done little work on scales, arpeggios etc – there is no infrastructure to my playing!

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

Socially, we have a Piano Circle, hosted by my piano teacher. We meet once a month and play our pieces to each other. Most of the other members are more advanced than me, but we all encourage each other and I get some compliments about my playing, which is good for my confidence. I find that the challenge of playing to others means that I have to get a piece up to a presentable standard rather than giving up when the going gets tough. (For example I have played the first two pages of Debussy’s Clair de Lune for years but always gave up when the arpeggios begin). I’m planning to learn it properly when I’ve done my present piece.

In addition, we go to local concerts, for which I might not be motivated without social pressure.

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

I play at Piano Circle and at masterclasses. I’m a nervous performer, and tend to play much worse than I do at home in private. I wish I could stop making careless mistakes!

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

Go for it!

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

I’ve been trying to learn the Chopin’s Prelude no 17 in A flat. It’s a wonderful piece with those amazing chromatic episodes: trouble is, it’s just a bit too hard for me at present! I gave it a trial outing at Piano Circle a few months ago and made a bit of a mess of it, but doubtless it will come! As we’re thinking about Alan Rusbridger and ‘Play It Again’, perhaps it is my G minor Ballade! 

Peter Cockshott lives in the Lake District. He studied physics at University and went on to a career in industry, working in physics and electronics, retiring from this some 10 years ago. From an early age he has spent his spare time climbing or running in the hills, but now has to fit in piano practice as well.

 

He has piano lessons with Rosemary Hamblett in Ulverston.

How long have you been playing the piano? 

I guess, in total, nearly 20 years. I started when I was 7, and had lessons until the age of 18. Then restarted again at around 25-ish after spending too long at university doing science degrees.

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

I have very broad listening tastes – any type of music from anywhere really. I’m a composer too so I think listening widely is really important for broadening your musical horizons. I’m much more conservative when it comes to playing though. I recently discovered I love playing Bach, which is great for the fingers, brain and soul! I played a lot of classical repertoire at school, but now love playing the Romantics (Brahms, Chopin and Rachmaninoff particularly) and really enjoy Debussy. I’d like to learn some works from more modern composers too, particularly Kapustin and Ligeti. I also like playing jazz – Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock, anything really.

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

I think people make time for what’s important. I love practising so I usually find time at the expense of other things (like exercise!). I play at least an hour a day, often more. Learning to play a really great piece is quite addictive I think – and really life enhancing to spend so much time in the company of a great work of art. Usually I play in the evenings, but sometimes manage 45mins before work too.

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses? What have you gained from this experience? 

Yes, both, multiple times. My masterclass experiences have been mixed – some have been wonderfully enlightening and encouraging, and some rather soul destroying! I think it depends on how well you know the piece (don’t even consider doing it unless you know the piece absolutely inside out!) and the personality of the teacher. As for summer schools – I like to go to one every year or so, to sort of turbo-charge my enthusiasm for practising. I’ve been to Chetham’s a few times, which is amazingly invigorating but absolutely exhausting! I always come back fresh with new ideas for how to practice, and an enormous wish-list of pieces to learn. I’ve also done a week at Dartington and been to the COMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs) summer school a few times, which are much more varied as they don’t just focus on piano. It’s always a real pleasure to meet like-minded people at summer schools and share you passion.

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

I think being challenged to think and hear in a different way is the most enjoyable aspect of lessons, as well as being introduced to new repertoire. The most challenging aspect of lessons is probably not playing as well as I know I can when I’m home alone. Which is really frustrating!

What are the special challenges of preparing for a piano exam as an adult? 

Fear of making an idiot of yourself! I was scared of having a memory lapse, as I always play from memory. Finding enough time and courage to practice the whole program in front of people can be a challenge too. But overall I’ve really enjoyed preparing for the two exams I’ve done as an adult (ATCL and LTCL performance diplomas).

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

I’ve certainly met more pianists through lessons, which has been great. I think playing piano and challenging yourself to continue learning has enormous benefits in all areas of life, and makes you more mentally alert.

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

Do it! But find a teacher who enthuses you and makes you want to practice, not one who makes you feel like you have to start from scratch every week.

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

Something very long – like Bach’s Goldberg Variations – so I didn’t run out of music!

Though actually it might be Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

Caroline Wright has an MMus in musical composition from the University of London, and a Licentiate Diploma in Piano Performance from Trinity College of Music, London. She is a scientist by profession, and blogs about musical memory at http://memorisingmusic.com.

In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.

When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.

Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).

His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry.

Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.

In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.

Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?

The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.

This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.

A pleasing trend is the increasing number of enthusiastic adult amateur pianists who are enrolling for lessons. Some are players who had lessons in their youth but who gave up, for various reasons, and who are returning to the piano after a prolonged period away from it. Others simply want to learn a new skill, or, in the case of two of my adult students, want to learn so they can help their children who are learning to play the piano.

I am what is classed as an “adult returner”: I took lessons from the age of 5 to nearly 19, with two teachers, and worked through all the exams (practical and theory). Then I went to university, fell in love, started work in London, got married, all things that conspired to keep me away from the piano. It was only when I started writing a novel in which the principal character is a pianist that I began to play again, figuring the best way to research the music I was writing about was to actually play it. It was hard, at first, to return to pieces I’d played well in my teens, but it was also cheering to find I hadn’t forgotten that much.

I started taking lessons again in my 40s, in part to try and understand the psychology of being taught as an adult, so that I could help my own adult students, all of whom are very nervous and lacking in confidence.

This is a key factor in teaching adults: building confidence. As we get older, we seem more aware of the embarrassment of making a mistake or appearing foolish in front of someone else. Just as my teacher does with me, I try to make my adult students feel comfortable and confident. Yes, it is hard to play for someone else, but they know I am not going to bite them!

Confidence comes through good and thorough preparation, self-belief, and praise from a teacher or mentor. Many adults arrive at lessons with an idea of what kind of music they want to play, and many find their own choices are too difficult. I try to select repertoire which will suit my adult students, taking into account their individual abilities and tastes.

One of the nicest aspects of teaching adults is more involved communication than one enjoys with a child. One can explain concepts and technical issues, and feel that the student has understood what is being asked of them. There is greater opportunity for more discussion about the music, and many adults have a good grounding in music history and/or theory (if they had studied music as a child), or general music appreciation, which helps enormously. The relationship often becomes personal and close; one of my adult students has become a very good friend.

Some of my other observations on teaching adult amateur pianists:

Practising: many adult students have busy lives with other commitments such as work, family and so forth which can prevent them from practising as regularly as they would like to. A teacher should be able to guide and advise an adult student on best and most effective ways to practice given time constraints. I encourage focussed practice: breaking down the music into manageable chunks and learning how to spotlight tricky or problem areas for special attention.

Repertoire: some adults, especially “returners”, can have ideas somewhat above their capabilities and will arrive with music that is, in reality, beyond them. Rather than dampen their enthusiasm, I will either find a simplified version of the piece for them to learn, or suggest learning just a small part of the piece – though it can be frustrating, as a teacher, to listen to Debussy or Chopin being mangled week after week (!). I always let adults select the repertoire they would like to learn, rather than be dictatorial about it.

Exams and benchmarking: No one, neither adult nor child, is forced to do exams in my studio. I have two adult students who want to take exams because they enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, and find that this keeps them focussed. When my student Sarah, who has been learning with me for four years now, achieved a Merit in her Grade 1 exam, we both enjoyed a huge sense of achievement! Other adult students are more than happy to play for pleasure, with the teacher offering more advanced repertoire so that they have a sense of progression. Another of my adults regularly asks me what level the music she is learning is (roughly around Grades 2-3 at the moment).

Performance anxiety: Many adult students can be very very nervous when faced with a performance situation. I can sympathise with this, having been in a similar condition myself a few years back when I first started having lessons again. But adult students who want to take exams need to be taught how to overcome their anxiety. First, they should be encouraged to play within their capabilities; and, secondly, they should take every opportunity to practice performing – be it to the family, pets, neighbours, or in the more formal setting of a music festival. “Mock” exams are useful, along with physical exercises away from the piano to help relieve tension.

Enthusiasm: Adult amateurs are generally very enthusiastic about their piano lessons, usually because they are learning for completely different reasons to children (sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, personal development etc). Never dampen that enthusiasm, and be accommodating if the student cannot make a lesson one week (I find it helpful to have adult students on a “pay as you play” basis) or hasn’t completed their practising.

Courses and workshops: a great way for adult amateur pianists of all levels to get together, share repertoire, receive tuition from top-class teachers (often professional pianists), and simply enjoy playing the piano! More on courses here.