Guest post by Howard Smith

Like many adult learners, Howard Smith found it surprising that he would suffer that most debilitating of all pianistic ailments: extreme performance anxiety. He explained to me that this came as a big surprise, having been a confident keynote speaker at many large events during his long career in the IT industry. Now semi-retired, Howard is working hard to lead a new creative life, focussed on the piano.

Members of the London Piano Meet Group (LPMG) guided the initial development of Howard’s collation of collective wisdom.


Confronting my fears and learning ways to reduce and manage them is empowering. I can become a more confident performer.

There are two kinds of performance anxiety:

  • Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason!  If I am well-prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.
  • Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation. Maybe I was just lucky playing at home in the practice room? Under the spotlight, things fell apart.

The combination of sufficient practice and building resilience under emotional stress can help to reduce performance anxieties.

Technical preparation is the bottom line. Stiffness, awkward movements and poor technique become completely dysfunctional during a live performance; my mind and muscles won’t be able to cope.

I must develop a narrative of success and avoid a narrative of failure. A series of poor performances can result in a vicious cycle of negativity. Avoid at all costs.

Consider using techniques from NLP and CBT to turn negative messages and the ‘toxic inner critic’ into positive affirmation and confidence-boosting messages.

1) Adopt the Right Mindset

Accept yourself for what you are. How well you perform is not a determiner of your self-worth.

Nobody is perfect. A few mistakes are OK. Most audiences won’t notice, and many are non-judgemental.

Accept that a degree of nervousness (butterflies) is healthy. It is natural and affects most everyone. If you are not nervous or are overconfident, something is wrong. Adrenaline can be useful but needs a channel.

To build a narrative of success, seek out a graduated series of low-threat performance opportunities. Start with a video camera or tape recorder. Treat this session as if it were a real performance. Stand up and address your imaginary audience. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Try to maintain the tempo. Then move to the next level: a trusted friend or musical associate. Then a few more friends. Etc.

Each time you perform, think about what you found hard. Consider what new coping strategies may be required.

2) Choice of Music

A successful performance of any piece of music boosts your confidence and increases emotional resilience in readiness for your next performance.

Choose music safely within or below your grade: ‘easy for you’ pieces with which you are entirely comfortable. Hard to say, difficult to do.

Play at a tempo at which you can be confident.

Performing less well-known repertoire can be helpful. Familiar or iconic music can attract higher expectations from audiences, heightening your natural fear of being ‘under the spotlight’.

3) Prepare for the Performance

Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong.

Tip: A few days before your performance, identify the one bar (one) that you find the most challenging. Experience shows that this simple, practical solution seems to ‘clinch’ the sense of confidence after all else is said and done.

Perform whenever and wherever you can. For example, find a piano in a public space. Play when your friends come round, whether they want to hear or not. Tell your ad-hoc audiences to accept your performance for it is: the practise of practice! Doing so will help you feel what it is like to be nervous. These ‘safe’ performances reveal whether you have sufficiently practised.

Also, practise in front of your teacher. Take their advice but ask them not to obsess about tiny details. It’s too late for that. Ask them for their input on the entire sweep of the performance.

Work on controlled breathing, and meditation. Relax. Find the mind tools to redirect thoughts when they turn negative.

Be healthy. Exercise. Eat properly.

4) The Day Before

Limit stimulants. Get adequate sleep.

Practise yes, but avoid over-practise. Focus on the big picture.

Take a walk, jump up and down, shake out muscles, or do whatever feels right to ease any anxious feelings. Repeat nearer the time.

5) At the Performance

If possible, warm up beforehand by playing a few scales.  At least try to feel the piano keyboard in advance. Play a few notes and chords. Don’t forget the pedals.

Remind yourself that you are well-prepared. Don’t over-think what could go wrong.

Foster a ‘safe space’ for yourself in which to perform. Get into ‘the zone’. Centre yourself.

Adopt an aura of confidence. Visualise your success. Face down your anxiety.

Think of the audience as your friends. Connect with them – smile, make eye contact.

Shift the focus from your vulnerabilities, towards the music itself. Close your eyes. Imagine your audience enjoying the music.

Aim not only to perform correctly but also to communicate the emotion of the music (sadness, joy, profound feelings).

As you start to play; play with confidence. The success of the first few bars is essential to your continued confidence throughout the performance.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Relax your facial muscles.

Play with passion! Play joyfully. Play as if you are giving a GIFT to your audience, instead of focussing on what may go wrong or being over-critical of yourself. Perfection if not the same as beauty. Moreover, leave your ego at home!

As you play, listen but do not analyse. Focussing too closely on finger and hand movement is not going to help at this stage. Communicate the expression or ‘story’ of the music rather than its technical aspects.

Allow the music to flow through you, imagine yourself as a conduit for it, rather than deliverer or controller.

Be in the present. Play in the moment. Don’t anticipate difficult future bars or upcoming tricky passages.  Avoid thoughts such as ‘I must not get that tricky chord wrong’ or ‘I must not trip up at bar 25’. Avoid all such negative thoughts.

Tip: Imagine the music is a music roll ticker-tape, inexorably moving forward. Let the music carry you along. Declutter your thoughts from the mechanical details of performance.

Bring your mind and hands together as one, not as separate machinery. Concentrate as you play. Do not allow stray thoughts to enter your head. Chase them out.

If you make a mistake, pick up, recover and carry on – with the least amount of fuss. Keep going. Maintain tempo. Whatever happens, try not to re-start.

Have fun!

5) After the Performance

Don’t dwell on what happened during your performance, other than to learn from obvious mistakes.

Plan for your next performance, right away.

Postscript: Additional Thoughts

Minimise distractions. Find a fixed point in the distance. Focus on whatever makes you feel comfortable. This point could be your music stand, the keyboard, or somewhere beyond the piano itself. Wherever or whatever it is, ensure that your focal point is below eye level.

Be deliberate. When you step up to the piano, how exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to your audience?

Build the appropriate mental image of the way you would ideally like to perform. Tell yourself that you are going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamics. Think about positive words such as light fingers, smooth playing, even shifts, fluid movements, strong chords, quiet, calm, ease. Breathe from the diaphragm.

Avoid shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Performance anxiety creates muscle tension. As you breathe, focus on each group of muscles, releasing tension as you exhale.


 

Howard Smith
instagram.com/howardneilsmith

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The piano summer school is now an established part of the year for many amateur pianists, and the recent launch of several new courses and summer schools is a mark of their continued popularity. Much more than a “piano holiday”, the piano summer school is an opportunity to study with leading pianist-teachers, observe others being taught, hone skills, enjoy concerts, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely activity, and while many of us enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists to discuss aspects such as practising, repertoire, and much more… Doing all of this in a beautiful location with luxury accommodation and fine food can only enhance the experience.

Concert pianist James Lisney has extensive experience teaching at piano summer schools and courses, including the long-standing Summer School for Pianists (which moves to Stowe School for 2019) and the Hindhead Piano Course. His supportive and inspiring approach empowers adult pianists to “take charge of their music, to give it priority within their busy lives and have the confidence and skills to explore as artists“, and fosters confident, independent musicianship.

James’s expertise and enthusiasm gives everyone the confidence to perform at the daily masterclasses and evening concerts, but it is at the individual sessions, where the magic really happens.

Based at Le Vert, a charming country house hotel in the Cahors region of SW France, James Lisney’s new summer piano courses continue this legacy, offering adult pianists tuition in the form of workshops and masterclasses, one-to-one lessons, and performance opportunities – all within a relaxed, entertaining and considerate environment. Participants can enjoy comfortable accommodation, gourmet food and a convivial atmosphere. In addition, James offers support via email and Skype throughout the year, and regular piano ‘meetups’ give participants valuable performance experience and opportunities to socialise and enhance connections and friendships made during the courses.

a nurturer and inspirer….. you’ll come away from his classes born again (musically) and raring to practise

– Conrad Williams, author of The Concert Pianist

Further information and prices

Meet the Artist interview with James Lisney

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I am continually impressed and inspired, and occasionally truly humbled, by the passion and commitment of adult amateur pianists, and in the last month this has been brought home to me powerfully yet again, first at Chetham’s (“Chets”) Summer School for Pianists (read more here) and then on Friday evening at the monthly gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG).

Although I work in music, I do not regard myself as a “professional” pianist and I am also quite comfortable now with the title “amateur”. While some may think this means “cack-handed hobbyist” or “Sunday pianist”, I prefer the French definition of the word: “one who loves” because all the amateur pianists I know absolutely adore the piano, myself included.

I co-founded the LPMG in 2013, in part as an opportunity to meet other like-minded people. Playing the piano can be a lonely activity and while many of us enjoy the solitude, the special time with the instrument and its literature, it is also very helpful to meet and talk to other pianists. At the time, I had been playing seriously for about 6 years (having returned to the piano after an absence of 20 years), and had been taking lessons with a concert pianist and teacher in one of London’s leading conservatoires for 5 years. I didn’t know any other pianists, apart from the handful of people I encountered fleetingly through my teacher’s courses. The LPMG filled a big gap in my pianistic life – and I know it has done the same for many others whom I meet through the group. It has also inspired the formation of several other meetups and piano clubs in the UK and beyond: in 2015 our London group had a joint meetup with the Vienna piano meetup group in the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – a very special experience indeed.

Through the LPMG I have made a number very good friends and connections, while the activities of the group have extended to include workshops and events such as the annual Diploma Day with the very popular and highly skilled teacher Graham Fitch, all of which are designed to support and encourage adult pianists.

Now run by my piano friends Claire and Rob (whom I met through the group), the LPMG hosts monthly performance events for adult pianists in London venues with good grand pianos. Many amateur pianists aspire to own a really beautiful instrument but cannot afford to do so, or are constrained by space in their home. To have the opportunity to play a really splendid instrument, such as the two expertly-maintained Steinway Ds at Henry Wood Hall, where we met last Friday, is a real treat and a chance to experience the capabilities of a big piano.

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Marie playing music by Billy Mayerl at Henry Wood Hall (photo by Iain Gordon who looks after the two Steinways there)

LPMG performance platforms are social events too and always finish in a local pub or wine bar where much “piano chat” takes place – people congratulate one another on their performances, discuss repertoire and the exigencies of fitting practising into one’s working life, courses, concerts we have enjoyed, professional pianists we admire, and much much more…. We come from many different walks of life – the group includes several medics, a mathematician, an accountant, a video games designer – but we all have a common interest and we know that no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. This sense of a “piano community” with a shared passion is incredibly important.

When it comes to performing, which is primarily what the group is for, we have players of all ages and abilities. Some have had a formal musical training but chose a different career path, others are self-taught. Some have played all their life, others, like me, have returned to the piano after a break. None of that really matters – because we all adore the piano. I have met a number of professional pianists who envy the passion of the amateur – we can choose what we play and when, and we don’t have to make a living from it. It gives us great freedom, and hours and hours of pleasure.

Many LPMG participants are self-effacing and modest: uncertain of their abilities or anxious about playing for others, performances may be prefaced by self-deprecating comments or throwaway asides about what the audience can expect – “It’s work in progress”, “I haven’t been learning this very long”, “We only rehearsed this together yesterday afternoon!”, “It’ll probably all go wrong!”. Everyone at Meetup appreciates the feelings of inadequacy or exposure when playing for others – we all experience this to a greater or lesser degree, and playing to a roomful of other pianists can be both highly stressful and also extremely supportive. I tend towards the latter when I play at Meetups – we all understand how hard it is and appreciate the effort and hours required to bring the music to a certain standard.

After the performances, people are generous with their praise – “I loved your piece!”, “You played so well”, “I really enjoyed your Debussy!” – and this too is an important part of the group’s ethos.

To conclude, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who feels anxious about performing in front of others:

  • Don’t pre-empt your performance with a negative comment, such as “It will probably all go wrong”. This immediately prompts a negative mindset, making you more vulnerable to nerves. It also makes the audience more anxious!
  • Instead, go to the piano and take a few moments to think yourself into the music. Hear the opening phrase in your head and imagine playing it. Don’t rush to begin. Remind yourself that you have done your practising and you are well-prepared – see below
  • Bring music to performance events which is well-learnt and about which you feel pretty confident. Good preparation through consistent, intelligent practise is more likely to lead to a successful performance, and if you are well prepared you are less likely to be derailed by errors or slips. The Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say, before a concert, “I know my pieces” meaning he had done the right kind of practising and preparation – it’s a good mantra to follow!
  • Remember these events are non-competitive and no one is judging you.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Performance, like the piano itself, can – and should – be practised. The more times you perform, the “easier” it becomes, so take every opportunity you can to play for others, from a few family and friends at home to events like Meetups. Reaching a state of “acceptance” about performance anxiety can go a long way to relieving and coping with the symptoms. And remember that it’s a normal human response – the pros get it too!

 

 

 

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

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Leighton Park School

Tucked away in a tranquil leafy corner of Great Elm, a small village near Frome in Somerset, is Jackdaws Music Education Trust. Now in its 25th year, Jackdaws was established by the singer Maureen Lehane in memory of her husband, the composer Peter Wishart, and took its name from his most-performed song, ‘The Jackdaw’. Their modest former home is host to a wide variety of very popular short music courses and workshops for adults and children, as well as concerts and opera performances.

Courses take place throughout the year, usually run from Friday evening until teatime on Sunday. The courses are led by inspiring musicians and teachers, and bring together passionate musicians, from the humblest amateur to the aspiring professional, to learn and develop together in a homely, nurturing and friendly environment. Tutors on the popular piano courses include Graham Fitch, Margaret Fingerhut, Julian Jacobson, Philip Fowke, Mark Polishook, Mark Tanner, Penelope Roskell and Stephen Savage. The ethos of Jackdaws is ‘Access-Inspiration-Inclusion’ and the atmosphere and teaching is relaxed, convivial and supportive. Course participants and tutors eat together at a large round table downstairs, meals are freshly made, generous and wholesome, and there are frequent breaks in the teaching schedule, plus free time to practise, socialise or explore the surrounding area. Participants stay with local bed and breakfast hosts in Great Elm  or nearby villages.

I have been meaning to visit Jackdaws for several years: I’d heard so many positive reports of the courses and the place from pianist friends, and a short course with a small number of participants appealed to me. (I have not been tempted by larger piano courses such as the summer schools for pianists at Walsall or Chethams, nor the very expensive summer piano courses in France). It was serendipitous when my regular piano teacher Graham Fitch suggested I go on course called Finding You Voice At the Piano with Stephen Savage. Graham studied with Stephen at the Royal College of Music, and from the outset I found Stephen’s sympathetic and encouraging approach familiar from Graham’s teaching style.

Teaching is organised in a masterclass format which allows all participants to learn by observing one another being taught. We were fortunate in that there were only 4 people on this course which gave each of us the luxury of longer sessions with Stephen and the chance to further explore ideas which emerged from the teaching sessions. And from a piano teacher’s point of view, observing an expert tutor in action is also very instructive.

Our enjoyable mealtime conversations included repertoire, concerts, favourite recordings and artists and piano teaching anecdotes. These convivial interludes in each teaching day helped to forge a sense of shared purpose and musical friendship, which I think really aids learning because one quickly feels more at ease playing in front of others if you’ve shared the same dinner table with these people.


The teaching was of the highest quality: Stephen is expert at very quickly seeing what each person needs to bring their repertoire to life (in my case, a greater richness of sound and drama in the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, and more continuous energy in the opening movement of Schubert D959), and gave each of us useful advice and suggestions for practising, including strategies to bring security to leaps, chord progressions or rapid passagework. It is always wonderful to see how individuals develop, how their music changes, under the tutelage of a teacher like Stephen Savage, and it gives one inspiration and encouragement to keep going on one’s personal musical journey. In addition, courses such as these are a fantastic opportunity to hear, share and discover repertoire, and a chance to make new piano friends.

In terms of facilities, Jackdaws has a good Steinway grand in the main studios upstairs, a further Bechstein grand downstairs plus several upright pianos, a digital piano, a harpsichord and a spinet. Practice time is booked In half-hour slots using a simple rota and everyone was very good-natured about organising this. There is also free WiFi.

In sum, this was an inspiring, stimulating, enjoyable and highly instructive weekend piano “retreat” which I recommend to any adult pianist but particularly those who have not attended a piano course before or might be unsure about signing up for a longer course.

For further information about Jackdaws piano courses please visit

https://www.jackdaws.org.uk/piano/

 

A magical place for music making, made more special by playing in such an intimate space, surrounded by beautiful nature……it encourages us to open up

– Wendy

Sharing music with empathetic people who understand what we’re trying to do and what the difficulties are. It takes courage to play at these events but as adult learners we bring our own life experiences to bear on our music  

– Susan

Small, domestic ‘at home’ atmosphere and lovely people

– Mark

It’s about interaction with new people – I really do value that – and it’s humbling to work with people from a multiciplity of professions who come on these courses with their hang ups. But there’s always a way to face these and to really get some focus into their playing. I think the key factors are the ‘craft’ of playing and rhythmic organisation in the music. As a teacher it’s important to be non-judgemental and respectful

– Stephen Savage

I never really intended to become a pianist and piano teacher – nor a blogger on classical music and pianism, and a concert reviewer. Sure, I was mad keen on the piano as a child and teenager, completing all my grade exams and enjoying consistent rather than startling success in them. I harboured some desire to go to music college rather than university, but an offhand comment by my music teacher at school, suggesting I was not “good enough” to audition for conservatoire (a comment which still has the power to sting, some 35 years on), set me on a different course at 18: I studied Anglo-Saxon at university and had a career in art and academic publishing for 10 years post-university, until I stopped full-time work to have my son.

But the piano had always been there, in the background, a rather frustrating itch which could not be scratched because my father sold my piano when I left home and I had no instrument on which to practise. I occasionally played a friend’s grand piano but lack of practise led to frustration, and it was not until my mother bought me a half-decent digital piano that my passion for the instrument was rekindled. It was gratifying to discover that music I’d learnt in my teens was still “in the fingers”, if rather rusty, and I began to enjoy the routine of practising once again. Around the same time, I started going to concerts regularly again, something I had enjoyed as a child with my parents, and into my teens, reacquainting myself with repertoire I knew and loved and making new discoveries. A chance conversation with a friend in the school playground while waiting to collect our children led me into piano teaching – that was 10 years ago…..

Alongside this, I felt it was important to improve my own playing, and in 2008 I returned to regular lessons with a concert pianist and professor of piano at one of London’s leading conservatoires. It was daunting initially: I had not been taught for nearly a quarter of a century, and lots of bad habits from my teens and lack of technique were quickly exposed, but the teacher was sympathetic and supportive, and it was satisfying to see my playing improve rapidly under her guidance. Because I had not had a formal musical training at 18, I always (and still do) felt I was trying to catch up with those who’d had that education, and this was a major motivation for taking an external performance diploma, in addition to the desire to continually improve my playing by setting myself the personal challenge of preparing for the diploma. And so in December 2011, some 28 years after I last stepped into a piano exam room, I took my Associate diploma in piano performance. The Licentiate diploma followed in 2013. Both experiences were entirely positive (in complete contrast to some rather uncomfortable exam experiences as a child): I enjoyed the challenge of learning and finessing the repertoire, researching and writing programme notes, and learning how to be a performer (for one is assessed not just on one’s playing but also on stagecraft and presentation, just as in a formal professional concert), and above all, I enjoyed studying with a teacher again and the self-imposed routine of regular practising. Since 2013, I perform quite regularly, in solo concerts and in joint recitals with friends and colleagues. Learning to manage and understand performance anxiety has been a big part of my development as a pianist, and an aspect I know many others struggle with, which is why I organise workshops for adult amateur pianists on coping with anxiety and developing good stage craft.

I think the rather “accidental” path into my current role, in addition to the long period of absence from the piano, has given me the freedom and confidence to fully indulge my passion for the piano and its literature. Had I gone to music college and had to make a career from music as a young woman, I may have lost that spark, that passion. I’ve met a number of professional musicians who have expressed resentment at the heavy demands of their career, which can rob them of their love of the piano and its literature. (Admittedly, I am fortunate in that I do not have to make my main living from music: I have what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” and do several other admin and writing jobs in addition to my teaching.) Returning to the piano in my late 30s, and completing my diplomas in my mid-40s, has brought a maturity to my approach – and in the years when I wasn’t playing I was still listening to music and going to concerts, soaking up all those notes and forming my own opinions about the music I was hearing (which in turn was given a further outlet when I started reviewing concerts for Bachtrack.com).

As an adult pianist, one has the freedom to explore whatever repertoire one pleases, without a teacher bossily insisting on Czerny exercises (been there, done that) or having to play repertoire which one hates (and I suspect many of us can remember, with a shudder, the terrible/dull music we were made to learn as children). We take responsibility for our practising without recourse to others. As we mature we get to know what repertoire suits us (I was very touched at a recent London Piano Meetup Group event when a friend commented on how much a certain piece “suited” me), what we are physically, and mentally, capable of tackling, and as pianists we are incredibly spoilt by the vastness of the piano’s repertoire: there really is something for everyone! While some of us dream of playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto to a full house at Carnegie Hall, we gain a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from working on pieces and presenting them to others at piano clubs, meetup groups, and on courses (where one can meet other piano fanatics and where lasting friendships are forged). We enjoy the challenge of learning a Beethoven sonata, a handful of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, or a brace of Chopin Etudes, and the sense of achievement when we gain “ownership” of our music, making it our own.

“It’s an overriding passion, not just for the music [but] for the challenge……And the challenge is constant: there’s always a harder piece, you can always take it to the next level, you’re never finished. But there’s also the fact that the piano is your friend; it’s always there. That gathers more significance as you get older: what you can express through it, in a personal language, becomes incredibly important.”

Lucy Parham, concert pianist

Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, advanced pianists, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this consuming passion. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of a piano group and this love is more than evident as members discuss the myriad aspects of the craft of piano: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers and recordings. 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.

Music has known therapeutic benefits and the piano is no exception. Time spent with the instrument can be relaxing, invigorating, inspiring and comforting. A good practise session can feel as beneficial as a run – and we release the same “happy hormones”, endorphins, when we practise, as we do when we exercise. If I haven’t touched the piano for several days, I get tetchy and frustrated, and it’s the first thing I go to when I return home from a holiday. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it now, and I am lucky enough to possess a rather fine antique Bechstein grand piano, known affectionately as “Bechy”, who has pride of place in my living room and is treated by the rest of my family like a rather large pet.

If you are something of an “accidental pianist”, or someone who has returned to, or taken up the piano later in life, I would love to hear from you to explore this fascinating subject in more detail. Please feel free to contact me to tell me your story, or complete my Piano Notes – adult pianist interview (word document)