Tag Archives: amateur pianists

Pianists at Play

I was delighted to rejoin the London Piano Meetup Group (a friendly and supportive group for adult amateur pianists in London which I co-founded in 2013) for the March performance event. We met in the airy upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos where we had the opportunity to play a medium-sized August Förster grand piano (one of the many attractions of the group is the chance to play different pianos). There was, as usual, a varied range of repertoire from Scarlatti to contemporary British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, with some impressive and enjoyable Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Bach, Howells, Liszt, Mayerl and even a drop of “cocktail jazz” (‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’). Afterwards, we repaired to The Clerk and Well pub for a jolly lunch and lively piano chat.

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Upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos

The original motivation for forming the group remains very strong – to provide a supportive and relaxed environment for adult pianists to meet, play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I’ve made some very good friends via the group, as have others, and it was very nice to reconnect with old friends and make new ones too. The popularity of the group – and others like it – is an indication of how many pianists there are in and around London who enjoy the opportunity to meet and explore new or familiar repertoire. The chance to exchange ideas about practising, taking exams, performing, teachers and teaching, courses, concerts and more is also very important, and many people use the informal performance opportunities as a place to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of an exam, diploma, competition or festival performance.

Being sympathetic towards nervous players is a crucial component in creating a “safe place” where nervous or inexperienced players can perform without fear of criticism or negative comments: everyone’s performance receives warm applause and appreciation.

For further information about the London Piano Meetup Group or to join the mailing list to be kept informed about upcoming events, please email londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or find the group on Facebook

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Courses and Summer Schools for Adult Amateur Pianists

La Balie: courses for pianists in France

In praise of the piano summer school

This week I had the pleasure of attending a piano meetup event organised by Fiona Page, the owner of La Balie, a beautiful 16th-century restored farmhouse in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, and now home to a piano summer school, launched in summer 2015.

The event was a relaxed soirée at the 1901 Arts Club, an intimate and elegant venue near Waterloo station whose cosy ambiance and welcoming staff lends itself to conviviality. Many of the guests had attended the summer courses, others were planning to attend next year, and I was there as I have been helping to publicise the courses.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

Piano courses bring like-minded people together and firm friendships are regularly forged in the process of shared study and pleasure in music. I have made some very good friends through piano courses I have attended and the social aspect of such courses is a big attraction for many participants. The convivial and relaxed atmosphere which Fiona has created at La Balie is evidently infectious: when I arrived at the 1901 Arts Club there was already much lively chat and laughter coming from the upstairs bar and lounge before the concert began, and this continued into the interval and after the concert. The programme was varied, reflecting the musical tastes of the performers, and there was some fine playing.

After the interval, the course tutor, pianist James Lisney, played music by Chopin, prefacing his performance with generous thanks to Fiona and impassioned praise for the summer school concept (he is regular tutor at a number of summer schools) and its value.

“If you think you have learned everything there is to learn, think again”

He cited his own experience of attending a summer school in France, following study with Phyllis Sellick. and revealed that his own experience proved his comment: there is always more to learn.

My own experience of piano courses confirms this. Even if you study with a regular teacher, or no longer have lessons, if you are a teacher or a student in conservatoire, there is always more to learn, and piano courses offer a different way of learning which can be highly beneficial to one’s development as a pianist, as well as offering opportunities to connect with other pianists

Piano courses are incredibly popular (as evidenced by the number listed in my annual round up of courses and summer schools – and this is by no means exhaustive). Participants enjoy the opportunity of “total piano immersion”, the chance to study with top class tutors and internationally-renowned musicians, and to share repertoire and socialise. For many, the piano course can be revelatory and rewarding, but it also takes a sensitive tutor and responsible students to help make the course successful and enjoyable for all.

I have attended wonderful courses where the sense of a shared learning experience is very potent and inspiring. To get the most out of a piano course, go with the intention to take from the course what you need, not to compare yourself to others but simply enjoy the other repertoire and playing you hear. For many, the attraction of receiving tuition from a top-class pianist/renowned teacher is also very important – to return home from the course and tell your friends that you studied with So-and-So….. In fact, it is about the quality of tuition, not the “big name” who is giving it, and it can be helpful to seek recommendations from friends and colleagues who have already attended courses as to who is the right tutor for you. Some people enjoy a rigorous approach, others (like me) prefer to be treated with more kindness.

If you regularly study with one teacher, someone else’s approach may run counter to your own teacher’s and may be confusing, especially for the less confident player. And if you attend many courses and summer schools, the masterclasses may be like going to the doctor: one teacher will tell you to do with one thing, another will advise something completely different. The differing opinions and approaches of teachers can be confusing, and sifting out what is useful advice and what is not, can be tricky. Again, take from the tuition what you feel will benefit you. If others swear by Hanon exercises every morning, it does not mean you must too….. An important part of our development as pianists, at whatever level we play, is knowing what will be most beneficial to us, personally. And no teacher’s advice should ever be regarded as absolute gospel!

Because the teaching at summer schools is organised in a different way to the one-to-one private lesson, tutors by necessity may not always be able to give very detailed or thorough advice. Instead, a sensitive tutor, such as James Lisney, will be able to identify what the student needs then, at that moment. Group classes and workshops are also a useful way of sharing ideas on aspects such as technique, proper warm up routines, performance anxiety etc and such classes often become a forum for lively discussion and contributions from all participants. The great thing about being on a course is that there is time to digest this advice, act on it and come back to the tutor with it later in the week.

 

La Balie, France
La Balie, France

Being on a residential course also offers opportunities for free playing, informal concerts, plenty of piano chat, socialising, and relaxing, all of which feeds into our musical landscape and informs our playing (if we allow it to). Talking to participants at La Balie, I got the impression that people had really reveled in the expert teaching, the shared music making, the superb accommodation, fine food and general sociability of the courses. Add to that a charming hostess, a beautiful location, and the lovely sunshine, and you have much, much more than a piano holiday….

La Balie.
Further reading

More articles on piano courses and summer schools

Playing too many masterclasses can be confusing for the student (article from The Strad magazine)

Sunday Feature: Should certain repertoire be “off limits” to amateur pianists?

Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)

I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.

I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am involved in a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.

The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).

So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:

Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.

A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.

The Complete Piano Etudes – Philip Glass. I’ve just discovered these works by the master of American minimalism. Technically and musically challenging and very satisfying to play

Unicorn in Rainbows – Alison Wrenn. A beautiful short work infused with jazz harmonies, lingering chords redolent of Bill Evans, and subtle rhythms.

Please feel free to join this discussion by adding your comments below. Suggestions for repertoire are also very welcome.

My Night with Fran (and a Bechstein)

Review of Frances Wilson & Friends, South London Concert Series at Brunswick House, 22nd January 2015

by Lucy Butler Gillick

Brunswick House
Brunswick House

The last time I visited LASSCO Brunswick House, my husband and I were looking at furniture for our house in Clapham. Back then it was the place to go for interesting bits and pieces at prices that wouldn’t break the bank. It still is. But in those days the area was very far from a prime location. In the 10 or more years since, I have occasionally looked across from a car or bus as I pass through Vauxhall Cross and noticed the isolated Georgian house, standing in defiantly Dickensian splendour, on an island surrounded by sleek riverside architecture and brutally thundering roads.

Without the encouragement of my dear friend Fran [Frances] Wilson – the energetic co-founder and Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series – I would probably never have bothered to park the car or get off the bus or tube to explore any further. But her invitation to come along to an evening of intimate piano music was far too appealing to refuse. And the venue is practically on my doorstep…

Now, apart from the occasional school event, endured for the sake of my children, or dinner at Fran’s where the piano would inevitably form part of the programme (and a welcome one at that), I have never really experienced such a concert. So it was as a complete outsider to this exclusive piano playing world that I arrived last Thursday evening and finally re-entered the pillared portals of LASSCO Brunswick House. To be frank, I was slightly fearful that my bottom would end the evening sore from a long and laborious sit, after having my eardrums assailed by music that could potentially mean nothing to me at all.

ChandelierBut what an appealing setting and pleasurable event it turned out to be. Downstairs is a cosy bar and lively restaurant, lit and furnished with scene-setting antiques that are – so far as I could tell from the tags – all for sale. For your starter you could order Mussels, Kale & Parsnip plus a Venetian chandelier; with perhaps Roast Lamb Leg and a sideboard to follow. Not bad going for the time-poor, multi-tasking city worker, en route home.

DSC_4092But it was upstairs that the salon vibe really took hold. The private concert room, the opulent Saloon with its belle epoque Bechstein grand piano, heavily swagged stained glass windows, old-fashioned school room-style chairs set in neat rows, lamps, lanterns, chandeliers and ephemera, was a genuinely atmospheric space. The very height of old-world decorous gentility, slap bang in the middle of one of London’s busiest junctions (better known for its gay clubs and pubs). Who’d have thought? It even smelt old-fashioned – a sort of pleasantly musty, sandalwood tang.

Once the concert kicked off, after a short introduction from Fran – dressed to the nines in a floor-length slinky red and mauve gown – the evening progressed apace. The concert included the ‘world premiere’ of a new piece by composer and guitarist Matthew Sear, as well as preludes, fugues, sonatas and impromptus from the likes of Debussy, Shostakovich, Menotti, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schubert and Satie – all favourite pieces of the artists performing that night. There was even a piece by the incongruously named Bryan Kelly (who sounds more like an Irish builder than an Australian composer to me), and a somewhat ‘difficult’ discordant work by Olivier Messiaen – apparently taken from ‘one of the greatest works for piano of the 20th century’ (the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus) expertly played by Fran, who I think fancied challenging her audience into hearing something unusual at the end of the night.

The South London Concert series typically combines performances by talented amateur musicians with a special “guest spot” featuring professional and semi-professional players. On the evening I attended we enjoyed performances by José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán, Petra Chong, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Rob Foster and of course our genial hostess Frances Wilson herself. They all looked and sounded amazing to my untutored ears and I would heartily recommend the South London Concert Series to anyone who fancies a very reasonably-priced introduction to the world of glorious piano music in an intimate setting, followed by an opportunity to meet and talk to musicians who are as passionate about their piano music as you probably are about your food, wine and chandeliers. What’s not to love about such civilisation? The only jarring note was re-entering the real world and wintry fug of Vauxhall Cross when it was finally time to head home…

 

Lucy Butler Gillick is ex-chief sub editor of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and Harpers & Queen. She has written for many magazines and supplements over the years, on a variety of topics, but mostly on issues related to parenting. She now works in education. 

 

The South London Concert Series returns to LASSCO Brunswick House on 21st May for a concert by Australian counter-tenor Glenn Kesby. Full details here

www.slconcerts.co.uk

Masterchef: redefining “amateur”

The UK Masterchef competition for amateur cooks has reached its series finale, won by Ping Coombes, a 32-year-old full-time mother who wowed the judges and tv viewers with her original, flavoursome and exciting dishes inspired by her homeland, Malaysia.

2014 Masterchef winner Ping Coombes kisses the trophy

Throughout the competition, contestants’ dishes were critiqued and judged by “external moderators” in the form of previous Masterchef winners, “celebrity” chefs, including Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing, and food critics Jay Rayner and William Sitwell, amongst others, many of whom expressed surprise that a bunch of “amateurs” could produce such classy, technically complicated, restaurant-standard food. When it was Marcus Wareing’s turn to judge the semi-finalists, in a nail-biting round for he is famously acerbic and downright scary, he said of one dish “that is remarkably good – for an amateur” or words to that effect. And after that, every time I heard the word “amateur” on the programme, a little bit of me died.

I have blogged before about the definition of “amateur”. The word suffers, in the English language at least, from its association with the hobbyist, the “Sunday painter” or dilettante, and suggests cack-handedness and lack of finesse or refinement. Things which are described as “amateurish” are usually badly done or poorly put together. Not so these finalists in Masterchef: their dishes showed imagination, creativity, highly-developed technical skills and, above all, love for what they were doing. Ping’s sheer enjoyment and delight in producing delicious food for family and friends was evident from the moment she first entered the competition and remained the abiding theme of everything she did, endearing her to judges and viewers alike.

The debate about amateur versus professional is one that continues to run (and will go on running) in the sphere of music and the arts (and beyond), and particularly within the narrow sphere of classical music. I co-host a piano group for adult “amateur” pianists in which the standard of playing is quite varied, but it must be said that the majority of members plays to an extremely high standard. A number have attended specialist music schools or conservatoire but chose a different career path, not having the requisite temperament to hack it as a professional musician (and perhaps preferring a more reliable salary!). Many of us enjoy performing, and we practise and finesse and perform our pieces with a professional mindset.

In a recent post for his own blog, pianist Stephen Hough gave a perfect definition of “amateur”, citing the Latin origin of the word – the verb amare = to love:

An amateur is not someone who is less good than a professional but rather someone for whom love overcomes obstacles…. (Stephen Hough, 7 May 2014)

This sensible and, to my mind, very accurate description struck an immediate chord with myself and many pianist friends who struggle with the word “amateur”. Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this profound love for the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of my piano group and this passion is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our craft: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, memorable performances and recordings. The only difference between many of us and the pros is, as a professional pianist friend said to me recently, “the pay cheque”.

The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club
The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club

I take issue with those rather ungenerous people in the music world, and beyond, who suggest that people like me and the other members of my piano group should not be performing in public, nor posting our performances on YouTube or Soundcloud (in the same way as I take issue with “professional journalists” who seek to undermine the value of blogs such as this and many others). It suggests a certain envy or resentment – for we are not trying to touch the professionals, but we might just conceivably touch the audience with our fidelity and commitment to the piano and its music. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the amount of hard work, and anxiety, that has gone into preparing for that performance. Playing for one another at piano circles, piano groups and at people’s homes offers a supportive environment to put repertoire before a friendly audience, and many amateur pianists use opportunities like these to prepare for exams, festivals, diplomas and concerts. Many amateurs practise seriously, sometimes for several hours every day, and cite the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano, the chance to escape and lose oneself in the music, after a busy day at the office. Those who perform more regularly understand the necessity to conquer performance anxiety and hone their stagecraft in addition to pulling off a polished and convincing performance.

Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again (2013), in which the editor of the Guardian charts his learning of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, a famously difficult work even for the most seasoned pro, offers some interesting glimpses into the world of the amateur pianist. There are piano circles, performance platforms, concerts in people’s homes, informal get-togethers, courses and more which bring amateur pianists of all levels together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Meanwhile, popular summer schools at home and abroad offer amateur pianists the opportunity to study with, and gain inspiration from international concert artists and renowned teachers from some of the top conservatoires around the world. The most famous summer school at Chethams, known affectionately as “Chets”, boasts a large and impressive faculty, including “greats” such as Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Noriko Ogawa, and Boris Berman, and is held over two weeks in August. Summer schools like this offer not only specialist tuition, both one-to-one and in a masterclass format, but also performance opportunities, faculty concerts, recordings, chamber ensembles and choirs, and plenty of “piano chat” between students. Firm friendships are made on courses and piano weekends such as these as like-minded people come together to share and express their love of the piano and music-making.

And so back to Masterchef, and Ping and her fellow finalists. Just as my friends in my piano group show a deep passion for the piano and everything connected with it, so these three “amateur” cooks display a deep and consuming love for food, for creating and preparing it and sharing it with others. If Ping and the other finalists Jack and Luke go on to pursue a “professional” career in the food business, I hope they won’t ever lose that love. And just as food is created for sharing, so is music.

Practising for Lovers – Stephen Hough’s blog

London Piano Meetup Group

South London Concert Series

 

An evening concert at Brunswick House

A stag with an impressive set of antlers surveys the room, while a white-tuxedo’d Tony Curtis keeps watch over the proceedings from his niche in a corner near the piano, a John Hopkinson baby grand with a rosewood case. Glittering chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating the exposed brickwork on two walls of the room and highlighting the colours of the stained glass panels in the elegant sash windows. Exotic oriental rugs are draped over vintage British Rail first class seats, and at the back of the room, a glass cabinet is filled with antique pharmacy jars. Welcome to Brunswick House, part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co, a Georgian mansion just five minutes from London’s Vauxhall Station, flanked by the brand new 5-star hotel and luxury apartments of One Nine Elms. Brunswick House is a treasure trove of antiques and salvaged curiosities, and on Thursday night last week, it provided a wonderful and eclectic venue for a fine evening of music making and conviviality.

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Lorraine Banning, Frances Wilson & Lorraine Liyanage (and Tony Curtis) at Brunswick House

“A superb evening – huge fun was had with a mix of musical genres in a delightfully decrepit and stylish Georgian mansion. Best of luck promoting these salon recitals, the way music is meant to be played and heard.”

Rosalind, audience member

The concert was part of the South London Concert Series, and featured a recital by BBC Music Magazine’s “rising star” Emmanuel Vass, together with supporting performances by three talented members of the London Piano Meetup Group, who despite not being “professional” pianists, played with equal poise, musical sensitivity and professionalism. The diverse programme matched the unusual setting, with music by Bach, Chopin, Turina, and Mozart together with Emmanuel’s own transcriptions of pop songs by Queen and The Prodigy. In keeping with the SLCS ethos of recreating the nineteenth-century musical salon, an hour of music was followed by much conversation and socialising in the ante-room next to the Saloon, and continued downstairs in the restaurant adjacent to the house.

“The South London Concert Series is both innovative and traditional. Events blend an appreciation of fine music and music making with conviviality, and blur the artificial distinctions between professional and amateur”

James Lisney, international concert pianist

The final SLCS concert of the 2013/14 season is on Friday 16th May at the 1901 Arts Club. Entitled ‘Eastern Accents’, the concert includes music from Russia and Japan, and features a performance by guest artist Vatche Jambazian. Further details/tickets here

View more photographs from the Brunswick House concert

A selection of videos from the concert:

www.slconcerts.co.uk

Piano Techniques App from ‘Pianist’ magazine

All the enjoyable and engaging features of ‘Pianist’ magazine are included in this new piano techniques app: informative and easy to understand articles on technique and repertoire, how to play a particular work with guidance from a top teacher, free sheet music (18 pieces in fact, from beginner to advanced level), an interview with Lang Lang, contributions from expert teachers, and more, all presented in an interactive and accessible format.

The organisation of the content will be familiar to anyone who reads Pianist magazine regularly. Clear, well laid out articles are enhanced by video tutorials by renowned teachers and pianists, and soundclips, which enable the reader to listen to the pieces presented in the free sheet music section.

The app is easy to navigate, with clear swipe commands and helpful notes and asides which enhance the articles. In effect, the app offers the very best of ‘Pianist’ magazine in a user-friendly and portable format – read it at the piano or in bed – and is ideal for the beginner, intermediate or more advanced pianist.

Download the app from the iTunes app store

More than hobbyists: the world of amateur pianism

In a recital space somewhere in central London a group of people are seated in a rough semi-circle around a Fazioli 212 grand piano. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. The young man seated at the piano composes himself for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then lifts his hands and launches into the iconic opening bars of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude. The music soars from the piano, filling the space. The small audience listens attentively, and at the end there is enthusiastic applause. Welcome to the world of amateur pianism.

This is an extract from a longer article I wrote for Bachtrack’s ‘Piano Month’. Read the full article here

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Piano Notes – Simon Ball

SEBHow long have you been playing the piano? 

25 years – since I was about five.

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

My big love is the middle-late Romantic period.  But pretty much anything by Beethoven, Liszt or Rachmaninov is heaven to me!

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

I find it very difficult, actually – as you get older, there’s so much else to get in the way.  I learned pretty early on that I’m terrible at making myself do anything, so it has to be something I desperately want to do.  Oddly enough, when it’s to enable me to play something I love, it’s not a problem at all!  I’ve pretty much never practised scales and exercises, except for exams, but at least I can appreciate their use these days, so I do try and force myself to battle through some Hanon exercises every now and then!

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

I was fortunate enough to attend music college as a piano student for a while, before leaving to pursue a different career, so I had the opportunity to participate and attend loads of masterclasses.  They’re the most daunting, rewarding, terrifying, exhilarating, useful thing you can do.  Everyone in that room speaks exactly the same musical language, and, without exception, you’ll come away with some ideas you never would have thought of on your own.

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

For me, the most enjoyable thing about piano lessons is the opportunity to play for and with someone whose musical opinions and knowledge I respect and admire.  It sounds clichéd, but a piano teacher is much more than a teacher; mine have always pretty much been life mentors too.  Every emotion or difficulty you will ever experience in life is perfectly encapsulated somewhere in musical form.  Discussing it and experiencing it with someone else is actually a terribly intimate thing to do.  This is brilliant when you’re on the same wavelength as your teacher, but it’s why you need to find the teacher that’s right *for you*.

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

I finished my grade exams by the time I left school.  There has been a gap of 10 years or so, and I’ve finally decided to go for the DipABRSM and ATCL exams at some point in the near future.  I never used to worry about whether I was good enough, or whether I’d look an idiot, but these fears creep in as you get older, particularly if you stop being used to playing in public and for different people.  I have a memory of coming to a halt and completely drying up in front of Stephen Hough from when I was at music college – one of the most embarrassing moments of my life (although he is loveliness personified!).  It keeps creeping back in when I play in public, and it’s something I’m going to have to work through!

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

Definitely.  Music encompasses all, in my opinion, and the older you get, the more you’ve experienced and can put into the music, and vice versa.  Music, and an appreciation for it, has got me through some very difficult times.  It’s all very well being able to rattle through Liszt’s Piano Sonata when you’re 15, but do you *understand* it?  Very occasionally, there are people not of this world (I’m looking at you, Evgeny Kissin!) who do, but for the rest of us mere mortals, a deep understanding and love for music, and life, comes only with age.

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

I don’t at the moment, and it’s something I’m really missing.  The problem with being a pianist, though, is that it’s much harder to find ensemble work – people only generally ever need one at a time!

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

I haven’t performed in public for some years, and it’s something I’m really going to try and correct in the very near future.  It terrifies me, but in a good way, I think.  I must find a church with a decent piano or something and book the hall.  Rather pathetically, I do keep a couple of concertos under my fingers “just in case” an opportunity to play with an orchestra ever magically presents itself!

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

If I had a pound for everyone who, upon finding out that I play the piano, tells me that they wish they’d kept up childhood lessons, I’d have, well, at least twenty pounds!  I always say the same thing: “Do it!”  And I mean it.  They will immediately protest that they “aren’t musical”, or “don’t have the time”, or “are too old”.  All of these things are utter rubbish.  I truly believe that everyone has the ability to play something.  Some of us are incredibly lucky and find the right instrument when we’re a child, or the right instrument finds us, but if you haven’t yet, you should bloomin’ well do something about it!  Now!  Go online and find someone.  What’s the worst that can happen?  The right instrument for you may well not be the piano, but you can be absolutely certain that it’s out there, somewhere.

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

Oh, gosh!  So many!  I’d love to be able to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.  I saw Ashkenazy play it when I was a teenager, and it’s mesmerised me ever since.

 

Simon began piano lessons at the age of five, after what he is assured were months of “pester-power”.  His later formative lessons were with the late and very-much-missed Tony Cross of Birmingham Conservatoire, following whose sad death, and after further excellent tuition from Margaret Newman of Trinity College of Music, Simon decided that piano playing was going to be a large part of his future.

In 2000, Simon gained a place to study piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, before sadly finding the experience too suffocating and leaving to pursue a more “normal” career, whilst maintaining a deep love for the instrument.

Simon lives in Birmingham, and is currently seriously considering gaining the necessary qualifications to change careers from law to piano teaching in the long term.  His hobbies include cooking, gardening, and flying light aircraft on the rare occasions that funds allow.