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 a self-taught. Some have played all their life, others 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!

 

 

 

I recently attended Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (or “Chets” as it is affectionately known) for the first time as an observer and concert reviewer (read my articles here). It was a fascinating and exhausting (in a good way!) glimpse inside Europe’s largest piano summer school, and it was easy to see why people get hooked on the Chets experience – the special atmosphere, the teaching, the wealth of music to enjoy, and much more – and return year after year.

There are many piano courses on offer, from one-day events to long weekends in a quiet corner of Somerset (Jackdaws), longer courses like Chets and the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, or upmarket piano holidays in France where expert tuition by a leading concert pianist is combined with gourmet food and luxury accommodation. Of course, most people’s motivation for attending a piano course is, primarily, to improve their playing and have it critiqued by a skilled teacher. Additionally, courses offer opportunities to build confidence in performing, observe others being taught, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation, and while many of us actively enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists. Everyone I spoke to at Chets talked about the benefit of being amongst so many other pianists, all of whom understand and appreciate what makes us “tick”. At a piano course, 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 (or indeed the First, Second and Third Ballades!), and this sense of a “piano community” and shared passion is incredibly important.

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets
Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

I have been on enough piano courses myself to know why I attend them and what I want to get out of them, and I thought it would be helpful for those considering a piano course, especially one of the scale of Chets, to have some additional tips from people who are regular attendees on how to get the best out of a piano course.

Before you go on the course…..

  • If you are attending a big, busy course like Chets or the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, both of which last nearly a week and offer a full programme of activities alongside the teaching, get plenty of sleep in advance. This may sound strange, but these courses can be very tiring, as they require large amounts of physical and mental energy, emotional labour, drive, motivation and social/partying skills.
  • It can be daunting playing for other people and a different teacher, and obviously you will have to play in order to have your playing critiqued. If you are nervous about playing in a masterclass or workshop situation, consider inviting a few friends round for music and drinks and play some of your pieces to them. Paradoxically, the more distracting and self-conscious you feel when performing to your friends, the more you will learn, the less stressful and more enjoyable it will be on the course, and the more secure your performance will be in lessons or other performance situations.
  • Repertoire: Plan and prepare in advance the music you want to play at the course and bring enough music at different stages of preparation, but not music you have only just started learning (unless you want some specific advice on technique, for example, from a teacher). Bringing repertoire which is comparatively familiar avoids over-attention to basic musical understanding. Settled pieces, which are reasonably well known, allow you to work with a teacher on the more enriching aspects of the experience such as expression, gesture, personal interpretation, and performance, and make the best use of everyone’s time and money – including yours.

When you are on the course…..

  • Pace yourself. You will want to go to everything, but this can sap energy, so be selective. Choose activities outside of the teaching and workshops which you feel will be most beneficial/interesting to you. Try new things too – if you’ve never played duets or accompanied another instrumentalist, why not have a go?
  • Be open-minded and accepting of the advice given by the teachers. If you take lessons with a regular teacher, feedback and critique from a different teacher can be very helpful, offering new insights into the music, context, technical issues, performance etc. When I played the Schubert Sonata on which I had been working for over three years to a different teacher on a course at Jackdaws last autumn, he helped me find a new energy and focus in the music. Critique from other teachers – and comments from fellow students – can reframe your attitude to playing pieces you think you already know well.
  • That said, do whatever works best for you: there is no one ‘right way’ to get the most out of a piano course – take from the tuition and workshops what you feel will really benefit you in developing your playing.
  • Take advantage of all the opportunities of learning from the tutors and your fellow participants. Courses like Chets operate an “open-door” policy so that every lesson and workshop is open to all – go and observe others being taught, and attend workshops: there is much to be gained from hearing others play and watching a skilled teacher in action.
  • Watch other students and observe as many teaching styles as possible. Don’t talk during these sessions unless invited. When you are listening you are learning; when talking you are merely repeating what you already know, and it’s disrespectful to other students and teachers.
  • Don’t assume you can have unlimited time to practise once you arrive on the course. Competition is often high for practise facilities, and these are often limited. Most courses are for learning and observation rather than practising.  By all means, practise to some extent, but don’t miss out on concerts, lectures, lesson observation etc just because you have locked yourself in a practise room.  
  • Be generous with other musicians – both professional and amateur, with praise when appropriate and encouragement when they feel vulnerable. Remember other people feel nervous too and be supportive towards your fellow students.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. If it’s an all-ability course there are bound to be people playing advanced pieces. Remember they are not “better” than you, just “more advanced”. Be prepared to be surprised by the level and variety of pieces that other people bring. Draw inspiration from others’ performances and enjoy hearing a wide range of repertoire. Courses are often one of the best ways to discover new repertoire (and at Chets, Forsyths music shop can order in new music for you while you are there!).
  • Don’t worry about being judged: teachers on piano courses are generally very encouraging and their feedback is given in a positive way. Remember that these things are not competitive.
  • Do take every opportunity to play for/with other people, whether pieces you’re working on or reading through duets.
  • Don’t fret if something (be it a recital, workshop or lesson) doesn’t live up to expectations or hasn’t gone as well as you hoped. Piano courses are often so jam-packed that there is always something else around the corner to enjoy.
  • Be prepared to play something silly or light-hearted – it breaks down both social and language barriers and reminds us that music is not just a profound expression of humanity!
  • Don’t be shy about approaching other people. Remember everyone is there for the same reason – a shared love of the piano. Participants, faculty and staff always have interesting stories, backgrounds and thoughts on music, and socialising is a chance to enjoy stimulating conversations and forge new friendships and connections.
  • Don’t drink too much, or stay up too late. It can be fun to remain chatting in the bar after the final concert of the evening, but teaching sessions often start at 9 or 10 am in the morning and tiredness really does impact on your playing.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Thanks to my piano friends Marie, Claire and Douglas (all enthusiastic Chets regulars) for contributing their advice to this article – and for their company during my weekend at Chets.

 

Courses for Pianists

 

(picture: Philip Fowke teaching at Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoller Hall

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

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

A recent conversation with a pianist friend of mine (who, incidentally, is probably the best advocate I know for amateur pianism, such is her devotion to the piano and its repertoire), during which my friend described a festival adjudicator who implied that she should not be playing works like a Chopin Ballade, reminded me of an attitude which exists, and persists, amongst some professional musicians (and indeed a few amateurs too) and teachers that certain repertoire is for professional or advanced pianists only. This is of course rubbish: no repertoire should be considered “off limits” or the exclusive preserve of the professional. The music was written to be played, whether in the privacy of one’s home or to a full house at Carnegie Hall

Prior to the nineteenth century, most music was written for and performed in the court or the church but there was also instructional music (for example by JS and CPE Bach) to help the keyboard player improve their understanding of technique etc (later taken up in the nineteenth century by Chopin, for example, in his Études). J S Bach’s Clavier Übung (literally ‘Keyboard Practice’) includes the six keyboard Partitas, the Italian Concerto and Overture in the French Style, and the Goldberg Variations – all wonderful works which regularly appear in concerts and are enjoyed by pianists the world over. All these works were written to be played at home as part of one’s keyboard study, and I cannot imagine Bach would consider his splendid music to be “off limits” to amateur players – nor Chopin either!

By the nineteenth century, the piano had improved significantly and by the mid-nineteenth century advanced manufacturing techniques meant pianos could be produced more quickly and cheaply. The instrument became an important member of the household and composers responded to its popularity by writing smaller scale works, “albumblatt”, miniatures and duets, specifically aimed at the “at home” or amateur player. Many of these works are now staples of concert programmes.

As pianists we are terribly spoilt for choice. We have a vast repertoire to explore, and today composers continue to add to that repertoire, which means we also have brand new music to explore and play. And in my experience, composers are pleased if you actively seek out their music to play (and preferably purchase it too). OK, so it’s not as prestigious as having it premiered by a leading artist, but that the music is being played and perhaps shared with others via piano clubs, self-organised recitals etc means the music is getting out there.

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re “not worthy” of this fantastic repertoire, that you shouldn’t attempt a Chopin Ballade, a late Beethoven or Schubert Sonata, Liszt’s Dante Sonata or Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

The music is there to be played – just go and bloody well play it!

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

How long have you been playing the piano?

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

What attracted you to the piano?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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