Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

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

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

***

To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.

Paul C.K. Wee, an Australian with Singaporean-Malaysian heritage, is a London-based barrister, and also a concert pianist. He took up the piano as a young child, made his Royal Albert Hall debut at the age of 12, and studied in New York City at the Pre-College division of the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Nina Svetlanova. At 18 he made the decision to study law at Oxford University rather than continue his musical studies in New York. But the piano has remained a very significant part of his life. He has released two recordings, to wide acclaim, and he continues to perform, when his schedule permits, as a recital soloist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician, both in his current home city of London and internationally.

In this interview, he reveals his influences and inspirations, how he balances his professional career with practicing the piano, and what drew him to record Sigismond Thalberg’s l’Art du chant….


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?

My brother, who had just started playing the piano at about the age of 6. I was around 4 years old myself, and at that age I wanted to do everything my brother did. So I started on the Suzuki method. Neither of my parents had a musical background, but my father has always been a music lover, and I have many childhood memories of hearing Rubinstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Gould playing Bach, and Pollini playing Beethoven through his stereo system. The tipping point for me came one day when I was listening to a CD of Rubinstein playing Chopin – I must have been 9 or 10 at the time – and something clicked. I knew then and there that rather than just playing what my teacher had assigned to me, I had to learn to play those works for myself, whatever it took and however difficult they may be. That was the real start of my musical journey, which ever since then has been principally self-motivated. Probably much to the frustration of some of my teachers over the years!

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life?

I think I have been most influenced by those artists who first opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of colours and sounds that a piano can produce: to name just three, the likes of Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergio Fiorentino, who could each shade a chord, bend a phrase, or sculpt a line in such a way as to set a sunset in a cadence or a lifetime in a pause – all in ways that go far beyond the mere notes that are printed on the page.

As to repertoire, I have definitely been influenced by those who have looked beyond the four corners of the standard repertoire, and brought numerous neglected gems and treasure to broader attention. Marc-André Hamelin is a real hero of mine in this respect.

As to interpretation, I am strongly convinced by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s theory of creative interpretation, which provides the descriptive and normative framework that I use to approach questions of interpretation as a musician.

Finally, as to my musical life today, I have to credit three people in particular: Nina Svetlanova, for giving me the pianistic and technical foundations for my relationship with the piano today; Mike Spring, for being the driving force behind my first Alkan recording and ever willing to talk pianists and pianism over a beer; and Robert von Bahr of BIS, for being willing to take a punt on the improbable proposition of a barrister playing Alkan and Thalberg, and for being both the most supportive partner and the dearest friend that any musician could hope to find.

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best?

When I play for myself, I often turn to Bach and Schubert for the deepest fulfilment, whether in the original or in transcription. But that is very different from saying I think I play those composers best, or that others would agree. I know audiences have responded particularly well to my performances and interpretations of Alkan, both live and in the studio. But I firmly believe that my interpretations of other works and composers, both within and outside the standard repertoire, are just as compelling and persuasive. Over time, it will be interesting to see whether audiences agree!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage or in the recording studio?

I think my honest answer to this probably has to be – either being a barrister by day, or simply not being a full-time professional musician. That’s because music is my escape, not my day-to-day existence. I revel in every opportunity that I have to sit down at the keyboard, and this means that my relationship with music is constantly refreshing and reinvigorating – it is one hundred percent pure delight. I know my love for music wouldn’t have been any lesser if I had become a full-time professional pianist, but if I were reliant on performing or playing week in and week out to put a roof over my head, I wonder whether I might have sometimes felt fenced in or suffocated by the very music that I had set out to enjoy. That is why I have the utmost respect for full-time professional musicians whose conviction and passion for music remains undimmed. I know there is more than enough fulfilment to be found within music to make up for all the sacrifices that a musician’s life entails. But I am also very glad to approach music and the piano from another angle, in which merely making music and playing the piano in the first place gives me all the joy and inspiration I could ever need, for stage or studio or beyond.

Your latest CD is Thalberg’s l’Art du chant. What initially attracted you to this repertoire?

I first learned of the existence of L’art du chant as a teenager, at around the same time as I was first exposed to the much flashier operatic paraphrases for which Thalberg was and is much better known. While I was greatly taken by the ingenuity and hyper-virtuosity of the pianism in the Moses and Don Pasquale paraphrases, I was also fascinated by the prospect of this set of transcriptions with a very different purpose – the cultivation of a singing tone. Some years later, I managed to obtain the scores for some of these transactions, and discovered to my delight that they were every bit as stunning and well-crafted as I had hoped. Thalberg had clearly taken his mission statement very seriously, and the level of craftsmanship and care that he had put into these transactions to capture the illusion of a singing line can be seen in the extraordinary level of detail captured in the notation. But for some reason, L’art du chant still remained largely neglected, and no recording of the entire set was widely available. It therefore sat on my “wish list” of projects for many years, and so when the opportunity arose to consider possible follow-ups to my debut Alkan recording on BIS, I leapt at the chance to suggest L’art du chant – not only for all of the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but also because of the very different challenge that it posed to the Alkan.

And what have been the particular pleasures and challenges of working on it and recording it?

The principal challenge lay in achieving the musical and aural results that I was striving for in these transcriptions, knowing that I was asking listeners to consider works they may already know in their original vocal forms, and experience them afresh through the lens of the piano. These transcriptions are all about creating the illusion of a singing line on the piano, which is a percussion instrument after all. And while Thalberg’s ingenuity and craftsmanship provide you with many of the ingredients to create that illusion, it is quite another thing to bring it to life, especially given the differences between the modern Steinway concert grand and the pianos that Thalberg would have had in mind when writing L’art du chant. The emphasis on power and projection that has driven much of the evolution of the modern piano – whether manifesting in the deeper and heavier actions, the far lengthier sustains, or the much weightier bass registers of modern instruments – poses many riddles for a pianist grappling with the subtleties of soundwork that these transcriptions require. And all that is on top of the difficulties of the pianism itself in L’art du chant, which – unusually for Thalberg – is far more difficult to play than it sounds!

But if those were some of the challenges, they were more than outweighed by the pleasures. First and foremost was the joy of revelling in these wonderful transcriptions, which really are gorgeous pianistic settings of the most beautiful melodies – even my wife confessed that she didn’t mind listening to me practicing them! At the recording sessions themselves, it was a delight to work with the dream team of Andrew Keener, my producer, and Dave Hinitt, my sound engineer, as well as Kait Farbon, my piano technician extraordinaire – all in the loveliest setting at Wyastone. Another enormous pleasure was making the recording on the most wonderful Steinway from Ulrich Gerhartz’s C&A fleet in London, which was the perfect partner for this repertoire, with all of the best attributes of the modern piano for this type of music and then some. And finally, there was the quieter satisfaction of doing my part to try to bring L’art du chant to a wider audience.

In your working life you are a barrister. How do you balance your professional life with the need to practice, learn new repertoire and maintain your existing repertoire and technique?

With difficulty, but through discipline. I am a barrister first and foremost, and a career at the London Commercial Bar is demanding. My clients know that I give my cases all of the time and attention that they require, and this frequently means that I have to go for weeks without sitting down at a piano. I am very fortunate in that my technique doesn’t require much by way of maintenance and upkeep, and when I sit down at the piano after an extended break away, I can generally pick up from where I left off with no real loss of facility. That stems from the foundations that I built with my last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, who helped me to understand what it meant for technique to reside in the mind and in the ears, not in the fingers – though that is probably a subject for another time! I also find I can still learn new repertoire fairly quickly, even if not as swiftly as in my youth. Overall, when I have a performance or a recording session in the calendar, I have to treat it like any other court hearing or trial in my diary, and manage my time accordingly. As a barrister, you rapidly become familiar with the demands of juggling multiple cases and deadlines at once, each demanding more hours in the day than you can give. The discipline this forces you to develop is the same discipline that I draw upon to keep my musical activities in the mix too.

Are there any similarities or crossover between your working life as a barrister and being a pianist?

Yes – there are many! But I’ll touch on just one for now, which is the performance element. Every appearance in court is just as much of a performance as an appearance on the concert stage. As a barrister, you have one chance to persuade, to cross-examine, to get the right answers out of a witness or to give the right answers to questions from the

Judge. Whether in the courtroom or on the concert stage, a good performance requires both careful preparation in advance and successful execution on the day. And just as I might kick myself over a few dropped notes following a concert, I sometimes find myself wishing I had put a slightly different question to a witness, or handled a judicial intervention somewhat differently. But that is all part of the thrill of live performance.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

I firmly believe that the key lies in education and exposure. The riches of what is called “classical music” are so broad, so deep, and so accessible that if children and young people are given the chance to engage with classical music early on and free of any preconceptions, I am convinced that this may give them a foundation for the appreciation of classical music that can be drawn on in later life. I’m thrilled to see the hard work and efforts that are being poured into this sphere, by amazing organisations like the Benedetti Foundation (www.benedettifoundation.org), and I’m wishing them every success along the way.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Exploring and performing the literature for one’s instrument at the highest technical and interpretative level. For me, it is enough to do that for myself and without any broader audience, to my own standards and in accordance with my own interpretative convictions, in the privacy of my own music room. Of course, if others are interested in seeing and hearing what I have to say at the piano in the literature that I love so dearly, then that is nice enough, so far as it goes. But I don’t condition success on winning approval from others. Ultimately, I don’t play the piano for other people, but for myself, and my interpretative convictions have more robust foundations than external validation.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The single most important point I would stress is to remember that your love for music and your instrument isn’t linked to your identity as an aspiring or professional musician. A genuine love for music isn’t the same thing as being in love with the idea of being a successful professional musician. Sadly, I’ve known many musicians who have confused the two. Ask yourself at every stage why you are doing what you are doing, and never lose sight of why you fell in love with music in the first place: treasure that flame. The joy and riches to be found in music are far bigger than any career, and if you don’t end up being a professional musician, that won’t detract from your ability to enjoy all the treasures that music has to offer – in fact I sometimes wonder whether it leaves you better placed to appreciate them.

What’s next for you? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In ten years’ time I know I will still be playing the piano – whether for others, in live performances or via studio recordings, or even only just for myself. More imminently, I’m looking forward to resuming occasional recitals once concert life is able to resume, and also to the recording plans I have lined up with BIS. As to those, I’m tremendously excited by the two further recordings that we currently have planned, one featuring Beethoven-Liszt and Mozart-Alkan and the other featuring piano concertos by Henselt and Bronsart. Just as with my Alkan and Thalberg albums, both of these recordings will be childhood dreams come true.

I have been very touched and moved by the many responses I received via this site and also on Twitter and Facebook in response to my article about my own estrangement from the piano during the past year, and I’m very grateful to people for writing with so much honesty – like David, a friend from my piano group, who has felt the loss of live music and singing with his choir really acutely:

Music was my release, my passion, my individuality and this was all taken away from me. Overnight. – David, amateur pianist & singer

Like me, David has found it difficult to engage with music via livestream, and regards making music, either solo as a pianist or with other people through his choir, as a more than just notes, but rather a “lifestyle” – something which brings not only pleasure, stimulation and self-fulfilment but also a sense of living a full life.

Others told me how the piano has been a lifesaver for them during a very challenging year. For Andrew, who was made redundant and had to move house, the piano has provided important continuity in his life:

I have played everyday through this whole traumatic period and I simply went back to the beginning. Bach. I opened book 2 of the ’48’ (I always seemed to play from book 1 in the past) and selected 2 preludes and fugues to start with and have slowly added another as I gained some sort of mastery over each one. The concentration, attention to detail, constant twists and turns in the part writing, compelled me to focus on this, and this alone for 60- 90 minutes a day. It was time away from the outside world and the pressure that surrounded me… without it I would have collapsed.

(It is interesting to note that several other people cited the music of Bach in providing much-needed stability and focus on their life, and I do think there is something about the structure of Bach’s music, coupled with its depth and beauty, that perhaps makes it a good choice for the long days of lockdown.)

It was my friend Rhonda who articulated so well what I had been feeling

In my experience, the loss of the music industry as I knew it feels as if the world has been upended. What had great meaning the day before the first lockdown felt drained of all relevance a month later. 

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Few people would dispute that the last year has been difficult. Many of us have lived under extraordinary restrictions for months, unable to see family and friends and enjoy social and cultural activities. Largely confined to our homes, we have had to adapt to new ways of working, socialising and interacting with colleagues and friends.

For professional musicians, the last 12 months have been very challenging indeed. The almost complete shut down of concert venues and opera houses has led to loss of work and has highlighted the precariousness of the working life of musicians in an already insecure profession. The disruption from such a big external event as a global pandemic, and the loss of the music industry as they knew it, feels as if the whole world has been upended, and this has caused many to question whether live music will ever recover, and if so, what will it be like in the future? Some musicians are even considering leaving, or have left, the profession altogether.

In addition, many musicians – and I include amateur players in this too – have felt estranged from their instrument and the music they love. At times of stress, many of us turn to music for comfort and refreshment, as a listener and/or player. Yet the pandemic has, for some of us, put a huge gulf between us and the music we used to love to play and/or hear in concert. It no longer speaks to us or is meaningful in the way it was previously.

Rekindling that love will take time and patience. I felt a huge sense of loss when the London concert halls were forced to close in March 2020 and for many months I simply did not want to listen to or engage with classical music. It was akin to a sense of grief. Finding a way back to enjoying and playing music has been slow for some of us, and at times frustrating, but it is possible to rekindle the love.

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I am grateful to the people who have contacted me in response to my earlier article, who’ve shared their experiences, and who have offered practical advice, some of which I am sharing here:

  • Don’t feel guilty about not wanting to practice or listen to music. Be kind to yourself and accept that these feelings of dismotivation/disengagement will pass.
  • Seek out music that speaks to where your mind is now, even if it’s not what you would usually play or listen to. In recent months, as I’ve re-engaged with classical music, I have found myself drawn to more gentle, meditative or ambient “post-classical” repertoire.
  • If practicing feels like a huge chore, revisit previously-learnt repertoire which you like and know you can play well. Give yourself permission to just play, not make progress.
  • Try to gradually re-establish a routine, even if you’re only playing for 30 minutes a day. Routine fosters creativity and can also be very steadying in times of stress.
  • Talk to others. Many people are feeling the same and knowing you are not alone can be very supportive.
  • Listen to music – and listen randomly. Some of the music streaming services create random playlists based on your listening; this is a great way to discover new repertoire and may even encourage you to learn new pieces.
  • Be patient. The passion will return, don’t force it.

Amateur pianists – how has lockdown been for you?

What have you been playing?

Have you practised more or less during lockdown?

How has your motivation been?

Have you been able to continue with piano lessons? (If you have regular lessons.) How have you found Zoom lessons?

What has lockdown “taught” you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section or contact me if you’d prefer to talk in confidence

 

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, gave us some fascinating insights into the world of the amateur pianist in his 2013 book ‘Play It Again’ – a world hitherto regarded by many as the realm of eccentric hobbyists and ‘Sunday Pianists’ note-bashing their way through Chopin and Brahms, and old ABRSM exam books….

What Rusbridger’s book reveals is something quite different, and anyone who has attended a piano course or belongs to a piano club will have come across the exceptional amateur pianist, the one for whom “the distinction between the feats they can manage on the keyboard and that of an accomplished professional pianist is pretty negligible” (Alan Rusbridger).

Who are these exceptional amateurs and how have they achieved a standard of playing which, if presented in a blind audition, would be indistinguishable from a professional pianist?

Perhaps the most obvious distinction between the amateur and the professional pianist is simply mercantile: the professional gets paid for their performances. Aside from this, there is no reason why an amateur pianist cannot achieve the dizzy heights of a professional standard of playing

I’ve met a few exceptional amateurs myself, on piano courses and in my piano club. They are individuals whose playing one would happily pay to hear in concert, yet they have “day jobs”, perhaps the most famous being Condoleezza Rice, who served as US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, and who has played at Buckingham Palace for The Queen. Then there is British-Australian pianist Paul Wee, a barrister by day, with two acclaimed discs to his name, including one of Alkan’s notoriously challenging Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano, works which require an exceptional level of technical and artistic executive function, and certainly not the repertoire would one normally associate with an amateur player.

But here’s the thing: amateurs can and do play repertoire like this, and the fact that they do debunks the notion that amateurs are cack-handed dilettantes. We know exceptional playing when we hear it – and being “exceptional” does not necessarily mean the ability to play the most demanding, virtuosic music. What distinguishes these people from other amateur pianists, what makes them truly exceptional, is their ability to play at and maintain this level, piece after piece, performance after performance.

Aspiration is everything” says Julian, an amateur pianist friend of mine who plays at an extremely high level of both technical and artistic fluency. But surely the ability to play at such a level goes beyond mere aspiration: we can all aspire to play the Bach-Busoni Chaconne or Gaspard de la Nuit, or any of the other high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire. But only a handful of amateurs can do so convincingly and, more importantly, consistently.

Some exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, a training which ingrains in them good practice habits, how to practice efficiently and deeply, and an appreciation that one must ensure the foundations are in place on which to build technical and artistic assuredness. This includes selecting appropriate repertoire, and listening and studying around that repertoire to broaden one’s musical knowledge and place the music in the context in which it was written.

Commitment and time management are also crucial for the exceptional amateur (as indeed for anyone who wishes to improve their playing). Music is “always something I’ve made time for” says Paul Wee in an interview for Gramophone magazine. Other exceptional amateurs to whom I spoke when researching this article said the same thing, that making time to practice is very important to their pianistic development. For many, this means a regular daily (if possible) practice regime. Paul Wee admits that he blocks off several weeks to devote to his piano playing and that he is lucky that his job as a self-employed barrister allows him to do this. He also points out that this approach to practicing is often used by professional players who, because of concert and touring schedules, may not have the luxury of a daily practice regime.

While many exceptional amateurs have had a formal musical training, they have chosen a different career path while keeping music as a significant part of their life. I think this goes beyond merely “playing for pleasure”; as mentioned above, one must be willing to commit to the task and adopt the ethos of continuous improvement, with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to put one’s ego to one side, rather than wanting to “prove oneself”. But amateurs enjoy considerable freedom too: they are not bound by concert diaries, the demands of agents or promoters, and they can choose when to be exceptional – unlike the professional who is judged on every performance and who is under pressure to be exceptional all the time.

Is there really a difference between the exceptional amateur and the professional pianist? No – because they are both pianists and the same technique, musicianship and artistry applies.  

 

This quote from a Meet the Artist interview with pianist Antoine Préat perfectly expresses my relationship with many composers and their music.

When I returned to playing the piano seriously in my later 30s, after a break of some 20 years, there were pieces which I felt I “should” be playing but which never felt comfortable to me. This feeling grew when I co-founded a piano meetup group where members played all sorts of repertoire. I envied those who seemed so at home with the music of Chopin or Ravel, two composers whose piano music I adore, but which does not necessarily love me back.

Of course, we should never feel obligated to play certain pieces or composers out of a sense of duty; the “tyranny of the shoulds” is often inculcated in our childhood music lessons, reinforced in music college, and – for the professional musician, further emphasised by teachers, peers, agents and critics – or for the amateur, at piano clubs and on courses. Students and those at the beginning of their career probably feel the pressure of this sense of obligation most acutely, and it takes confidence to stand firm against the tide of opinion that says one should be playing certain Beethoven sonatas, etudes by Chopin and Liszt, or the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Grieg in order to be recognised and endorsed by those who may help further one’s professional career and reputation. 

We’re very lucky as pianists; we have a vast repertoire to choose from and this means there is music within it to suit our varied, wide-ranging tastes. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest pianists have chosen to focus on a fairly narrow corner of the repertoire – for example, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff or Maria Joao Pires. It really isn’t necessary to have an affinity with or be able to play everything, though of course there are some pianists who seem perfectly at ease with a very broad sweep of repertoire, namely Maurizio Pollini or Marc-André Hamelin. Stephen Hough is quite open about his “uneasiness” about playing the music of J S Bach and I think it is a mark of a pianist’s honesty to admit that certain repertoire or composers do not suit them. 

Our affection for the music we choose to play is, I believe, one of the greatest assets in the learning process. It is what helps to keep us focussed and ensures we will return to the music day in day out to practice and refine it. If you don’t love the music you’re playing, it’s unlikely it will love you back, and the practice of practising will feel arduous and challenging. I recall feeling like this quite a lot of the time when I was having piano lessons as a child, where my first teacher would always select the music I was to learn, without giving me any choice (when I taught piano, I made sure my students played music they liked and enjoyed). It was only when I had passed my grade 5 piano exam, and moved to a new teacher, that I had the foundations of technical facility and the confidence to explore repertoire on my own. It was at this time that my love of Schubert’s piano music developed – and it remains amongst my most favourite music still. 

One of the great pleasures of being an amateur pianist, perhaps the greatest pleasure, is that you are not – or shouldn’t be – under any obligation to play music because someone else said you “should”! Of course sometimes a teacher will suggest repertoire which they feel may help with an aspect of technique or simply that it may appeal to your musical taste and sensibilities – and a good teacher should know and appreciate their students’ tastes. But if it doesn’t appeal, have the confidence to say “it’s not for me”. It’s also worth bearing in mind that our tastes change, and, as our technical facility improves, repertoire we previously loved but might not have been able to play, becomes more accessible.

If the music doesn’t love you back sufficiently for you to play it yourself, simply enjoy hearing others play it – on disc, on the radio, in concerts and via streaming services.