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.

The internet is full of articles promising to help you learn to play the piano

  • Learn to play in just 4 weeks!
  • Play piano in 10 easy steps
  • 5 ways to become a great pianist

And so on….

The British pianist James Rhodes entered this busy, lucrative market a few years ago with his book ‘How to Play The Piano’, in which he promises to get the complete novice playing a Bach Prelude in just six weeks. It’s an admirable attempt which may provide inspiration and support to some aspiring pianists, but I am sure Mr Rhodes would agree that to master the piano, whether a professional or amateur player, takes many hours of commitment and graft. As one of my teachers, the wonderful Graham Fitch, observed, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”.

Those of us who choose to embark seriously on this crazy, fulfilling, life-enhancing, frustrating and fascinating path do so with the understanding that the acquisition of skill, improvement and development are hard won (and for the professional, there is the added burden of the cut-throat competitiveness of the profession).

It doesn’t matter at what level you play – you can be a serious beginner or an advanced player; what matters is the commitment, made in the knowledge that this is ongoing process. For many of us (and I find this attitude is common amongst amateur pianists), it is the journey not the destination that makes learning and playing the piano so satisfying and absorbing.

If you don’t enjoy practicing – the process – forget it. You’ll never achieve mastery of your Grade 2 pieces or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Practicing is the bedrock of the musician’s “work”. For the professional, this usually has an end point – or rather a string of end points – concerts; but alongside that, there is the need to learn new repertoire, keep existing repertoire alive and fresh, to revive previously-learnt pieces, and to continually reflect on and review one’s skills, technical, musical and artistic.

But there’s more. Because practicing isn’t just about sitting at the piano, turning the dots and squiggles on the score into sounds. Practicing – productive, thoughtful, deep practicing – involves the head and the heart as well as the body. Each phrase, each chord, each scalic run or passage of arpeggios must be considered and reviewed. Listen as you play (and you’d be amazed how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves!). Reflect, review, play again. And again, and again….and make each of those repetitions meaningful.

Come to each practice session with an open mind and a willingness to fully engage with the music all the time. I’ve read accounts of great pianists practicing technique while reading a book propped on the music desk. This kind of mechanical practice is not helpful – and can even be harmful. Even when practicing the dullest exercises, or scales and arpeggios, find the music within, and bring expression and artistry to every note you play.

Approach your music with a clear internal vision of how you want it to sound. For less experienced players, this can be confusing, the fear of entering unknown territory. How do I know how it should sound? you might ask. But this marks your first forays into interpretation, into taking ownership of the music and making it yours. Our interpretative decisions about our music are shaped by our own experience – playing or listening to repertoire by the same composer, or from the same period, reading around the music, going to concerts, conversations with teachers and other musicians, and harnessing the power of our imagination to bring the music to life.

Don’t feel constrained by the notion that there is a “right way”, but rather forge you own way, and be committed to it. We take ownership of the music by recognising and committing to the value of what we have to say.

Mastery comes not from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretative or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner.

Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

When we practice we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological, as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth.

In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.Such dedicated craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

Learn the piano in 6 weeks? Bah! It’s a lifetime’s work.


The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site Make A Donation

Soon after the first UK lockdown began in March 2020, videos began appearing online of people playing their pianos in their homes. Often these home performances – more playing for oneself than for others – were prefaced by an apology for the poor quality of the piano sound. “I’m sorry, my piano is out of tune and I don’t know when the tuner will be able to come to fix it” was a common thread. But somehow it didn’t matter – because many people had to be content with an out of tune piano during lockdown, when tuners, like the rest of us, were ordered to stay at home.

Some of these at home performances were given by professional pianists; many more were by amateurs who, by complying with the government stay at home orders, found themselves with – oh joy! – extra hours with which to indulge their passion, instead of trying to shoe-horn practice time into the daily routine of work and family life.

There was a remarkable outpouring of music in those strange early days and weeks of lockdown. The piano is the perfect instrument for isolation: pianists tend to be, by nature, solitary, and many relished and actively embraced the weeks of confinement. This was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, revisit previously-learnt music, or simply enjoy quality time with the instrument and its literature. It confirmed what most of us, especially amateurs, know – that we play primarily for ourselves, in private, just us and the instrument.

And people forgave a less-than-perfect piano sound and instead embraced and shared this celebration of the instrument and its music. Many of these performances, recorded in people’s living rooms, dining rooms, music rooms, were the result of hours of careful practice; others were spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment occasions. Some people collaborated, using an app, to play duets, remotely yet together. Shared on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, these mini house concerts reminded us of why we love music, and what we were missing with the concert halls shuttered. Commenting on people’s performances, praising their efforts and marvelling at their abilities, was a way of recalling the special shared experience of live music – as performer and audience – and this created a sense of togetherness, even though we were separated.

“I’m so busy!” my piano technician said when he finally came to tune my piano in early July (some three months later than its scheduled half-year tune). All the out of tune pianos of lockdown were finally being treated to some much-needed TLC, and as soon as the tuner had done his/her work, the piano’s owner played to recall what an in tune piano should sound like, and then there was an even greater pleasure in the act of playing.

The videos will continue to be shared online because people find pleasure in sharing their music with others and for amateur pianists in particular, practicing with the intention of recording one’s playing provides focus. But let us hope in 2021 we can also return to live music in concert halls, large and small.

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation

 

An Introduction to the Piano – Christopher Northam

Amidst all the recordings of virtuoso repertoire comes this delightful collection aimed at amateurs and piano students from pianist Christopher Northam.

Northam takes us on a chronological journey through some 300 years of keyboard music, from Byrd to Debussy, with plenty of gems of the repertoire, as well as lesser-known works by Pachulski and Alkan.

Although described as music “for beginners”, the selection includes some challenging pieces of cGrade 6 to 8 standard, including Beethoven’s much-loved Für Elise, Field’s Nocturne in B flat and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Admittedly, these are not necessarily “concert pieces”, but they certainly require a fair degree of technical and artistic facility.

We are so used to high-quality recordings of concert repertoire by leading, acclaimed pianists, it is refreshing to have a selection which is clearly aimed at amateur players. The actor and keen amateur pianist Alistair McGowan attempted something similar a few years ago with his Piano Album, though the music selection was almost as unimaginative as his playing, and I am not convinced by McGowan’s assertion that hearing someone like him playing this music will inspire others (I suspect most aspiring pianists find inspiration in high quality performances, whatever the difficulty of the repertoire). By contrast, Northam treats this music with all the authority, care and commitment one would afford virtuoso repertoire, and performs it as if in a concert rather than strictly pedagogical setting.

Remarkably, the recording was made over 20 years ago at St George’s Bristol, which boasts one of the finest acoustics for piano and chamber music in the UK. Northam’s sensitivity and attention to detail in this crystalline acoustic results in a recording which sounds fresh and immediate.

The amateur piano world is huge, and very supportive of professional players, from whom many amateurs not only drawn inspiration but also receive tuition, in private lessons, masterclasses and summer schools. Yet the amateur world is often barely acknowledged; this excellent contribution from Christopher Northam recognises the importance of amateur pianists while offering inspiration in repertoire which is accessible and achievable. If I have one criticism it is that there is not a single piece by a female composer included in this otherwise excellent selection, but I am told by the manager at the recording label that the music selection was based on the then ABRSM syllabus, which, at the time, included no pieces by women composers.

Recommended


 
An introduction to the Piano is available on the HOXA label distributed via Naxos. Catalogue no. HS950701
bcc207e1-046a-4910-8b9a-88a32ee4e949.jpg