Best known for his BAFTA-winning comedy show, ‘Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression’, in which he delighted audiences nationwide with pinpoint-accurate impersonations of celebrities such as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross, Alistair McGowan is now preparing for his most demanding role of all – that of pianist – as he releases an album of solo piano works for Sony Classical.
This debut album features McGowan performing several short classical pieces, all chosen and learned by the actor/impressionist (who could only ever play two pieces) but who then practised for up to six hours a day over a nine month period in his attempt to finally conquer this beautiful instrument, despite already being in his early fifties. Says McGowan: “By taking on the idea of making an album, I hope to encourage people of any age to play the piano, but perhaps particularly those at an age where it’s easy to think that it’s all too late”.
McGowan had started out playing the piano as a boy, but gave it up after only two years in favour of tennis and football. He went on to train as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked for many years on television, on radio and in the theatre (being nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006), as well as successfully performing around the country for almost thirty years as a stand-up comic.
Having always yearned for the piano, in 2016, McGowan devised the one-man stage show, ‘Erik Satie’s-faction’, based on the French composer’s comedic writings, letters and music, for which he had to learn to play some short piano pieces by Satie and Debussy as an integral part of the show – the first time he had ever played in public. Emboldened by this well-received first public experience, it was not long before he was enthusiastically identifying and learning other short pieces which he felt that he – and others with similarly limited playing experience – could realistically manage.
McGowan notes: “I have become so passionate about the piano over the past three years. It has really taken me over and I have made the time to practise (time I never thought I had) with a few simple lifestyle changes. This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination. Learning to play the piano has been an incredible challenge – often frustrating – but, ultimately, hugely enjoyable and emotional. It’s so satisfying when you realise that you are improving daily. I hope this encourages everyone who harbours a secret ambition take up music -it really is never too late!”
McGowan was mentored by concert pianist and ‘Olympianist’ Anthony Hewitt and he has also attended exclusive piano summer school La Balie in south-west France. He practised on friends’ pianos and used ice packs to relieve tension and pain in his hands and legs, the result of his long practise sessions.
His solo piano album features music from composers as diverse as Bach, Chopin, Glass, Grieg, Liszt and Satie, together with vocals by Alistair McGowan’s singer wife, Charlie.
Alistair McGowan: The Piano Album is released on 29 September on the Sony Classical label
I never really intended to become a pianist and piano teacher – nor a blogger on classical music and pianism, and a concert reviewer. Sure, I was mad keen on the piano as a child and teenager, completing all my grade exams and enjoying consistent rather than startling success in them. I harboured some desire to go to music college rather than university, but an offhand comment by my music teacher at school, suggesting I was not “good enough” to audition for conservatoire (a comment which still has the power to sting, some 35 years on), set me on a different course at 18: I studied Anglo-Saxon at university and had a career in art and academic publishing for 10 years post-university, until I stopped full-time work to have my son.
But the piano had always been there, in the background, a rather frustrating itch which could not be scratched because my father sold my piano when I left home and I had no instrument on which to practise. I occasionally played a friend’s grand piano but lack of practise led to frustration, and it was not until my mother bought me a half-decent digital piano that my passion for the instrument was rekindled. It was gratifying to discover that music I’d learnt in my teens was still “in the fingers”, if rather rusty, and I began to enjoy the routine of practising once again. Around the same time, I started going to concerts regularly again, something I had enjoyed as a child with my parents, and into my teens, reacquainting myself with repertoire I knew and loved and making new discoveries. A chance conversation with a friend in the school playground while waiting to collect our children led me into piano teaching – that was 10 years ago…..
Alongside this, I felt it was important to improve my own playing, and in 2008 I returned to regular lessons with a concert pianist and professor of piano at one of London’s leading conservatoires. It was daunting initially: I had not been taught for nearly a quarter of a century, and lots of bad habits from my teens and lack of technique were quickly exposed, but the teacher was sympathetic and supportive, and it was satisfying to see my playing improve rapidly under her guidance. Because I had not had a formal musical training at 18, I always (and still do) felt I was trying to catch up with those who’d had that education, and this was a major motivation for taking an external performance diploma, in addition to the desire to continually improve my playing by setting myself the personal challenge of preparing for the diploma. And so in December 2011, some 28 years after I last stepped into a piano exam room, I took my Associate diploma in piano performance. The Licentiate diploma followed in 2013. Both experiences were entirely positive (in complete contrast to some rather uncomfortable exam experiences as a child): I enjoyed the challenge of learning and finessing the repertoire, researching and writing programme notes, and learning how to be a performer (for one is assessed not just on one’s playing but also on stagecraft and presentation, just as in a formal professional concert), and above all, I enjoyed studying with a teacher again and the self-imposed routine of regular practising. Since 2013, I perform quite regularly, in solo concerts and in joint recitals with friends and colleagues. Learning to manage and understand performance anxiety has been a big part of my development as a pianist, and an aspect I know many others struggle with, which is why I organise workshops for adult amateur pianists on coping with anxiety and developing good stage craft.
I think the rather “accidental” path into my current role, in addition to the long period of absence from the piano, has given me the freedom and confidence to fully indulge my passion for the piano and its literature. Had I gone to music college and had to make a career from music as a young woman, I may have lost that spark, that passion. I’ve met a number of professional musicians who have expressed resentment at the heavy demands of their career, which can rob them of their love of the piano and its literature. (Admittedly, I am fortunate in that I do not have to make my main living from music: I have what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” and do several other admin and writing jobs in addition to my teaching.) Returning to the piano in my late 30s, and completing my diplomas in my mid-40s, has brought a maturity to my approach – and in the years when I wasn’t playing I was still listening to music and going to concerts, soaking up all those notes and forming my own opinions about the music I was hearing (which in turn was given a further outlet when I started reviewing concerts for Bachtrack.com).
As an adult pianist, one has the freedom to explore whatever repertoire one pleases, without a teacher bossily insisting on Czerny exercises (been there, done that) or having to play repertoire which one hates (and I suspect many of us can remember, with a shudder, the terrible/dull music we were made to learn as children). We take responsibility for our practising without recourse to others. As we mature we get to know what repertoire suits us (I was very touched at a recent London Piano Meetup Group event when a friend commented on how much a certain piece “suited” me), what we are physically, and mentally, capable of tackling, and as pianists we are incredibly spoilt by the vastness of the piano’s repertoire: there really is something for everyone! While some of us dream of playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto to a full house at Carnegie Hall, we gain a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from working on pieces and presenting them to others at piano clubs, meetup groups, and on courses (where one can meet other piano fanatics and where lasting friendships are forged). We enjoy the challenge of learning a Beethoven sonata, a handful of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, or a brace of Chopin Etudes, and the sense of achievement when we gain “ownership” of our music, making it our own.
“It’s an overriding passion, not just for the music [but] for the challenge……And the challenge is constant: there’s always a harder piece, you can always take it to the next level, you’re never finished. But there’s also the fact that the piano is your friend; it’s always there. That gathers more significance as you get older: what you can express through it, in a personal language, becomes incredibly important.”
Lucy Parham, concert pianist
Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, advanced pianists, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this consuming passion. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of a piano group and this love is more than evident as members discuss the myriad aspects of the craft of piano: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers and recordings. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.
Students at La Balie. France
The author’s 1913 Bechstein A grand piano
Improvisatory fun and games with Dr Mark Polishook at a London Piano Events one-day workshop
A member of the London Piano Meetup Group performing at LASSCO Brunswick House
Alan Rusbridger, a keen amateur pianist
The author performing at St John’s Smith Square
A London Piano Meetup Group event at the 1901 Arts Club
Music has known therapeutic benefits and the piano is no exception. Time spent with the instrument can be relaxing, invigorating, inspiring and comforting. A good practise session can feel as beneficial as a run – and we release the same “happy hormones”, endorphins, when we practise, as we do when we exercise. If I haven’t touched the piano for several days, I get tetchy and frustrated, and it’s the first thing I go to when I return home from a holiday. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it now, and I am lucky enough to possess a rather fine antique Bechstein grand piano, known affectionately as “Bechy”, who has pride of place in my living room and is treated by the rest of my family like a rather large pet.
If you are something of an “accidental pianist”, or someone who has returned to, or taken up the piano later in life, I would love to hear from you to explore this fascinating subject in more detail. Please feel free to contact me to tell me your story, or complete my Piano Notes – adult pianist interview (word document)
A regular commentator on this blog has asked me to write more on amateur pianism. Here are some honest and occasionally light-hearted thoughts on the joys and frustrations of being an amateur pianist.
Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play It Again’ (published in 2013) shone a delightful and inspirational light on the world of amateur pianism, but people have been playing the piano at home and with friends for almost as long as keyboard instruments have been in existence. In the nineteenth century, when advances in design and production significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing pianos, an upright piano in the parlour was the norm for family entertainment, much as the PlayStation or smart TV is today (sadly).
Probably the single most positive aspect of being an amateur pianist is not having to make a living from playing the instrument. Recently, I have begun to paid for solo performances and accompanying, which puts me in the hallowed category of “professional pianist”, but my main income comes from piano teaching, and I wouldn’t have it any different, to be honest. Not having to earn a living from playing the piano means one can truly indulge one’s passion for it. (Indeed, the word “amateur”comes from the Old French meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator.) All the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it.
That is not to say that professionals don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed for the Meet the Artist series have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano and its literature. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.
Talking of which, the piano has a vast repertoire, more than enough to suits all tastes, a good chunk of which is copyright-free and easily available online from sites such as IMSLP and Pianostreet. One could spend a lifetime learning and playing only the music of, say, J S Bach or Fryderyk Chopin and only scratch the tiniest surface of the piano repertoire. And in addition to solo works, there is music for three, four, six hands to enjoy with other pianists, not to mention being called upon to accompany other instrumentalists and singers…. Really, we are spoilt rotten!
Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation/hobby (though I like the solitary nature of the instrument) and working alone on that knotty section of Liszt or Hanon exercises can at times be frustrating and demoralising. However, it needn’t be lonely: in recent years the popularity of piano meetup groups and piano clubs, or even informal get togethers at one another’s houses, has created a wonderful community of like-minded people who meet regularly to play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and I still attend the group’s meetings when I can. Our drinks and lunches after our informal performance platforms are always noisy with conversations about the music we are working on, concerts we have enjoyed and discovering new repertoire.
Some adult amateur pianists are shy about playing to others for fear of making mistakes and looking foolish, or because of negative experiences in childhood. Piano Meetups and Clubs are a good way of overcoming these anxieties – you quickly discover that most people feel the same and playing to a friendly non-judgmental group of people is an excellent way of overcoming those performance nerves.
Adult pianists may also find it difficult to find the right teacher to support and encourage them. Some adults like to be pushed by a teacher, others need more gentle handling. Many come to lessons with a lot of “baggage” and anxieties, often a hangover from childhood music lessons, and need encouragement and support. Some have rather over-ambitious ideas about their capabilities (I had an adult student who informed me at his first lesson that he was going to play the Rach Three one day!) and want to play repertoire which is too challenging. In such instances, I recommend selecting repertoire that is well within one’s “comfort zone” to give one confidence, while gradually introducing more complex repertoire to extend and challenge one’s abilities, both technical and musical. And no repertoire should ever be considered “off limits” to the amateur pianist: the music was written to be played!
However, the music still has to be learnt and one of the greatest frustrations expressed by amateur pianists is finding the time to practise, especially if you have a busy day job and/or family commitments. We all know that “practise makes perfect”, but what is more important is that practise makes permanent and regular practise means notes are learnt, finessed and made secure. My personal mantra is “little and often” (a shoulder injury means I cannot practise for more than about 45 minutes in one sitting without a break) and I have become adept at sneaking practise sessions in to a particularly busy day or if I am going to be away from the piano for a period of time. It’s amazing what just 10 minutes focused practising can achieve – but you need to know what needs to be done (a good teacher will offer guidance on this and give one tools to practise efficiently and effectively). If you are serious about your piano practise, try and set aside some time every day for it. Alan Rusbridger used to practise before he went to work, shoe-horning a brief 20 minutes on the Chopin G minor Ballade into his busy day. And if you are very serious about your practising, be ruthless about setting the time aside, turn off your phone, and simply shut yourself away with the piano.
If you don’t have the benefit of regular lessons with a teacher, there are plenty of online resources in the form of blogs, YouTube tutorials, and forums, and there are also courses for adult amateur pianists where you can study with international concert pianists and acclaimed teachers or simply enjoy being amongst like-minded people. Such courses are a great way to meet other pianists and observing others being taught in the masterclass or group workshop setting can be really useful. You can even have a rather special “piano holiday” and stay in luxury accommodation with gourmet food and beautiful facilities (though “mandals” seem to be mandatory for both male participants!). Many of my pianist friends return to the same courses year after year and firm friendships have been forged.
Not everyone has the luxury of an acoustic piano (upright or grand) but there are some excellent digital pianos on the market now. There are also street pianos at railway stations and airports, and if you crave the sleek elegance of a grand piano, there are rehearsal rooms available to hire for a modest fee and many churches and community centres have grand pianos which are just begging to be played. Seated at that glorious, gleaming expanse of mahogany, you can dream of playing to a full house at the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.
Above all, love your piano and its wonderful music
If there are any specific aspects of amateur pianism which you would like me to cover, please leave a comment below or contact me
Frances Wilson, author of this blog, is experienced in teaching adult pianists and also runs performance workshops for adult amateur pianists.
I was delighted to rejoin the London Piano Meetup Group (a friendly and supportive group for adult amateur pianists in London which I co-founded in 2013) for the March performance event. We met in the airy upstairs studio at Peregrine’s Pianos where we had the opportunity to play a medium-sized August Förster grand piano (one of the many attractions of the group is the chance to play different pianos). There was, as usual, a varied range of repertoire from Scarlatti to contemporary British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, with some impressive and enjoyable Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Bach, Howells, Liszt, Mayerl and even a drop of “cocktail jazz” (‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’). Afterwards, we repaired to The Clerk and Well pub for a jolly lunch and lively piano chat.
The original motivation for forming the group remains very strong – to provide a supportive and relaxed environment for adult pianists to meet, play for one another, share repertoire and socialise. I’ve made some very good friends via the group, as have others, and it was very nice to reconnect with old friends and make new ones too. The popularity of the group – and others like it – is an indication of how many pianists there are in and around London who enjoy the opportunity to meet and explore new or familiar repertoire. The chance to exchange ideas about practising, taking exams, performing, teachers and teaching, courses, concerts and more is also very important, and many people use the informal performance opportunities as a place to run repertoire by a friendly audience ahead of an exam, diploma, competition or festival performance.
Being sympathetic towards nervous players is a crucial component in creating a “safe place” where nervous or inexperienced players can perform without fear of criticism or negative comments: everyone’s performance receives warm applause and appreciation.
For further information about the London Piano Meetup Group or to join the mailing list to be kept informed about upcoming events, please email email@example.com or find the group on Facebook
Occasionally I and indeed other musician friends and colleagues have come across the suggestion from other professional musicians and even some teachers that certain repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professionals and should be left well alone by “amateurs”. This includes the final piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Piano Sonatas, Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’, Ravel’s ‘Gaspard’ and all of the big well-known piano concertos. The suggestion is that no amateur could possibly ever be “good enough” to master any of these great works and that the professional “know” how to play them best. Conversely, I recently I came across a blog post describing a suite of miniature variations as music for the “amateur pianist”, the implication being that no pro would touch it (in fact, the variations in question were premiered by pianist Melvyn Tan and have subsequently been performed by him to much acclaim: more on the blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur later in this post….)
I posed the question “Should certain repertoire be off limits to amateur pianists?” in a piano group I belong to on Facebook and it was met with a stream of lively and vociferous comments. Most people agreed that no repertoire should be off limits to anyone, with the proviso that we should all be aware of our own limitations and select repertoire which we are capable of mastering. There were interesting comments about bad performances of great music by so-called amateur musicians and how this appropriation of the great composer’s great works shows a lack of respect towards the music, but the general consensus was that amateurs should have the freedom to play whatever they like. Indeed any musician should have the freedom to play whatever they like: music was written to be played and fundamentally it matters not a jot whether one plays badly in the privacy of one’s living room or beautifully to a paying audience. It is about exploring and loving this wonderful repertoire.
I have occasionally taught adult amateur pianists and I find their ambitions to master Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sometimes have to be tempered by their limitations. A good teacher will guide and advise, suggesting repertoire that is achievable so that the student gains experience, develops technique and musicality and above all enjoys playing the music, rather than growing frustrated by it because it is too challenging. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t always play within our comfort zone, and I think it’s important to have one or two pieces in one’s repertoire that are challenging and “difficult” (for me currently this is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). Learning and playing outside our comfort zone pushes us, forces us to problem-solve, tests technique and musicianship, and equips us with useful learning tools which can be applied to easier repertoire. Alongside this, it is also important to have repertoire that is doable, and even some that is “easy”. In fact, it is hard to play easy music well (often because there is nowhere to “hide” in easy music): the simplest pieces played beautifully can be the most exquisite. This brings me back to the suite of variations which have been labelled “for amateur pianists” by another blogger, thus suggesting that this is not the kind of music a “professional” would touch. How ridiculous! Anyone can play this repertoire, and anyone can gain enjoyment and pleasure from it.
In 2013, I co-founded a London-based group for adult amateur pianists which meets regularly for informal performance opportunities and to socialise. Pianists of all ages and abilities are members and everyone clearly adores the piano and its repertoire. Occasionally people have come to performance platforms and stumbled through a favourite piece or attempted something that is clearly beyond their capabilities, or not ready for a public performance. Here it is a case of “knowing one’s limits” rather than feeling that repertoire is “off limits” – and I always advise people to select music they know well and feel comfortable with for such performance events. At the other end of the scale, some members of my piano group are fine pianists and seasoned performers. Many have attended music college or achieved external performance diplomas (such as DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL and FRSM) but have chosen to pursue another career path (we have an actuary, several doctors and scientists, a lawyer and video games designer amongst our members). These “amateur” pianists play to what most people would consider a “professional standard” and if one were to do a blind performance of these people and some professional pianists, I doubt anyone could tell the difference. At this point the boundaries between amateur and professional become extremely blurred and the only difference is the career choice and the pay cheque.
The joy of being an amateur pianist is that one can play whatever one wants to because one is not in the thrall of concert trends, agents, promoters and the mortgage/rent. Many professional pianists envy this freedom because it puts one in touch with the real reason why music was written – to be played and enjoyed. As a professional, it is important to retain that joy and excitement in the music to avoid concert giving and performing turning into a chore (and the best performers, professional or amateur, will transmit that joy and excitement in their playing).
So go ahead, play what you like. Love your piano and its glorious and hugely varied repertoire. And if you are looking for something a little different to try from contemporary piano repertoire may I suggest the following:
Variations for Judith – a set of variations based on the Chorale ‘Bist du bei mir’ (Stolzel arr. J S Bach) with contributions by Richard Rodney Bennett, Tarik O’Regan, Thalia Myers and Judith Bingham.
A Little Book of Hours – Peter Sculthorpe. Don’t be put off by the description “elementary”. These seemingly simple pieces take care and thought to shape their spare melodies and unusual harmonies.
Review of Frances Wilson & Friends, South London Concert Series at Brunswick House, 22nd January 2015
by Lucy Butler Gillick
The last time I visited LASSCO Brunswick House, my husband and I were looking at furniture for our house in Clapham. Back then it was the place to go for interesting bits and pieces at prices that wouldn’t break the bank. It still is. But in those days the area was very far from a prime location. In the 10 or more years since, I have occasionally looked across from a car or bus as I pass through Vauxhall Cross and noticed the isolated Georgian house, standing in defiantly Dickensian splendour, on an island surrounded by sleek riverside architecture and brutally thundering roads.
Without the encouragement of my dear friend Fran [Frances] Wilson – the energetic co-founder and Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series – I would probably never have bothered to park the car or get off the bus or tube to explore any further. But her invitation to come along to an evening of intimate piano music was far too appealing to refuse. And the venue is practically on my doorstep…
Now, apart from the occasional school event, endured for the sake of my children, or dinner at Fran’s where the piano would inevitably form part of the programme (and a welcome one at that), I have never really experienced such a concert. So it was as a complete outsider to this exclusive piano playing world that I arrived last Thursday evening and finally re-entered the pillared portals of LASSCO Brunswick House. To be frank, I was slightly fearful that my bottom would end the evening sore from a long and laborious sit, after having my eardrums assailed by music that could potentially mean nothing to me at all.
But what an appealing setting and pleasurable event it turned out to be. Downstairs is a cosy bar and lively restaurant, lit and furnished with scene-setting antiques that are – so far as I could tell from the tags – all for sale. For your starter you could order Mussels, Kale & Parsnip plus a Venetian chandelier; with perhaps Roast Lamb Leg and a sideboard to follow. Not bad going for the time-poor, multi-tasking city worker, en route home.
But it was upstairs that the salon vibe really took hold. The private concert room, the opulent Saloon with its belle epoque Bechstein grand piano, heavily swagged stained glass windows, old-fashioned school room-style chairs set in neat rows, lamps, lanterns, chandeliers and ephemera, was a genuinely atmospheric space. The very height of old-world decorous gentility, slap bang in the middle of one of London’s busiest junctions (better known for its gay clubs and pubs). Who’d have thought? It even smelt old-fashioned – a sort of pleasantly musty, sandalwood tang.
Once the concert kicked off, after a short introduction from Fran – dressed to the nines in a floor-length slinky red and mauve gown – the evening progressed apace. The concert included the ‘world premiere’ of a new piece by composer and guitarist Matthew Sear, as well as preludes, fugues, sonatas and impromptus from the likes of Debussy, Shostakovich, Menotti, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schubert and Satie – all favourite pieces of the artists performing that night. There was even a piece by the incongruously named Bryan Kelly (who sounds more like an Irish builder than an Australian composer to me), and a somewhat ‘difficult’ discordant work by Olivier Messiaen – apparently taken from ‘one of the greatest works for piano of the 20th century’ (the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus) expertly played by Fran, who I think fancied challenging her audience into hearing something unusual at the end of the night.
The South London Concert series typically combines performances by talented amateur musicians with a special “guest spot” featuring professional and semi-professional players. On the evening I attended we enjoyed performances by José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán, Petra Chong, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Rob Foster and of course our genial hostess Frances Wilson herself. They all looked and sounded amazing to my untutored ears and I would heartily recommend the South London Concert Series to anyone who fancies a very reasonably-priced introduction to the world of glorious piano music in an intimate setting, followed by an opportunity to meet and talk to musicians who are as passionate about their piano music as you probably are about your food, wine and chandeliers. What’s not to love about such civilisation? The only jarring note was re-entering the real world and wintry fug of Vauxhall Cross when it was finally time to head home…
Lucy Butler Gillick is ex-chief sub editor of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and Harpers & Queen. She has written for many magazines and supplements over the years, on a variety of topics, but mostly on issues related to parenting. She now works in education.
The South London Concert Series returns to LASSCO Brunswick House on 21st May for a concert by Australian counter-tenor Glenn Kesby. Full details here
The UK Masterchef competition for amateur cooks has reached its series finale, won by Ping Coombes, a 32-year-old full-time mother who wowed the judges and tv viewers with her original, flavoursome and exciting dishes inspired by her homeland, Malaysia.
Throughout the competition, contestants’ dishes were critiqued and judged by “external moderators” in the form of previous Masterchef winners, “celebrity” chefs, including Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing, and food critics Jay Rayner and William Sitwell, amongst others, many of whom expressed surprise that a bunch of “amateurs” could produce such classy, technically complicated, restaurant-standard food. When it was Marcus Wareing’s turn to judge the semi-finalists, in a nail-biting round for he is famously acerbic and downright scary, he said of one dish “that is remarkably good – for an amateur” or words to that effect. And after that, every time I heard the word “amateur” on the programme, a little bit of me died.
I have blogged before about the definition of “amateur”. The word suffers, in the English language at least, from its association with the hobbyist, the “Sunday painter” or dilettante, and suggests cack-handedness and lack of finesse or refinement. Things which are described as “amateurish” are usually badly done or poorly put together. Not so these finalists in Masterchef: their dishes showed imagination, creativity, highly-developed technical skills and, above all, love for what they were doing. Ping’s sheer enjoyment and delight in producing delicious food for family and friends was evident from the moment she first entered the competition and remained the abiding theme of everything she did, endearing her to judges and viewers alike.
The debate about amateur versus professional is one that continues to run (and will go on running) in the sphere of music and the arts (and beyond), and particularly within the narrow sphere of classical music. I co-host a piano group for adult “amateur” pianists in which the standard of playing is quite varied, but it must be said that the majority of members plays to an extremely high standard. A number have attended specialist music schools or conservatoire but chose a different career path, not having the requisite temperament to hack it as a professional musician (and perhaps preferring a more reliable salary!). Many of us enjoy performing, and we practise and finesse and perform our pieces with a professional mindset.
In a recent post for his own blog, pianist Stephen Hough gave a perfect definition of “amateur”, citing the Latin origin of the word – the verb amare = to love:
An amateur is not someone who is less good than a professional but rather someone for whom love overcomes obstacles…. (Stephen Hough, 7 May 2014)
This sensible and, to my mind, very accurate description struck an immediate chord with myself and many pianist friends who struggle with the word “amateur”. Those of us who play at a semi-professional level, intermediate players, beginners, returners, “Sunday pianists” all share this profound love for the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of my piano group and this passion is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our craft: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, memorable performances and recordings. The only difference between many of us and the pros is, as a professional pianist friend said to me recently, “the pay cheque”.
I take issue with those rather ungenerous people in the music world, and beyond, who suggest that people like me and the other members of my piano group should not be performing in public, nor posting our performances on YouTube or Soundcloud (in the same way as I take issue with “professional journalists” who seek to undermine the value of blogs such as this and many others). It suggests a certain envy or resentment – for we are not trying to touch the professionals, but we might just conceivably touch the audience with our fidelity and commitment to the piano and its music. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the amount of hard work, and anxiety, that has gone into preparing for that performance. Playing for one another at piano circles, piano groups and at people’s homes offers a supportive environment to put repertoire before a friendly audience, and many amateur pianists use opportunities like these to prepare for exams, festivals, diplomas and concerts. Many amateurs practise seriously, sometimes for several hours every day, and cite the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano, the chance to escape and lose oneself in the music, after a busy day at the office. Those who perform more regularly understand the necessity to conquer performance anxiety and hone their stagecraft in addition to pulling off a polished and convincing performance.
Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again (2013), in which the editor of the Guardian charts his learning of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, a famously difficult work even for the most seasoned pro, offers some interesting glimpses into the world of the amateur pianist. There are piano circles, performance platforms, concerts in people’s homes, informal get-togethers, courses and more which bring amateur pianists of all levels together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Meanwhile, popular summer schools at home and abroad offer amateur pianists the opportunity to study with, and gain inspiration from international concert artists and renowned teachers from some of the top conservatoires around the world. The most famous summer school at Chethams, known affectionately as “Chets”, boasts a large and impressive faculty, including “greats” such as Peter Donohoe, Leslie Howard, Noriko Ogawa, and Boris Berman, and is held over two weeks in August. Summer schools like this offer not only specialist tuition, both one-to-one and in a masterclass format, but also performance opportunities, faculty concerts, recordings, chamber ensembles and choirs, and plenty of “piano chat” between students. Firm friendships are made on courses and piano weekends such as these as like-minded people come together to share and express their love of the piano and music-making.
And so back to Masterchef, and Ping and her fellow finalists. Just as my friends in my piano group show a deep passion for the piano and everything connected with it, so these three “amateur” cooks display a deep and consuming love for food, for creating and preparing it and sharing it with others. If Ping and the other finalists Jack and Luke go on to pursue a “professional” career in the food business, I hope they won’t ever lose that love. And just as food is created for sharing, so is music.
A stag with an impressive set of antlers surveys the room, while a white-tuxedo’d Tony Curtis keeps watch over the proceedings from his niche in a corner near the piano, a John Hopkinson baby grand with a rosewood case. Glittering chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating the exposed brickwork on two walls of the room and highlighting the colours of the stained glass panels in the elegant sash windows. Exotic oriental rugs are draped over vintage British Rail first class seats, and at the back of the room, a glass cabinet is filled with antique pharmacy jars. Welcome to Brunswick House, part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co, a Georgian mansion just five minutes from London’s Vauxhall Station, flanked by the brand new 5-star hotel and luxury apartments of One Nine Elms. Brunswick House is a treasure trove of antiques and salvaged curiosities, and on Thursday night last week, it provided a wonderful and eclectic venue for a fine evening of music making and conviviality.
“A superb evening – huge fun was had with a mix of musical genres in a delightfully decrepit and stylish Georgian mansion. Best of luck promoting these salon recitals, the way music is meant to be played and heard.”
Rosalind, audience member
The concert was part of the South London Concert Series, and featured a recital by BBC Music Magazine’s “rising star” Emmanuel Vass, together with supporting performances by three talented members of the London Piano Meetup Group, who despite not being “professional” pianists, played with equal poise, musical sensitivity and professionalism. The diverse programme matched the unusual setting, with music by Bach, Chopin, Turina, and Mozart together with Emmanuel’s own transcriptions of pop songs by Queen and The Prodigy. In keeping with the SLCS ethos of recreating the nineteenth-century musical salon, an hour of music was followed by much conversation and socialising in the ante-room next to the Saloon, and continued downstairs in the restaurant adjacent to the house.
All the enjoyable and engaging features of ‘Pianist’ magazine are included in this new piano techniques app: informative and easy to understand articles on technique and repertoire, how to play a particular work with guidance from a top teacher, free sheet music (18 pieces in fact, from beginner to advanced level), an interview with Lang Lang, contributions from expert teachers, and more, all presented in an interactive and accessible format.
The organisation of the content will be familiar to anyone who reads Pianist magazine regularly. Clear, well laid out articles are enhanced by video tutorials by renowned teachers and pianists, and soundclips, which enable the reader to listen to the pieces presented in the free sheet music section.
The app is easy to navigate, with clear swipe commands and helpful notes and asides which enhance the articles. In effect, the app offers the very best of ‘Pianist’ magazine in a user-friendly and portable format – read it at the piano or in bed – and is ideal for the beginner, intermediate or more advanced pianist.
In a recital space somewhere in central London a group of people are seated in a rough semi-circle around a Fazioli 212 grand piano. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. The young man seated at the piano composes himself for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then lifts his hands and launches into the iconic opening bars of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude. The music soars from the piano, filling the space. The small audience listens attentively, and at the end there is enthusiastic applause. Welcome to the world of amateur pianism.
This is an extract from a longer article I wrote for Bachtrack’s ‘Piano Month’. Read the full article here
Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture