I met Chris at one of my teacher’s weekend courses in March 2011, where he impressed us all with a very committed performance of Liszt’s ‘Vallée d’Obermann’.

I started to take an interest in the piano at around the age of 9. My father, a keen amateur pianist and dance band leader, died when I was very young and I have no clear recollection of him.  What he bequeathed to me – apart from some vestiges of his musical talent – were an old but still functioning upright piano in the living room – a Challen, if memory serves – and a huge stack of sheet music which included much of the pianist’s basic repertoire – the Beethoven sonatas, numerous Mozart and Haydn sonatas, Book 1 of the 48, lots of Chopin, almost everything by Mendelssohn and Weber, a few pieces by Liszt and one by Debussy – Reflets dans l’eau, which remains my favourite Debussy piano piece to this day.  Plus some more popular stuff, in particular a selection of pieces by Billy Mayerl…

My mother, a keen music lover, guided me in the early stages and taught me to read music and the rudiments of piano playing. Once I got hold of the basics there was no holding me back. I soon acquired a huge appetite for trying out the pieces available to me – bashing them out note by note, chord by chord, determined to reach the end. The musical results were of no value, but that wasn’t then the point: what it did was to breed in me an ability to sightread and a constant need to seek out new music, both of which have remained with me.

This early phase, before any formal training, culminated in my performance of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy at a primary school concert at the age of 10. How did I manage it? No idea. What did it sound like? I shudder to think – mercifully no recording of this event exists.

Ah, the confidence of youth… How one’s attitudes change. That’s the sort of piece I would now spend weeks or months getting up to performance standard. And even then be dissatisfied with the result.

After that I had lessons with an excellent local piano teacher and went through the usual run of exams – Grades 5 to 8, an LTCL diploma, then on to university where I met many other musicians and had the chance to play in ensembles for the first time. After university I spent a year at the RCM under David Parkhouse. He was a very good teacher but alas I was not a good student; 3 years of the relative freedom of university life had ill prepared me for the relative straitjacket (as I saw it) of music college. Yet despite that the things I learnt from him about piano technique – notably phrasing and how to relax and avoid stress in performance – have stood me in good stead ever since.

My life then followed a predictable course – building a career, marriage, children, a mortgage… I never stopped playing the piano, though time and opportunity were not always on my side. Not to mention the fact that in the pre-digital age living in flats, terraces or semis limited the time in which you could play for fear of annoying the neighbours. Thank heaven for the brilliant Clavinova which I’ve had for the last 10 years and which does everything a mechanical piano does, and more, with only a very limited downside. In the last few years I’ve had a little more available time, during which I’ve become a member of an excellent London music club, the OCMC, which is full of talented amateur instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors and has opened up to me a wealth of possibilities for making music in groups large and small.

The piano is the ultimate solo instrument and you can be self-sufficient in your music making, as I was for years. But there’s a strong social aspect too, especially if you’re interested in performing in chamber groups and accompanying, or if you’re lucky enough, as I have occasionally been, to play concertos with an orchestra. Through the piano I’ve got to know, and to make music with, a whole range of people I would never otherwise have met and my life is richer as a result. One opportunity leads to another and I now do more playing than I’ve ever done since my student days.

Despite cajoling from friends I haven’t yet tried my luck at any summer schools. I have attended some of Penelope Roskell’s 3-day courses and found them beneficial. The social aspect of gatherings like these is just as important as the playing; it’s another way of meeting fellow musicians, making contacts and exchanging ideas about piano playing.

For those wanting to take up the piano, or who had lessons as children and want to start where they left off, I’d say don’t hesitate – do it. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; making an effort to create something beautiful, however imperfectly, as well as the sheer physical thrill of running your fingers across the keyboard, are enriching experiences. And there’s surely nothing better to keep body and brain working in harness.

I don’t play scales and arpeggios much – too boring. I prefer to get my exercise through playing real music. It’s the difference between taking a walk through a beautiful landscape and pounding away on a treadmill in a gym.

There’s only one book of exercises that I’ve ever bothered with – the ones by Dohnányi. They’re totally cut to the bone – they make no claim to any musical quality but just concentrate on mechanical processes – scales, thirds, octaves, broken chords, wrist-, arm- and finger-strengthening and flexibility. You can spend five or ten minutes a day on that sort of stuff if you want to and it’s enough.

As for repertoire, I flatter myself that my tastes are fairly broad. They range from Bach and Scarlatti onwards, but I find the 19th and early 20th century repertoire the most congenial – Beethoven (the sonatas are probably the first ‘big’ music that I got to know), Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms (the early work far more than the later stuff), and somehow I feel a particular affinity with the Central and East European repertoire – Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Bartok, and Russian masters like Balakirev, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. And I’m a recent convert to the music of Nikolai Kapustin, with its unique take on classic-jazz fusion .

Nowadays my appetite for sight-reading new music has to some extent been replaced by an urge to spend longer getting pieces up to a high standard. I practice far more than I ever did when I was younger. Whether that’s because the goals I set myself are higher or simply because advancing age makes learning that much harder, I don’t really know. Probably a bit of both.

Practicing can be a frustrating activity since you often feel that you’re making massive efforts for little gain. Yet it does bring results in the long run if you stick at it. I don’t work to any specific number of target hours but I’m always ready to grab an opportunity – a few spare moments in the morning before leaving for work, waiting while the microwave warms up the food, last thing at night before going to bed as well as longer periods at weekends and on free days. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife who puts up with my presence at the piano and the music that flows from it. Well, not music exactly – more likely the click click of the (to her) silent keyboard, while I hear things with perfect clarity through my headphones.

Despite determined efforts there are some special pieces which remain obstinately beyond my reach. One that has sat for decades on the top of my piano and which I try from time to time to get to grips with, but never quite succeed, is Rachmaninov’s transcription of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think this is the greatest piano transcription ever – a near perfect recreation of a near perfect original. There are a few little piquant harmonic twists typical of Rachmaninov but other than that it’s pretty much note for note. The ingenuity of the way Rachmaninov transforms a piece which seems quite unsuited to the piano into an elegant pianistic tour de force leaves me amazed. Oh, and giving a half-decent performance of the Hammerklavier would be rather nice. I like to aim high and challenge myself to the limits. That’s all part of the fun.

Inspired by Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again, I am launching a new series of interviews with adult amateur pianists. The overriding theme of Rusbridger’s book is its celebration of amateur pianism and music making in general, as a convivial social activity and one which can provide ‘therapy’ in our busy lives.

I meet many amateur pianists in the course of my musical life, many of whom play at an advanced, or quasi professional level, but who have chosen to follow a different career path, for whatever reason. All of them express a love for the instrument and its literature, and this is their main motivation for playing the piano.

This series will celebrate the joy of amateur pianism, at whatever level. If you would like to take part in the series, you can either:

Download the Adult amateur pianist questionnaire and answer the questions, or

Write your own text and submit it to me (use the Contact page to get in touch initially)

For an idea of the kind of text I am looking for, please take a look at these interviews from Alan Rusbridger’s website:

Interviews with amateur pianists

Playing at Steinway Hall, May 2012

Hot on the heels of the publication of his book ‘Play It Again’, Guardian editor and keen amateur pianist Alan Rusbridger and publisher, Jonathan Cape, are organising a competition for amateur pianists to showcase their talents to the world.

If you have what it takes to play Chopin’s ‘Ballade No.1’, submit a video of your performance to YouTube, to be in with a chance of winning:

  • A trip to London
  • A piano masterclass
  • A chance to meet Alan Rusbridger
  • A tour of the Guardian offices
  • A year’s subscription to BBC Music Magazine


  • Alan Rusbridger (Editor of the Guardian)
  • Oliver Condy (Editor of BBC Music Magazine)
  • Andrew Clements (Guardian Music Critic)
  • Erica Worth (Editor of The Pianist)
  • Lucy Parham (Concert Pianist)
  • Alex Bowler (Editor at Jonathan Cape)

Pianists of all standards and levels of experience welcome

DEADLINE FOR ENTRY: March 8th 2013

Further information, entry form and full terms & conditions here

Check out the Play It Again website for piano and Ballade-related content, including interviews, video clips, articles on the brain and music, and much more

Murray Perahia plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1:

In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.

When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.

Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).

His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, 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 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.

Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.

In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.

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 – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) 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 (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

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 Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?

The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.

This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.

I am very much looking forward to reading Alan Rusbridger’s forthcoming book Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible in which he describes the monumental task he set himself to learn Chopin’s First Ballade in just one year. The Ballades are considered some of the most challenging pieces Chopin wrote and are amongst the most popular with concert artists and audiences around the world. While he was studying the piece, Rusbridger was also kept exceedingly busy by his day job, as editor of The Guardian newspaper at a time when a number of major stories broke, including Wikileaks and the phone hacking scandal, so the book is also an account of how Rusbridger balanced his day job with his love of the piano.

Alan Rusbridger at the piano (photo: Graeme Robertson)

Rusbridger is a keen and very competent amateur pianist. A hundred years ago the word “amateur” was a compliment: indeed its Old French origin is “lover of” (from the Latin amator). But the meaning of the word has changed and has come to mean “hobbyist” or a certain cack-handed incompetence.

I have met plenty of “amateur” pianists – at courses, masterclasses and other piano events – and many of them are very fine pianists, who play to a near-professional standard and with the same commitment and devotion as the seasoned pro. Some studied at music college or conservatoire but decided not to pursue a career as a professional musician, some learnt as children and continue to learn, as adults. Others have come later to the instrument, or returned to it after a long pause (as I did). But all of the amateurs I have met (and I include myself in this description) love the piano and its literature. Some of us perform, many of us are studying for exams or diplomas, others are happy to play purely for pleasure. We don’t really like the tag “Sunday pianist”, because many of us practice every day, often for several hours. We are incredibly committed and we love every minute of the time we spend at the piano. I very much hope that Alan Rusbridger’s new book will redefine the word “amateur”, casting it in a positive light and proving that it needn’t be synonymous with ineptitude or lack of skill.

More about amateur pianists here

I will be reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again after the book is published on 17th January.

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano boot camp

There was an expectant hubbub of chatter, and some rather nervous laughter, when we arrived at Steinway Hall on Saturday for the first EPTA Piano Day, hosted by Scottish pianist and UK EPTA Chairman, Murray McLachlan. I met my friend Lorraine ahead of the event for strong coffee, and, in Lorraine’s case, a big breakfast, at a nearby Carluccio’s. Thus fortified, we walked the short distance from St Christopher’s Place to the hallowed ground that is Steinway & Sons London showroom on Marylebone Lane.

Like many an aspiring pianist, I have pressed my nose to the windows of the Steinway showroom ever since I can remember, marvelling, as a kid, at the big black shiny beasts squatting in the spotlit window displays. I’ve never, until now, had the chutzpah to go in and actually play one. My friend Michael, a fine amateur pianist with a penchant for Rachmaninov and Debussy, bought his Model B there a few years ago: apparently, the level of service was beyond superb. Well, so it should be if you are spending a cool £67,000 on what is, for some people, a glorified piece of sitting room furniture.

The piano - Steinway Model D

Behind the grand showroom, and the Steinway Hall of Fame, there is a small recital space, complete with a big black shiny Model D, a full-size concert grand. The event, the first, (hopefully of many) organised by EPTA, was open to EPTA members and their adult students, and was run in the form of a workshop, with verbal and written feedback on each individual performance by Murray McLachlan.

Although I have attended several courses at my teacher’s house, and performed in her house concerts, I had never participated in an event like this before, which would involve playing in front of 30 people I’d never met before. However, I regarded it as useful preparation for my performance Diploma – plus an opportunity to play a really fine piano.

The repertoire offered was quite varied, with, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good helping of Liszt, some Chopin Nocturnes, two of Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata and his Rondo  ‘Rage Over a Lost penny’ (energetically played by my friend), Messiaen’s Prelude La Colombe (‘the Dove’) and my own piece, his Regard de la Vierge, from the ‘Vingts Regards de l’enfant Jésus’. The standard was generally advanced; thus, we all had great admiration for a woman who played a piece from her Grade 4 repertoire. As she told me afterwards, “I was determined to come, no matter. I just wanted to play this piece in front of other people.”. The atmosphere was supportive and sympathetic, and, as Murray kept saying, there was a strong sense of a real love for the instrument and its literature amongst the participants: we were all there because we love it!

Formerly a very reluctant performer, I have learnt the benefits of playing for other people. Interesting things can emerge from a performance and can offer a wholly new perspective on one’s music. Also, it is very important to put it “out there” and to offer it up for scrutiny before an audience. Performing also endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing. After a fairly rigorous morning the day before having my playing critiqued by a pianist friend, I was fairly clear about what I wanted to do with the Messiaen. It was therefore very cheering and encouraging to receive such positive feedback after my performance. Murray was extremely understanding, kind to those people whose nerves got the better of them, or those who stumbled. This was not a professional concert, after all, but rather a gathering of committed amateurs. It was a very enjoyable and encouraging day; my only criticism is that is was perhaps too long. The day finished with a performance of Liszt’s Italian Années de Pèlerinage by Angela Brownridge, but I did not stay for this as I had to get home – and Lorraine was playing in a competition.

Just before we left, we nipped into the Steinway Hall of Fame, and, like proper “piano tourists”, photographed each other at a Model D with a price tag of £115,000.

It was an excellent day of piano music, and I do hope EPTA will organise further events like this in the future.


Steinway & Sons

Some of the repertoire played (links open in Spotify):

Bach/Busoni – Chaconne in D Minor

Beethoven – Rondo a capriccio in G, Op.129 ‘Rage over a lost penny’

Schubert – Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90): Impromptu No. 1 in C minor. Allegro molto moderato

Chopin – Nocturne No.13 in C minor Op.48 No.1

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S.161 – 6. Sonetto del Petrarca no. 123 (Più lento)

Ravel – Sonatine: Modéré

Messiaen – 8 Préludes : I La colombe

The author playing Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge