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

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

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

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

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

Stoller Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long have you been playing the piano?

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

What attracted you to the piano?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Amateurs have nothing to lose by being musically true to themselves…… professionals are sometimes too intimidated to display their individuality

– Daniel Martyn Lewis, concert pianist

The world of the adult amateur pianist is rich, vibrant and varied. In researching this article I came across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and the frustrations of practicing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

The cultivation and participation in the activity of playing the piano, and the commitment to it, is very strong amongst amateur pianists, perhaps because the activity is undertaken voluntarily, not for money, and for the intrinsic pleasure of playing and also striving to improve.

The more you learn, the more you realise you still have to learn – so you never run out of stuff to do. You can take as long as you like to learn something difficult, or learn something easy within a short time.

– an adult amateur pianist

Adult pianists enjoy greater autonomy and self-determination than they probably did as children taking lessons, when there was parental and teacherly pressure to practice and progress, the treadmill of exams, and being made to learn repertoire which they disliked (this is very much my own memory of childhood piano studies). Being solely responsibility for selecting your own repertoire and organising practice time is often far more satisfying. A love of the learning process is also very important in fostering a willingness to stick at the task and many adult pianists continue in their piano endeavours because they enjoy being the perpetual student or lifelong learner.

It’s an intellectual challenge, but, crucially, one that I can dip in and out of – shorter bursts of practice seem more beneficial than four-hour stretches, which I wouldn’t have time for. There’s also something very satisfying about reaching the point where your hands seem to know just how to play a piece, and what was previously the subject of great effort becomes almost instinctive. 

Clare

I love the rare practising sessions, when I don’t have to watch my time and can go back to previously played pieces (hours can go by without me even noticing, because I get so lost in it)

– Sylvia

Many amateur pianists attest to the therapeutic benefits of playing the piano (and engaging in music in general), not only for relaxation or escapism after work doing one’s “day job”, but for more significant, life-changing or healing therapy.

At the age of 29 my partner of 5 years took his own life. I was in a desperate state when I walked passed a music shop and saw a special offer on a weighted action keyboard … on impulse I bought it….I played for hours and hours each day. I’m not a pianist: I am someone who finds great comfort and therapy in playing. I’m a great believer that playing literally saved me…..it gave me a purpose

– Gary

I started playing the piano when I was 25 as an aid to recovery when I was going through one of my depressive states. I find music so uplifting that I’m now want to take it further and possibly get to a professional level. Being totally blind doesn’t stop me playing the piano the way I want to

– Lucy

I find playing the piano is an excellent opportunity to focus in a way that’s just not possible at work; it slows down your train of thought and forces you to stay in the moment.

– Clare

Those of us who teach adults are regularly impressed by the persistence and determination to improve which these pianists display. They may not have much time to practice, snatching precious moments at their beloved instrument between the demands of work and family life, but they do so with commitment and (usually) enjoyment. Some grow frustrated with the slow pace of progress and arrive at a level which is “good enough” for them to enjoy playing pieces; others strive for excellence, recognising that deliberate practice, self-regulation and reflection are the keys to success. Many take regular lessons or attend piano courses, at home and abroad, relishing the chance to study with a master teacher and meet like-minded people.

lessons are a great opportunity to think about the piece as a whole, and to actively articulate what is happening in the music in a way that isn’t easy to do on your own at home. External scrutiny is also very helpful in making sure practice happens

– Clare

I treasure the chance to learn from established, respected musicians and to challenge my own ways of thinking.  It’s then up to me to synthesise the various ‘inputs’ I have gained along the path of learning a piece – mostly between my regular teacher and the sometimes differing thoughts of whoever is taking a masterclass

– Douglas

Many adults who return to the piano years after ceasing lesson as children or teenagers reveal the hangover of authoritarian parents or teachers when they recommence lessons. I have taught adults who have had inculcated in them a clear sense of a “right way” to play the piano, or insecurity and self-doubt about their abilities, previously engendered in them by a dogmatic or overly negative teacher who continually highlighted mistakes as “failures”. Such attitudes can take time to change and empathetic and supportive teaching is crucial in these scenarios. Sometimes adults come to lessons with unreal expectations – I used to teach a London black cab driver who wanted to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. “I’ll do it one day!” he declared at his first lesson. But beneath the bravado was an anxious person who lacked confidence and was highly self-critical, and who needed gentle coaching to help him find his way through the first movement of Beethoven Op 10, no. 1 and a Bach Prelude. One of the many roles as a teacher of adult amateurs is to manage their expectations in a non-judgmental way and without ever dampening their spirit or enthusiasm for learning.

It has been the best decision to re-kindle my passion for playing piano. I don’t perform and feel very amateur still, but just enjoy practising, learning and improving.

As an adult, I am dedicating far more time and energy into improving my skills and learning about good practise than I ever did as I child. I absolutely love it, find playing therapeutic and relaxing, and enjoy learning new things every day.

– Ruth

Playing the piano can be a lonely activity, and while many enjoy the solitude and the chance to spend time with the instrument and its rich repertoire which we as pianists are so lucky to have, the opportunity to interact with other pianists can be hugely important. Piano clubs and meetup groups are a popular way to connect with other pianists, perform in a friendly environment, share repertoire and socialise for plenty of “piano chat”. Such groups can also provide invaluable support to those who are nervous about playing in front of others and promote the feeling that we are “all in it together” – because members of piano groups understand and appreciate the difficulties and the pleasures.

The piano meetups are truly inspiring and they help me to realise that I am by no means alone in my difficulties and it helps to discuss them with other adult pianists.

Kim

Performing, though never ever undertaken lightly and often fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, carries fewer consequences for the adult amateur pianist. One’s career prospects are not dependent on a pristine performance and there are no critics in the audience, barbed pen at the ready to flag up errors.

It helps that no matter how badly wrong a performance goes, there are no “real consequences” for me; I can fall flat on my face on stage (either literally or figuratively) and come Monday, nobody at work knows what happened. That really helped my performance anxiety.

Petra

Playing for one another in the informal atmosphere of a piano club (perhaps in someone’s home) or meetup group becomes an important shared activity – sharing music, repertoire and the sheer pleasure of playing the piano. Each performance is greeted with enthusiastic and supportive applause, and often such gatherings are places where new discoveries are made – about oneself as a pianist and performer, and of repertoire.

And for all the adult amateur pianists I spoke to in preparing this article, the notion of the piano as a “friend who has always been there for me” is very strong, providing solace or relaxation after a tough day at work, or simply a place to go and “play”.

I’d encourage anyone to play – it’s truly a beautiful thing regardless of ability

– Anthony


Thank you to all the amazing adult amateur pianists who contributed to this article.

The self-help/life coaching section of the local bookshop is full of books on how to learn from the pros – think like a pro, act like a pro, be more pro. We are encouraged to draw inspiration from successful professionals – whether they are sports people, musicians, chess players or high-flying financiers whose “pro-thinking” has made them shedloads of money.

Be more amateur” – said no one ever

The word “amateur” is problematic for a start. A quick Google search throws up the following definitions:

Non-specialist, layperson, dilettante, unskillful, a hobbyist, a dabbler, inexpert, incompetent, talentless, ham-handed, unqualified……

The word “amateurish” has even worse connotations, suggesting cack-handedness and ineptitude.

To describe oneself as an “amateur pianist” is almost derogatory, calling to mind the image of someone fumbling through some Chopin on an out of tune upright piano.

But look more closely at the etymology of the word “amateur” and a quite different image is revealed. “Amateur” comes from the French word meaning “one who loves” and prior to the 1780s, when the word developed its more negative associations, it meant “one who cultivates and participates (in something) but does not pursue it professionally or with an eye to gain” [i.e. does not get paid for it]

My primary contact with other adult amateur pianists is via the London Piano Meetup Group, which I co-founded in 2013, partly because I was keen to meet other pianists like me and because being a pianist can be a lonely activity. The members of this group – to a man and woman – display the most positive trait of amateurism: they love the piano, many with a passion bordering on obsession (myself included). They love playing the piano, talking about playing the piano, getting together at our Meetups to share the experience of playing the piano (repertoire, lessons, performing), going on piano courses to meet other lovers of the piano, and hearing others (professional and amateur) playing the piano in concert.

It is this love which drives members to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, even if they have to snatch precious moments out of their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano. Because we don’t have to earn a living by our piano playing (though a number of members of the piano group are piano or music teachers, so can be defined as “music professionals” as opposed to “professional musicians” – again, myself included), we can gain enormous pleasure from playing the piano, yet we are under no obligation to practise if we don’t want to.

In fact, all the amateur pianists I know practise regularly and happily. We appreciate the benefits of practising and many of us cultivate good habits to ensure we practise deliberately, productively and thoughtfully, no matter how much or how little time we have. We have developed our own methods for achieving personal goals in our music making, from preparing pieces to perform successfully at one of our Meetup events to putting together a programme of advanced repertoire for a performance Diploma, or performing in charity concerts (as I do). Many of us draw inspiration and guidance from the practise habits of professional musicians, but we also appreciate that setting unachievable goals can be counter-productive and leads to dissatisfaction and lack of motivation.

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Pianists at play – on a course for adult amateur pianists at La Balie. France

 

When we are doing something we love, whether playing the piano, tennis, watercolour painting or mountain-biking (my husband’s chosen passionate pursuit), we form an MEA – a Minimal Enjoyable Action – a habit which is so easy and enjoyable we do it almost intuitively and, more importantly, consistently, because we love doing it. Through regular engagement with our personal MEA, we increase our commitment to the task, and by rewarding the brain with small successes (which causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure which enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move towards them), we create a virtuous circle that can actually build greater willpower to stick to the task. (In a way, this is related to the concept of Marginal Gain Learning, a training technique used by top athletes). Once the MEA becomes a habit, it leads to more advanced behaviours – longer, more involved practising, attempting more complex repertoire, for example. Some of us reach a plateau where we are happy in the “good enough” stage; others wish to strive further, to achieve something touching expert status by engaging in deliberate, self-regulated practise with focused goals, self-evaluation, often together with critical feedback from teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues. We know we may not touch the pros, may never perform at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall, but we gain much pleasure from the process of being the lifelong student.

So why should we learn from amateurs? Because amateurs are consistent practitioners of a healthy pursuit, practising something they enjoy which brings enormous pleasure and personal satisfaction.


Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit

More than hobbyists: the world of the amateur pianist

Acclaimed impressionist, comic and actor Alistair McGowan shares his passion for the piano and reveals how he prepared for his debut recording.


What are you first memories of the piano?

My mother had and still has a very good Chappell upright – ‘from Corporation St in Birmingham’. She was always playing the piano when I was young. She was the accompanist at the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society for years and was always playing and practising the score for the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan show they did. She also played a few classical pieces which I would often ask her to play to send me to sleep. She was a fabulous sight-reader and could play almost anything. It breaks my heart that she no longer plays.

My older sister, Kay, learnt to Grade Eight and so was constantly practising. My father and I would listen to her pieces again and again and again as we tried to watch ‘Star Soccer’ in the room next door. It’s the only way to practise but it gave me a very good idea of how hard it is to live with or next door to a pianist. She didn’t touch the piano after her final exam. She is making noises about playing again after all the interest I have shown and I really hope she does go back to it. She was very good!

Did you have piano lessons as a child?

I did two years and passed two grades but stopped when I was 9. I regretted it for the rest of my life and finally took up the piano again for a couple of years in my 30s and then TV stardom got in the way. So, I have only really, finally, finally thrown myself at it again over the last 2-3 years and particularly since being involved in my debut recording project.

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

Nothing too ‘bangy’ and anything marked ‘lento’! Over the years, I’ve also loved piano music that I can work to and I think the album reflects that. The music is reflective and romantic, spanning everything from Bach and Field via Satie to Philip Glass. I hope it’s good to revise to, to work to, eat to and even to fall asleep to, too.

How do you make the time to practise? 

At first, it was a struggle fitting things in around other work and I had to cut a lot of things out of my life, but I began to love playing and improving so much that I soon didn’t miss reading about and watching endless football or even playing tennis. I watched less television in general with no regret and played less snooker too. I changed a few habits but have simply acquired new ones and made a lot of new friends through it too. Through it all, I kept on swimming as a wonderful release for mind and body!

Do you enjoy practising? 

I have to force myself to do scales and arpeggios and Hanon but otherwise, yes. I had some very good advice from lots of people. Fellow comic, Rainer Hersch, suggested putting a stop-watch by the music and making sure that every fifteen minutes you change your practise to a different piece or a different exercise to keep the brain active and receptive. I tried to do that. James Lisney [concert pianist and teacher at piano summer schools] is very keen on pianists getting up and stretching regularly, which is also very important (though not a good idea in a concert!). I am a little troubled with a sore right thigh and foot from all the pedalling though.

Have you participated in any masterclasses or piano courses? 

The person who got me playing again, the fabulous accompanist Lucy Colquhoun, suggested that I attend a weekend course with Paul Roberts in Sussex. I learnt a huge amount there in three days and realised above all how much I had to learn and that the learning is never done. Paul was just inspirational and in 2015 I went on his week-long piano course in France and then attended two courses in subsequent years at the delightful La Balie (in south-west France).

I also returned to Paul in 2016 for another woodsmoke-filled weekend. As well as learning from such inspirational players and teachers (James and Paul), who both have such a huge knowledge of piano history, it was great to meet other amateur pianists who shared my passion – most of whom were way ahead of where I was – all willing to play and share and talk about this fantastic repertoire that has been left to us by these amazing composers. I also performed in a number of practise concerts in Barnes with my teacher, Anthony Hewitt, and watching Anthony play live was a masterclass in itself.

What have you gained/learnt from this experience? 

Well, obviously, how much I enjoy playing the piano, but also the importance of goals and patience. I’ve gained even more respect for professional pianists and feel I’ve enriched my life and my soul. I have been a little surprised by how much I have enjoyed regularly turning my back on the modern world.

As an adult amateur pianist, what are the special challenges of preparing for a performance? 

Believing that the sound you are about to make is worth listening to. Believing that you know the music and not letting the occasion distract you from listening to the sound you are making with every note. I had moments of being very focused (reading ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ was a big help), but often heard myself saying ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?” If you can keep that voice out of your head, you will generally be fine!

How did you prepare the pieces featured on your new disc? 

I worked very hard, bringing each of them to the boil in turn. I did a lot of note-bashing on the electric piano at home but there is no substitute for a real piano for the touch. I was lucky enough to have some sessions in St Mary’s Church in Barnes on their excellent Steinway, which got me used to the touch and sound of the best big pianos. I also went to listen to a good few pianists in concert and learnt a lot from hearing James Lisney, Lucy Parham, Viv McLean and, of course, Anthony Hewitt.

I also listened to and registered recordings of the pieces I was playing – to get to know them intimately – on trains and even, especially, peacefully, in bed.

And how did you find the experience of recording the music?

It was like a lesson, an exam, a recital and the greatest pleasure all at the same time – immensely draining and yet utterly thrilling to hear the music I had learnt and loved coming out of the best pianos in the world !

It was also terrifying knowing that this was the one chance to get each piece recorded. I read a wonderful book called ‘Piano Notes’ by Charles Rosen which has a very helpful chapter on the challenge of recording and refers especially to the need to not to worry about mistakes. They can be covered. My teacher/mentor, Anthony Hewitt, was wonderfully helpful at and about the recordings. My producer, Chris Hazel, was unbelievably supportive, helpful and strict!

I had to pinch myself after each recording. I couldn’t believe what I was being allowed to do. I had been to drama school at The Guildhall and worked at The Barbican Centre tearing tickets as a student. So, to be recording in St Giles Cripplegate, just opposite these two important buildings in my life, felt like some sort of karma. And after the eight-hour sessions, I felt like some sort of korma!

What was your motivation for making the disc?

It was principally the challenge of seeing if I could get to a level somewhere near good enough that people would want to listen to the music I was playing. We all need an incentive and knowing that my playing was potentially going to heard by thousands was a real carrot.

I also hope that the album encourages people to play by showing them the beauty of some well-known and some much lesser-known pieces. I have often felt that virtuoso playing (impressive as it is) can just as easily put people off playing as it can inspire them. I know I heard myself say for many years, “Well, I could never play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto like that so, what’s the point…?” I really, above all, hope that people who hear the album will say, “I think I could play that” and do so

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

Do it! It has brought me so much pleasure. There are moments of frustration, of course, but, with patience and a lot of hard work, it is just wonderful to be able to play pieces that you’ve loved listening to all your life. I think learning how to learn is as important as learning how to play ; it’s important to get the most from your playing time. Setting goals is also important. Perhaps organise small recitals at home, before friends, in order to give yourself a deadline.

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

Ah! That changes all the time as I hear more and more piano music that I want to play and as I am improving. Currently, I am in love with Madeleine Dring’s ‘Blue Air’ but find even the opening few bars very challenging. It’s a wonderful evocation of ‘cool’ and sounds like a theme from any 1960s Michael Caine film. It’s unlike anything else I play. I also have an eye on Debussy’s ‘Ballade’ – but that’s a good few years away, I fear !

‘Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album’ is available now on the Sony Classical label and is the impressionist’s debut album


Further reading

Review of Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album

Why go on a piano course?

Courses for pianists

(Photo: usefulvoices.com)

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©Frances Wilson 2017