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.

2014 Masterchef winner Ping Coombes kisses the trophy

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”.

The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club
The author performing in the South London Concert Series at the 1901 Arts Club

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.

Practising for Lovers – Stephen Hough’s blog

London Piano Meetup Group

South London Concert Series

 

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.

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Lorraine Banning, Frances Wilson & Lorraine Liyanage (and Tony Curtis) at Brunswick House

“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.

View more photographs from the Brunswick House concert

 

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.

Download the app from the iTunes app store

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

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SEBHow long have you been playing the piano? 

25 years – since I was about five.

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

My big love is the middle-late Romantic period.  But pretty much anything by Beethoven, Liszt or Rachmaninov is heaven to me!

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

I find it very difficult, actually – as you get older, there’s so much else to get in the way.  I learned pretty early on that I’m terrible at making myself do anything, so it has to be something I desperately want to do.  Oddly enough, when it’s to enable me to play something I love, it’s not a problem at all!  I’ve pretty much never practised scales and exercises, except for exams, but at least I can appreciate their use these days, so I do try and force myself to battle through some Hanon exercises every now and then!

Have you participated in any masterclasses/piano courses/festivals? What have you gained from this experience? 

I was fortunate enough to attend music college as a piano student for a while, before leaving to pursue a different career, so I had the opportunity to participate and attend loads of masterclasses.  They’re the most daunting, rewarding, terrifying, exhilarating, useful thing you can do.  Everyone in that room speaks exactly the same musical language, and, without exception, you’ll come away with some ideas you never would have thought of on your own.

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

For me, the most enjoyable thing about piano lessons is the opportunity to play for and with someone whose musical opinions and knowledge I respect and admire.  It sounds clichéd, but a piano teacher is much more than a teacher; mine have always pretty much been life mentors too.  Every emotion or difficulty you will ever experience in life is perfectly encapsulated somewhere in musical form.  Discussing it and experiencing it with someone else is actually a terribly intimate thing to do.  This is brilliant when you’re on the same wavelength as your teacher, but it’s why you need to find the teacher that’s right *for you*.

What are the special challenges of preparing for a piano exam as an adult? 

I finished my grade exams by the time I left school.  There has been a gap of 10 years or so, and I’ve finally decided to go for the DipABRSM and ATCL exams at some point in the near future.  I never used to worry about whether I was good enough, or whether I’d look an idiot, but these fears creep in as you get older, particularly if you stop being used to playing in public and for different people.  I have a memory of coming to a halt and completely drying up in front of Stephen Hough from when I was at music college – one of the most embarrassing moments of my life (although he is loveliness personified!).  It keeps creeping back in when I play in public, and it’s something I’m going to have to work through!

Has taking piano lessons as an adult enhanced any other areas of your life? 

Definitely.  Music encompasses all, in my opinion, and the older you get, the more you’ve experienced and can put into the music, and vice versa.  Music, and an appreciation for it, has got me through some very difficult times.  It’s all very well being able to rattle through Liszt’s Piano Sonata when you’re 15, but do you *understand* it?  Very occasionally, there are people not of this world (I’m looking at you, Evgeny Kissin!) who do, but for the rest of us mere mortals, a deep understanding and love for music, and life, comes only with age.

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

I don’t at the moment, and it’s something I’m really missing.  The problem with being a pianist, though, is that it’s much harder to find ensemble work – people only generally ever need one at a time!

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

I haven’t performed in public for some years, and it’s something I’m really going to try and correct in the very near future.  It terrifies me, but in a good way, I think.  I must find a church with a decent piano or something and book the hall.  Rather pathetically, I do keep a couple of concertos under my fingers “just in case” an opportunity to play with an orchestra ever magically presents itself!

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

If I had a pound for everyone who, upon finding out that I play the piano, tells me that they wish they’d kept up childhood lessons, I’d have, well, at least twenty pounds!  I always say the same thing: “Do it!”  And I mean it.  They will immediately protest that they “aren’t musical”, or “don’t have the time”, or “are too old”.  All of these things are utter rubbish.  I truly believe that everyone has the ability to play something.  Some of us are incredibly lucky and find the right instrument when we’re a child, or the right instrument finds us, but if you haven’t yet, you should bloomin’ well do something about it!  Now!  Go online and find someone.  What’s the worst that can happen?  The right instrument for you may well not be the piano, but you can be absolutely certain that it’s out there, somewhere.

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

Oh, gosh!  So many!  I’d love to be able to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.  I saw Ashkenazy play it when I was a teenager, and it’s mesmerised me ever since.

 

Simon began piano lessons at the age of five, after what he is assured were months of “pester-power”.  His later formative lessons were with the late and very-much-missed Tony Cross of Birmingham Conservatoire, following whose sad death, and after further excellent tuition from Margaret Newman of Trinity College of Music, Simon decided that piano playing was going to be a large part of his future.

In 2000, Simon gained a place to study piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, before sadly finding the experience too suffocating and leaving to pursue a more “normal” career, whilst maintaining a deep love for the instrument.

Simon lives in Birmingham, and is currently seriously considering gaining the necessary qualifications to change careers from law to piano teaching in the long term.  His hobbies include cooking, gardening, and flying light aircraft on the rare occasions that funds allow.