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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m posting this clip in honour of my super-keen adult student, Andy, who is learning a reduced version of this piece. He’s been having lessons with me for a year, and has only recently taken his Grade 1, but has a voracious appetite for learning new work and is not afraid of a challenge. For example, at his lesson today, eager to add more texture to the over-simplified left-hand part, he tried the full left-hand part, a series of arpeggiated semi-quaver figures. So, this post is for Andy, a very good friend of mine, who I’ve known since I was a small child, and for all keen and passionate amateur pianists – myself included – who do it simply because we love it!
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