A new community group on Facebook for those who blog about the piano and those who enjoy reading blogs……

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A dedicated space for pianists and writers to share and encourage one another, as well as a focal point where bloggers can share all their latest posts.

This is important, because many online communities don’t like bloggers to link their sites. For example, on Reddit not all subreddit areas welcome blog posts at all, while forums such as Piano World can also react with hostility towards bloggers who share their posts. And even on Facebook, some groups prefer to limit or restrict the sharing of blog links.

And that’s why those who READ blogs will enjoy the Piano Bloggers group as much as those who write them! The aim of the group is to offer a unique space online where interaction between readers, writers and pianists can flourish.

The group is moderated by Andrew Eales, Mark Polishook and Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Read more about Piano Bloggers

Established in 2012, the weekly Meet the Artist interview slot, in which musicians and composers reflect on various aspects of their creative lives, has gone from strength to strength and is now an integral and very popular part of The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s content. To celebrate this, Meet the Artist now has its own dedicated website.

Meet the Artist interviews will continue to appear on this site every Thursday, while the new site will act as a supplement with a growing catalogue of interviews with both well-known classical musicians and composers and young and up-and-coming artists. Do consider following the site in order to receive updates every time a new interview is released. In addition to interviews there will also be news, reviews and other articles relating to the artists featured on the site.

I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to share so many fascinating and often unexpected insights from such a wonderful range of musicians and composers, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken part in the Meet the Artist project so far for their contributions to the series.

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The Music into Words event, which I chaired earlier this month, attempted to explore some of the ways in which we write about classical music today and provoked a lively discussion, both at the actual event and online. Several issues emerged relating specifically to blogs which have exercised my thoughts in the weeks since the event:

  1. Without an editor, how do you ensure that what you write is intelligent, well-written, factually accurate, and interesting to read?
  2. Who are you writing for?
  3. Why a blog?

In my experience, readers will return to those blogs which are consistently well-written, interesting, accurate and assiduously self-edited. (This is borne out by the number of regular commentators and subscribers to this blog: WordPress provides very useful stats and analytics allowing one to track such data.) I have come across some truly dire writing on the internet (and also in newspapers, journals and books), and also much that is extremely high-quality (by academics, journalists, bloggers, musicians….), and one can of course learn a great deal by looking at what others are doing, or not doing. In the era of the spelling and grammar checker, there really is no excuse for sloppy spelling; clichés or hackneyed expressions should also be avoided (my particular pet hate is “smorgasbord”….). I’m very fortunate that one of my blog subscribers, who also happens to be a good friend of mine, will pounce on any inaccuracies of spelling or grammar with the eagle eyes of a skilled editor. In terms of fact-checking, I make sure I do my homework: this applies to my concert reviews too. I try to write in an accessible, readable and intelligent style, and one of the nicest compliments I’ve been paid when I met one of my readers in real life was “you sound just the same in person as you do in your writing”.

Which leads me onto “Who are you writing for?”. Initially, I didn’t really think I was writing for anyone but myself when I started this blog in 2010. I was playing the piano seriously again, having returned to the instrument after an absence of c15 years, and I wanted some way to record my thoughts and feelings about the music I was playing and hearing in concerts. Rather than keep an old-fashioned journal, I decided to write a blog (having had a modest degree of success with a food blog called Demon Cook), but I didn’t really expect anyone to take much notice of it. I suppose the unusual title helped (and by the way, I initially thought of calling this blog The Naked Pianist (à la Jamie’s Oliver’s Naked Chef) until my husband pointed out that this might attract “the wrong kind of reader”!), plus my interest in social media and a growing network of like-minded people (including a number of other bloggers and online reviewers), and gradually the number of daily visitors and subscribers crept up. When I was invited to review for Bachtrack.com (the owner of the site had read and liked my blog), I felt my writing finally had some currency beyond the confines of this site, and I have subsequently gone on to write guest blogs for a number of other classical music sites, including HelloStage, InterludeHK, Music Haven and The Sampler, the blog of Soundandmusic.org.

Subconsciously, I am probably writing for someone like me, someone who enjoys classical music, likes going to concerts and reading about them, maybe plays the piano too, who ponders the day-to-day practicalities of being a musician, amateur or professional (practising, repertoire, continuing study, teaching etc), as well as the more esoteric aspects of the musician’s life (motivation, performance anxiety, impostor syndrome, avoiding injury). Judging by the comments and messages I receive in response to my articles, it is clear my readership is now pretty wide, and international.

One thing I’ve never done via this blog, or indeed anywhere else, is set myself up as some kind of “expert”. People do come to me for advice about piano playing, careers in music, piano teaching and more, and I try to respond to such enquiries with honesty and courtesy. It is gratifying to be respected for what one does, but I believe a degree of a humility is crucial too (there are quite enough egos at large in the musical profession!). I enjoy the conversations that emerge from comments on articles here, I have made friends via this blog and I find the community of like-minded people which blogging creates very stimulating. To explore this further, I canvassed the opinion of a number of other bloggers who write on music and culture, and with whom I interact on a regular basis:

It started as a kind of “cultural diary” – a channel for me to enthuse about music I loved (plus some art and photography) and hopefully ‘share the love’.

First, I enjoy writing, and get special satisfaction in expressing my thoughts and ideas as eloquently as I can. Secondly, the idea that there are complete strangers out there reading what I’ve written flatters my vanity. Finally, there are so many ignoramuses on the net, spouting rubbish on matters they don’t understand, I saw no reason not to join them.

It’s cheaper than therapy

I think my single overriding reason is a desire to entertain.

The world of blogging is a curious one, and one which has grown hugely in the last ten years or so, to the extent that blogging now makes a significant contribution to writing and journalism. Many organisations, including mainstream newspapers, have blogs on their sites, often written by well-regarded journalists and commentators. (At the Music into Words event, one of the panelists, Imogen Tilden, classical music editor of The Guardian, acknowledged the important role of bloggers who “fill the gaps” in covering concerts and events her team of reviewers do not have the time or resources to cover, and who offer alternative opinions.)  The difference for the majority of bloggers is that we are independent – and the freedom to write what we like is very potent. Some people may regard bloggers as “privileged”, and are perhaps envious of the freedom we enjoy – freedom to write what we like without the pressure of conforming to editorial house style or deadlines, freedom to go to as many concerts, operas, plays or exhibitions as we like. I do regard myself as fortunate to be able to do this, but I also have a day job (two in fact), as do most of my blogging colleagues, and I don’t think blogging should necessarily be regarded as some kind of self-indulgent literary onanism or dilettantism.

From a more pragmatic point of view, a blog can be a useful tool to:

  1. Offer an overview of who you are – an extended CV, if you will
  2. Provide samples of your writing
  3. Connect with new people
  4. Organise your messy thoughts into coherent ones
  5. Create your own PR machine
  6. Stand out – according to the “1 per cent rule”, only 1 percent of Internet users actively create new content, while the other 99 percent just view it. Blogging separates from the 99 percent of people who don’t blog. Standing out is essential in an increasingly competitive world, whatever your profession or role
  7. Improve your writing skills – like piano playing, writing improves with practise
  8. Give yourself some headspace. The person who described blogging as “cheaper than therapy” makes a useful point – that writing can be therapeutic, regardless of the subject under discussion

So, if you’ve got something to say, maybe now is the time for you to consider writing a blog?

For more on the practicalities of writing a blog see Presentation for BASCA on Classical Music Blogging

Guest post by The Bard of Tysoe

I inherited my musicianship and my love of music from my mum. Many of her first musical memories are religious – as are mine. Hers include pumping the bellows for the organist at the Methodist church in Yorkshire where my grandad was a lay-preacher. Mine, sitting astonished in the congregation of Blackburn Cathedral – then still a building site – waiting for my audition for the choir: wondering if this amazing noise was also what filled heaven. (I was never religious, in any sense: but the compositions and architecture inspired by all faiths will never cease to amaze and inspire me.) I was four.

Forty years later, I also inherited my mum’s deafness – although mine has been accelerated, and deepened, by other medical issues. After a lifetime of singing, playing, composing, conducting, listening… in some ways the loss of music was worse than the main disability which accompanied it. I felt bereft, and grieved for a very long time. Even the ‘familiar’ works on my music server (which has over 20,000 tracks on it – ranging from plainchant to punk; serialism to soul) could not console me. For several years, music was something I accidentally bumped into; never actively sought out; and always came away from more disappointed than before.

When I obtained my first hearing aids (properly called hearing ‘instruments’), a very talented and patient audiologist spent an afternoon with me at home cycling through some of those many pieces, in many different genres, adjusting these little life-savers over and over again until one of their four programmes was specifically set up for listening to music. However, not all harmonies are born equal – there is a reason iPods come with so many equalizer settings, I discovered – and, eventually, I realized that I needed to know the music note for note (often helped by a score resting on my lap) for it to make ‘sense’ to me. It also helped if the composition was sparsely scored. (Thank goodness for chamber music – especially Bartók’s magnificent six string quartets – which I now have so many different recordings of, I have lost count!)

As my hearing rapidly worsened, the technology could not keep pace. Concerts were always painful – and listening to the piano (my own instrument) always sounded especially dissonant: the clash of harmonics confusing the processing of both my digital hearing aids and my analogue brain.

However, I kept reading about improvements to hearing technology; and, as my first set of ‘instruments’ were no longer powerful enough, late last year I was granted a new pair. Initial technical and customer care problems rendered them almost uselessalmost useless. However, thanks to another thoughtful audiologist, I am now progressing well on my return to the musical world, with a much wider and deeper soundscape. (It takes a while to get the fine-tuning right with these things: but I feel that I am more than halfway back to the best the sound can be for me. And what we have achieved is already a massive leap forward.)

It is so long since I played (the family Bechstein upright now resides with my son: another keen musician – those genes are obviously dominant); composed (my Mac, with all my part-finished digital manuscripts, is in storage – along with multiple backups, of course); and I am no longer fit enough (physically or aurally) to conduct: so I simply assumed that any future I had with music would be passive – although immensely enjoyable – as a ‘mere’ listener.

I had, though, started writing reviews of the plays I regularly attended at the RSC – aided enormously by the access provision there: including captioned performances. These were posted on my blog, which had initially been about life in my remote Warwickshire village, both scenic and politic; but which had expanded eclectically to cover more wider culture, as well as life from my slightly warped point of view. And, although I was writing mainly for myself, and happy just to be occupied in some sort of creative act, it really had not occurred to me at all that my previous experience as an amateur musician could similarly be applied.

However, ever since we moved to this area of the world, we have been on the mailing list of the inspirational Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), also based in Stratford-upon-Avon. And, encouraged by my partner, over the last few months, I have attended quite a few of their concerts. This was an extremely tentative – and somewhat daunting – exercise, at first: but, as I have grown accustomed to my new instruments (which, at first, were bass-heavy and treble-light: my hearing loss has a large neurological component, which is not easily adjusted for), I felt compelled to write about my experience, dubbing it “this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on”. This was something I needed to do, it seemed – especially as it brought together the things I loved. And it was helped by the fact that OOTS is a small ensemble – as is Eboracum Baroque, who I accidentally discovered on my trek – both of whose sound is tremendously transparent.

Of course, as with the plays’ scripts, re-reading, re-learning the scores, has helped tremendously – although I have not yet had the temerity to experiment with referring to them during a concert: despite never meeting with resistance to this as a student; nor, nearly four years ago, when I followed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – a work I know better than most; but at a time when my hearing had failed badly – on my iPad in the grand tier of Birmingham’s wondrous Symphony Hall.  (In fact, many other enthusiastic Elgarians told me that it gave them the courage to try something similar: so I probably will return to this practice in the future – although I worry that it may detract from my usual somewhat immediate, emotional response.) Such familiarity also helps; and I am fortunate that, once absorbed, the musical notation often floats through my head whilst listening: bringing me improved clarity.

As with the listening, though, so with the resultant writing. Much professional music – and drama – criticism leaves me cold; does not give me what I crave from not being there (basically, regret…); does not enlighten the mind nor accelerate the heart. But, as I was – I believed – writing for myself, I hesitantly attempted to rectify these faults by producing the sort of review, I would like to read myself – not yet aware that there were those in the wider world who had similar feelings (principal amongst them, of course, this blog’s generous host, Frances Wilson). I was therefore surprised by the reception: not just from other concert-goers – but from musicians (and others) who I admired. (Special mention must go here to David Curtis, artistic director of OOTS: who not only welcomed my different approach, but embraced it with his habitual enthusiasm; and who continues to encourage and help me re-immerse myself in this refreshed world of constant magic.)

After writing a very thorough (i.e. customarily lengthy, detailed and discursive) critique of one of David’s concerts with the (non-professional-but-most-awesome) Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – not a small ensemble, at all: not for Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (and with my hero, Peter Donohoe), and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony… – I was still gobsmacked to find the number of hits on the review increasing almost before my eyes: rapidly gaining more viewings and feedback than any other post I had authored. It seemed that I had, unwittingly, serendipitously, hit some sort of target, some sort of nerve: fulfilling a similar need to my own, but, moreover, for many others.

This took a while to sink in – and, me being me, the only way I could deal with it was to write about it. I therefore penned an article on my motivations: what music criticism means to me; what I think it should be; but, principally, what drives me to write in the way I do – and why it is so different to what others (might) produce.

To be honest, I published it assuming I would be condemned (not that I truly minded) for my amateurishness; for treading on the toes of those more ‘qualified’ to produce such writings (although I do have a background in professional journalism – albeit covering technology…). But, again, the positive feedback opened my eyes: and I feel not only have I found some sort of vocation (and one that I enjoy); but that music – as it frequently does – has started to connect me with those who, with much more expertise and experience than me, too wish to promote it in their own inclusive, collegiate, enthusiastic way.

This is only the beginning, though. Not only do I believe that there is a wider audience to be reached by writing with my own, peculiar brand of passion – as do others – additionally, I hope that my experience can encourage and help others who may have also ‘lost the music’ in their lives (for whatever reason) to try and find a way back in for themselves. Without making light of it, my deafness now helps me appreciate music so much more. I therefore hope that I have also inherited my mum’s longevity

The Bard of Tysoe is a peculiar animal: often to be found limping around parts of Warwickshire at night – as well as in the daytime – he is said to be addicted to all things artistic; and can be found blogging about not quite all he encounters (it just feels that way) at http://tysoebard.blogspot.co.uk/.

What matters most to him are beauty, truth and fairness – in whatever myriad forms they occur. His favourite occupation is thinking.

This week I hosted an event called Music into Words which explored the wide variety of writing about classical music today – from concert and opera reviews to academic writing, programme notes, blogging and even fiction writing which has a focus on music.

The original impetus for the event came from a BBC Radio Three Music Matters programme, aired in 2014, which debated the future of music criticism in the age of the internet. I and several other music bloggers felt the programme was unfairly skewed towards mainstream print journalism with very little positive focus on the valuable contribution of bloggers and online reviewers. As a consequence, I and a couple of other music bloggers decided to present an alternative view. When I first proposed a live event, at which people would speak and the audience could participate in a Q&A/discussion session, I had really no idea how it would work. In a way, I felt I had tossed a handful of balls into the air, not knowing where they might land. What I did know, however, was that the other people who expressed an interest in organising such an event (all of whom I met via Twitter) were all passionate about what they do – all bloggers who write about music, and all come at the subject from a different angle. We shared a desire to “explain” why blogging has a purpose while throwing the debate open for as wide a discussion as possible. In fact, the popularity of the live event (it sold out several weeks in advance of the date) and online discussions via Twitter and our respective blogs, demonstrated that there is a great interest in this subject and a keen willingness by people to engage in conversation about it.

Writing about classical music is, like the music itself, often considered elitist, exclusive, the preserve of the expert or academic, couched in obscure terminology, and generally unwilling to engage with “ordinary people” (whoever they may be). I hope that the live event, which took place on 2 February 2016 at Senate House, UCL, London went some way to demystifying writing about classical music, while also explaining for the uninitiated what blogging is all about and why bloggers have an important role in writing today (and not just in the field of classical music, by the way).

Three speakers talked about their role as bloggers/writers on music and the wider role of writing as a means of engaging with readers, audiences, potential audiences, musicians and more. It was also very interesting to have the views of Imogen Tilden, classical music editor at The Guardian. She explained that budgetary restraints meant that not everything could be covered and that as editor she had to be very selective about what concerts and operas are reviewed. Because of this, she felt bloggers and online reviewers have a role in “filling the gaps”.

The lively discussion raised a number of interesting points, including:

  • How to find “good” blogs online when there is so much material out there on the internet
  • Musical terminology and why it is important that it should not be dumbed down
  • Writing negative reviews
  • How to encourage more musicians and others in the classical music industry to use social media
  • Self-editing one’s writing
  • How social media can shape and drive more voices on/interest in classical music

Based on the success of this first event, others are planned and we are very much open to suggestions as to how we might shape future events.

Follow Music into Words on Twitter @musintowords

Music into Words on Facebook

Meanwhile, you can view the talks by Simon Brackenborough, Mary Nguyen and Jessica Duchen here:

A compilation of tweets about the event

Summaries of the event by the speakers:

Corymbus (Simon Brackenborough)

TrendFem (Mary Nguyen)

Jessica Duchen

We were very sorry that due to illness Dr Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London, author and blogger as Boulezian) was unable to join us. Mark will be a speaker at a future event.

Inspired by this first Music into Words event, I am hosting and speaking at a related event in the autumn. Writing the Piano will feature contributions by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch, pianist, teacher and blogger Andrew Eales and myself, and will explore different ways of writing about the piano, the instrument, playing and its literature. The event is on 18th October 2016 at the 1901 Arts Club, London SE1. Further details to be released shortly.

(Photo by Christian Hoskins. L to R: Jessica Duchen, Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist), Mary Nguyen, Imogen Tilden of The Guardian)