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I was delighted to have an opportunity to talk about my experiences as a classical music blogger and the importance of creating a distinctive online presence at an event organised by BASCA (British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors). The other speaker was Angharad Cooper of SoundAndMusic.org, who introduced the British Music Collection (about which more in a later post).

My talk covered a number of key areas of being a blogger, including choosing the right platform on which to host one’s blog, creating an eye-catching and engaging design, how to increase the readership and how my role as a classical music blogger has impacted on my career.

The presentations were followed by drinks and socialising, and I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with new people in the music community, including a number of exciting young composers.

You can view my presentation here (PowerPoint file)

Please feel free to contact me if you would like me give this presentation at an event.

A Musician in the Blogosphere – guest article for HelloStage

Yesterday on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme host Tom Service and a panel of invited guests, including the acclaimed concert pianist Peter Donohoe, discussed the future of music criticism. I listened with particular interest, since I have, through my blogging, joined the ranks of “music critic” (though I would never describe myself as a “music journalist”). The discussion was interesting and wide-ranging and some pertinent observations were made regarding the relationship between critics/reviewers and artists (as Peter Donohoe said “we should all be on the same side, that of the music”), the importance of music journalism in supporting and promoting (in a non-commercial sense) classical music, and the effect of the blogosphere and online review sites on music journalism. This last point was of particular interest to me, especially in the light of a rather unfair article by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor in Chief, Sarah Crompton, in which she describes people like me as “citizen critics” and suggests that we have no place in the ranks of “qualified” journalists. I was also rather put out by comments from members of the Music Matters panel who suggested that because bloggers are (generally) not paid, they must be on some kind of agenda or in the pay of someone else. This has moved me, along with several other blogging colleagues and fellow online reviewers, to offer an explanation as to why we blog.

I started this blog in 2010, initially as a means of writing down my personal thoughts on playing the piano, repertoire, concerts I have enjoyed, and various other music- or piano-related topics. In 2011 I was invited to join the team of reviewers for Bachtrack.com, an international concert and opera listings site. The people who write for Bachtrack are, in general, not professional journalists, merely people who care passionately about live classical music and who are able to convey that passion in engaging and intelligent reviews. At the beginning of this year, I was also invited to write for CultureVulture.net, a US-based arts and culture website which offers intelligent, quality arts journalism and covers a wide remit, from exhibitions and music to tv and DVD reviews. I have also recently set up a sister blog to this one, MusArtLondon, as a home for all my reviews, and those of my CultureVulture London colleagues, Nick Marlowe and ‘Erato’. (Find more here….).

I am not a “professional” writer any more than I am a “professional” pianist, for I receive no payment for my writing nor my piano playing. However, I do not believe that my lack of “professional” credentials makes my ability to express my views in writing any less valid than those of a trained journalist writing for one of the broadsheet newspapers or music magazines such as Gramophone. Indeed, a number of broadsheet music journalists are not musicians nor have any kind of musical background other than a declared “interest” in the subject; and yet some of these people can be seen as the ultimate arbiters of taste and quality. It must be said at this point that there are also a number of music journalists who have had a full musical training and are active as composers and musicians themselves.

In her article, Sarah Crompton states that “a critic is someone who devotes their time to the pursuit of cultural judgement”, and suggests that a journalistic training better equips her and her colleagues on other newspapers and journals for this task than my passion and enthusiasm for the subject (and maybe the fact that I am both a classically-trained pianist and someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of attending concerts). She also suggests that people like me don’t do our homework, that we simply rock up to a concert and toss off a few unconsidered paragraphs after the event. Not true: ahead of a concert I spend time researching the music and performer I am going to hear. One of the best classical music blogs which I read regularly is Boulezian, which is both well-informed and erudite. Its author is a professor at Royal Holloway, and an avid concert and opera goer. My particular grouch with Sarah Crompton’s point of view is the inference that because she writes for a broadsheet newspaper and is a “professional journalist”, her opinions and judgement are somehow “better” or more valid than mine.

I suspect that much of her anxiety is founded on the uncomfortable knowledge that the blogosphere is partly responsible for the slow death of traditional print journalism. I don’t applaud this: in fact, it saddens me. I used to work in old-fashioned book publishing and the thought of a world without books, journals and other printed matter appalls me. But the rise of the blogger and online reviewer/critic has, in my humble opinion, opened up the world of opinion-making and debate, and has created a vast and wonderful forum for the exchange of ideas. Criticism and reviewing has become more democratic and some fantastic blogs have emerged as a result, offering extremely intelligent and high-quality writing (see my personal picks below).

As a keen concert-goer and regular reviewer, I have never set myself up as the arbiter of taste and quality. I write about classical music because I care passionately about it, and I love live music. I am always happy to enter into a debate with people about the merits, or otherwise, of a particular concert or performer. I want this blog to be a place for discussion, and I am always happy to respond to comments. It cheers me enormously when people write to tell me how much they have enjoyed one of my reviews: indeed, the best compliments are comments such as “you brought the music to life in your writing” or “you made me feel I was right there with you at the concert”.

The debate about music critics and music criticism is nothing new, and is one that is likely to run and run, never more so now in our social media obsessed world, where everyone can, in effect, be a critic by simply “liking” a post on Facebook, Google+ or Instagram, or retweeting a link on Twitter. Traditional print journalists need to accept that the blogosphere is part of 21st century life and makes an important and valid contribution to our rich and varied cultural landscape.

Fellow blogger and Bachtrack reviewer Jane Shuttleworth offers her views on this issue

A riposte to Sarah Crompton’s article by a music blogger

A handful of music blogs I admire and follow:

Boulezian

Orpheus Complex

On An Overgrown Path

LietoFineLondon

Musical Toronto

Several people have asked me to complete the ‘Meet the Artist’ questionnaire myself – so here is my version!

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I was a very young child when I started playing the piano (around 5 or 6). There was always music in my home as I was growing up: my father played the clarinet in an amateur orchestra and with various ensembles, and my parents regularly attended classical music concerts and operas (the Welsh National Opera had a residency in Birmingham in the 1970s when we lived there). My paternal grandfather had a wonderful Victorian piano (complete with candelabra) on which he played Methodist hymns and bits of Beethoven (whom he adored) and Haydn. The piano stool was full of songs from the 1930s and 1940s, all speckled with age with that special musty smell. I used to sit next to my grandfather as he played.

The piano, or rather piano teaching, has only been my career for just over 5 years. I worked for 10 years in specialist art bookselling and publishing before I had my son. And I didn’t play the piano for a long time after I left university. Coming back to the piano as an adult was hard, and when I started having lessons again in 2008, I realised how much I hadn’t been taught in my teens. I’ve crammed a great deal of study of technique into the last three years: as a result my playing has improved hugely.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My music teacher at school was enthusiastic and encouraging, and my friend Michael, owner of a magnificent Steinway Model B, has always supported my playing: he often leaves music on the rack of his piano for me to look at when I visit. Last time it was Schumann’s ‘Kriesleriana’. A few years ago, I would have looked at it and thought “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to play that!”. Now, when I pick up new music, I think “where shall I start?!”.

My current teacher is very supportive and encouraging, and has taught me confidence and self-belief. Through her courses, I have met other pianists and piano students who have helped to broaden my musical horizons.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Setting up my own piano teaching studio from scratch and learning “how to be a piano teacher”. I have no formal training as a teacher, but when I started teaching I knew how I didn’t want to do it! (remembering dull lessons as a child). Overcoming my lack of confidence about my own playing, trusting my musical instincts (I am horrendously self-critical), and learning how to become a performer have also been important, positive challenges.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Wigmore Hall is my spiritual home, but I also like Cadogan Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. St John’s Smith Square is a beautiful venue, but cold in the winter! Each has its own distinctive atmosphere.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I particularly admire musicians who are able to stand back from the music and allow it to speak, who do not place their personality/ego before the music, and who are able to get to the very heart of what the music is about. My pianistic heroes/heroines are Sviatoslav Richter, John Lill, Mitsuko Uchida (especially in Mozart and Schubert), Murray Perahia (Bach, Chopin and Brahms), Maria Joao Pires (Schubert), Claudio Arrau (Beethoven), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Messiaen and Liszt). Surface artifice, “look at me” antics, and flashy piano pyrotechnics do not interest me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

British pianist John Lill playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank Centre in the early 1980s. Lill was in tears as he took his curtain calls, and members of the audience actually threw red roses onto the stage.

A concert of Baroque music in a tiny Byzantine church in Zadar, Croatia, c.1985.

As for my own performances (which are growing more frequent), my Diploma recital in December remains memorable: the setting (a lovely 18th-century room in Trinity College of Music), the pianos (both warm-up piano and concert instrument were fine Steinways), and the recital itself. I was surprised at the tricks one’s mind can play in such an intense and very concentrated situation like a performance: I had several “out of body” moments as I played, and at the end of the Schubert E-flat Impromptu, I recall thinking, “halfway through now – we can go to the pub soon!”.  I enjoyed every minute of it, including the river bus trip to and from the college in Greenwich, but the actual performance was very special for me: it confirmed and endorsed all that I do at the piano, day in day out.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

At the moment, I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. As a pianist, I feel it is essential to always have some Bach somewhere in one’s repertoire as his music offers so much: instructional and intellectual. Liszt is a fairly recent discovery for me: I’d avoided learning him for years, fearing it would be just too difficult (not true!). I’ve stayed clear of the more flashy, popular, virtuosic works, preferring to explore his more intimate, spiritual and intellectual music. Likewise, Messiaen is very spiritual and intellectual, and his music puts us in touch with concepts that are far bigger than us. He was also a synaesthete (as I am) which interests me.

My tastes change quite frequently, and I am often inspired to learn something after hearing it in concert or on the radio. I listen to a wide range of music, and my reviewing role for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to enjoy even more fine live music. I feel it’s important to keep one’s ears open to as many musical influences as possible.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

A love of the instrument and its repertoire; that one should strive for accuracy and musicality at all times; that music is for sharing.

How has blogging informed your teaching/playing?

I started this blog originally as a place where I could set down ideas and thoughts I had while at the piano, but it has gradually expanded into something more wide-ranging. I enjoy the exchange of ideas that comes when people leave comments, and the opportunity to share thoughts about music and teaching with other pianists and teachers around the world. The ‘Meet the Artist’ series is proving fascinating, with so many varied, and sometimes very honest, responses.

What are you working on at the moment?

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Debussy – Images: ‘Hommage à Rameau’

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Messiaen – Prelude No. 2

Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33, nos. 2 and 7 (sometimes listed as No. 4 – in E flat)

Read my reviews for Bachtrack.com here

The ‘Meet the Artist’ series continues on this blog: the next interviewee is pianist Leon McCawley.

In my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, several things have occurred to me recently:

  1. I have turned into a frightful self-publicist, sharing my reviews with anyone and everyone, and gaining an absurd, childish rush of delight from every retweet or recommendation I receive
  2. I’ve become geekily obsessed with stats and hit rates, scanning my blog each day to see how much traffic it has received, and regularly checking Google to see where I am in the search order (some smug satisfaction was gained earlier today when I saw that my latest review had achieved the giddy heights of top spot)
  3. I’ve discovered a whole other world of music bloggers in the blogosphere, who review concerts and who offer speedy and insightful reactions to what they’ve just heard.

I have blogged before about the ‘joy of blogging’: it’s free to set up and you don’t need to be a techie to organise your own blog. For me, the most important aspect of blogging is being able to express myself freely, hit the “publish” button, and wait for people to stumble across my blog, or even subscribe to it. I have always written, from short stories and poetry at school, to a full-scale novel, tentatively entitled ‘Facing the Music’, and incorporating two of my pet subjects: music and the First War (the premise of the book is whether music has value in the lives of people during extremely straitened circumstances; I argue, via my protagonist, that it does…..very much so).

Like playing the piano to any degree of seriousness, writing is hard work, and can be all-consuming. When it is going well, one can lose oneself in it, for hours on end. When I was deeply immersed in my novel, I often forgot to eat, and would stay up late, or get up in the middle of the night, just to write. And just like playing the piano, one needs to practice one’s writing.

This is why blogging is such a good discipline; it forces one to be concise, to avoid unnecessary woffle, while allowing one to hone one’s writerly craft on a regular basis. And for me, there’s absolutely no point in having a blog if one does not regularly update it with new and (I hope) interesting material. It has also opened doors to other writing-related activities: the job at Bachtrack came about directly as the result of someone reading my blog.

Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve connected with many other piano and music bloggers around the world – and a couple of whom I’ve actually met (at Maurizio Pollini’s final concert at the Festival Hall last month). Some are specialists, but many of these bloggers are not professional music journalists (i.e. writing is not their primary job/source of income), yet they take their writing very seriously, and are read by many like-minded people who feel these writers have something interesting, important or insightful to say.

And why does one need to be an “expert” to write intelligently about music? I doubt the vast majority of people who read reviews want to know that the piece opened in A minor but resolved itself in C. They don’t want to be confused by esoteric music-speak or complicated analysis, which can often appear unnecessarily dry and academic; they want to know what the concert was about, what it felt like to hear that piece, see that performer, experience the atmosphere in the concert hall that night…..

Bachtrack’s USP is to encourage people who would not normally go to classical music, opera or ballet to book tickets for such events; thus, reviewers are encouraged to write imaginatively and in an accessible way.  Many of Bachtrack’s reviewers are not professional journalists. Most of us are keen ‘amateurs’, people who love going to concerts, the opera and the ballet, who are open-minded and receptive to what we are hearing/seeing, and who are able to convey our enthusiasm in a snappy 500-word review. Bachtrack insists that reviews are submitted within 48 hours of the event: this means we’re usually ahead of other reviewers (though not necessarily other bloggers/Twitterers), and newly-published reviews are tweeted and shared across the internet very quickly.

These days, people even tweet an instant response during the interval: I’ve done it myself, and I love the idea of people tweeting from the Bechstein Room at the Wigmore (actually impossible in reality as there is no signal down there, but you get the picture!) or from the Level 4 bar at the Festival Hall. In effect, surely it’s the same as leaning across to your companion at half time and asking “So, what did you think?”

Some music blogs I follow regularly:

Boulezian –  intelligent and detailed concert and opera reviews written by academic Mark Berry. I first discovered this blog last March, after Mark wrote about the Jerusalem Quartet recital at the Wigmore which was interrupted by protesters. He, like me, was in the audience that day.

Orpheus Complex – concert and opera reviews, and general music-related articles, written by Gavin Dixon, who has a special interest in 20th century music.

Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music Blog – concert and book reviews, music-related articles and musings written by journalist and author Jessica Duchen.

I’ll Think of Something Later – articles and musings on music, including reviews, by broadcaster David Nice

Entartete Music – articles on music and culture by Gavin Plumley.

Slipped Disc – Norman Lebrecht’s blog, featuring all manner of music-related articles, from reviews to breaking news.

PS for those who are interested in such things, I make notes in an old-fashioned reporter’s notebook when I’m reviewing, but tend to compose on my laptop. I use classic black Moleskine notebooks for notes about playing the piano, my practising diary, and for other writerly notes (I have 6 full of notes for my novel). And I always use a 2B propelling pencil….