Graham Fitch
Graham Fitch

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is a very strong memory of visiting my grandparents and being drawn to this huge thing against the wall, with its ivory teeth, ornate carvings and candlesticks! We didn’t have a piano at home, so every time I visited I sat for ages completely fascinated and oblivious not only to the passage of time but also to the irritation my infantile experimentation must presumably have caused my captive audience. I was completely passionate about the piano from that time onwards!

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I started formal lessons very late, so I learned everything the hard way – through sheer hard work and determination. I was lucky to have had extremely good teaching every step of the way but because of my age, it all went in consciously. I wish I had been through that unconscious stage that young children experience, when playing the piano is as natural as breathing and you don’t have to think about anything. Because of my enquiring mind, I always asked my teachers a lot of questions. I needed to understand how it all worked. I think I was destined to be a teacher from the start, I really do see it as a vocation rather than a choice.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I don’t believe there is any such person as the one ideal teacher for everyone. Each teacher I studied with gave me different pieces of the puzzle. My first teacher, Val Dickson, set extremely high standards and instilled in me a sense of musicianship and discipline. Philip Fowke, a consummate pianist, similarly inspired me not only with his playing but by showing me exactly how to practise. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Stephen Savage, my first professor at the RCM back in the mid 70s was an extremely thorough and skilful teacher of piano, and a great inspiration as a musician. He brought vibrancy and energy to each and every lesson. It is hard to overestimate what I gained from my second teacher at the RCM, Peter Wallfisch. He switched on so many lights in my mind, with lessons sprawling over three hours a week. I have written about those amazing years on my blog, so rather than repeat myself I would direct readers to the post: Before taking up my Fulbright scholarship in 1982, I took part in Andras Schiff’s classes at Dartington, quite the most magical summer of my life! We think of him as a player of the classics and yet he was teaching Prokoviev sonatas without the need to refer to the score. After the week of classes, Andras invited me to play for him privately from time to time, which was a privilege and a great inspiration. In my first year in the USA, I studied with Ann Schein at the Peabody Institute who gave impeccable and impromptu demonstrations of anything and everything I took to her. As one of Rubinstein’s only students, I inherited some of the maestro’s fingerings for Chopin, and there was much magic in those lessons! During that year, I participated in Leon Fleisher’s weekly classes which had a huge influence on my thinking. I draw on this incredible musician’s wisdom and rich legacy every day. My final teacher, Nina Svetlanova, passed on her amazing tradition, the very best of the modern Russian school – she had studied for many years with Heinrich Neuhaus – and lessons were pure gold. During those years, I also had some marvellous lessons with Julian Martin (a teacher I would recommend to anyone) who now teaches at Juilliard, but the last influence was Peter Feuchtwanger here in London, who presented the diametric opposite of what I consider athletic piano playing. His extraordinary approach put my playing in neutral, and from that place I managed to really take off in different directions.

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

I think all of my teachers were important, also the masterclasses I participated in, concerts I attended as well as life experiences that had nothing to do with music.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

It’s hard to single anything out here. It may seem that some teaching experiences are better than others, but I think that’s ultimately an ego thing. I taught talented young pianists at The Purcell School in the early 90s, then tertiary level piano students at the University of Cape Town and then at the RWCMD while giving masterclasses at such institutions as the RAM, last year at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. But a professional piano teacher should be available for anyone who is serious about playing, professional and amateur alike, and should give each student equal attention and respect.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? (if relevant)

The main challenge of teaching adults is respecting their agenda without imposing mine. I once had a student who was a highly influential and successful person in finance, in charge of people as well as vast pension funds. His passion and solace was to retreat from this heady world into middle and late period Beethoven sonatas, his tackling and understanding of which were remarkable. After some time struggling to give him what I considered a detailed lesson and ending up frustrated because he wouldn’t let me, I learned that he simply wanted to play for someone who knew these works intimately, whose ears and opinion he trusted. That, and a few general comments, was enough for him to play better than he would by himself. Even though I knew I could have helped him improve more, this was not what he wanted. I have an elderly student at the moment who has lessons because he wants to keep his brain active. Who is to say this is any less valid a reason to come to me than my university music students? I guess the single biggest difference with an adult is the fear of letting go, of making mistakes, and the fear of being judged. Sitting in a lesson involves trust in the teacher, and I always tell them if they feel judged, it’s their own judgment, not mine!

What do you expect from your students?

That’s a very good question, as it varies from person to person. If I have a youngster doing an exam or a college student doing a degree in music, there has to be an element of discipline and pressure coming from me, so that weekly progress is evident and ongoing. It’s different with an adult with a busy life away from the piano who comes for lessons because they love playing, it’s almost none of my business why they come. In all my teaching, I think my role is to instruct, inspire and motivate rather than assume the role of ogre-taskmaster.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

There’s no denying that grade exams provide a very useful structure for learning as long as they don’t become the be-all-and-end-all. As part of an overall musical education exams are fine, but it pains me to think of kids stuck on the same three pieces and a bunch of scales for a whole year, that this is their experience of music. I love adjudicating festivals, hearing everyone present themselves in front of peers and public. Festivals were extremely positive and constructive elements of my own upbringing, and gave me invaluable performing opportunities. As for competitions, I always say to my own students just because you won something today, it doesn’t mean you’re the best thing since sliced bread, nor does it mean you’ll win something tomorrow. Conversely, if you didn’t win it just means you didn’t play your best on the day, or that particular jury preferred someone else. It shouldn’t knock you back, but unfortunately a negative experience often can.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

The number one priority must surely be the love of music and the appreciation that by playing the repertoire we do we are dealing with some of the most profound or most beautiful artistic products of the human mind. Some obvious things would be teaching them about music, how their pieces are constructed – I like to approach a piece with a composer’s-eye view. Teaching them how to listen, equipping them with a solid, reliable piano technique, how to practise, craftsmanship, a sense of freedom in self expression. .

What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

My teaching is enhanced and enriched by my performing career, there’s no doubt about that. Actually getting up there and doing it means I teach with a different set of skills and priorities, and there’s no substitute for that. There’s a world of difference between being able to play a piece for yourself and presenting it in front of an audience. Performance skills and performance preparation are areas that only a performing musician can really teach.

Graham Fitch maintains an international reputation as a pianist, teacher, adjudicator and writer. Recent activities include a concert tour of Singapore and Australia with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Griffith University in Brisbane, and Melbourne’s Team of Pianists. Graham is a regular writer for Pianist Magazine, and has video tutorials on the magazine’s YouTube channel. He has recently published an ebook based on his popular blog, Graham teaches privately in London, and counts among his students Daniel Grimwood and James Baillieu, with many others active in the profession. In addition to teaching talented youngsters and tertiary level piano students, he is very interested in working with amateur pianists. He is on the staff at this year’s Piano Summer School at Walsall.

Nathan Williamson
Nathan Williamson

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

My sisters and I had piano lessons when we were young, but I was never very impressive, or serious about it. One day, aged 12, I thought I would try composing, something that had always fascinated me. I became utterly absorbed, and after a few hours there were 6 bars of wonderful music on the page. I had no idea how I had written them, and certainly no consciousness of having thought of them in the first place. But there was no one else in the room, so I concluded it must have been me. Something just switched on, and suddenly everything was about music. But I had no interest in being a pianist at this stage – that came much later, because of what I learned about music through composing.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and composing? 

My teachers, above all. Malcolm Singer taught me that being a musician is about being creative and that you have to have something new to say. He also showed me to study music objectively, rather than clouded by personal perspective. Joan Havill taught me basically everything I know about how to play the piano, as well as Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms. Joan Panetti taught me to hear music like a language – something with meaning, a living object. Ezra Laderman taught me just to relax and enjoy composing…. And while it’s a bit of a cliché, the most potent influence was my first music teacher, Geoff Cummings-Knight. I was a completely blank canvas and he threw music at me in bucket loads – Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Holst, Britten, Verdi, Elgar, Liszt… He also made singing the most important musical activity and had a knack for writing music for children at exactly the stage they were, giving everyone a specific role to play suited for them, which is a truly remarkable gift. That’s where everything started for me.

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

Realising that the success of what I do is not defined by comparison to certain models. There’s a big difference between being equipped for the profession with a robust CV, and evaluating yourself as an artist through how well you fare in a set of stereotypical tasks. I never minded jumping through hoops (and we all have to), but lining up and doing the same thing as everyone else for the sake of getting noticed seemed so pointless it almost led me to give up music altogether. Fortunately, I had some teachers (particularly in America) whose philosophy was simply to make music and, if it was any good, people would support you.

In terms of the creative process, I think the hardest thing, in a post-modern world where literally anything goes, is where on earth do you start? But you have to just flip it round and see it as the most fun instead.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I’m a perfectionist, so whilst I am proud of things I do I always feel I should have done them better. I am very pleased with my new CD of Schubert and Brahms. As a composer my pieces Crystal, Loss, Endings, and Solitude, as well as my opera, A Fountain Sealed, are things that really say something new and individual, and I am proud of that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Anywhere I am welcomed to play. I just want to perform wherever people will listen.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I have felt most at home performing Schubert’s music, particularly his A major Sonata D.959, which is on my new CD. Looking at that piece feels a bit like looking in a mirror. Listening to, particular favourites are Ameriques by Varese, Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, Brahms’ 4th Symphony, Durufle’s Requiem, Schubert’s String Quintet, Liquid Song by Mark Dancigers, and Westhoff’s Violin Sonatas.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Radu Lupu, Claude Franck, Anthony Marwood, Olli Mustonen, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Edwin Fischer.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Notting Hill Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms’ 1st Symphony in 1999. They were an amateur orchestra, their ability such that they could barely play the notes at all. Earlier in the concert they had played the Grieg Piano Concerto with a rather aged pianist who at one point skipped about 20 bars, obliging the conductor to down baton and shout ‘Figure E’ (or whatever) to the orchestra, gesticulating wildly and bringing them back in with the most terrible scrunching noise. Somehow they carried on and held it together. But the enthusiasm and utter wonder with which they performed was quite simply the most moving thing I have ever heard in my life. I wept over it for days afterwards. Then there was Claude Frank performing Beethoven’s op.110 and the Schubert B flat Sonata. The lament in the slow movement of the Beethoven was searing with grief, and the sound he made was such you felt you could reach out and grab it in your hands. It made any other pianists I had ever heard play that repertoire (and most of them I have heard since) sound drab and meaningless.

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

The temptation to dish out, and try and live off, little nuggets of wisdom is big – but out of context I don’t think they are that helpful. You need good teachers and masses of time to focus purely on your art, and if you haven’t got/had those and are serious about being a musician, you need to get them now.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mozart’s D minor Concerto, Brahms and Bridge ‘cello and piano works for concerts with Alexander Somov, and lots of new solo repertoire. I’m composing pieces for the De Villiers Ensemble, NOW ensemble, a ‘cello sonata for Charles Watt, and I’ve just been commissioned a big set of variations for solo piano.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Exactly where I am now, but with greater support to fulfil ideas and projects.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Achieving something you are trying to do and then doing whatever you want afterwards.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My wedding ring, my own tankard in the Lord Nelson in Southwold, and a cricket bat signed by Andrew Flintoff.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Lots of things, with music at the centre of every day.

What is your present state of mind?

Thriving under pressure.

Nathan Williamson’s debut solo CD, funded by a private sponsor, of late works by Schubert and Brahms is launched on 7 March 2013. For further details please visit Nathan’s website

Nathan Williamson has regular commissions for new work from artists and ensembles from around the world and performs as solo piano recitalist and chamber musician with a wide range of vocalists and instrumentalists at home and abroad.

Current commissions include a major Sonata for cellist Charles Watt, a work for the De Villiers Ensemble (Piano Quintet) for their UK tour in autumn 2013, and a work for the acclaimed NOW ensemble of New York for performance in 2013-14 season.

Nathan studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Joan Havill and Malcolm Singer, and at Yale University with Ezra Laderman and Martin Bresnick. He also worked closely with John Adams, David Lang, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, and Joan Panetti, under whose direction he served as a teaching fellow at Yale upon graduating. He now teaches harmony, ear-training and music history at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

Read Nathan’s full biography here

For his first concert in London, presented in the recital room at prestigious Steinway Hall (which boasts a fine Model D), Rutland-based pianist Fraser Graham offered a broad chronological survey of some 250 years of classical music from Bach to Adams, and taking in works by some of greatest composers for the piano – Mozart, Schubert and Chopin.

Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in C from Book II of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ was a pleasing opener, a “settling in” piece, for audience and performer. The Prelude was elegantly turned, unhurried and tastefully pedalled with some delightfully mellow bass notes. A lively Fugue ensued, and if some of the contrapuntal lines were not always clear, its uprightness and poise more than compensated for this.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor K310 is a work that confirms the second part of Schnabel’s famous quote “…too hard for artists”. It was composed in Paris in 1778, when Mozart was just 22, during a period of professional disappointment (he failed to secure a contract for an opera while in Paris) and personal tragedy (the death of his mother). Despite the composer’s age, this is a mature work, serious and turbulent, with a particular musical and emotional world all of its own.

Some pianists have a tendency to gallop through the first movement, peppering the frenetic writing with over-enthusiastic fortes. Not so Fraser whose slightly reined-in tempo only increased the sense of anguish in the opening movement. Passage work was carried off with clarity and accuracy, and throughout there was a firm command of the varying textures of the score, in particular the orchestral writing.

By contrast, the slow movement was an oasis of rich expression, with expansive melodic lines offering opportunities for some fine cantabile playing and subtle dynamic shading. The sense of urgency returns in the final movement, its swirling theme and slithering motifs all carried off with conviction. Throughout, the sonata was tastefully pedalled with fine attention to detail.

Schubert’s A flat Impromptu from the D899 set bridged the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods, with good attention to the ‘dancing’ bass figures and a climactic trio, leading us nicely onto Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9 No. 2. This is one of his most well-known and well-loved piano works, but there was nothing clichéd in this performance. Again, there was fine cantabile playing in the right hand over a serene waltz figure in the left. The ornaments and fiorituras were relaxed, giving them an improvisatory feel. This was music very much at ease with itself.

Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor was climactic and suspenseful, the contrasting moods and textures handled with precision and conviction, with a strong sense of the narrative line evolving throughout the piece, well-judged climaxes and an explosive, highly dramatic finale

The Skylark, Balakirev’s virtuoso paraphrase on Glinka’s song Zhavoronok, was romantic, liquid and expressive, with its soulful melody, delicate trills and Lisztian figurations.

Fraser finished with John Adams’ China Gates, five minutes of luminous and hypnotic minimalism, the subtle shifts of colour and sound sensitively executed – and, for me, the highlight of this enjoyable and thoughtfully presented recital.

Fraser Graham graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire in 2004, having studied under Malcolm Wilson and Simon Nicholls. He is an active performer, soloist, accompanist and event pianist in the UK. He teaches privately, and is also a teacher and accompanist at Oakham School, Rutland.

Fraser gained honours in his Guildhall recital diploma aged seventeen and went on to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with full symphony orchestra aged eighteen. He was awarded his degree in piano performance in 2004 and now performs a wide variety of music. Recent recitals have included ‘An Evening of Late Viennese Sonatas’ by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert and several performances around the UK of Schubert’s vast song cycle ‘Winterreise’ with baritone David McKee.

Forthcoming events include a programme of Chopin, Ravel, Scriabin and Prokofiev which Fraser will be touring around the UK.

Twitter @fgrahampiano

Fraser Graham’s SoundCloud


A number of artists who have participated in my Meet the Artist series are involved in concerts and events to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. In a series of occasional posts, I will be highlighting these concerts while allowing readers the opportunity to revisit some of the Meet the Artist interviews.

Britten at 100 – Kings Place, London: Thursday 7th – Saturday 9th February 2013

British pianist John Reid is presenting his first concert series in London at King’s Place as part of the celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

Fellow-pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen and John have gathered together a wonderful group of performers to celebrate the life and work of Benjamin Britten, through his music, works by his contemporaries (composers, librettists and visual artists), the repertoire which he championed as founder and director of the Aldeburgh Festival, as well as through commissions by Simon Holt, Jonathan Dove and Martin Suckling.

Other performers include Nicky Spence, Nicholas Mulroy, Joby Burgess, Claire Booth, Andrew Radley, Oliver Coates, Richard Watkins and Christine Croshaw.

Saver ticket: Only £9.50! Your seats will be the best available left 1 hour before the performance. Book early as seats are allocated based on first come, first served.

Further information and tickets here

John Reid’s Meet the Artist interview

Mark Tanner

What is your first memory of the piano? 

Having a lovely time in my first piano lessons (but usually improvising when I was supposed to be practising), and nudging my mum off the piano stool so that I could take my turn. Also, listening to my father’s collection of jazz recordings – pianists such as Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Jacques Loussier: in fact, it was while sitting on stage right next to Loussier at one of his ‘Play Bach’ concerts at Bristol’s Colston Hall that I first woke up to the possibility of Classical music and jazz functioning plausibly together. Not too long after that, I had my own opportunity to play on that same piano as part of Fairfield Grammar School’s annual concerts, put together by the ever-energetic Bob Latham (whom incidentally I still rub shoulders with from time to time – we both adjudicate music festivals). I’ll never forget the feeling of smallness on that vast stage, surrounded by a sea of faces, nor the uproarious sound of the applause; it all seemed rather improbable to me at the time. At roughly the same time I appeared on a BBC TV piano competition as semi-finalist, and vividly remember having to improvise live on the programme in front of Sir David Willcocks in response to a video of a fire station amid full action-stations…

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

Teaching the piano, for me, seemed an inevitable adjunct to playing. I ‘fell into’ teaching I suppose, initially taking on an occasional youngster for a few quid while I was a first year student at college, and then getting rather more serious about it a little later on, with the taking of teaching diplomas and so on. I’ve always felt that teaching and playing are flip-sides of the same coin, and indeed that the crossover points are sometimes so hazy that it can be difficult to know who is gaining the most from the experience. I certainly never considered piano teaching to be a second-best option.

We all know that teachers regularly learn from their pupils (there’s nothing new in that, of course), and yet it strikes me that this is a crucial part of keeping going as a teacher. We hear constantly about how important our pupils are – well of course they are – but so is the mental health of their teachers! It’s worth bearing in mind that if teachers are insufficiently nourished by their daily experience, they may become jaded, semi-functioning box-tickers with one eye on the clock; not a recipe for happy piano lessons. Resisting this is easier said than done of course, and I have known of a number of perfectly good piano teachers who were simply not able to withstand the tide of fatigue and frustration that their jobs entailed. This is a real shame, and yet we shouldn’t be too quick to judge teachers who cave in under the strain of what is a tremendously tiring and responsible job.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

I’ve been really blessed. Mrs Dean (I now realise that I never actually knew her first name), then Gwyn Pritchard – both as a boy in my hometown of Bristol – followed by Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. I was given composition lessons by Richard Roderick-Jones and Andrew Downes and was fortunate enough to play in quite a number of masterclasses too, with John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, John Lill and many more. Peter Johnson was my PhD supervisor at the Birmingham Conservatoire – he is a terrifically resourceful academic who never ran dry of suggestions or alternative ways of thinking about things; I owe him a great deal.

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

Well, inevitably all of the above people! Interestingly, my interactions with concert pianists quickly revealed to me that they operate quite differently, prioritise differently and hence directed me differently. To my thinking, the biggest challenge, from the perspective of a fragile music college student, is coming to terms with seemingly conflicting views. At first, it can all bubble up like a melting pot in one’s head, and one can end up feeling utterly rudderless and confused – until, that is, one wakes up to the startlingly obvious reality that one has to take one’s own view when it comes to matter of performance, and that often all one is really grappling with is a difference in emphasis.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I suppose there are many individuals whom I feel I have been able to support along the way, and a number of these are ‘out there’ today, operating very comfortably within the music profession, as performers, teachers etc, even the odd rock star. It seems a bit ridiculous to single people out really, but I’ve often thought it remarkable that the very first piano lesson I ever gave as Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset (arriving straight from a fairly harrowing PGCE course, I might add, where crowd-management seemed all too prevalent a feature), was to a lad who would turn out to be the most accomplished musician to come my way in sixteen years of teaching there. Each lesson was, in reality, a trawl through the great piano concertos – we’d hack our way through Rach. 3, the Grieg, anything I happened to have a copy of to hand, and his sight-reading was at least as good as mine, even then. (He is now much in demand internationally as a freelance organist and writer). School teaching was a very enriching experience for me, on the whole, and I certainly feel I learned a lot about aspects of music I’d never really come into contact with before, such as choral music and music technology. I also had the chance to do bits of conducting from time to time and to gain experience playing nearly all of the brass instruments that were lying about ownerless in the music school. During this time I was lucky enough to have both a head of department and a headmaster who were willing to let me off the leash, as it were, to perform all over the place and indeed to undertake research for my PhD, which involved day-release to Birmingham over a period of four years. Running concurrently with my school career, I did a fair amount of lecturing up and down the country, but notably at Dillington House and then at Jackdaws in Somerset; I feel an especial connection with Jackdaws to this day, generally running a couple of courses each year – notably a popular Summer School for Pianists. Jackdaws serves as a constant reminder to me that the learning process never stops, either for me or for the endless stream of people (many of a ‘certain’ age), who can amaze me with what they are doing at the piano. Incidentally, if you’ve not yet experienced Jackdaws, I’d suggest there’s a hole in your life that you’d better set about fixing straight away; it’s not necessarily because of the standard of playing (though there are some excellent players who attend the courses), more the level of human being.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that sometimes progress is measured in inches, not miles. Success for one person might constitute a complete disaster for the next, so ultimately the only person worth comparing yourself with is you. That way, you keep nudging your way forward, at whatever rate you are capable of, mindful of the fact that any distance travelled down the road of progress is better than none (even if it happens to be a tad less impressive than people half your age). I say this because I can call to mind a number of ex pupils who were less than remarkable as younger players, but who found their legs later, and it is so gratifying to learn that something you said or did as a teacher helped to bring about a eureka moment, maybe decades later. The dedication angle usually turns out to be absolutely crucial to succeeding in music – in my view diligence is at least as important as natural ‘talent’ (and let’s face it, could you ever find two people who could agree what talent actually is?)

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Adults are not big children (and therefore, it goes without saying, children are not small adults). To treat either as such is to misunderstand them, and it’s only a short step from here to underestimating them, patronising them and losing sight of what playing the piano actually means for them: experiencing enjoyment and fulfilment. In 95% of cases our adult pupils hanker after personal enrichment and a sense of engagement with something tactile and beautiful – and all of this is perfectly achievable without becoming a serial devourer of grades, diplomas or other gongs (helpful though these can undeniably be, though in a relatively small number of cases in my opinion).

Adults tend to talk rather a lot in lessons, I’ve noticed! This used to bother me – after all, surely it’s taking money under false pretences if much of the time is not spent ‘on the job’…then, one day quite a few years ago, it came to me in a flash…we all need different things from our piano lessons. Confidence-building can take many forms, and we don’t all need bolstering to the same extent or in quite the same way. I no longer feel guilty about having a cup of tea and a chat during a lesson…

Adults often lack an awareness of where they are at, both technically and musically, especially if they are not working under the auspices of a regular teacher; hence, they might turn up wearing a beaming smile, brandishing hopelessly unrealistic volumes of late Beethoven Sonatas, or whatever, and within two bars of stumbling about, I know this will end in tears, particularly if the student in question has already committed him/herself to an exam of some kind for which they are wholly unsuited. Related to this, is that I find adults frequently don’t seem to know what they don’t know, if you see what I mean, and hence, left to their own devices, they fixate on unreachable goals such as attaining a higher diploma, a qualification which is really designed to meet the needs of aspiring professionals, not amateurs. I’m all for working towards something a little way off, but in extreme cases only the most strong-willed teacher can succeed in imposing a restraining order.

Nevertheless, while the risks may sometimes be greater with adults, arguably the gains can be greater also. After all, unlike many children, adults know what their lessons are costing them in time, money, conflicting family pressures and so on, and hence in many cases it matters more to them. The adult learner is often a ‘returner’ – I can’t help noticing that the world seems to be full of grade 3 pianists who ‘gave up’ thirty-odd years ago. Things change, and life can overtake us, causing us to bid a reluctant farewell to the piano for a while, and yet thankfully, most people cherish the prospect of coming back to playing some day when the children are married off, they can afford a decent instrument and they rediscover that elusive bit of ‘quality time’. It can be terrifically rewarding as a teacher to help returners, but it certainly helps if they bring a measure of realism and common sense to their approach and are prepared to be guided.

What do you expect from your students? 

I suspect I’m rather untypical. As an examiner and trainer for ABRSM you might imagine that I spend much of my time ‘selling’ the Board’s wares…actually, I’ve always been a little slack in this area, to be frank. I generally wait for students to mention exams, and then I respond in the way I feel is right, but rarely do I initiate such discussion. I’ve known parents to be a little problematic if they carry with them personal ‘baggage’ (such as wanting their child to have the opportunities they didn’t, etc.) and this might mean that the teacher feels cajoled into entertaining the next exam before the time is ripe. I suppose I expect students to take their playing seriously, not to waste my time (or their own), and to aim to make the most of their attributes, be they great or small. In return, I try to be a cheerful motivator and to have a positive influence on the course they have chosen to undertake.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Interestingly, I notice that the question deliberately groups together exams, festivals and competitions as if they all amount to virtually the same thing. To my mind they are all very different; festivals may well be the right way to go for musicians who are more interested in participation than direct attainment, or for the musician who simply can’t get to grips with all of the supporting tests that are expected for the various grade syllabi. Here too though, teachers and parents all too often get the wrong end of the stick, and the poor child is frogmarched onto the stage, quivering like a jelly, with little hope of acquitting him/herself positively. I have adjudicated dozens of festivals up and down the country, and although overall I do feel they have an important basis for helping amateurs to evolve, I privately worry about the impact on the more fragile contestants who end up proving to themselves what they’d suspected was true along; a real pity. Following on from my comments in relation to the previous question, I feel that exams can play an important role, but only when all of the circumstances are right; they’re a double-edged sword. I deplore the sausage-machine approach (the minute grade 3 has been achieved, a spanking new copy of the grade 4 pieces is magically prised out, like a rabbit from a hat, with no time for consolidation, reflection, fun…).

Competitions are a rather different ballgame – these are for your more go-getter types who have probably already shown considerable aptitude in grades and/or festivals, and are now looking for something with a bit more ‘edge’ to keep them on their toes. But, with every winner there will be, by necessity, a whole bunch who did not win (or are ‘working towards’, to borrow a more politically correct term). Teachers ought to guard against exposing their pupils to less than positive experiences, and they should be continually guarded to the less than helpful influence parents can unwittingly bring to the situation. Whereas few parents would attempt to influence the strategy of, say, an A level maths teacher, some feel qualified to steer the piano teacher down avenues they’d rather not go, resulting in a less than happy outcome. All of this adds to the teacher’s lot, I’m afraid; ultimately, it’s about maintaining diplomacy and compassion, while keeping the pupil at the heart of it all.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

For beginners, I feel lessons ought to be about helping them to fall in love with the sound of the piano – its vast range of effects, colours, idioms and styles. For this reason, I am a fan of demonstrating a lot in lessons – it’s not really showing off, so much as showing the instrument in the best possible light, to help them to recognise good playing when they hear it and to want to move towards that in their own playing. I’m not too fussed about introducing notation, not for quite a bit longer into the process than is seen as conventional. I believe that learning to read music is, especially for younger beginners, a big, unnecessary distraction that could easily wait until it is properly needed – in other words, I advocate the learning of notation on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. After all, learning to play and learning to read are two quite separate things, notwithstanding the collision course that eventually occurs once they are properly up and running. I’d draw the line at an overly Suzuki approach however – the minute reading music shows the potential to become more of a help than a hindrance, it ought to find its way into the teaching. After all, we learn to speak years before we learn to write, and we learn to enjoy food years before we learn how to follow a recipe, so what’s the big rush with learning to read music?

With advanced students, I reckon there is generally still too much emphasis on whizzy-fingered playing. Technique is relatively easy to teach, in the scheme of things, and so teachers may be tempted to place undue emphasis on it, even when it ought to be clear there are more important musical issues still to resolve. My maxim is: come to an understanding of what you wish to achieve musically, and only then get to work on the technical procedures needed to make these achievable. The ‘notes-per-minute’ card can become a distraction from what I call ‘grown up’ piano playing, by which I mean things like chord-voicing (how many pianists, even at diploma level, know what that is?) and acquiring an understanding of what makes the music ‘tick’. There seems to be a prevailing confusion that pianists play, composers compose and analysts analyse, but I believe this to be too simplistic and ultimately somewhat limiting. A pianist who is really able to get to the soul of a piece has, perhaps instinctively, come pretty close to feeling what the composer felt when s/he wrote it. There has to be a measure of structural awareness therefore underpinning the playing, even if there is a shortfall in the ability to articulate it. It annoys me when people derive pleasure from referring to certain jazz pianists as non-readers, as though this in some way absolves them of the need to acquire high-level reading/analytical skills. (Besides, although Oscar Peterson didn’t read music, he understood it more profoundly than most).

Furthermore, only rarely do advanced students seem to be the ‘complete’ musician. Your average grade eight pianist wouldn’t be capable of playing a simple Christmas carol by ear in the key of B major without several minutes grappling and swearing, which I think means we as teachers must be overlooking this type of skill in favour of a more one-dimensional approach. I wish, too, that advanced players were more regularly encouraged by their teachers to measure their accomplishments in relation to the quality of what they are producing, rather than the self-evident complexity of the dots scattered over the paper. If a teacher were to suggest to a teenage boy that, despite having already gained his grade seven he might consider performing a grade five piece in public, I suspect a typical reaction would be that this is some kind of insult to his manliness, or at any rate, an inferred retrograde step. Surely, advanced players are so because they bring a heightened musical intelligence, stylistic awareness and flexibility of technique to their playing, and this should at all costs not be confused with being able to race through a piece at top speed with hurdles tumbling at every stride.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

I’m guessing you are asking whether it is possible to teach the art of performance? If so – yes! (…and no…). I reckon it’s the case that teachers can only hope to tease out what is already there to be brought out. By the same token, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Having said that, I once had a pupil who gained a distinction in her grade 8 piano exam (mind you, it took her over a year to prepare the pieces) and only by applying every single nuance, tenuto, pedal effect that I handed to her on a plate. Left to her own devices, she demonstrated an alarming incapacity for artistry, but because she was bright, an attentive observer and a hard worker, she acquitted herself very well in the exam, and I remember feeling that she deserved her success. (I can’t help feeling, however, that if I’d handed her three similar pieces and put her on a desert island for another year without any help, she would revert to type: a grade 8 pianist going on grade 5).

With pupils on the cusp of giving recitals in public, I spend quite a bit of time on ‘owning the moment’, i.e. how long to wait before taking the first bow, how to create the right atmosphere before the first note is played, how fast to walk on and off the stage, etc. The theatrical element is, after all, an integral part of what goes into creating an impression with an audience, and even with very polished players it all needs properly tackling until it begins to feel natural. I also spend quite a bit of time working on memorising, programme building, developing sufficient stamina and generally getting to grips with the finer details that go into making a memorable performance.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

Among my favourite pianists would have to be Ivo Pogorelich, Murray Perahia and Howard Shelley. All three place artistry and finesse high up the agenda, but (certainly in the case of Pogorelich) in rather different ways. Technical aspects are so thoroughly embedded into their playing that one barely notices things like notes, just the larger musical gestures that add up to a persuasive personal account. I generally dislike players who possess an overly heavy foot (no names!) – after all, we play the piano with our fingers, not our feet, and that the sustain pedal is as likely to contaminate the sound as to assist it (ditto vibrato for singers, incidentally – and, rather like chilli powder, a little goes a long way). I also find it difficult to enjoy piano playing when it seems overly encumbered by exaggerated body movements in order to justify a massive rubato, especially when, in a recording, the visual element is no longer there to help us understand what on earth is happening.

Mark Tanner will be teaching at the following summer schools in 2013:

Chetham’s International Summer School for Pianists: 20th-26th August

Mark Tanner was born in Bristol in 1963. His first tentative solo appearance at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aptly described as “intrepid” by the Bristol Evening Post, came at the tender age of 13, and shortly after he appeared on BBC TV, playing Liszt. Studying piano with Philip Martin, Richard McMahon and Geoffrey Buckley, Mark gained his PhD from the Birmingham Conservatoire; he was awarded their honorary degree in 2009. He has appeared in many of Britain’s most celebrated recital halls, including five consecutive appearances at Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square in London, as well as a number of prominent educational establishments including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, RWCMD, Birmingham Conservatoire and Chethams International Summer School for Pianists. With duo partner Allan Schiller, Mark appeared at St George’s Bristol as part of the Mozart 250 celebrations; he has appeared there on many other occasions besides. He is a popular recitalist onboard cruise liners around the globe, including the entire Cunard, P&O and SAGA fleets, having now given several hundred recitals at sea, many of which have been with flautist partner Gillian Poznansky; the duo’s recording of music by Graham Lynch was chosen as an ‘Outstanding’ disc of the month in International Record Review and is broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3. Together they have premiered several important new works at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere, with recent recitals at festivals in Spain and Denmark. Mark has broadcast several premières live on BBC Radio 3, and his many recordings have attracted consistently high critical acclaim. Of his York Bowen double-disc, Bryce Morrison wrote:

“Tanner’s performances are magnificent. Most pianists would give an arm and a leg, or at least a finger, to achieve his sumptuous sonority and seamless legato…such enviable breadth and poetic commitment.”

Mark has contributed hundreds of reviews and articles for International Record Review, Classical Music, Musical Opinion, International Piano and Piano Professional. He has also published scholarly articles in the USA and UK, including 19th Century Music and the Liszt Society Journal, and edited several contemporary scores for Peters Edition and Europa Edition. For Spartan Press he has published thirty albums of original music and a piano-friendly edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in a much lauded new graded series. As a trainer and international examiner of grades and diplomas for ABRSM, Mark has undertaken tours to all five continents; he adjudicates festivals for the British and International Federation of Festivals and on three occasions judged the EPTA Piano Competition; he has given numerous lectures on a diverse range of subjects, as well as masterclasses in the UK, Europe and mainland China.

For sixteen years Mark was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset; he has now been active in music education for some 30 years and is currently a visiting lecturer of piano and composition at University College, Falmouth. He also enjoys preparing students for diplomas, college entry and recitals from his homes in Cornwall and Somerset. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of Mensa, and his first novel, Life on Mars? A Catinel’s Chance was published by Llama Press; with it he undertook a successful book-signing tour of Waterstone’s stores.

Mark Tanner’s website

Leon McCawley (photo: Clive Barda)

My first concert outing of 2013 was to hear British pianist Leon McCawley at London’s Wigmore Hall. The penultimate concert in Leon’s Mozart Sonatas cycle was my first review for Bachtrack, back in April 2011. This is my third Bachtrack review of this fine artist, who seamlessly combines a calm, self-possessed stage presence with immaculate technique, versatility and musical integrity.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley’s Meet the Artist interview