Guest post by Dr James Holden

I’ve always really enjoyed playing the piano. However, I’ve always avoided doing my piano practice. This spring I decided to put an end to that. I was particularly motivated by the start of the annual 100 Day Project, in which people commit to doing something creative for 100 days. I determined that my project would be to teach myself how to play Chopin’s Nocturne op. 27 no. 2, a piece I’ve always loved but lacked the impetus and dedication to learn. To do this, I committed myself to practising for at least 30 minutes every day. What’s more, I decided to make myself publicly accountable by streaming my practice sessions on my Twitch channel.

In case you’re not aware, Twitch is a streaming platform usually used by gamers to broadcast themselves playing videogames. However, it’s also used by artists and other creatives to stream their ongoing work. At any one time you can usually find several pianists playing live in the ‘Music & Performing Arts’ category. These players are often watched by hundreds of viewers as they perform arrangements of popular songs and other tunes, improvisations and more.

If these pianists are giving online concerts, they are less like modern concerts than they are nineteenth-century salon performances. Twitch allows real time interaction through a chat window which means that these pianist-streamers can engage with their audiences in real time between and even during pieces, and are therefore able to perform requests, respond to suggestions and otherwise chat with viewers.

My own Twitch streams are a little different. Firstly, my standard of playing is generally lower: I am an intermediate level amateur at best with limited repertoire (largely the result of my limited practice!). Secondly, I’m not attempting to give salon style performances. Instead, I’m ‘just’ broadcasting my daily piano practice.

Practice is normally private not public. It’s what precedes a performance; it’s not the performance itself. And yet, the simple act of streaming it on a public media platform means that my private practice does take on a performative aspect. Even if no one is watching – and that’s often the case on my channel – people could be watching. And that makes all the difference.

The performative aspect of my streams has necessarily altered my relationship to my practice. It has introduced an implied need to make it enjoyable to watch. This means, in the first place, choosing to work on a piece that will appeal quickly to viewers surfing between channels. The Chopin nocturne I’ve chosen is a beautiful work with relatively immediate appeal. However, it simply doesn’t have the mass recognition or popularity that a cover of a hit song would have. Secondly, the need to make my streams an enjoyable watch potentially risks altering how I practice. It feels as though I should play the work through coherently ‘in flow’ rather than working in a more deliberate, detailed fashion. It’s just not that much fun to watch someone play one bar over and over, or play a phrase slowed down to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, that is the kind of effort that is often required when practising.

On the plus side, Twitch’s interactivity means that it’s possible to get immediate positive reinforcement during practice. I was genuinely thrilled when a viewer typed in chat that my playing sounded good. The comment led me to think about the broader possibilities of learning on stream. I can imagine a practice session becoming something like an informal masterclass with knowledgeable viewers offering encouragement and advice.


Given my chosen piece, I can’t help thinking about all these issues in relation to the Romantic virtuosos. Chopin himself, of course, was a brilliant performer but famously averse to giving large concerts. Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing in the privacy of his own home to an invisible public audience on Twitch. I’m not sure how he would have felt about making the private work of practice public though. I certainly know how the older Liszt would have felt. It’s probably true that during his years as a touring virtuoso the younger Liszt did much of his practice in public on the concert platform itself. However, in later life as the stern master of Weimar he was famously dismissive of pupils who displayed poor technique during his masterclasses, berating them with the declaration: “Wash your dirty linen at home!” I am literally counting ledger lines during my streams so am certainly, musically speaking, washing my dirty linen in public.

Franz Liszt in concert in the 1840s

I’m only a short way into #the100dayproject. Despite the complications it has introduced, the decision to stream has already had several positive effects. Firstly, it has given me the necessary commitment to keep practising. My advertised stream schedule makes me publicly accountable for my practice in a way I’ve never been before, not even when I had lessons as a kid. I have, as a result, stuck to the task far more than I would have done otherwise, and my playing has genuinely improved as a result. I’ve certainly made solid progress with the nocturne. Whilst it’s true that I’m still stumbling over the more challenging passages and continue to play wrong notes, I at least play them better than I did before. It turns out that regular practice really does make a difference!

A second consequence of my decision to stream my practice is that I now have a video archive of my progress. I can compare the video of my day 1 stream with, say, that of my day 21 stream and quickly see the progress. This is a source of positive reinforcement that offers continued motivation when things seem challenging. More immediately, the fact that Twitch makes streams available as VODs means that I can watch myself back straight after I finish my practice. I can listen to my playing divorced from the act of playing itself, which means I can hear things much more clearly. The critical reflection for which this allows feeds back into my following practice sessions.

Thirdly, I have become somewhat used to the idea of others watching me play (if not perform exactly) – which was a rare occurrence before. In particular, I’m more accustomed now to the idea of people seeing me struggle with a piece and play wrong notes. I’ve had to get over any embarrassment about my lack of technical ability or competence, and my playing is probably becoming freer as a result. I think, overall, that streaming is making me more forgiving of my mistakes.

I’m excited about where my 100 Day Project is heading. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the improvements I’m sure to make in the days and weeks ahead, and to exploring new pieces alongside my current choice of nocturne.

I’ll be streaming my practice on my Twitch channel at 6pm UK time for about 30 minutes every evening until I reach day 100. It’d be great if you could tune in, say hi in the chat and give me some encouragement. Please do give the channel a follow whilst you’re there too. Can’t make it at 6pm? Don’t worry, you can always find videos of all of my previous practice sessions, so do stop by.

James Holden is an independent writer and academic. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian and a Nerd. He is currently streaming his piano practice every day at 6pm on his Twitch channel. Find out more about his work and publications on his website. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram.

The piano nocturne

The term “Nocturne” or “Notturno” (Italian) was first applied in the eighteenth century to pieces written for string ensemble to be performed at an evening party and then put aside. At this time, it was not necessarily a piece evocative of night-time but simply music to be played in the evening. In the early nineteenth century the name Nocturne became specifically associated with a single-movement work for solo piano and the Irish composer John Field is credited with “inventing” the Nocturne in the form we commonly understand it now: a cantabile (“singing”) melody over an arpeggiated or guitar-like bass, free in form and rather languid in character. Field composed his first Nocturne in 1812. Gentle and nostalgic, full of reverie and tenderness, the form enabled him to explore the piano’s myriad nuances and colours. He had created a pianistic form based on charm and delicacy, with elegant textures and rich sonorities.

It was Fryderyk Chopin who took the genre to new heights of structure, expression and beauty. He took Field’s template and embroidered his own unique musical personality upon it, creating piano miniatures in which the melodic lines are amplified with “fioriture” – ornaments and decorations draped across the melody like gossamer, fleeting and improvisatory in nature. In addition, the right hand’s mellifluous cantabile becomes almost elusive with the help of beautiful legato and the subtle use of the piano’s pedals. The Nocturnes remain amongst the most popular and well-loved of his entire oeuvre, and are prized by pianists everywhere as the apogee of writing for the piano.

“His music is some of the most beautiful ever written. The nature of his genius defies classification.”

Claude Debussy

“Their closer kinship of sorrow than those of Field renders them more strongly marked; their poetry is more sombre and fascinating; they ravish us more, but are less reposeful…”

Franz Liszt on Chopin’s Nocturnes

It is a mark of Chopin’s genius in this miniature form that composers continue to write piano nocturnes to this day. Notable successors include Schumann’s Nachtstϋcke (‘Night Pieces’), a quartet of disturbing character pieces in which “One sees more eyes and owls than stars” (Franz Liszt) and which reflect the dark passionate heart of Romanticism rather than its intimate lyricism. Liszt himself took up the form in his Liebestraum (‘dreams of love’). Based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath, each piece describes a different type of love: exalted, erotic and mature.

For the sensitive, romantically-inclined Gabriel Fauré, the nocturne was a form very close to his heart and his nocturnes portray a sublimated musical introspection, enchanted by the silence and solitude of night-time. His thirteen pieces in the genre vary in form and content but definitely take their cue from Chopin. Fauré’s compatriot Francis Poulenc also wrote a series of eight nocturnes which roughly span a decade (1929-1938), but unlike Chopin’s or Fauré’s, Poulenc’s nocturnes are not romantic tone-poems but characterful evocations of night-scenes and sound-images of public and private activities. No. 2, for example, depicts the charm and innocence of a girls’ dancing party, while in No. 4 night-time bells chime across the empty town.

This depiction of nocturnal activities was taken up by composers such as Bartok and Britten who both used the nocturne form to imitate of the twittering of birds and scurrying and croaking of other nocturnal creatures. Here the tranquillity and meditative quietude of Chopin’s nocturnal soundworld is exchanged for one which is rather more unsettling and suspenseful.

The American composer Samuel Barber wrote a Nocturne subtitled ‘Homage to John Field’, based on the old ideas of Field and Chopin, complete with fioriture, but written in an evolving lyrical style appropriate for its time.

Contemporary composers of the nocturne include Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), whose ‘Night Pieces’ are truly “miniature miniatures”, fleeting works of beguiling yet evocative simplicity. British composer Richard Causton’s ‘Night Piece’ for solo piano is a short encore work based on the clarinet solo from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Premiered by the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in 2014, it harks back to Bartok and Britten in its spare scoring and thoughtful sonorities which explore the timbre and resonance of the piano rather than its melodic capabilities, and like all piano nocturnes before it, it is a brief yet expressive work.



Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

British pianist Leon McCawley presented a programme of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann, all played with evident relish and enjoyment, at a charming lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley kindly participated in my ‘Meet the Artist….’ series. Read his interview here

With my Diploma behind me, it’s high time I set to work on learning new repertoire, in particular in preparation for my teacher’s spring weekend course.

The day after my diploma recital I woke with aching limbs, and a feeling of extreme tiredness akin to ‘flu, the effect of coming down after a big adrenaline/anxiety induced high (nervousness is surprisingly energy draining). I expect these symptoms are familiar to regular performers, but I was surprised by just how exhausted I felt. Instead of rising early and going straight to the piano as I normally do, I drifted through the day, listening to the radio and “pottering” in a way I hadn’t for months. I felt a little bereft without my diploma pieces to practice, but I’d vowed immediately after the exam that I would not “post mortem” the event. In the words of Doris Day “Que Sera, Sera”.

In his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, Seymour Bernstein offers a sensible “cure” for post-performance ennui:

At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.

Two days after my exam, I went on holiday for week, but I did read some scores on my iPad, listen to music and think about the repertoire I wanted to look at on my return.

Chopin – Nocturne in E major, Opus 62 No. 2. The second of the Opus 62 and the last set of Nocturnes published in Chopin’s lifetime, charming and mature works of great expressiveness. The second of the set opens with a stately yet lyrical theme before a more restless middle section. The opening melody is then restated and the piece ends with one of the most exquisite cadences in all of Chopin’s music. Here is Pollini:

Nocturne No.18 in E, Op.62 No.2

Schubert – Impromptu in F minor, Opus 142 No. 1. I first learnt this a few years ago, and then lost interest in it. It is my second favourite of all of Schubert’s Impromptus, the A flat from the first set being my absolute favourite. I love the grand, classical, almost “Beethovenian” gestures of the opening measures, before the music gives way to a plaintive duetting figure. Schumann suggested that this Impromptu could form the opening movement of a Sonata – it certainly has the feel of a Sonata in its varied gestures and textures, yet it stands alone perfectly too. Here is Perahia:

Impromptu No. 1 in F minor. Allegro moderato

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. I heard this in concert recently, performed by Khatia Buniatishvili, who brought delicacy, clarity and grandeur to this work which Bach originally conceived for organ. Liszt demonstrates his deep reverence for Bach in his treatment of the material: he takes no liberties with the music, but rather simply enhances what is already there, capitalising organ sonorities, and some bravura chromatic figuration. Here is Khatia herself:

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Prelude

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Fugue