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.

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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.

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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.

JS Bach – Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV.1004 arr. Busoni for piano
Busoni – Berceuse élégiaque (Elegy No.7), Op.42
Chopin – Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35 (Marche funèbre)
Stephen Hough – Sonata No.4 (Vida breve)
Liszt – Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173; Mephisto Waltz No.4 (unfinished); Mephisto Waltz No.1

Stephen Hough, piano

Tuesday 19 November 2019, Tuner Sims, University of Southampton


My first visit to Turner Sims concert hall at the University of Southampton, and a treat of an evening in the company of British pianist Stephen Hough playing music by Bach arr. Busoni, Busoni, Chopin and Liszt.

This was a typical Hough programme, thoughtfully conceived and superbly presented, deadly serious, for the theme of the concert was death – pieces inspired by or identified with death, including Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 with its famous Marche Funèbre, and Liszt’s Funerailles, written in the same month as Chopin died and at the time of the violent Hungarian revolution of 1849.

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Superlatives quickly become redudant when describing a pianist of Hough’s calibre, whose wide-ranging intellectual acuity always informs his programmes and his playing; therefore this is not a review, rather some reflections on what I thought was a most absorbing programme, especially the first half. In addition to the thematic asssociations between the pieces, there were musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne were reiterated in Chopin’s Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominated, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure was later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles. Likewise, the haunting, unsettling soundworld of Busoni’s Berceuse (more a mourning song than a lullaby) was reflected in the finale of the Chopin Sonata, a curious, hushed fleeting stream of consciousness, and then in the wayward uncertain harmonic language of Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle without tonality’.

The Bach/Busoni Chaconne was a magnificent, emphatic opener for this concert, and Hough gave it a multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. The Berceuse was a remarkably contrasting work, interior, intimate, mysterious and disquieting, and by segueing straight into the Chopin Sonata, Hough infused this work with a similarly discomforting atmosphere. With agitated tempi the Sonata moved forward with an anxious intensity but Hough lingered over the more lyrical Nocturne-like moments in the opening movement and the Scherzo. Like the Chaconne, the funeral march was magisterial rather than simply funereal and the tender, dreamy middle section lent an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme returned.

Hough’s own piano sonata No. 4 ‘Vida Breve’ opened the second half of the concert, an abstract work constructed of five tiny motivic cells (including a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet) lasting a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil. The concert closed with three pieces by Liszt – Funerailles, whose meaning is obvious, and two Mephisto Waltzes, devilish in their whirling virtuosity and frenetic, tumbling notes.


Stephen Hough plays the same programme at the Royal Festival Hall in March 2020. Details here

Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although Chopin did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed.

Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the film is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.


 

This article first appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s own blog Manuscript Notes.

Nick worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children.

You can be early, you can be late, the two hands are not in phase; then you make a compensation which re-establishes the ensemble.

George Mathias (pupil of Chopin, teacher of Raoul Pugno and Isidor Philipp)

This article examines closely three historical recordings of Chopin’s B minor Prelude Op.28 No.6, made by Vladimir de Pachmann (in 1927), Moriz Rosenthal (in 1935) and Raoul Koczalski (in 1939), with extensive audio and musical examples. Both Pachmann and Rosenthal had contact with Liszt, who could apparently imitate Chopin’s playing very well, Rosenthal in particular receiving extensive instruction from him. In addition, Rosenthal and Koczalski were taught as boys by Chopin’s disciple, Karol Mikuli.  Clearly then these pianists deserve to be taken seriously from a stylistic point of view.  The B minor Prelude is chosen for its brevity, the relative simplicity of its texture, and for the similarities of approach noted in the recordings, all of which use asynchrony as an expressive device in stark contrast to the majority of modern recordings.

Asynchrony is a general term which is used to describe playing notes in a separated or not-quite-together fashion where they are written as if they should normally be played at the same time in the score, for example a chord to which an arpeggiation is applied, or a left-hand bass note and right-hand melody note both written on the same beat but actually played with one hand being placed slightly before the other. It is apparent on many early recordings made of pianists who were born in the nineteenth century and has been the subject of detailed analysis in recent years (see Peres Da Costa’s ‘Off the Record’ cited in the bibliography).  It is an area of performance practice that I find personally very interesting for its role in some of the most exquisite and in other instances most eccentric-seeming performances recorded by such artists.  By incorporating it into my own playing I have found it of great effectiveness in realising the music of Chopin in particular.

Read the full article, with music extracts/examples

 


Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and Nottingham-based piano teacher, with a wealth of experience teaching all ages and abilities.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well as an amazing collection of over 50 YouTube videos.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV

 

http://www.charlestebbs.co.uk/

‘Petits Concerts’ is a new series of recitals at the 1901 Arts Club, a salon style venue just a stone’s throw from Waterloo Station. Inspired by concerts given by Charles-Valentin Alkan at the Erard showroom in Paris in the 1870s, and hosted by concert pianist James Lisney, Petits Concerts brings musicians together in the spirit of “music with friends and amongst friends” in an intimate setting which harks back to the 19th-century European cultural salon. Proceeds from each concert will be donated to musical/education charities.

Petits Concerts II – Chopin and Schubert

Petits Concerts III – Joy, Emma & James Lisney

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In addition, James Lisney will be giving piano lessons at the 1901 Arts Club from 2pm on the afternoon of each concert. Lessons cost £100 for 90 mins with proceeds going to charity. For further information or to book a lesson, contact James Lisney

 

 

Guest review by Mary Grace Nguyen

Extraordinary, unconventional, interactive and fun are the words I would use to describe the launch of crossover artist and classical music pianist AyseDeniz Gokcin’s new album, A Chopin Affair: Sonatas. On Friday night [March 9th] St James’s Sussex Gardens near Paddington was surprisingly packed – people had to find chairs and create their own space to sit down. The audience was a mix of savvy young artists, bright-eyed students, middle-aged professionals and family members keen to grab a glass of wine, relax and listen to some scintillating Chopin.

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The Turkish classical pianist has produced crossover albums including music inspired by Pink Floyd and Kurt Cobain from Nirvana. She recently told me in an interview, “if you look at history, Liszt was a showman and Chopin was very much behind the scenes…they were very innovative and active. We don’t have that anymore.” Breaking the mould, Gokcin sees a gap in the classical music industry, “although I do crossover projects, they have a message. There are issues that I care about.” Gokcin is on a mission to change society, one way or other, whether it’s through channeling classical works in a unique way or transmitting a social message about issues she cares about through brand new music.

Sitting on the right of the stage, by the grand piano, was street artist and Instagram star, Zabou and conceptual artist from the Royal College of Art, Tommy Ramsay. Both artists accompanied Gokcin in the art of painting as she performed Chopin’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 &  3. One sonata after the other, Ramsay and Zabou presented their own depiction of what Gokcin had prepared for them on the piano keys through Chopin’s music.

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As a regular concertgoer, I am used to people turning off their phones beforehand, but here photography was almost encouraged. The audience took endless photographs of the entire event and despite the usual concert etiquette standards, it felt entirely acceptable for this relaxed and quirky event.

Although a late start, Gokcin was in good spirits and beaming with excitement when she came on stage. Presenting herself in a black laced skateboard dress, she expressed her personal relationship with Chopin’s music and her interest in his relationship with female writer George Sand with little hesitation. She recalled her years as a student, learning the sonatas and discovering the deep and emotional connection she had with the music from being away from home, performing in interesting and unusual venues such as the Kremlin in Moscow or a basketball court in Ecuador.

Piano Sonata No. 2 includes the immediately-recognisable Funeral March; a slow and sombre movement with a highly lyrical middle section. Gokcin’s dexterous fingers did not lose form in this movement. In fact, she appeared more focused and attentive. From the outset, the first two movements and last (Grave, Scherzo and Finale) are a feast of lyrical themes, varying tempo and dynamics. It was marvellous watching Gokcin perform with great control and confidence, sliding her fingers across the piano and never missing a beat.

The “Funeral March” sonata contrasts with the optimism and major key of the Piano Sonata No. 3. Gokcin encapsulated the serene and beautiful melodic tones in the Scherzo – Molto Vivace, and took the pace down a notch with the Largo. With Gokcin’s playing, she takes you on an infinite journey into the unknown, but you’d happily walk the same path for ever. Where the music was uplifting, Gokcin maintained the energy and where the notes needed emotional stock, Gorkin intimately fused with the music.

Interestingly, despite the more relaxed atmosphere, no one in the audience applauded between movements. Here was another of the very few concerts that celebrate the accessibility and inclusive nature of classical music. Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Gokcin’s book and find new ways to become more innovative.


Mary Grace Nguyen is a blogger and reviewer at TrendFem focussing on opera, theatre, dance, music and art. She holds an MA in Journalism from Birkbeck College, and graduated from SOAS with a degree in Anthropology and studied Modern Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In addition to her blog, Mary has also written for various online publications including LondonTheatre1, LDNCARD, Fringe Opera, CultureVulture.net and Theatre and Perform.

Twitter: @MaryGNguyen