Mojo

N.
1. Self-confidence, Self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation. Esp. I context of contest or display of skill such as sexual advances or going into battle.
2. Good luck fetish / charm to bolster confidence.
3. ability to bounce back from a debilitating trauma and negative attitude

[Source: Urban Dictionary]

It’s been some time since I posted something specifically about piano playing. I have enjoyed so much live music in the last month, some of which I have reviewed for this blog and Bachtrack, and I haven’t had as much time at the piano as I would have liked due to building work going on in my home. While I could practise while the builder laid bricks or tiled the roof, somehow sitting at the piano while he laboured, alone, seemed rather self-indulgent.

And to be truthful, in the immediate weeks after receiving my LTCL Diploma results, I experienced a curious flatness, a post-diploma ennui, not unike the tiredness that comes after a virus like ‘flu or a bad cold. I had worked solidly for 15 months for the Diploma, starting my practising at 8am religiously, almost every day of the week, and eschewing a social life to the extent that a good friend commented “you’re chained to that effing piano these days!”. Only those who do it seriously, both professional and serious amateur musicians, understand the need to turn into a hermit in order to undertake such a task. The Herculean effort of learning all the notes, and ordering them into such a way that they make beautiful, expressive, insightful and thoughtful music; feeding the artistic temperament without allowing the ego to take over; doing the reading and research to write the programme notes; the pre-Diploma performances; and then – The Day. No wonder I was tired afterwards!

After the initial euphoria of receiving a result which astonished me (no, I really wasn’t expecting to secure a second Distinction), and far too much champagne, I decided I should start to focus on new repertoire. Each day the piano glared balefully at me from its niche in the corner of my living room, the open score of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage challenging me to come and practise. But I just didn’t want to go there.

An enjoyable Saturday piano event with my friends and colleagues Lorraine Liyanage and Manny Vass, and assorted amateur pianists, at which I played what I now consider my ‘signature piece’, Takemitsu’s haunting Rain Tree Sketch II, failed to rouse me from my gloom. I consigned my scores to the bookcase and rediscovered my social life.

Rather rashly, or so it appeared to me when I found myself in this slough of despond, I had, on the crest of the wave of exam jubilation, booked myself a set at The Little Proms, a wonderful initiative to take classical music out of the formal setting of the concert hall and into places where it is accessible and informal – in this case, the basement bar of a Soho pub. I played at The Little Proms last August and enjoyed it very much. But with the concert looming, I felt bored by the repertoire and the prospect of performing it.

However, as the concert date approached, I found more time to practise and instead of resenting the piano, I began to enjoy it again. I started working on what might become the greatest challenge of my pianistic career to date – Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op110, my most favourite of all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, or indeed anyone else’s, and a work I have long wanted to learn and play properly. Going back to the nitty-gritty of learning something from scratch, as opposed to finessing very well-learnt pieces, was interesting and engaging. One afternoon, when the builder had gone, I played for an hour and a half – and I loved it.

I took myself off to Soho on Sunday afternoon to arrive at the venue in time for a sound check. When I go there, one of the other acts, Brasilliero Big Band, were warming up with much vibrancy and laughter. I had a brief warm up on the piano and then went to brush my hair, apply my “lucky” lipstick and quietly await the signal to go on. I was to open the event (a relief, as no one could possibly compete with the exuberance of Brasilliero Big Band!). My programme was mostly a now very well-trodden path of Diploma pieces, with a couple of new things thrown in. Beginning with the ‘Adagio’ from the Bach Concerto BWV 974 was an excellent idea, as a friend later pointed out. The slow tempo and hypnotic bass quavers drew everyone in, and by the time I started on the mysterious opening chords of the Takemitsu I felt I had everyone’s attention.

And this is where it got interesting for me. You’re close to the audience in a small venue. You can almost hear them breathing and you’re very aware of the people around you, so much so that you actually have a sense of people listening, very concentratedly and carefully. The people sitting behind me were close enough to read my scores, if they cared to.

This sense of intense concentration and attention is very potent, and is surely the reason why performers get a buzz from, well, performing. (On a purely physiological level, it is the release of adrenaline that creates this feeling.) There is also a very strong sensation of everyone being engaged in a special and unique experience. There are certain performers who have an amazing ability to create this intimacy in the biggest venues – Mitsuko Uchida is one, Stephen Osborne another – drawing the audience into that wonderful, enchanted circle that is impossible to recreate when listening to music on disc in the privacy of one’s home.

Adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, does interesting things to us as performers. It can unleash a whole host of unpleasant symptoms – sweaty, trembling hands, headache, nausea, palpitations, cold fear – but it can also, if we use it positively, enable us to raise our game, to rise to the occasion, and play well. A professional pianist I interviewed some years ago, during research for a book, admitted that he rarely had time to feel nervous before a concert, but that adrenaline did induce a certain lightness in the hands and arms. I felt this on Sunday night, so that by the time I reached Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Op 62/2, I hardly had to remind myself to keep my hands and arms soft to produce a rich cantabile sound in the right hand melody (a friend in the audience told me afterwards that with the amplification this came across very effectively). The final piece of my set, ‘Muted and Sensuous’ from Aaron Copland’s atmospheric Four Piano Blues, was receiving its premiere, at least in my hands, and such was the atmosphere in the venue that a piece which had, the previous week, felt horribly unpolished, suddenly poured out of the piano with all the sonorous and shiny sounds I had tried, and failed, to achieve in practise.

Interesting things happen in performance – which is why it is important to perform. Anyone who has performed, or performs regularly, knows that the bar is raised considerably higher as soon as you take your repertoire out of the comfort of your home and put it before other people. But by playing for others, we endorse all the lonely hours of practise and, more importantly, offer the music up for scrutiny. Sometimes in performance issues with a piece are revealed, which inform our practise when we go back to it, and sometimes really remarkable things happen, which create a special magic for performer and audience.

When I returned to my seat near the bar, to rapturous applause and whooping (that’s pretty potent too!), I felt excited. I had enjoyed every minute of my 35-minute set, and despite a slight mishap in the opening of the Liszt (note to self: don’t try something new in a familiar piece on the morning of a concert!), the pieces went well, and, by all accounts, communicated effectively to the audience. My friends and family were very complimentary, and a couple of members of Brasillieiro Big Band even came to congratulate me. I had rediscovered my ‘piano mojo’, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the piano and on with new repertoire. But the best part of the evening was my husband’s very evident delight and pride in my performance: he has been basking in my reflected glory ever since I received my LTCL results.

Glenn Gould recording ‘The Goldberg Variations’ at the Columbia Studios in New York in 1955

“The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them” (Alex Ross)

Occasionally when I’m at a concert, I hear people comment that the performance “wasn’t as good as his/her CD”. These comments seem tinged with disappointment, suggesting that the listeners were expecting a pristine performance in a silent-as-the grave venue.

I love the excitement of live music – and the whole concert-going experience, from the moment I arrive at the venue and join the throng of people in the foyer or bar, the air full of that eager hum of expectancy, and all the little “rituals” of concert-going: buying a programme, having drinks with friends, discussing the music we’re about to hear, slipping into the plush seats. Then the house lights dim and the adventure that is a live performance begins as the performer crosses the stage, bows to the audience, and takes his/her place at that big shiny black beast of a concert grand. Each performance is different, and it is this very uniqueness that makes live music so special.

Afterwards, when the final note of the last encore has faded and the house lights come up, we make our way out of the venue, sometimes talking excitedly about how wonderful the music was, or quietly digesting what we have just heard. As I wend my way home on the train, I try to retain a memory of the concert, not just of the music, but also the emotions and thoughts I experienced during the performance. If I am writing a review, I inevitably make some notes, just to jog the memory of key points. If I’ve been at a concert with friends, we might email one another the day after to discuss the aspects we really enjoyed (one particular concert-companion is very good at this, and her comments regularly find their way into my reviews and articles). All these things to contribute to the special memory of a live concert.

These days at concerts it is almost de rigeur to find CDs by the featured artist for sale at the performance. For many people, these recordings are, of course, a wonderful way of keeping the memory of the concert alive, purchasing a “souvenir” to take home, or simply buying another recording to add to a cherished collection. More often than not, the soloist is available to talk to/sign CDs afterwards, though I have sometimes had the distinct impression that the soloist would rather be quietly unwinding in the green room, away from people, or heading home for a shower and a good night’s sleep after a particularly effortful or intense performance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when recordings were relatively scarce, the activity of concert going was confined to a relatively small minority of cultured people (the Proms were conceived to bring classical music to a wider audience and to make music more accessible) and the symphonies of Beethoven, for example, could be heard only in a select few concert halls. And because of the scarcity of recordings, performers enjoyed much more freedom, in the way they rehearsed, presented and performed the music. For example, encores were often given between the movements of a symphony: audiences demanded encores, and received them, and there was nearly always applause between movements (a cardinal sin of concert etiquette these days!). With few or no recordings to bolster their career, performers made their living from, well, performing. Nowadays, the reverse is true, and performing for many performers has become an almost supplementary activity as a way of promoting CD sales, and the general received wisdom in the industry is that successful careers are made through recordings.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, recording technology has grown ever more sophisticated, allowing artists and orchestras to create performances which are quite alien to the performance in the concert hall. Alongside this, a certain “globalisation” of sound has taking place, almost as if all the rough edges and tics and distinctive national traits of earlier performances have been smoothed out, and even so-called “live” performances are subject to a degree of touching up. (‘Hattogate’ offered us some interesting insights into the craft, and craftiness, of the editor.) Incidentally, a performing artist active today, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, insists that all his recordings (and he has made relatively few during his long career) are genuinely live – one concert, one take ensuring that no two recordings are ever the same and retaining, as far as possible, the spontaneity of his live performances.

With the rise of high-quality recordings, and the ease with which they could be obtained, performers, ensembles and orchestras were forced to abandon the rather laissez-faire attitude to rehearsing and performing that had existed in an earlier age. Now they could compare performances of the same works by other performers around the world, and certain recordings by certain orchestras/conductors/soloists have become regarded as the benchmark against which other recordings are measured. This standardisation of sound meant that audiences demanded the same high-quality sound in live performances, and performers have been forced to adopt higher standards of technical facility, accuracy, consistency of presentation and an expressive focus that were unknown in the first half of the twentieth century.

This, of course, is no bad thing, and the quality of music one can hear on any given night in any concert hall around the world these days is testament to the high standards performers now set themselves, and similar high standards demanded by audiences and consumers of quality recordings. But it has also led, in my opinion, to a desire by certain audience members to hear an exact recreation of a recording in a live performance – something which is, of course, impossible, for no two live performances are ever the same. It is that spur-of-the moment spontaneity and element of risk that makes live music so exciting.

I have been to many concerts where a world-renowned pianist has fluffed a run or smeared a chord. I have witnessed memory lapses (perhaps the most painful thing to befall a pianist in a live concert), and cover ups for memory lapses. However, I am not the sort of ambulance-chasing concert-goer (and believe me, they exist!) who comes out of the venue glorying in the fact that I have spotted an error. As an occasional performer myself, I know how much these errors can hurt, and how much work one puts in after a performance to exorcise a memory lapse, or mistake. I have rarely felt that an error has “spoilt” a concert: usually the concert experience as a whole was so good, so emotionally engaging, so profound, that any small errors or slips were virtually invisible. Errors remind us that performers are also human, that they – and the music – live and breathe, that passion, involvement, communication, wit and humour rule over absolute perfection. I would far rather hear a performance that had all these very special elements, and the odd error, than a middle-of-the road, perfectly accurate, “safe” or sterile performance. And to those people who demand that kind of smoothed out perfection, I suggest you stay at home and listen to a recording. But beware, you’ll never recreate that excitement, the “aliveness” of the concert hall.

With the advent and increasing popularity of music streaming services such as Spotify, it is now possible to return to earlier recordings to recapture the sounds from another age, and to hear composers performing their own works (Spotify contains some wonderful archive recordings of Rachmaninoff and Ravel playing their own piano music – an incredibly useful resource). Music sharing platforms like SoundCloud offer a twenty-first century version of those early recordings as people post work-in-progress or tracks that were recorded away from the rigours and artificiality of the recording studio (some of my own tracks, recorded at home, have audible birdsong in the background). SoundCloud is also an easy-to-use way of promoting tracks from a new album, giving listeners a “taster” and offering inexpensive new marketing possibilities for performing artists of all genres.

The effect of recording on performers is the subject for a separate blog post.

Further reading

The Record Effect – Alex Ross

Performing Music in the Age of Recording – Robert Philip

A retrospective of music I’ve reviewed over the year. 2012 has been one of my busiest years as a concert-goer, not least because of my reviewing job for Bachtrack (since April 2011). This has enabled me to get to many more concerts, and I’ve heard a great range of performers (not just pianists) and repertoire. Where relevant, I’m including a link to my review.

January

Peter Jablonski at QEH: a bit hit and miss, this one. I felt Jablonski was far more comfortable in the jazz-oriented repertoire (Copland and Gershwin) and Barber’s Op 26 Piano Sonata. But I’m glad I went, because he was a pianist I was curious to hear. Review

February

Marc-André Hamelin, Wigmore Hall. Hamelin wowed me at the Proms last summer, in a late-night all-Liszt programme, and he did it again with an ambitious, athletic and highly varied programme of music by Haydn, Villa-Lobos, Stockhausen, and more Liszt. Definitely one of the highlights of my concert year. Review

Peter Donohoe, QEH. Peter showed how Debussy should be played in his performance of Estampes, and then went on to demonstrate the invention and intellect of Liszt in an absorbing and at times very personal performance of the first year of the Années de Pèlerinage. His concert closed with a coruscating Bartok Sonata. A fine concert by one of the UK’s most acclaimed pianists (and a thoroughly nice bloke too!) Review

Peter featured in my Meet the Artist interview series – read his interview with me here

March

Truls Mørk (cello) and Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Wigmore Hall. I love the lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore and quite often nip down there after work for an hour of quality music. Mørk and Buniatishvili came together to perform one of Beethoven’s most miraculous late works and Rachmaninov’s atmospheric and wide-ranging Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. Review

François-Frédéric Guy, QEH. A Frenchman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Beethoven, playing Beethoven. A sensitive opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, and a monumental and philosophical Hammerklavier. Sadly, the evening was marred by much throat-clearing and coughing from the audience, which did not go unremarked by the performer. This is a pianist I would definite hear again. Review

Leif Ove Andsnes, QEH. A pianist whom I much admire for his understated manner and ability to allow the music to speak for itself. An enjoyable mixed programme in which Andsnes moved seamlessly from the mannered classicism of Haydn through to the romance of Chopin, the percussion of Bartok and soundwashes of Debussy. Review

May

Yuja Wang, QEH. I went to hear Wang purely out of curiosity, for much has been written about her playing and her concert attire. It was an interesting concert, but I felt this artist needs to live with some of her repertoire for longer to fully appreciate it and communicate it to the audience. Review

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall. Another excellent lunchtime concert by another pianist who is able to put the music first before ego. Chopin, Debussy and Schumann followed by an enjoyable green room chat. Review

Leon McCawley features in my Meet the Artist series – read his interview with me here

Lars Vogt, QEH. Another rather mixed offering. Some charming pieces for children and an ill-judged approach to Chopin’s iconic Funeral March from the B-flat minor Sonata. And Vogt’s gurning was rather off-putting too. (Hear me talking about this concert in my podcast for Bachtrack). Review

July

François-Frédéric Guy & Jean-Efllam Bavouzet, Wigmore Hall. French elan and Russian avant-garde combined in a stunning lunchtime concert. The sparkling two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring certainly roused many elderly Wigmore regulars out of their post-lunch slumber! Review

L’Arpeggiata, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 3). An ensemble I have long admired on disc, it was a real treat to hear l’Arpeggiata live, and they did not disappoint with a lunchtime Prom of toe-tapping Baroque music enhanced by sensuous and energetic dancing. Review

August

Jennifer Pike (violin), Igor Levitt (piano) & Nicolas Alstaedt (cello), Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 4). Two duo sonatas and a trio in music by Debussy and Ravel. Exquisitely executed and presented. Review

September

Platinum Consort, King’s Place. I have been following Platinum Consort, a young choral octet, with interest after interviewing their director/founder, Scott Inglis-Kidger, and their composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, for my Meet the Artist series. At their King’s Place debut Platinum gave a faultless and highly absorbing performance of music by Renaissance and Baroque composers, new works by Richard Bates, and James MacMillan’s monumental Miserere. Review

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 8). Aimard impressed me in his first Liszt Project concert at QEH last winter – his intellect, his technical facility, his total immersion in the music – and he did not disappoint in a lunchtime recital of Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes. Review

October

Noriko Ogawa, Wigmore Hall. Another lunchtime at the Wigmore and a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. Noriko opened her concert with Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece I am working on myself for my LTCL programme. It was so arresting, so perfectly presented that I could have happily listened to endless repeats of the work. But Debussy’s Études were wonderful too, Noriko bringing a great range of colours and moods to the music. Review

Peter Donohoe, Sutton House. Peter opened Sutton House Music Society’s 2012-13 season with a programme called ‘Opus 1’, which allowed him to present works by Tchaikovsky and Schumann alongside pieces by Prokofiev, Bartok and Berg. Great to hear Peter again, at a delightful and intimate small venue Review

Benjamin Grosvenor, QEH. Grosvenor’s Southbank debut came hot on the heels of a host of awards, and, unsurprisingly, the venue was packed. I admit I have been avoiding Grosvenor, as the tag “prodigy” always worries me, so I heard him with a mixture of curiosity and repulsion. There were some fine moments in the concert, but I never really felt he caught fire and I feel he needs to mature as a performing artist. I hope that such significant early success does not lead to burn out and obscurity as Grosvenor grows up (it would be nice to think his career trajectory is akin to Kissin’s: we shall see…..). Review

November

Elena Riu, Sutton House. Another enjoyable trip to Hackney for ‘Inventions’, a fascinating juxtaposition of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions with inventions by contemporary composers, including Finch, Ligeti, Gulbaidulina and Lutoslawski. Review

Elena’s Meet the Artist interview

Metier Ensemble, The Forge. My first visit to this great little venue in Camden, which successfully combines an arts venue with a bar and restaurant in a purpose-built imaginatively designed space. Metier are a piano, flute and cello trio, and the programme of their ‘Keys and Coffee’ concert was perfect for a Sunday morning. Review

Meet the Artist: Elspeth Wyllie (pianist with Metier Ensemble)

Other musical highlights during this year include

Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy’s graduation recital at the Royal College of Music, in which McCarthy demonstrated that one hand playing can be as beautiful and subtle, powerful and dramatic as two; it was a great privilege to be invited to Nick’s recital. Review

My students’ concert at Normansfield Theatre, Teddington in May was a wonderful shared celebration of music-making and a tribute to all the hard work my students put in during the year.

Late Schubert piano music in Surrey, performed by an acknowledged Schubert expert, including the Moments Musicaux, Klavierstücke, and both sets of Impromptus. Review

Concert highlights to look forward to in 2013:

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall

Mitsuko Uchida, RFH

Quartet for the End of Time, QEH (with the Capuçon brothers)

Piotr Anderszewski, QEH

Steven Osborne/Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus, QEH

Since January 2012, I’ve also been reviewing exhibitions for Bachtrack’s sister site, One Stop Arts. You can find all my art reviews here

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“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.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

Recently, The Guardian published an article by Leo Benedictus on the subject of badly behaved audiences at theatre, film, concerts, and similar events. The article included a sort of ‘manifesto’ for audiences, with tips and advice on how not to behave. It is both amusing and true. I ran an informal poll amongst Twitter and Facebook followers, asking for people to submit their particular “audience irritations”. The best ones follow below:

People who sit behind and scratch their knees… An odd one I know, but sat in a tiered theatre their knees are at ear level!

Flash photography when one is performing – very distracting!

People talking through overtures is my worst bugbear. I was at South Pacific in Cardiff recently and it was so noisy throughout the overture, and the chap behind me constantly was singing and humming along to most of the songs and making comments….

At a Proms concert once, I saw a Prommer reading a John Grisham novel while Abbado conducting the Bruckner’s 9th symphony provided some no doubt pleasant background music.

Child unwrapping sweets during a Bach Suite… grrrrrr!

People who go to a concert with a cold! Sniffling every other minute. So distracting, inconsiderate and unhygienic!

Re. hummers, I remember childhood carol services at church where every year, without fail, one old man who couldn’t sing in tune to save his life would persist in joining in with the solo first verse of Once in Royal. Pity whichever poor child had been given that dubious privilege…

I was at a Chopin recital where the man next to me hummed tunelessly throughout Chopin’s last Piano Sonata (indeed, throughout the entire concert!). It reminded me of a sketch from ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ in which a certain concert-goer (Smith) hums throughout the performance. Another (Jones) becomes very irritated by this and starts shushing the hummer, only to be told by others around him: “Would you please be quiet? We have come here tonight specifically to hear Mr Smith humming!”

Because of the average age of its audience (very elderly), the Wigmore auditorium is often a cacophony of whistling hearing aids, snuffling, stentorian snoring, and – particularly at lunchtime recitals – satisfied, fruity farting (the sign of a good lunch in the Wigmore restaurant!)

My father’s first visit to Carnegie Hall was marred by a man in front of him who conducted, from his seat, with full score, throughout a Beethoven Symphony.

 

Please feel free to share your own particular “audience irritations” via the comments box!

Read Leo Benedictus’ article in The Guardian here

This afternoon is my annual student concert. On one level, this is simply a happy gathering of children, parents, family and friends, and an opportunity for my students to share and show off the music they have been studying recently. The programme, as always, is selected by my students, resulting in an eclectic mix of music, and an indication of the wide variety of repertoire we study. Each performer has chosen pieces which reflect his or her particular tastes and skills – surely the basis for any musician’s selection of repertoire?

On another level, the concert is about sharing music. A professional pianist, who I interviewed some years ago, described performing as “a cultural gift”: a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to hear the piano and its literature, a sharing of the music between soloist and audience. As a performer, one enjoys a huge responsibility, and privilege, rather like a conservator or curator, in presenting this wonderful music to others.

Performing is a very special experience, and one which I have come to relatively late in my musical career. As a pianist at school I was sidelined, encouraged to learn an orchestral instrument, and to recede into the relative anonymity of first desk clarinet. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, and I only played one festival in my teens (an excruciatingly awful experience). At the last school concert before I left to go to university, I was allowed to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata. Apart from that, ‘performing’ was limited to taking piano exams. My current teacher gave me the confidence and self-belief to perform, starting with the informal concerts which she hosts at the end of her twice-yearly piano courses. While not as nerve-wracking as playing in a ‘proper’ concert hall, these concerts have their own special atmosphere and attendant anxieties, but the nicest part is the sense that the audience is there because they love to hear piano music, and at every concert I’ve played at Penelope’s house, I’ve felt this important communication between performer and audience.

Of course, performing is not just about playing pretty pieces to other people. To be a performer, one needs to hone a stage personality which is different from the personality which encourages disciplined, focused practising day in, day out, to prepare repertoire for the performance (pianist and teacher Graham Fitch has blogged about this in detail – read his post here). While one’s onstage personality should never obscure the music, one should be able to present oneself convincingly to the audience – and not just through the medium of the music.

There are all sorts of ‘rituals’ involved in performing: travelling to the venue – by car, train or taxi; the clothes one wears; waiting in the green room (whether an elegant space such as at Wigmore Hall, or a dreary municipal cubicle); then waiting to go on stage, behind a door, or a plush velvet curtain, just offstage, pulse racing, real fear now passed, only excited anticipation, and enough adrenaline coursing through the veins to propel one onto the stage. Then the door opens, the curtain swings back, and the adventure of the performance has already begun as one crosses the stage. Applause: the audience’s way of greeting one, and, in return, a bow, one’s way of acknowledging the audience. And now, isolated at the keyboard, the full nine feet of concert grand stretched before one, ready to begin, the brief moment before starting a work resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, the performance cannot be withdrawn. It identifies the music, singles it out for scrutiny: it is irrevocable. All these things combined are the ‘adventure’ of performing.

Whether my students will have a sense of this ‘adventure’ this afternoon I am not sure. I know some are very nervous: one of my students has never performed in one of my concerts before, and to help with her anxiety, I have placed her near the start in the running order, so she can play her piece and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the occasion. Others, who have been learning with me almost as long as I’ve been teaching, betray no nerves and seem to actively enjoy the chance to ‘show off’ to family and friends. Some play with real chutzpah and flair, others prefer to simply play the notes, but each and every performance will be unique, special and memorable. I should probably remember to take some tissues!

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, where I hold my student concerts