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: http://practisingthepiano.com/?p=329. 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, www.practisingthepiano.com. 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.


www.practisingthepiano.com

http://www.grahamfitch.com

This incredibly useful article comes from Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano blog, which is full of sound advice and guidance for productive practising. This article chimed particularly with me, as this week I have been getting students, and myself, ready for our concert next weekend, and careful, attentive practice has been the watch word of my lessons recently.

We all have ‘black spots’ in music we are learning: sometimes these are not the most difficult passages, but such places need special attention to stop them becoming major problems, which can affect the overall continuity and flow of the music.

Read Graham’s excellent advice here

by Graham Fitch

I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and  was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back.

Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov.

One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a good mood. Sensing this, I asked him if he was OK and he pointed to a stack of scores on his desk, bemoaning the fact that he had been roped into learning it for the BBC and for concert engagements. It turned out to be by Frank Bridge, whose music at that time had fallen into neglect. The following week, I asked him how he was getting on with it. His face lit up and he enthused for many minutes on the undiscovered qualities of this music and how wonderful it was. Peter was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Bridge’s music, which rubbed off onto me. He immediately suggested I learn the two pieces “In Autumn” and I had much success with them. Among my prize possessions is Peter’s score of the sonata, littered in his inimitable way with crayon and pencil markings that only he could make sense of, certainly a testament to a practical musician!

I was officially registered for lessons with Peter at the Royal College of Music, but after a while my lessons moved from room 68 at the RCM to Peter’s home in Kensal Rise. Not only did I occasionally get to stay for tea and wonderful conversation with Peter and Anita (and Millie the cat), but my good fortune extended to lessons which went on all afternoon.  Three hours was the norm, always without a break, and usually on just one work. He gave of himself unstintingly and generously and as I was walking down his garden path after the lesson, I felt that I had been given the ultimate secrets to the music we had just worked on. This went way beyond a mere piano lesson. There was one time I took a very half-baked Beethoven’s op. 109 sonata along, and yet after my lesson felt that I could almost have deputised for Barenboim that very night, such was the completeness of my understanding of Beethoven’s message. There were many such experiences where I left having had more than a lesson, but a Gestalt of the music – an experience of the essence of the whole picture even though my playing of it might yet be primitive. Pieces that stand out are the Brahms-Handel Variations, Bartok’s Third Concerto, Mendelssohn’s “Variations Sérieuses”, some Debussy and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven…

It is difficult to describe how Peter taught. One thing I can say is he never, ever talked about piano playing as an activity in itself. His comments were always about the music. He would hear what I had brought in and would always give a totally honest appraisal of what he had heard. He was never one to mince his words, thus you could always rely on his reactions and comments as a very accurate barometer of how you’d done. If he didn’t like it, you would certainly know; if he did like it, he could ooze genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. You always knew where you stood with Peter.

Technical difficulties seemed to melt away, since through his lengthy verdicts and fabulous verbal descriptions of what he wanted to hear (he rarely demonstrated) you were literally infected with a mental and aural picture that left no doubt as to how the piece should go. There were so many times when, before he had finished talking, I was itching to play again because I knew exactly what he meant. After he had said what he needed, I would play again. What was difficult before now often wasn’t at all because I had an ultra clear picture of the sound, of the composer’s meaning. If you did ask for technical help – I mean specific pianistic help – he might even get annoyed. He really did not like talking about piano playing per se. Once I asked him what exercises he practised (I knew he had quite a warm-up ritual for himself). Again, he dismissed my question, saying that he did not want to burden me with it, nor did he like to do his dirty laundry in public.

There are SO many individual lessons I remember crystal clearly. During a lesson on op. 109 I missed a sforzando accent in the second movement and received a very painful dig in the ribs which taught me way better than words could have. Now, whenever I get to that place in the sonata, I feel a psychosomatic twinge of pain. There was the tail end of someone else’s lesson who crowed that he had managed to learn a Beethoven sonata in a week. Peter went red in the face and exploded: “How dare you say that! It took Beethoven months of time, sweat and blood to write that sonata, and you claim you can play it in one week!”. Another lesson that stands out for me was on a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After I finished he told me it was excellent and that he could not fault it. But I noticed a trace of disdain in his voice, and sure enough he said to stop it sounding sterile and boring, I had to find my own voice with the piece. When pushed, he made a few vague suggestions but would not be specific and it took a while before I figured out what he meant, that he expected me to take personal ownership of the piece.

Even after I had gone to America on my Fulbright Scholarship, I would return to Peter to play for him. I always received the same warm welcome and uncompromising advice. His influence is still with me to this day. I very often think of him, and I still miss him!

Graham Fitch is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, piano adjudicator, piano examiner, piano lecturer and writer/commentator on piano. www.grahamfitch.com

Obituary of Peter Wallfisch in The Independent