Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

The first in a series of guest articles exploring people’s personal responses to or relationship with Beethoven and his music.


Beethoven and me go back a long time. I recall precisely the first occasion I heard his music.

I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.

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During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – “Oh, I could play that!”, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)

You are going to read a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth. I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to grace the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away all the rules, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.

Readers of my blog, manuscriptnotes.com, will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. But if I had to single out the one composer who had, has, the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘”Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.”

Why so?

It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above says it all. His irascibility, temper, scruffiness, woeful love-life, manifold dwellings, poor personal hygiene are all well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, a particularly cruel infliction for a composer. All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality, the humanity, of a composer been so glaringly revealed in his output, whether symphony, concerto, sonata, choral work, or chamber. All his music speaks to us of life itself.

Lest you charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a form first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late, and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up this humanity more than any other piece I know.

Writing about music is notoriously difficult, and nothing demonstrates that better than this. The 5th movement, the Cavatina, does not have a tune per se that will leave you humming it later. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens you will want to submit to its profound and indescribable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its heart is a searing violin, the music soon enfolds you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. Half way through, there is a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a tear from the eyes of its composer.

Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t test anything out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before his death, you can feel the aching sorrow at his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.

If that consigns me to Pseud’s Corner, I go willingly.

 


Nick Hely-Hutchinson 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 and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Guest post by Erica Ann Sipes

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a musical mid-life crisis. I started playing music when I was five and went to music school for my undergraduate and graduate degrees but after that I opted for getting married and shelving my dreams of being a high-level performer. (These two things don’t have to go hand and hand but I decided to link the two.) As with so many people who study music throughout their lives, music has always played a huge role in my life. Without it I am simply not me. So along with playing my roles as wife, mother, library supervisor, and toystore manager, I have also always worn a musical hat; I’ve played for church and school choirs, accompanied students and professionals, and have been a practice coach to others. My musical mid-life crisis occurred several years ago, not because I wasn’t incorporating music into my life but because I wasn’t giving enough value to that musical hat. I was judging it against my immature notions of what I had always thought it meant to be a successful professional musician.

One of the problems with devaluing our musical hat’s worth is that it can often keep us from sharing our gifts and the gift of musicking* with others who need it – in other words, just about everyone. As I’ve engaged others in conversation both in person and on social media and as I’ve dealt with my own struggles, I have come to the worrying conclusion that too many of us aren’t sharing our gifts as much as we can and perhaps should, largely because of labels and misguided notions that make us question what we have to offer. Post-musical mid-life crisis, I am here to help redirect as many of us as I can to a healthier respect for our musical selves by looking at some typical devaluing roadblocks that we set up for ourselves and that can keep us from feeling confident that we have something to offer others as musicians. Here are a handful of these roadblocks:

  • I can’t deliver perfect, flawless performances.
  • I can’t easily perform by memory.
  • I can’t perform difficult, virtuosic music.
  • I like to perform music that’s not considered legitimate classical.
  • I don’t get invited to perform at the best venues or around the area, country, or world.

All these statements are ones that I myself can claim. A few years ago they would have driven me back into my shadows but now I gladly accept them because I realize I am no longer a child. With becoming an adult we can shed these expectations that for many of us aren’t possible or practical. We no longer need to use them as our measuring sticks for success because we can reframe them to motivate us rather than cripple us. Here’s some reframing in action:

  • Perfect, flawless performances are miracles, at least they are for me. And audiences rarely hear mistakes. What’s important to me is delivering the essence of a composition, its composer, and myself. If I can move the audience in some small way – to smile, to reminisce, to cry, to laugh, to dream – I have succeeded. 
  • There is no need to perform by memory unless I want to. These days, with the advent of iPads and page-turning pedals, with a flesh and blood page turner, or with a little paper and tape ingenuity, having music in front of me doesn’t make me any less of a musician. I’d rather perform with music than not performing at all because I’m not comfortable playing by memory.
  • I have small hands and have struggled throughout my life with overuse and misuse injuries so it’s not in my best interest to perform virtuosic works. There are plenty of amazing pieces out there to perform that can impress the audience but won’t jeopardize my body’s health.
  • I enjoy performing music of many different styles even though I’ve mostly received training in classical music. Jazz, ragtime, blues, minimalism, movie soundtracks…it just doesn’t matter. If I like what I’m playing I’m more likely to play it well. Audiences also like variety. If someone has an issue and doesn’t like something, oh well! There’s always going to be pieces on any given program that someone doesn’t like. And because I’m not a famous pianist I don’t have to worry about bad reviews.
  • There are wonderful venues in the most unexpected places and for me, personally, satisfaction comes more from the audience anyway. I’d rather play in a restaurant with a decent piano and an appreciative, engaged audience than I would a famous venue with an audience that isn’t receptive. Would I turn down an opportunity to play at a great hall? Of course not. But not being invited to perform at them does not meet I don’t have something to offer.

Ever since my musical mid-life crisis I have worked to move roadblocks from my life that keep me from doing what I love. I’ve also learned to take off my musical hat and to really look at it in order to evaluate its true value. Upon doing so, I’ve discovered my hat is in fact invaluable. Music brings me together with people and is a bridge to my communication with strangers, whether they’re in the audience or sharing the stage with me. Music gives me an outlet where I can tell my story. Music gives me a chance to prove to myself that I am a legitimate musician.

I strongly believe that there are more of us out there with these golden musical hats – we just need to get some dynamite and blast the roadblocks away…or chip away at them slowly if that’s more your style. As I’ve been doing that, I’ve been able to truly listen to and appreciate the feedback from audience members and what ’ve learned from them is how much music can heal, restore, and inspire others, myself included. I don’t think there’s a limit to how much of that the world can hold.

So let’s take another look at our musical hats, get rid of some roadblocks and grow up, shall we? The world needs you to.

 

* ‘Musicking’ is a term I got from Christopher Small’s wonderful book by the same name. A definition of the term that I love can be found in the abstract for one of his articles in the Journal of Music Education Research: Musicking is part of that iconic, gestural process of giving and receiving information about relationships which unites the living world, and it is in fact a ritual by means of which the participants not only learn about, but directly experience, their concepts of how they relate, and how they ought to relate, to other human beings and to the rest of the world. These ideal relationships are often extremely complex, too complex to be articulated in words, but they are articulated effortlessly by the musical performance, enabling the participants to explore, affirm and celebrate them. Musicking is thus as central in importance to our humanness as is taking part in speech acts, and all normally endowed human beings are born capable of taking part in it, not just of understanding the gestures but of making their own.”


14Erica Ann Sipes, pianist, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music. She has been an adjunct faculty member at Radford University and at the Governor’s School for the Arts, and has freelanced as a piano collaborator and coach in Michigan, Idaho, and Virginia. For the past two years she has led the piano intensive program at the Roanoke Youth Orchestra’s Summer Institute.  She has also performed with the Roanoke Symphony on occasion and has performed as a piano soloist with the New River Valley Symphony.  In the summer of 2012 Erica officially launched her own business as a practice coach, Beyond the Notes, offering coachings, workshops, planning sessions, and practice boot-camps for anyone that could use some help with practicing.

Erica can often be found talking about practicing, piano, and music or livestreaming her practice sessions on Twitter (@ericasipes). She has also been a prominent blogger, writing frequently about her views on performing, learning music, and the classical music world in general.  Her blog, “Beyond the Notes” can be found at http://ericaannsipes.blogspot.com.

Guest post by Madeline Salocks

Decades later, I recall my first piano performance in front of a large audience as if it occurred only a few years ago. I was in college, and, with another student who I’ll call Michael, had worked up the Beethoven G minor sonata for piano and cello. Wondering if we could take it beyond the practice room, we’d auditioned to perform in a well-attended campus concert series, and had been thrilled to be selected. With the good news, we’d stepped up our rehearsing, and had availed ourselves of expert coaching from our respective noted teachers.

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By the time the concert was fast approaching, we were ready. But, once the countdown had progressed from weeks to days to just hours, you’d have thought I was about to make a Carnegie Hall debut I was so keyed up.  The entire night before the concert, I tossed and turned in varying states of dread, the quiet darkness enabling my swirling thoughts. How did I ever get myself into this? What if I play fistfuls of wrong notes all over the place? What if I freeze and have to leave the stage, disappointing not only myself, but worse yet, Michael, who is depending on me to play my part? And on and on it went. After hours of this, I began to see the dawn easing in gently through the gauzy white curtains of my bedroom window. I hadn’t slept one minute, but I still had plenty of energy–nervous energy. A little later, the bright spring day brought marginal relief, but I still wished it were some other day. Do I have to do this? Yes, you do! I passed through a few more fretful hours, and then the moment arrived. Alex, in a yellow button-down shirt and gray dress pants, and I, in a long blue and yellow flowered skirt and blue top, stood waiting in the wings, looking through the stage entrance across a wide-open expanse of wooden flooring at the Steinway grand piano, and the chair and music stand in front of it. Michael smiled, perhaps through jitters of his own. But I, feeling as if I were perched on the edge of a cliff, wasn’t smiling, and practically had to be pushed out on stage.

As we started the piece and my fingers shakily navigated the notes I’d spent so many hours drilling, every sound and sensation was magnified, and at the same time the very familiar score in front of me suddenly looked less familiar. Doubts pushed their way in front of the music. What am I doing here? I feel like a fraud! I clung on in autopilot, but would the autopilot be reliable all the way through? Moving past the introductory Adagio Sostenuto ed Espressivo and into the Allegro Molto Piu Tosto Presto, the opportunities for mishap seemed to increase tenfold. So many notes, so fast–I feel like a runaway train! But I hung on. Then, a few pages in, settling down a bit, I began to play some of the phrases less automatically and with more in-the-moment intention, although I still tightened up here and there. Maybe I can get through this. My fingers continued rippling across the keys, through the driving cascades of the Allegro Molto and then through the sparkling passagework of the effervescent Rondo Allegro.

In the end, my sleepless night and apprehensions notwithstanding, the performance was pretty good—about a B in comparison to our best, considering various aspects—accuracy, expression, ensemble. After the clapping died down and we returned back stage, we were both smiling this time, pleased with the outcome and feeling a sense of accomplishment. But my nerves had done their best to derail me, and it was only because I’d been so thoroughly well-rehearsed that I’d been able to still turn in a decent showing. There’s a reason for the adage that there’s no substitute for practice.

Fortunately, since then, I’ve never been affected by performance nerves to the point of missing an entire night of sleep. And on occasion I’ve felt genuinely comfortable performing. But usually I find myself somewhere along the performance nerves scale (excluding zero).

It’s as if your mind’s evil twin swoops in and says, “Ha! Let’s see how you do now!” as it tries to sabotage your hard work by revving you up, planting what-if thoughts, pulling away your focus–or the opposite, heightening your awareness of too many details, and, at the same time, making your hands shaky, sweaty, sticky, ice cold, stiff, or some combination of those sensations. Bringing distraction on the mental side and technical constraints on the physical side, and impeding flow on both sides. Furthermore, the precision required in classical music, with little leeway and no opportunity to pause or “play it by ear”, makes things worse.

What causes stage fright? For some, it could be perfectionism. For others, it could be fear of being judged. For me, it’s that I want the end result—all coming down to this one moment, with no warm-ups or re-starts possible—to be worthy of the time I’ve invested, and at least in the “ballpark” of whatever I’ve managed to achieve. And the fight or flight part of my brain doesn’t seem to like the uncertainty that anything can happen during that one chance. More so, I want the end result to be worthy of the audience’s time, even though, when in the audience myself, I’ve seen other musicians become noticeably out of sync, play those fistfuls of wrong notes, or even stop and regroup, and yet I’ve never thought the concert wasn’t worth my time. In fact, I’ve respected their soldiering on despite a glitch, enjoyed the performance, and left with an overall positive impression. So why wouldn’t I allow myself the same latitude? It’s a good question without an easy answer.

If I’m playing with others, which is usually the case, the biggest stage fright trigger is my fear of letting the other musicians down. They’ve invested a lot of time too, and surely want an outcome that’s at least reasonably representative of the work they’ve put in just as much as I do. I don’t want to throw a wrench into their performance.

So why perform? Because I believe in the tradition of live music. Since I’ve spent a lot of time learning to play an instrument, it makes sense that I put it to use and make a contribution with it.

In my college years studying piano, I found surprisingly little written on the topic of stage fright. And people didn’t freely discuss it–almost as if the subject was taboo. An admission of performance nerves seemed like an admission of inadequacy or unworthiness. Assuming (erroneously) that everyone else was, if not unflappable, then at least far more easy-going than I about performing, I felt isolated. If I asked a teacher or a coach, I might get a blank look, as if stage fright were a foreign concept, then, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” This was useless. Other responses were, “Pretend the people in the audience are in their underwear,” or, “It’s just a matter of concentrating.” These too were useless, and as for the latter, this tip was also ironic, since one of the very things stage fright can cause is a problem with concentration. The teachers were well meaning, but unprepared to guide in this aspect. And perhaps those particular teachers had been, luckily for them, relatively free of nerves in their own performances.

But now, stage fright is freely discussed, and recognized as very common, from beginning students to the most seasoned world-class musicians, including the likes of Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Emanuel Ax (New Yorker). Many books have been written, the Internet is full of blogs and articles (a particularly good example being The Bulletproof Musician website), and some music schools and departments have classes to help.

I’m still an occasional performer, and always open to ideas for reducing performance nerves, so I’ve read plenty of material and tried various suggestions over the years. Following is a roundup of my personal anecdotal experience with many of them, and a brief assessment of their effectiveness in decreasing my level of nervousness, to the extent that I’ve been able to recognize.

These anti-stage fright suggestions have produced no positive effect on performance nerves in my personal experience, although some are good practices for other reasons:

  • Eat a banana shortly before the performance. Bananas are rich in B vitamins and magnesium, which are associated with calming the nervous system and promoting a positive mood. However, I suspect the potential dose of tranquility in a banana is far too miniscule to have any chance against the powerful presence of the stage fright beast.
  • Limit caffeine the day of the performance. Saying no to coffee or tea for several hours before the performance won’t lessen jitters, but it’s obviously sensible to avoid exacerbating them.
  • Eat a light healthy meal no closer than 2 hours before the performance. This is sensible because a large meal ahead of the concert, no matter how healthy, would likely produce a negative impact on cognitive function due to blood being diverted from the brain to the stomach for digestion.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day of the performance. This too is sensible since dehydration can also have a negative impact on cognitive function.
  • Connect with the audience just before the performance. Chatting with people before the concert or making eye contact with someone in the audience just before playing is nice to do, but here too I’ve found no connection between it and lessened performance nerves.

The next suggestions have produced no obvious positive effect on performance nerves in my personal experience, but I believe they might be helpful, even if only subtly or imperceptibly:

  • Take a walk or otherwise exercise moderately on the day of the performance. Since there seems to be no debate on the benefit of exercise for stress reduction overall, I assume this can have a slight positive effect on performance nerves, especially if it’s a regular habit and not just done on the day of the performance.
  • Practice meditation. Once, as part of my preparation for a concert, I took a 6-week meditation class and then continued practicing meditation every day for the remaining two months prior to a performance of particularly difficult music. Perhaps my meditation sessions weren’t long enough or the three and a half month duration wasn’t sufficient, because, as it turned out, the level of jitters at the concert was about the same as usual. Still, as with exercise, given the volumes written on meditation and stress reduction, I believe it should be considered as potentially beneficial for performance nerves, even if its effectiveness may vary with the individual.
  • Make a fist with your left hand and hold for a few seconds just before performing. The act of making a fist with the left hand is thought to activate the brain’s right hemisphere and thereby counter overthinking, one of the features of performance nerves. Studies have been done on athletes with success, and I’ve occasionally noticed professional tennis players do it. I haven’t detected any difference when I’ve tried it myself, and I also wonder if the desired state is sustained though a piece of music. But it’s certainly easy enough to do.

These suggestions have produced a very modest yet noticeable positive effect on performance nerves for me:

  • Turn negative self-talk positive. I’ve heard it said that self-talk can change belief, and I’ve also heard it said that self-talk is ineffective without underlying belief, which sounds paradoxical. I look at it as reinforcing an idea in which one can at least entertain some belief. If I catch adverse self-talk when it comes up (typically on the day of the performance, or even the day before) and turn it into something positive but at the same time realistic (and believable), it helps to avoid the extra shot of jitters that come from self-doubt and adverse predictions. For example, “This is just a thought. It may be worrisome and unpleasant, but it’s not a predictor. I’ve practiced well, so chances are good the concert will go well.” A common recommendation is to reframe “I’m nervous” to “I’m excited”, which might work for some people.
  • Breathe deeply with a controlled technique. I like to incorporate this well-known anti-stress measure in general anyway, using the Weil 4-7-8 breathing technique (Weil). When a performance is about to go on, the deep breathing certainly doesn’t usher in total relaxation, but it helps.
  • Centre. This technique is based on deep breathing but adds additional steps of finding a physical center, visualizing the release of negative thoughts from the center (described, for example, as an imagined ball being thrown, or a balloon rising up, or even a laser beam of energy directed to a far point), and then affirming positive intention or affirmation. Admittedly, the effectiveness of the ball/balloon/laser beam part has eluded me. But, I find the rest useful as basically a combination of deep breathing and positive self-talk.

The next suggestions are concerned with boosting confidence from having already “been there”, thereby automatically reducing the nerves to some extent for the next performance, and, in my experience, are clearly helpful:

  • Record. Turning on a recorder can bring out performance nerves just as if an audience dropped down into the room, especially if it’s a recorder in a professional studio, but even a phone recorder will do. It feels like a performance, and is a performance, except that the audience is a microphone. Also, recording the piece under less-than-optimal conditions, some of which could be the case at the concert, is useful because it makes me realize I don’t have to have my usual comfortable environment in order to play. Possibilities include: a too hot or too cold ambient temperature, poor lighting, noise, and especially, lack of warm-up since, more often than not, there’s little or no chance for warming up at a concert.
  • Arrange trial performances. There’s nothing like actually performing the program to build confidence. A home concert works well, and, for me, even a one-person audience counts. A potential added benefit of the trial performance is that it can reveal areas that need more attention.
  • At this point, I should mention visualization, which some would put in the same category as the two above, suggesting that visualizing playing a successful performance (complete with audience clapping) results in the same kind of memory as playing an actual successful performance, thus boosting confidence and reducing nerves from having “been there”. I’m aware that studies have shown visualization does lay down neural pathways similar to real action. So, in theory, visualization of a successful performance should plant a desirable imprint in the brain. But, I cannot personally attest to its effectiveness from my own experience, although it’s possible I haven’t tried it enough, or my visualizations haven’t been vivid enough. (However, as an aside, I can say with confidence that visualizing playing a piece in detail is helpful for knowing it better, particularly a memorized piece, performance nerves or no performance nerves.)

The next anti-stage fright suggestion, in a different category, is also clearly helpful in my experience:

  • Beta-blockers. These require a doctor’s prescription and may not be medically appropriate for some people. And some might not like the idea. But, for me, Propranolol is definitely helpful for lessening shaking hands, somewhat helpful for reducing sweaty palms, and occasionally (but not reliably) marginally helpful for mentally staying in the moment–although the benefit is almost entirely on the physical side.

In addition, I offer two more ideas that go back to the practicing–but with an eye to performance nerves. These suggestions don’t decrease performance nerves per se, but having done them in practice can be of some help when performance nerves crop up.

  • Improve preparations. I’m not talking about thorough preparation of the piece in the general sense, although clearly that’s important. Here, I’m talking about hand preparations at a detailed level. One of the aggravating symptoms of performance nerves during the concert is the feeling of being stiff and stuck, in contrast to a relaxed practice session where it can often feel like there’s all kinds of time to move from note to note with ease and flow. Because of this feeling that there’s plenty of time to move about, I might have drilled in a habit of, for example, moving from a certain chord to the next chord at the last moment, which works fine as long as I’m relaxed. But, in performance, if my hands and fingers feel semi-paralyzed, as if they’re up against a mini headwind, moving from that first chord to the next can be more of a frantic scramble. Anticipating that possibility, I can add a bit of “insurance” with a slightly adjusted gesture where I move to the second chord sooner. There are many variations on this concept, including more efficient hand positions and fingering adjustments. I’ve found it helpful to go through the piece well before the performance and look for places where I can improve motion between notes and positioning, all toward the goal of better preparations. Plus, and this can be harder to detect, I sometimes find spots where I’m mentally lagging or sticking to a spot in my head rather than moving forward. Ideally I’d be efficient with good anticipation everywhere in the piece from the start, both physically and mentally–but I always find room for improvement when I devote time to examining a piece with that purpose in mind.
  • Consciously notice details. Another aggravating stage fright symptom during the concert is suddenly noticing details that have been relegated to the background and trusted since earlier stages of working on the piece. Once I look at a phrase or a bar, or even a portion of a bar, in a different way than before, I’m thrown off, and, as the music goes on, I must quickly regroup. One way to help reduce the surprise of details coming out of the woodwork and grabbing my attention is to include some practice starting at odd places. Another is to continue to include, all the way up to the concert, slow deliberate practice with close attention on the “trees”, as long as there is still plenty of at-tempo practice with attention on the “forest”.

And one final suggestion.

Accept the nerves.

As in much of life, accepting “what is” is important, and sometimes that means being willing to feel uncomfortable. Accepting and acknowledging nerves doesn’t make them go away, but removes the compounded fear of the fear—the extra dose of nerves arising from resisting them.

Since my assessment of the performance nerves suggestions isn’t a methodical study with conditions set up perfectly, it’s of course imprecise. Each performance situation is different in terms of the music, the venue, other people involved, and general wellbeing at the time, as well as other life factors that can play in. Plus, if I’ve incorporated more than one suggestion, it’s hard to be sure which ones have helped and how much. It comes down to perception. Still, overall, in my personal experience with this ongoing process, although I’ve found nothing remotely close to a panacea, or with what I’d call a huge impact, I’ve come to believe there are additional measures that can help my chances, at least to some degree, against the stage fright beast who is likely to show up.

Resources:

Weil. Three Breathing Exercises and Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

New Yorker. I Can’t Go On! Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/03/i-cant-go-on


Madeline Salocks is a San Francisco Bay Area-based software and web developer who also enjoys playing chamber music and teaching piano.

 

 

 

Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

Beethoven is unlikely to have collected too much water in his ear, for his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the loss of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when he was completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.


This article originally appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s Manuscript Notes site.


Nick Hely-Hutchinson 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 and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

RudiB3Guest post by Michael Johnson

The latest edition of the Aix Music Festival brought a stellar array of singers, pianists, instrumentalists and orchestras to Aix-en-Provence, near Marseille this year. Co-founder and violinist Renaud Capuçon tells me the festival has become the realization of a dream he has nurtured since childhood.

A highlight was Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder who played the five Beethoven piano concertos while conducting the Sachsische Staatskapelle of Dresden from the keyboard. He accomplished this in a single day, showing no sign of strain, a remarkable feat for a player of 72 years of age.

On the day before he was to play his back-to-back concertos, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the “Teddy Bar” of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his age, his stamina, his piano preferences, and his love for Beethoven. He was relaxed and cheerful and spoke freely. He dismissed his marathon feat of keyboard conducting as “nothing special”.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Q. You probably don’t like this term “marathon” to describe your five Beethoven concertos in one day, do you?

A. Actually, a solo recital is much worse than playing the five. Even practicing for four hours is much worse. (Snorts) I once played the two Brahms concertos in one evening!

But you also conduct from the keyboard. That must be stressful, leading this collection of prima donnas….

This is nothing special. Before, everybody did it. Beethoven did it. I conduct with my eyes, with my mouth, a little bit with my hands. I have done it 500 times in my life. It’s a different kind of concentration. The players have to listen.

You have played the five concertos before in one day.

Yes, in 2011 I did it with the Vienna Philharmonic.

You are not intimidated by such a large task?

No. Why should I be ?

Well, because there are a lot of notes!

Oh no. The secret of piano playing is simple. You just have to touch the right notes at the right time. That’s it. (Laughs)

Do you have to prepare yourself for these five ? Do you review the scores prior to the concert?

No, this time I left the scores at home in Vienna. I don’t need them.

Really? You have them all in your head ? How many times have you played these concertos?

Over 200 times for No. 1, and probably a hundred or more for the others. No. 1 was my first big concert. I was 11 years old, in Vienna, dressed in short pants. (Laughs)

In what order you play them?

I play 2, 3, 4 in the first concert, and 1 and 5 in the evening. Because 1 and 5 are the longest. No. 1 has a longest slow movement.

Do you have a favourite among the five?

No. If I had a favorite, I could not play the others. It’s my problem. I have to love all of them. Each concerto is so completely different.

Aren’t they derived from Mozart’s piano concertos in certain passages ? Tovey wrote of “several examples of Mozart” that appear in No. 1. These two geniuses were rivals.

People say the first two concertos are influenced by Mozart but that’s not true. They have nothing to do with Mozart. It’s all about Beethoven. Beethoven didn’t think about Mozart. In fact, he hated Mozart. When he came to Vienna, Mozart was God. Beethoven was always jealous. It took him a long time to be as popular. People also try to make three periods in the Beethoven sonatas. Wrong. He had his ups and downs throughout this life.

Aren’t the Beethoven cadenzas a special feature of these concertos?

Not really. In 1809 or1810 Beethoven wrote all the cadenzas for his concertos. He just sat down and wrote them, one after another. He wrote three cadenzas for his No 1. There actually was one connection with Mozart. Beethoven wrote the cadenza for K466, the D-minor, because Mozart didn’t write this one. He improvised onstage.

Here Buchbinder plays the D-minor concerto with the Beethoven cadenza:

(interview continues after the video)

When you play the concertos, do you use Beethoven’s cadenzas or do you write your own?

Only Beethoven’s. Of his three cadenzas for No. 1, the first one is the best one but was left unfinished so I use some parts of the second and third cadenza to fill it out. They fit perfectly.

Are you the only pianist who plays around with cadenzas like this?

I think so. As far as I now, I am the only pianist to combine the cadenzas into one.

You compose cadenzas for other concertos but you do not use your own for the Beethoven concertos?

No… only Beethoven’s. They are not so bad, you know (Laughs).

I am fascinated that you can carry all these five concertos in your head.

Oh, this is only a part of my repertoire.

A personal question about your stamina. At age 72, can you play all five without worrying about fatigue or anxiety?

I admit that I am very nervous. The older I get, the more nervous I get. As a young man, I used to walk on stage confidently (Mimes confident posture, as if marching on stage.)

You don’t worry about this increasing nervousness?

No. No. Backstage, I don’t think about the concert that is coming. When I come onstage, I have cold fingers. A few seconds later, at the keyboard, I am back to normal.

Do you worry about memory lapses?

No. This should never happen. I am very secure. Well, maybe a little bit in K466.

You have said you want to die on the keyboard. Is this true?

Yes, like Wilhelm Backhaus. After two movements of a Schubert Impromptu he left the stage, then returned to play the same thing over again. It was his favourite. He was very ill and knew this would be his final performance. After his Schubert, he was taken to hospital where he died.

Do you have ten years left, or twenty, like Paul Badura-Skoda, who is still playing in his 90s?

Look. I have to play. But I only play when I am able to concentrate. I have always practiced only two hours a day, and sometimes I don’t touch the piano for one week. I am active. I just signed exclusive contract for Deutsche Grammophon.

Is playing getting more difficult or easier?

The Brahms concertos are much easier for me now than ten years ago. I played the Tchaikovsky First with Valery Gergiev maybe five or six times and also Rachmanninov.

Critics and other experts like to identify Beethoven’s development from Classical composing to a more Romantic style. Where does this begin to show?

This is stupid. The first one is Romantic. Beethoven always went up and down throughout his life. Beethoven was the most romantic composer in music history. He is the only composer who writes espressivo a tempo. Nobody else. He leaves the freedom to the interpreter.

Your views are fascinating because they are so individual. Is this a freedom that you can express now because of your age and experience? Does this empower you to say what you really think, regardless of other opinions?

You know the late Joachim Kaiser? We knew each other very, very well. He forced me … he said to me, “Rudi, you have to record the Beethoven sonatas again.” After 30 years interval I did them again for Sony in Dresden and then again at the Salzburg Festival. Thirty years ago I was not “free” like this.

And when did you feel this freedom arrive?

AYou cannot control it. It comes by itself. Like in the Hammerklavier, you play fast (Sings the opening phrase, loudly and vigorously like B-DUM PATA DUM PATA DUMDUM). You play those first seven or eight bars by the metronome, and then you are free. Beethoven writes everything very clearly. After that introduction he keeps the pedal. That makes a big difference. Many players do not have those freedoms today. They are afraid.

What about phrasing?

Beethoven writes rinf forzando (slurring), for the whole phrase. Only Brahms also used rinf. The alternative is fortepiano, which is short, like a mosquito bite.

But you have the discovered the freedom. Aren’t you afraid of criticism?

I have no problem with criticism if the critic declares what is right and what is wrong. What I don’t like is the critic who says, for no reason, “It was too fast.”

You always choose Steinways for your concerts. Why not a Viennese Bösendorfer?

Of course Vienna was very proud of Bösendorfer. But the tone to me is much too sharp, too harsh. Bösendorfer makes its own sound. I want to make the sound myself.

“Too glassy”, as some pianists say?

The point is that Steinway is the most neutral of all pianos. By this I mean that nothing comes from the piano, the way it is built. You must treat a woman like the Steinway, it’s the same. When you treat them good, they respond good. What you give, it comes back. I want to make the sound. You can play soft, you can pay lyrically, espressivo. The range is much bigger.

You say you have projects coming from Deustche Grammophon. For example?

In October, I will start a cycle of the Beethoven concertos. No. 1 with Andris Nelsons. No. 2 with Maris Janssons with Bavarian Radio. No. 3 with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic. No. 4 with Theileman Andriessen and the Staatskappelle. No. 5 with Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. All to be published by Deutcsche Grammophon. It’s a nice cycle. It will appear in about two years. We also have other plans.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

Portrait of Rudolf Buchbinder by Michael Johnson

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Guest post by Samantha Ege

“Remember it’s about connection not perfection.”

Those were the words of my coach and mentor Deborah Torres Patel. I had just told her about one of my first international lecture-recitals. The lecture had gone well, but the recital had been an absolute disaster. Actually, that wasn’t true—it wasn’t a disaster at all. Yes, my playing had been more nervous than usual, but “disaster” was definitely an exaggeration. I had received sincere compliments, encouragement and gratitude for my scholarly and pianistic contributions. But in my post-performance ritual of dramatizing the worst, re-imagining all the ways in which I could and should have played perfectly, and re-living all of the ways in which I did not, it was an absolute disaster.

About a year after this experience, a video surfaced. It was the trailer for the 2018 Women Composers Festival of Hartford where my lecture-recital had taken place. The trailer contained a short excerpt from my recital that cut to the lyrical second theme of Florence Price’s Sonata in E minor (first movement). It wasn’t bad! Festival Director Penny Brandt showed me the yet to be released full film that featured more of my playing. There was no sign of the disastrous performance I thought I had delivered. In fact, I heard my playing quite differently to how I had experienced it in the moment. Time had allowed me to zoom out and actually appreciate what I brought to the music in that performance. But I wished I could have felt this appreciation back then, and not just in retrospect.

I thought about Deborah’s words again. “Connection not perfection.” What kind of anticipation might I have built pre-performance if I had truly prioritized communication over self-consciousness? What kind of delivery might have unfolded if I had centred my connection to the music over the perfection of the notes. How might I have experienced the immediate aftermath of the recital if I had fully absorbed the audience’s response rather than becoming entangled in a web of personal disappointment? The idea of connection bore so many implications and in this moment of reflection, I was inspired to dig deeper and explore its many layers.

As a pianist-scholar who champions music by women, it is my goal to do the music justice and leave a lasting impression upon the listener. As much as I enjoy the academic side of writing and research, I feel that my work is not complete until I bring the music to life through performance. In those moments, I hope to perform in a way that captures how I felt when I first heard Althea Waites play Florence Price, or Virginia Eskin play Vítězslava Kaprálová because it was connection rather than perfection that drew me in and inspired me to make this repertoire my own.

As I look back on past performances, I try to apply what I wish I had known or felt then to the present. There is something so daunting, yet so liberating about playing repertoire that doesn’t carry the weight of heavily scrutinized performance histories. Indeed, the daunting side always seems so readily present while the liberating side requires a lot more pursuit. Still, they go hand in hand: the repertoire is daunting exactly because it is liberating. In championing under-represented composers, I have found incredible freedom as a pianist; oftentimes, my performances present first-time listening experiences for many, and even world premières—no pressure! But I know that this freedom will not transpire in the moment of performance unless I remember “it’s about connection not perfection.”


Samantha-16Samantha Ege is a British scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. As a concert pianist, Ege’s focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US Ege has also championed Florence Price’s repertoire alongside violinist Er-Gene Kahng with duo recitals in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.

Ege released her debut album in May 2018 with Wave Theory Records, entitled Four Women: Music for solo piano by Florence Price, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Ethel Bilsland and Margaret Bonds. The album featured the world première recording of Bilsland’s The Birthday Party, which led to Ege preparing an edition of the suite, now published by Faber Music. Four Women has been described as “an impressive collection…performed with virtuosic assurance.” Ege has also been commended “for her goal to bring the music of these composers to greater public awareness.”

Website: www.musicherstories.com