Guest post by Joanna Wyld

I recently enjoyed a concert in the rejuvenated Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank Centre; ‘An Evening with Danielle de Niese’ in which the soprano was joined by a host of other stars: Menahem Pressler, Sir James Galway, Mark Simpson, and the Navarra Quartet. The concert was memorable for reasons too numerous to detail here, but, alongside the purely musical elements of the occasion, I was struck by the fact that the programmes sold out.

Before the concert, the QEH kiosk queue (try saying that after an interval drink) was considerable and, alarmed by the increasing urgency of the announcements that the concert would start at any moment, I went into the hall, expecting to pick up a programme in the interval (it just so happens I’d written the programme notes, so I knew the works and running order already). At the interval I duly tried again to obtain the elusive programme, but was told by the QEH staff that they’d run out. They took my name and address, along with those of several other audience members hoping for a copy to be sent to them afterwards. Then, after the concert was over, I noticed that people were still giving their names to staff, wanting a programme even after any immediate necessity for one had passed.

So what? You might ask. Things sell out all the time. Gig tickets snapped up by touts. Almond croissants in cafes. Those leisure trousers you’d hoped to snaffle in the sale. But the significance here, especially for someone who writes programme notes, is that it demonstrates the real value of concert programmes to audiences. For some, it will have been a tangible souvenir of a combination of artists not likely to be seen together again. But concert tickets alone are a souvenir, so there must be more to it than that.

Programmes have a tactile appeal; they have gloss and weight, a sensual pleasure akin to a well-bound book. They tell us about the artists – yes, you can look up biographies on the internet, but it’s so much better to have all the information in one place, to browse during the concert or on the train home. And they contain the programme notes, those insights into the music and the composers, the song texts and translations. For many, a programme is essential during a concert, but it’s also a joy to happen upon at a later date, an aide memoir discovered whilst tidying a bookshelf. By that time, perhaps years later, one might well have forgotten the details of the concert, but finding the programme again brings to life the whole experience, reminding us of the artists and music we heard, animating faded, ghostly memories with fresh colour and life.

The need for programmes has been called into question in recent years. There are those who suggest that artists should speak about the music beforehand, as a replacement for programme notes. I’m not against this idea for those artists who wish to; it can be a pleasure to hear from musicians if they feel like engaging with the audience verbally as well as musically. But not all artists wish to do this, and there are language barriers to be considered, too. I heard James Rhodes perform a couple of years ago and he began with his own spoken programme notes. Rhodes is a great example of how this approach can work: personal, humorous, engaging. But, whilst I remember enjoying what he had to say, I remember his playing much more vividly. His words are harder to recollect now, not because they weren’t well communicated – they were – but, perhaps, because memory (my memory, at least) responds differently to visual and aural experiences. The nature of memory is far too complex to delve into here and is hardly my area of expertise, so I recognise that and it would be unfair to extrapolate a general principle from one experience. But perhaps the convention of hearing music and reading words has evolved because this is the way our brains best assimilate each facet of the concert. If one reads the score and listens to someone talking about it, it’s a lecture, not a concert; the visual and aural aspects of music are not straightforwardly interchangeable.

I overheard a woman at a conference recently dismissing programme notes as “boring”. Now, I took this with a pinch of salt, as people at conferences very often want to sell things to each other, and I imagine that whatever she wanted to sell was an alternative to the “boring” notes she mentioned. But it’s a nonsensical statement, too easily articulated in an age of poor attention spans; like saying that newspapers are boring on the basis of one article that didn’t immediately grip you, or that all food is boring because of one dish of overboiled Brussels sprouts. I cannot imagine someone talking of theatre programmes with the same dismissive attitude. For plays or musicals, programmes are a must, and to imply that classical concerts are fusty by including them is part of a wider trend in how classical music is sometimes discussed: self-flagellating, hand-wringing, terribly worried we’re not accessible enough, not fun enough. Whilst I agree that the accessibility of classical music to as wide an audience as possible is of real importance, there is a risk of creating a vicious cycle: the more we repeat those fears, without anything constructive offered as an answer, the more they risk being absorbed as insurmountable fact. Whereas if we believe in music as its own reward and act on that belief, many will discover it for themselves without needing to be apologised to or persuaded. Music writers are amongst the most devoted and enthusiastic out there; usually, if you take the trouble to read our efforts, you’ll be rewarded.

Programme notes can be fascinating because music, and musicians, are fascinating. I still love writing about music after 15 years of this kind of work, not only because of my own love of the music, but because it’s a real joy imagining that my writing might increase the pleasure of a listener; that it might entertain, move, amuse, or even, on a good day, induce goosebumps. Composers themselves are wonderfully helpful in providing these moments: flawed, eccentric, passionate, their words can be almost as delightful as their music. One of my favourites was a letter found in a library book (shout out to Bromley Library, to whom I owe a huge debt) when I was writing for a concert of music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Shostakovich had written to Prokofiev, who was reaching the end of his life, with remarkable tenderness:

“I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to [your] works… makes it much easier and more joyful to live.

​I warmly clasp your hand.”

Goosebumps.

Then there’s the bawdiness of Mozart (much of it unprintable), the searing melancholy of Beethoven, the love-triangle of Brahms and the Schumanns (enough to titillate a tabloid), the pitch-black, meandering thoughts of Mussorgksy, the dry wit of Stravinsky (exhorting us to listen – “a duck hears also”) …

I could go on, but far better if, at the next concert you attend, you buy a programme and read the contents which, hopefully, will add to the joy of the music itself. I wish you charmed evenings of thrilling music, exceptional performances, absorbing programmes, and goosebumps. I warmly clasp your hand.

© Joanna Wyld, 2018


Joanna Wyld was born and educated in London before reading Music at New College, Oxford, where she was an Instrumental Scholar. She was listed as one of the Women of Distinction in 25 Years of Women at New College.

Joanna established Notes upon Notes in 2004 and has been writing liner notes, programme notes and other copy for a wide range of artists and record labels ever since. She also worked on Stop The Traffik for Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, a book used as a resource by the UN.

Joanna won the 2014 OUP spoof Grove Dictionary article competition, as well as both second and third runner-up slots.

She curates playlists for classical streaming service IDAGIO, and recently appeared in a Southbank Centre video introducing a concert at the new Queen Elizabeth Hall. Joanna is Editor at Odradek Records, and is working on her first libretto for an opera by Robert Hugill.

Notes upon Notes

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

In its February 2018 edition, Gramophone’s regular ‘Specialist’s Guide’ feature (where a writer recommends recordings sharing a particular theme, genre or style) focuses on ‘Unashamed accompanists’. This is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve written before about the importance of the pianist in art song.

So I was pleased to see Tully Potter reference a number of contemporary accompanists in his beautifully appreciative introduction. However, all the actual recordings he chooses are, broadly speaking, ‘historical’ – ranging from Michael Raucheisen (born 1889) to spring chicken Graham Johnson, one of our justly-revered elder statemen of song, represented by a 1992 volume in his monumental survey of Schubert lieder for Hyperion Records.

I understand that Potter is a music archivist, which may explain the leaning towards older performances. As this is a knowledge gap for me, I’m looking forward to tracking his selections down. However, I can’t help but feel there’s a place for a companion piece which could point towards some more recent, excellent recordings – highlighting our current generation of accompanists and, hopefully, encouraging readers to go out and hear them live as well as buy the discs. Here’s my attempt at making this selection.

A bit of housekeeping:

  • As I hugely admire everyone I mention, the list is – both democratically and diplomatically – in alphabetical order.
  • I’ve included a Spotify playlist of tracks so that readers can hear the musicians without (at least initially!) breaking the bank. However, where some labels do not feature on Spotify, I’ve tried to ‘recommend around’ the issue, or simply mention some non-playlist recordings along the way. For example, Hyperion’s absence from Spotify had an impact on my choices for Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau.

I hope you enjoy the recordings.

James Baillieu

‘Chanson Perpetuelle: French Chamber Songs’, with Katherine Broderick.

On this brilliant CD, JB is a superb match for KB’s richness, and in the Debussy I’ve included in the playlist, simply dances around the vocal part – there’s all the push and pull this song about the shore requires. The heft of the ocean and drops of the spray. In the past couple of years, JB has also featured on excellent releases from Benjamin Appl (his debut lieder CD) and Ben Johnson. I’ve also included a glorious track from the latter’s disc of English song, ‘I Heard You Singing’.

Iain Burnside

‘Rachmaninov: Songs’, with various singers – here Ekaterina Siurina.

Surely one of IB’s finest releases, this set of all Rachmaninov’s songs features young Russian singers – who are, understandably, hugely suited to the material, freshness and enthusiasm bursting out of the speakers. I’ve chosen two IB tracks for my playlist – the astonishing ‘Arion’, with the pianist negotiating a heroic series of sudden changes, twists and turns, plus a spectacular Respighi track from Rosa Feola’s debut CD.

Julius Drake

‘Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)’, with Ian Bostridge.

One of the most purely exciting accompanists I’ve heard – and seen live. So often, I’ve heard his elemental basslines give the most distinctive, larger-than-life singers the uplift they need to raise the roof. But the necessary restraint is always there, too. The playlist includes this CD’s hell-for-leather version of ‘Auflosung’, as well as the humorous – yet light on its feet – rendition of ‘Fischerweise’ with Matthew Polenzani, also at Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Glynn

‘Percy Grainger: Folk Songs’, with Claire Booth.

Recently, CG has emerged as a strong advocate for the communicative power of English art song, with a recording of Donald Swann’s (non-Flanders) body of work for Hyperion, and this delightful CD with Claire Booth. Clearly a labour of love for both – who have apparently researched and performed Grainger’s music for years – the rapport and affinity for the material are joyously audible.

Gerold Huber

‘Nachtviolen’, with Christian Gerhaher.

It’s a tribute to GH – Gerhaher’s regular accompanist – that when the baritone received the Wigmore Medal, he remarked that if he could he would split the award in two, so he could give half of it to Huber. They have made many recordings together, but this relatively recent album captures their dynamic perfectly. Resisting any urge to over-sentimentalise, GH provides a gently rhythmic counterpart to the bruised beauty of Gerhaher’s voice.

Simon Lepper

‘Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove’, with Kitty Whately.

This pianist is relatively new to me, but the recordings I know find him surrounding huge voices with supreme agility and dexterity. His Schubert album with tenor Ilker Arcayurek is a superb listen but this set of contemporary compositions with Kitty Whately is a revelation, not least in the bravura performance of ‘The Siren’.

Susan Manoff

‘Neere’, with Veronique Gens.

It still feels all too rare to see women as both singer and accompanist in recital duos. Having heard Gens and Manoff live, it’s easy to project a particularly close dynamic between them, but to me, they do seem to share a special empathy. On this marvellous disc of French song, SM avoids any sense of ‘laissez-faire’, playing with a shining, wilful clarity in support of Gens’s passionate delivery.

Malcolm Martineau

‘Portraits’, with Dorothea Roschmann.

A pianist who seems able to play ‘in character’ as effectively as the singers he accompanies. On this stunning recital album, the version of ‘Gretchen’ – where the piano represents the movement of the spinning wheel – sees his constantly alert approach capture the distracted yet intermittently purposeful work of the lovelorn heroine. To show how astonishingly expressive MM is in French song, I’ve included a live performance of a Debussy melodie with Christiane Karg in the playlist.

Joseph Middleton

‘Fleurs’, with Carolyn Sampson.

Winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2016 Young Artist Award (when he was described as a ‘born collaborator’), JM combines ceaselessly versatile musicianship with a flair for programming. This leads him to create recordings with the wide-ranging appeal of ‘albums’ – and so prolific is he that I’ve included three tracks on the playlist. My top pick represents his ongoing partnership with soprano Carolyn Sampson, their first CD (from 2015) introducing her to art song with some brio, marshalling her reliably gorgeous tone to his dazzling array of accompaniment styles. He is also the backbone of song supergroup, the Myrthen Ensemble, whose double CD ‘Songs to the Moon’ is another piece of brilliant curation. Finally, his night-themed record with Ruby Hughes, ‘Nocturnal Variations’, was one of 2016’s finest discs.

Anna Tilbrook

‘Schubert: Schwanengesang / Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte’, with James Gilchrist.

Another duo who seem to represent a perfect match. I was lucky enough to experience total immersion when first introduced to AT’s playing, as she jointly helmed a full weekend of Schumann and Mendelssohn that also featured Gilchrist, with a guest appearance from Carolyn Sampson. Sadly, the ‘Robert Schumann: Song Cycles’ CD that followed is not on Spotify. Luckily, their Schubert discs are: this lovely song (the final one Schubert wrote) can be over-emotional, even over-prettified – but AT approaches it with poise and precision, every note a distinct chime.


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Guest post by Alison Mathews

During my career in music, I have always tried to find ways to balance the inevitably large amounts of time spent working alone – whether that be practicing, writing, preparing lessons or as now, composing works aimed at the intermediate pianist. Collaboration has always felt like the key to a healthy working life! At college, that meant a large amount of accompaniment and duet work. In private teaching, I developed and ran workshops with a like-minded colleague. As the focus of my career shifted to composing I naturally looked for ways to continue collaborating. This was not so easy to achieve!

True collaboration means inviting another individual into your creative process, which of course, requires trust and mutual respect. You need to have a shared vision that allows room for the expression of personal ideas. This of course, is true in many forms of musical collaboration, but in composition, where you essentially begin with nothing but an idea, perhaps something fairly abstract, it takes a special form of relationship for a partnership to be able to grow and flourish.

I was very lucky to make contact with the composer Barbara Arens through Facebook about two years ago. Over a few months we developed a friendship, which quite quickly became a working partnership. We discovered early on that we had many things in common, both musical and non- musical! Significantly, despite our differences in compositional style, we have a similar aim in composing, linked to our long experience as teachers. We both know that in setting a goal for a pupil, the imagination needs to be engaged through the music learnt. Progress through meeting technical challenges is important but above all it must be achievable – it cannot be out of reach. Engagement provides motivation and allows for expression, success leads to progress and development. To this end, we both aim to write music that is appealing, that uses the wide tonal range of the piano and encourages expressive playing. We take care to write as pianistically as possible, using shapes that fit well under the hand with potential technical challenges carefully placed. For example, my pieces may use wider stretches or leaps and Barbara’s may use cross rhythms.

So how does this partnership work in a practical way? Barbara lives in Germany and I live in the UK so we rely heavily on email and messenger, along with the regular sending of pdfs and mp3s. The free exchange of ideas early on in a project can spark creativity, which is especially motivating when perhaps one of us needs a push or a little inspiration! Very happily, similar things, for example art, history or literature, often inspire us, which will lead to time spent researching. This is an important part of the process as I know we both feel that no matter what level we are writing for or what the subject matter or theme is, background knowledge lends authenticity to the finished project.

When it comes to the actual process of composition we tend to send each other “work in progress” or pieces in various stages of completion. This is the point at which we invite each other into our individual process of creativity. This is where trust and respect is vital. We both value honest feedback and suggestions to improve the work shared. We both have a similar view on criticism – it can be healthy and constructive when balanced with a dose of encouragement or praise! Accepting that the joint goal is more important than the individual is so important. There has to be give and take and very often compromise! After some misgivings, I ended up rethinking the keys of several pieces to ensure they balanced with Barbara’s – a good decision. We would both be prepared to rewrite or discard work if ultimately it didn’t fit well within a book.

This summer, we did get the chance to work together at the same piano. I spent time with Barbara at her home, where we were able to explore new ideas for future projects. As we both compose at the piano and develop ideas through playing and listening, we naturally spent some time “noodling” as well as discussing and bouncing ideas between us. This was a particularly enriching experience. Not only in terms of working on specific ideas, but just the chance to play other music together and develop our friendship.

There is only one occasion so far when we have both independently wrote a piece at the same time, on the same subject matter without the other knowing! Not so much of a coincidence perhaps, when you consider the project was an exploration of the joys of winter, but interesting as the outcome differed so much. We both wrote a piece of music inspired by frost. For Barbara, this was after an early frosty morning walk. For me it was seeing the wonderful patterns created by frost on a windowpane. We both used similar compositional techniques such as ostinato patterns and syncopated rhythms as well as a similar tonal range with the higher register of the piano and yet each piece is individual in style. Barbara makes use of rhythmic devices such different groupings in each hand, which propels the music forward as well as giving a light, fresh, extrovert feel. Although mine also begins with an ostinato-like pattern in the left hand, it relies much more on harmonic shifts to provide colour and is more thoughtful and introverted.

These differences are another important feature of a good collaboration. Although we do consider aspects of our composing jointly, such as the keys we use, difficulty levels and the style or character of a piece, we are well aware our differences create variety within a similar genre of writing. Pieces which are complimentary but distinctly our own work best. There are plenty of differences between the way we work – Barbara much more quickly and usually late at night. I’m the opposite! Early morning can be a productive time for me and I find Barbara’s meticulous approach, especially to detail in scores, keeps me on my toes!

With any form of collaboration, if you are open and generous in your approach then it can be an excellent learning experience and a real opportunity to improve and develop. We began with a book of arrangements of ancient Christmas carols, transformed into contemporary, lyrical solos. Our second book mixed arrangements with original works and the following projects (one just complete, one planned) will be only original compositions.

As I said in my opening, collaboration provides a healthy balance to my work. I enjoy my solo projects and continue to work on more personal ideas but have found that working in partnership has increased my confidence, sharpened my critical ear and given me a far more objective and questioning approach to my own compositions. No matter what area of music you may be working in, collaboration and if you’re lucky, the development of a longer working partnership can be very rewarding and lead to personal development.


dscf5710_1Alison Mathews is a classically trained pianist and composer living and working in Surrey, UK. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, she holds both a Teaching Diploma and an Honours degree. Alison went on to complete a Masters degree at Surrey University, with the aesthetics of music at the heart of her studies. This led to a wider exploration of the links between art, myth and music with the award of a scholarship for a Doctorate at Surrey University. She was unable to complete this, as having a family intervened and a career in music education came to the forefront. Alison has been running a thriving private teaching practice for over 25 years along with workshops integrating art and music. Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide students at all levels with imaginative music to play and the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Alison’s solo and collaborative works are published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

http://alisonmathewspiano.weebly.com/

Autumn 2017 brings a significant change of direction for me as I embark on a two-year MSc at the Royal College of Music, studying Performance Science.

The science and psychology of performance has become a growing area of interest for me, developing from when I learnt how to be a performer myself in my late 40s. Numerous conversations and interviews with professional musicians – and specifically concert pianists – and much time spent observing musicians at work in concerts and masterclasses – has fueled my interest in this relatively new area of musical study and I am excited at the opportunity to explore it in more depth. I hope to be able to share my discoveries via this blog, but my academic commitments may also mean that I might not have as much time to devote to the blog…..

So, this is a call for guest posts to help keep the content of this site vibrant and interesting and regularly updated. Suggested topics for guest posts include:

  • Concert, CD reviews
  • Opera reviews
  • Book and DVD reviews (musically-related)
  • Articles on piano technique, repertoire, performing and teaching
  • Musicians’ health and well-being
  • General musings on musical subjects

If you are a blogger yourself, contributing to other blogs is a great way of bringing your writing to a wider audience (and this blog has an average readership of c25,000 per month). I can’t offer any payment, but I can promise your writing will be shared across my social media networks – over 7500 followers in total.

If you would like to contribute a guest post, please use the Contact Page to get in touch initially

I look forward to hearing from you

Notes for guest writers

Suggested word limit – 1000-2000 words

I’m happy to include pictures, video and audio clips and links to other sites.

When you submit your article please include a brief biography and a link to your own website/blog, if relevant

Please note that articles which obviously advertise products or contain embedded marketing links will not be considered 

Guest post by Cheyney Kent (originally published in a shortened form on medium.com)

Twelve years ago I stood opposite a sculpture by the American abstract artist Donald Judd at Tate Modern. The sculpture was a box. A lime green perspex box, the size of a large domestic water tank, but simply a box nonetheless.

It seemed rather disappointing — until I began to feel myself falling into it.

Nothing violent had happened. I’d not slipped, or been pushed. Instead, I’d tried putting my cynicism aside. The result wasn’t revelation or enlightenment. Instead I discovered a different relationship to the piece (and the exhibition – and sculpture in general).

Last week I hovered on all sorts of thresholds. I had been attending the Southwell Music Festival, a classical music festival in the East Midlands. I was there as both a performer and also social media liaison.

Having two roles means that I occupy different spaces. I can be in the centre of the room as a performer. I can be in the centre of the room as the audience. I can be inside the room but with a liaison’s – a functionary’s – purpose; taking notes, turning pages, operating a camera. I can be outside the room, looking in; and occasionally in a different room listening to a relay or watching on a screen.

There are so many proximities or grades of engagement. The threshold – the often arbitrary or imaginary demarcation between them – is a nice idea to scratch at.

You get thresholds inside the music you’re listening to as well. There is an evanescent but substantial one in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (performed as the central event of this year’s Southwell Music Festival). Approaching the denouement, a narrating Angel tells the eponymous Soul

And now the threshold, as we traverse it utters aloud its glad responsive chant

and the music changes, with dynamic and harmonic doors opened (not unlike the theatrically labelled ‘Transformation Music’ in the parallel passage of Wagner’s theosophical drama Parsifal). The music introduces a different space, with a concomitant change of view, and perhaps even of energy or temperature. It is a physical change. Of course, we’re all still sitting in our seats or standing to sing. We’ve not gone anywhere.

Being in the same space as the musician to whom you are listening is a remarkable, elastic experience. It’s typical to breathe at the same time as a good performer and to feel their rolling with the camber of the music, as they perform it.

Volume is neither here nor there: you can have the same experience of being oppressed or beckoned by a musical gesture from row Z.

But this experience isn’t available behind a certain threshold. Perhaps that’s a smartphone screen. Maybe you’re standing outside the room, where performer and audience alike are like goldfish at a fair, commodified in a venue-bag where the acquisition of the memory negates the experience that won it.

I have my own experience from the same week to share.

Early during the Festival I’d walked close up to a performance of Strauss’ Metamorphosen to take a couple of photographs for social sharing. I was concentrating on my job. As I turned to leave however, I began to hear – to engage with – the music. The physical connection to this acoustically unmediated sound, this fine playing of fine music actually stopped me from walking away, as if I were tethered. I hadn’t followed the drama or narrative of the music (as I would with Elgar the following evening) as I wandered inside the notional and actual extremities of the performance space. In a moment I was reminded that I had passed these topographical thresholds to get my pictures: my intent – and relationship to the performance – had changed as I put down the camera.

All of this is representative of my experience of being in different places, and different roles, in a performance space.

I really like and value the potential of socially-shared media to create a platform and context for performance. I like that there’s a way to create an opportunity to discuss an experience. There’s value in capturing images or sounds that trigger the stored physical experience of being in the audience.

They’re slippery though. They can also offend – that’s not too strong a term – other people who occupy the same physical space but don’t share your intent. The complex physical manifestation between physicality and acoustic sound in an aesthetic context, which is the spaghetti of thought I’m trying to hold in the inadequate ‘threshold’ idea, means that not everyone has the same sensation at the same time. As performers are listen to one another in ensemble, so we have to be kind to one another in audiences!

The point about thresholds is that they are real but they are not obvious. Distance is no threshold in itself. It’s the authenticity and intent of our apprehension that dictates whether we’re really present for the performance or not. It’s OK to stand in a room opposite a perspex box asking what the point is, if that is the only authentic thought you can grab hold of. If you snap it on a phone to try and work it out later, you may have missed the point.

(Photo credit: Nick Rutter)

*

Cheyney Kent works in singing and social media for arts: cheyneykent.co.uk

You can read Cheyney’s blog at songstageandstory.blogspot.co.uk 

A guest post by Dr Katy Hamilton

About ten years ago, when I first started my PhD, a fellow student explained to me the concept of self-efficacy. It’s a simple, logical premise: you are more likely to do well at something if you believe that you really can do it well – and visualising yourself doing whatever it is to the best of your abilities is a key tool. Whether it’s running the 100m faster than Usain Bolt, or playing the Elgar Cello Concerto to a packed concert hall and live TV cameras, you should imagine it happening, in as much detail as possible, to prepare for the actual event.

Rather less glamorously, I have a simple scenario that I like to play in my head from time to time. It goes like this. Audience members arrive at an evening concert. They say hello to old friends, buy a programme, wave their ticket at the usher, and sit down. They read the programme and chat amongst themselves. They might even chat about some of the things they’re reading about. Then, comfortable and hopefully a little edified or enlightened, they listen to the performance. On a really good night, they might glance again at the notes in the interval and even after the concert. When they get home, they’ll either throw the programme into the recycling, or keep it, if they are the collecting sort, or if it was a very special occasion.

It’s not smashing a world record, I grant you, but whether or not you enjoy your programme notes matters to me. That’s because I write quite a lot of them, and I do so not because it’s a good way of paying the bills, or an excuse to show off, or an outlet for academic material I couldn’t fit into an article, or any of the other negative reasons the cynics might imagine. I write them because I love finding out more about music, and learning new repertoire; and I love communicating – or at least trying to communicate – some of that sense of discovery and excitement to audience members just before they get the chance to hear the music live.

The process of writing a programme note is different for everyone, and obviously since I’m not the performer, there’s a great deal of information I can’t give you. I can’t tell you how they feel about the work in question. I can’t talk you through the experience of playing it (or at least, I can if it’s a piano work, since I’m a pianist, but it’s not my experience you’re interested in, and rightly so). I can’t tell you why the programme consists of that sequence of pieces in that order, unless the performer has thought to tell me, or I can work it out as I read (which is one of my favourite games).

But I can tell you a lot of other stuff. When something was written, where and perhaps why; what the composer, first performer or early reviewers thought of it; if there are diaries or letters from the composer about it; what the highs and lows of its reception have been; and how it’s put together, what it is exactly that you’re listening to. And no, that doesn’t mean ‘dry’ analysis. Anyway, if I gave you a blow-by-blow account, it would be a complete waste of words when you’re sitting in a dark concert hall with no chance of making out the tiny print as the sounds whizz past. But I can mention the structure, and a few things worth listening out for.

I won’t have many words to do this in, probably. The average programme note is 250 words long, for a chamber concert. That’s about a quarter of this post. And it often remains 250 words whether you’re writing about the Diabelli Variations or a single Chopin waltz. If you want a sense of how much work that takes, how much reading, research, listening and score examination, I can tell you that a set of notes I’m working on at the moment, destined to be 1,000 words when I’m finished, will be hewn from a lump of around 3,000 words of notes – and I haven’t quite finished the reading yet.

I was delighted that Fran (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) asked me to write this post, because there are a few things I’d like to say on behalf of those of us who write programme notes. The first is, quite simply, that the programme note is not dead. It is not a waste of paper, not a patronising attempt at educating ‘you little people’ in the audience. It is not a job that is ever ‘done’, and it evolves over time – when I write a concert’s worth of notes, even if I’ve written on half the pieces before, I always tailor my writing to create a unified whole. We have not said everything there is to say about Bach’s Italian Concerto, and even if we had, we would only have said it to one or two very particular audiences’ worth. Every concert is a new experience, a new musical construction, and a new opportunity for different listeners in a space they might never have visited, with a player they might never have heard.

The second is that whatever you might think about the label ‘musicologist’, we are not attempting to create something removed from the live music you are there to hear. I wish I could talk to more performers about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Or interview them. Or get them on stage to talk to them. But time, planning and logistics often conspire against this. I’ve given plenty of pre-concert talks where I’ve never met the performer. I wish it weren’t the case, but there it is. So we are trying, sometimes against rather unhelpful odds, to draw that connection between words and performance.

Last but not least, we are the creators of the thing that will most likely serve as your enduring physical reminder of the evening: the programme. I still have (and from time to time, re-read) programmes for every concert I’ve been to since the late 1990s. So we writers make something which can be as ephemeral as the concert itself – straight in the bin on the way out – or as enduring as your memory of it. It’s a privilege to produce such things, and we do so with you, the audience, at the forefront of our minds. So spare a thought for us, now and then. We are thinking of you with every word we write.

Katy Hamilton is a freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music.

www.katyhamilton.co.uk

Twitter: @klhamilton