Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough

– Jeremy Denk, pianist


Our relationship with our repertoire is personal and often long-standing. Connections with certain pieces and composers may be forged in our early days of learning our instrument, which remain with us throughout our musical lives. Many of us can clearly remember some of the earliest pieces we learnt as children, and returning to repertoire learnt in childhood and during student years can bring an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable rush of memories. Opening the score of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I saw my teacher’s markings, her explanation of the structure of a fugue, and for a moment I was transported back nearly 40 years to her living room and the big black Steinway grand piano on which she taught me.

Sometimes these repertoire relationships forged during early study can be detrimental to our learning as mature players. Bad habits from childhood and student days are deeply ingrained, and all too easily recalled, and thus very hard to shift later on. This is interesting in itself as it demonstrates how carefully (or not) one has learnt the music previously, and sometimes the only way to step aside from these habits is to buy a new score and start the music afresh, as if learning it for the very first time.

Jeremy Denk’s comment on the Goldberg Variations is interesting and will resonate with many musicians, I’m sure. We all have pieces which have a particular hold over us, which fascinate and compel us to revisit them over and over again. Yet their technical and musical complexities make the learning and practicing process difficult and sometimes less than rewarding. Some repertoire, however beautiful, satisfying or intriguing, is simply a slog, and the more progress one makes, the more “just out of reach” it seems.

Other works, in comparison, feel relatively easy, the music flows in practice and performance, gives satisfaction to player and audience, and enters into one’s personal catalogue of “favourites”.

However, “easy” can be a myth, because everything, even the simplest little prelude by Bach, can be taken up a level each time we revisit the music. This setting aside of and returning to repertoire also affects our relationship with it, and we may observe how that relationship changes over time and with the benefit of artistic maturity. I have gone back to previously-learnt works and wondered what I found so difficult before. The passing of years, and accumulated experience and wisdom make the process of reviving repertoire stimulating and enjoyable. We are reminded of what attracted us to the music in the first place, while also continually finding new aspects to it. This curiosity also helps to keep alive our relationship with the repertoire.

Then there are pieces which we may never play, but, rather like the books you haven’t read, and may never read, remain special. Just knowing the score is there, on the bookshelf, can foster a particular relationship with that music (I often buy scores of music I know I will never play simply for the pleasure of reading the music or admiring the organisation of it on the page), and maybe one day you will open it, set it on the music stand, and start the process of learning it….

 

 

Guest post by Doug Thomas

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” 

This is what the German poet Berthold Auerbach might have answered had he been asked what the role of music was for him. To me, it seems plausible that music carries a significant meaning in most people’s life. Whether it is for a simple amateur, a true mélomane or a professional musician, it seems to always have a particular role, guiding people in their own existence.

In my experience, music has taken several aspects but three important ones prevail. Music has been part of my daily life for many years and wherever I go, whatever I do, it embellishes my world. It is also a great catharsis, and it is what allows me to compose and create on a regular basis. Most importantly, music is a source of intense pleasure which very few other forms of art have been able to provide me with.

Whenever I get tired of listening to silence, music comes to the rescue. I often see music in a similar way to the French composer Erik Satie – as furniture music. Music that is meant to decorate the environment or have a functional purpose. It is not necessarily music I pay much attention to. There are many situations were music sits in the background; at home on a lazy afternoon, during a dinner with friends or on a simple train journey.

I compose music for a living. In addition to fulfilling my need to create things, composing music acts as a sort of catharsis. It is a way to externalise my deepest feelings and emotions. Although I consider my music as somehow intellectual, the creative process often starts with a feeling. Whether it is the expression of happiness or deep sadness, or the simple appreciation of beauty. There is a splendid satisfaction once a piece of music is composed, a feeling of lightening, a burden which seems to go away.

Above all, I believe that music represents a fantastic source of pleasure. There are not many feelings comparable to the one I get when I hear a new piece of music that suits my tastes. Or the sensation I have when I hear one of my favourite piece performed live. Besides, there has been many scientific studies that have shown how music triggers emotional sensations in the brain.

On a daily basis, music decorates the important moments of my life as well as the most meaningless ones. When I create, music acts as a deliverer of pulses and inspirations. More significantly, when music is at its best, it is a source of intense pleasure which makes the hair on the arms stand up, and gives the sensation that time has stopped for just a few moments.

The British composer Max Richter once said that making art was a way to deal with the problem of being alive. If we perceive the arts as being a toolbox to dealing with life, then in my opinion music is perhaps the ultimate Swiss Army Knife.

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.
 
Since founding NOOX in 2014, Doug has released numerous solo projects, including Short Stories, Vol. 1&2, Angles and Cassiopeia. His interest in multi-media collaboration has also led to engagements with choreographers, photographers and visual artists from around the world, including London, New York and Reykjavík.

Doug has studied at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London, as well as with Berklee Online College of Music. Some of his mentors include Jérôme Bechet, Dylan Kay, Audrey Riley, Maurizio Malagnini, Enrica Sciandrone and Stefania Passamonte.

“Music allows me to express ideas and feelings in a unique way. Each piece I compose is an attempt in finding balance between interest and beauty, within the limits of my own language and experience. I like the idea that music can provide us with an alternative to our daily life, whether it completes it, or helps us take some distance from it.”

Doug Thomas appears in a future Meet the Artist interview at www.meettheartist.site

Established in 2012, the weekly Meet the Artist interview slot, in which musicians and composers reflect on various aspects of their creative lives, has gone from strength to strength and is now an integral and very popular part of The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s content. To celebrate this, Meet the Artist now has its own dedicated website.

Meet the Artist interviews will continue to appear on this site every Thursday, while the new site will act as a supplement with a growing catalogue of interviews with both well-known classical musicians and composers and young and up-and-coming artists. Do consider following the site in order to receive updates every time a new interview is released. In addition to interviews there will also be news, reviews and other articles relating to the artists featured on the site.

I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to share so many fascinating and often unexpected insights from such a wonderful range of musicians and composers, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken part in the Meet the Artist project so far for their contributions to the series.

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If you, like me, had piano lessons as a child, I expect there were rather too many times when you sat at the piano and wondered what this thing called “music” was all about? The daily grind of practising, tedious technical exercises, seemingly endless scales and arpeggios, dull pieces which you played without imagination in a way which would please your teacher and earn you rewards and praise. And then each summer the excruciating and artificial experience of displaying your pianistic abilities to an examiner who had probably already heard 20 versions of the same pieces you were playing. When the exam results were published, you would start on the next grade’s repertoire, and so the process would repeat itself. There never seemed to be much fun, or joy, in the activity of playing music.

When people discover I’m a piano teacher, they often confide in me about their childhood piano lessons, their memories of their piano teachers and how the experience obscure the pleasure and joy of music making. Some shudder at these memories, and such anecdotes often reveal how much baggage from our childhood we carry into our adult lives, and how these experiences inform and influence the way we approach our music making as adults. I’ve come across adult pianists who seem stifled by fear that their childhood teacher could rear up beside them at any moment, and heap criticism and disapproval upon them. I have encountered adult pianists in masterclasses who, when asked why they approach a certain passage in a certain way, reply “My teacher told me to do that”. Their body language and their piano sound hints at great inner tension, resulting from fear of criticism, fear of making mistakes; and the recollection of those difficult, joyless childhood piano lessons.

Some of the young people I teach, and have taught in the past, seem to be accumulating similar tensions (though not, I hope, from their lessons with me). One student told me of her previous teacher who regularly made her cry, another whose lessons were dull and boring (and even dull and boring lessons can have a profound effect upon our attitude to music and music making). Some of my students still find it hard to appreciate that music and music making is meant to be pleasurable, stimulating, exciting, entertaining and satisfying.

I blame this partly on the U.K. state education system with its obsession with “results” and league tables. Kids are tested so much these days it’s as if the creative spirit has been sucked out of them. They aren’t encouraged to think or behave creatively at school and so being asked to be creative at the piano is almost anathema to them. They have also been peddled the idea that classical music is universally “serious”: it took nearly a year of coaxing to demonstrate to one student the wit and humour in a Rondo by Diabelli. The day that student made me laugh out loud in his rendering of this piece was a significant step forward for him (and me).

Parents too can be unintentionally complicit in this stifling of creativity, insisting that only the repertoire set by teacher should be practised, and using exams (yes, more testing!) as the only benchmark of progress and success. It piles pressure on the child – I see it every week in the student who is overly anxious and apologises to me for “playing badly” (she doesn’t) or who says “you must think I’m a terrible pianist” (I don’t – and she’s not!). She loves music, loves the piano and violin and playing in the local youth orchestra, but she places far too much emphasis on right notes and forgets that music is enjoyable, and that people get a great deal of pleasure out of her hearing perform. As for what needs to be practised, if a student comes to a lesson having learnt something without any input from me, which is not assigned “homework”, I’m not going to tick them off. Instead, I’ll praise them for their initiative and independent learning. Although most of my childhood piano lessons were quite boring, I was lucky because I was actively encouraged to seek out new repertoire, whether it was assigned by my teacher or not. I would take my discoveries to my teacher and she would help me find a way through the more challenging sections – and she never once said “You shouldn’t be learning that”. Yet as an adult pianist, I have encountered an attitude amongst some teachers and professional pianists that certain repertoire is “off limits” to amateur pianists. Such attitudes can only discourage adult pianists in their quest, and I take issue with anyone who says some repertoire is the exclusive preserve of the professional.

Some professional musicians lose sight of what the music and music making is about too. The pianist who described his working day to me as “strictly 9 to 5”, reducing his wonderful craft to nothing more than a “day at the office”; or the international concert pianist who complained in an interview with me that the rigours of keeping the repertoire going combined with the demands of the career – concerts, traveling, recording, making a living – could obscure one’s love for the music to the point where one begins to resent it. Another professional pianist told me she “envies” amateurs because they can play for pleasure whenever they like.

Here is the cellist Steven Isserlis responding to one of Schumann’s statements from his ‘Advice to Young Musicians’:

Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm

Yes – what’s the point in even trying to be a musician if you don’t love, love, LOVE music with all your heart? Great music is the best possible friend one could have: it will be with you in times of happiness and of sadness; and it will never let you down or abandon you

Last weekend I attended an event at St John’s Smith Square, that beautiful baroque church in central London which is home to many fine concerts and other musical events throughout the year. I performed there as part of Music Marathon, 24 hours of music making to coincide with the annual Open House London weekend. The week before had been rather difficult for me: I’d just found out I’d failed an important (for me) professional performance qualification and the comments from the adjudicators still stung when I recalled them, despite the reassurances of friends and trusted colleagues that I was a dedicated and skilled musician. In short, it was a major knock to my confidence. Playing at St John’s, and hearing others play, was the most potent reminder of why we do it, why we make music. It’s about sharing – sharing our love for the music with others, sharing great works, such as Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas or Bach’s WTC, sharing the experience of music as performer and/or listener (I am fortunate to do both regularly). Music is about emotions and emotional release, escapism and storytelling, excitement, pleasure, contemplation, humour, philosophy…….and so much more than that. It’s personal and highly subjective, and it can provoke profound emotional responses in both performers and listeners. It’s not about dry exercises and “getting it right”; or about playing a certain piece in a certain way to “please teacher”. At the SJSS event, I met several other pianists whom I had either interviewed or corresponded with online. All three of them (one of whom is a young concert pianist) revealed their passion for the music – in their performances and the conversations we had afterwards. Regardless of our level of ability, our enthusiasm and commitment to the music shone through. For me, having come through several difficult days of reflection and re-evaluation about my own musical life, to be amongst like-minded people doing the thing we love in a place as beautiful as St John’s Smith Square was the perfect tonic.

Playing at St John’s Smith Square Music Marathon

I’ll leave you with some further thoughts from Robert Schumann, and Steven Isserlis:

If music comes from your heart and soul, and if you feel it inside yourself, it will affect others in the same way

Yes: if your music comes from deep inside you, it will speak to a place deep in others

 

(Quotations from Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians: revisited by Steven Isserlis)